I felt sorry for Alex. He so often found it impossible to maintain long-term friendships and business relationships, often intentionally sabotaging both.
The most famous example of this among artists who were friends of Toth’s was receiving The Letter. I heard this same story over and over from a number of artists. The pattern worked like this:
An artist would develop what he thought was a close friendship with Alex, a friendship that was nurtured over the course of years. Then one day that artist would receive The Letter. This hand-written (Alex never typed anything) missive from Toth would elaborately detail all of the artist’s faults and failings (and none of the artist’s strengths, of course). It would end questioning the artist as to why he ever felt even the slightest bit justified in considering himself an artist in the first place. Toth would advise the artist that the best thing for the artist, for other artists and society in general would be for this artist to immediately give up art and find another more appropriate occupation (like truck driving). You’re no damn good anyway, so please do us all (and yourself) a big favor and stop polluting our eyes with your rotten crap.
I know many renowned professionals who received The Letter. The smarter artists, the ones who weren’t devastated and convinced to give up, kept The Letter and occasionally pulled out their copy, showing it to other people in the business as a sort of perverse badge of pride. I bailed from Alex’s life before I got mine (I kinda wish I had one of my own).
Over the years I have come to deeply distrust people who make the Grand Gesture. Alex made a lot of ‘em. The most common one was showing you a new story he was working on. He would then point out a panel that he considered to be not up to snuff. In front of you, he would then rip up the entire completed page (or, occasionally, the entire story) and toss it into the trash. Then he would pencil, ink and letter that page (or pages) all over again.
This was all done to show you what a great artist he was, that his level of commitment to greatness was deeper than anyone else’s in the business.
Bullshit, Alex. Just do a paste-over, for chrissake!
Harvey Kurtzman and I discussed Toth and his work. After I expressed great admiration for Toth’s storytelling abilities and spotting of blacks, I was shocked to hear Kurtzman describe Toth as “lazy.”
“Toth? Lazy? What do you mean?”
“You know all of that stuff he spouts about his never-ending search for ways to eliminate detail and fill stuff in with blacks wherever he can…?”
“Well, sometimes panels need detail. I just think Alex is too damn lazy to draw it. It’s much easier to just black it in.”
I mentioned that I encountered several versions of Mr. Toth over the years. Here’s my favorite:
I was attending the San Diego Comic-Con when I ran into Alex near the hotel pool. We greeted each other with warm familiarity. I introduced him to my little daughter Faith (I think she was in first grade at the time). He knelt down so that they were at eye level with each other. He suddenly became one of the warmest, sweetest and most charming guys I had ever met. My daughter blushed over his compliments and there was a rare twinkle in Alex’s eyes as he chatted with and charmed her. I had never seen him be so tender and kind to someone.
I still treasure that moment and try hard to recall that specific Alex Toth in my mind whenever his name pops into my head or comes up in conversation. I would hope that that’s how he would like to have been remembered.
After Alex had passed, I ran into a former friend of mine. He told me he had been shooting hundreds of hours of interviews with Alex while Toth was in the hospital during the final months of his life.
One day, he asked Toth, “What was it between you and Stout? Why did you end the friendship?”
Toth grew silent. He fixed his eyes on the lens of the camera and declared:
“Because he was successful.”
As tough as Alex was with other people, I think that deep down inside he was roughest on himself, in that he nearly always chose the hardest paths possible to take in life. He made his journey through this world much more difficult than it ever had to be. Many people loved (or tried to love) Toth and his work. Imagine how different and rich his life would have been if he had been just a little bit kinder and a smidgen more thoughtful. If he had more consistently been the guy that met my little girl that special afternoon in San Diego, the world would have been his for the asking.