Alex TOTH and me – Part Five

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…?”

“Yes…?”

“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.

11 Responses to “Alex TOTH and me – Part Five”

  1. Rick Catizone says:

    Its sad that someone with so much talent can’t be happy with that and the admiration of others, and then share. I have been blessed to meet and become friends with a number of my heroes. Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and David Allen as far as animation. And then I finally got the opportunity to meet you and am very greatful for your friendship as well. I’ve always tried to be of some help to anyone who needed it, especially those who are fans.

    Best,
    Rick

  2. Bill says:

    As my friend, painter Dan Goozée, puts it, “We all build our own prisons, brick by brick.”

    Y’know, it takes just as much energy to be kind to folks as it does to be nasty — so why not be kind?

    That’s a great list, Rick. They’re all friends of mine (David, sadly, has passed away) and all great guys. You, too, amigo!

  3. Mike Vosburg says:

    Hey Bill,

    I really don’t want you to feel left out. If you’d like I’d be more than happy to write you an Alex Toth letter about your work…I can just copy a lot of phrases from mine. Actually, I read the letter from Alex and then the letter from Bob McGinnis where he tells me I’m one of the greatest talents the art world has ever seen…and I know the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    Best, Mike

  4. Bill says:

    Hi Mike (see you today at the figure workshop?),
    I’d love to receive The Letter — even if it wasn’t really written for me, just take yours and change your name to mine. I’m sure everything Alex said to you will equally apply to me.

    Actually, I did receive a version of The Letter — but not from Alex. It was from the guy video-interviewing Alex at the end. Like all of those who helped Alex and were kind to him and got repaid for their friendship with The Letter, my kindness (and, believe me, I was UNBELIEVABLY kind and generous with this guy) was repaid with his own version of The Letter. I didn’t take offense upon receiving it, however. I found it hilarious, especially since that same day I received a note from my pal Kevin (similar, I imagine, to your McGinnis letter) that was just the opposite to what I had received from my former “friend” and “fan.”

  5. Rick Catizone says:

    Thankfully, I can say that I never received a letter like that from any of my inspirations. However, I did get in an email, I believe, or was it a voicemail…Anyway, a call from someone I thought was good friend, who was letting me know….after about 5 years of holding out the carrot, that I wouldn’t be working on his film. He had problems with a scene I had done for him, I really wasn’t very good, I never could stay on model, etc.” ( and that film has still not started after 15 years.)

    Now what REALLY stung, was not just that we were friends, but that when we first met, I was showing HIM the way things were done professionally. They were using what they surmised from some book on animation. I literally taught him and his partner how to load a 35 Mitchell, how to do bottom-lit effects, double exposure shadows, timing charts, proper X Sheet and proper numbering of drawings as well as backgrounds, and everything. And to boot, aside from one project they had, I gave them all their animation work over the next ten years, aside from one they got on their own. My how we forget and how we repay.

    I have to say that he had me doubting that I had ever accomplished anything or even had any kind of career. It kicked me so off kilter, I actually called a couple of friends in the business and ask them if maybe I had been delusional all those years. I mean, I did see A Beautiful Mind. They reassured me I wasn’t delusional, the other person was. Much later I realize what it was, the person was actually jealous of my talents in so many areas (not that I am great by any means, but I can do a lot of things well), and this was his way of controlling and getting the upper hand. Sorry to steal the thread.

  6. Bill says:

    @ Rick: I think our tales of abuse by “friends” comes under the category of “No good deed goes unpunished”…

    And you didn’t “steal the thread” — that’s kinda what this forum of mine is here for. You can agree, disagree or add your own take to whatever I write.

    In that regard, I ran into Mike Vosburg at the Oscar party I attended last night (I picked 15 of the winners and won the Grand Prize — Woo hoo!). Knowing he was a Toth fan, I asked him how he liked my series on Alex. Mike seemed upset with me, so I asked him why. Mike knows all the Toth personal life horror stories. He would have rather had me write about why Toth is great and what makes his work so special.

    I touched on that (assuming most of the pros who read my Journal already have a strong and educated appreciation of Toth’s work), confessing great admiration for Alex’s work (and putting him in my Top Four of “Comics Guys I’d Like to Work With”) — but not enough, I guess. I just figured that that ground has been thoroughly covered already. plus, it was my desire to tell a more personal story and recount my dealings with Toth The Man and what that was like.

    I think I understand where Mike was coming from, though, and appreciate the guts Mike has in standing up to and/or disagreeing with me (which is more often than you might imagine). That never bothers me; I count Mike as one of my good friends, a dear soul, and an extremely perceptive critic whether we agree or not. I’ve learned a lot from Voz.

  7. Jim says:

    Bill
    I’ve found your accounts of Mr. Toth to be very informative. Over the years I have found the visual creative community to be a band of great and accommodating people (yourself included). You’ve all been very forthcoming with the secrets of your respective trades. Alex Toth seems to be an anomaly. And for years very few pros would talk of their experiences with Alex. There are lessons to be learned here with how we should treat each other personally and professionally.

    Thanks much- Jim

  8. Bill says:

    Hi Jim,
    Ordinarily, I don’t publicly air dirty laundry. But there was so much of it in the text of the first two volumes of the recent three part Toth art book set that I figured if it was OK with his family, then what’s a few more true tales, good or bad….

    I still find the man fascinating. He was unique as an individual. The only person in the field with such black and white views of life that I can think of might be Steve Ditko (I am only assuming this about Ditko from the very personal comics he’s put out, like Mr. A. I’ve never met the man. He may be nothing like his Ayn Randian comics at all, except the tales I’ve heard and read have never described Steve as “easy”…).

    What drove Toth to deliberately alienate the people who admired and loved him the most? Could he not stop himself? He must have recognized that at least some (if not most) of his personal and professional behavior was extremely self-destructive. Knowing that, did he distrust people who liked him anyway because he figured they couldn’t truly love somebody who treated people that way? Was his abusiveness a test? I haven’t read all the text of those new books yet. Did he treat his own kids that way (he apparently worshiped his last wife. It’s hard to imagine he would treat her so poorly)? Did they only see the charming side of Alex, or was he abusive at home, too? I hope he was thoughtful and kind to his kids, the way he was with my daughter.

    The bulk of his comics work is absolutely brilliant. I still get such an incredible thrill looking at it and studying the way he designed pages and told stories. And, man, that guy could DRAW! Like many artists of the past, most of what was the best part of Alex was what he left us as his artistic legacy.

    Hopefully, the Old Warrior has finally found peace.

  9. Luiz Felipe says:

    Hi, Bill! Let me start by saying that I REALLY liked your inking and coloring in Russ Mannings newspaper Tarzan and graphic novels. But what I’m really writing about is what you (and so many other people!) wrote about Alex Toth. The guy was certainly a genius, but an insufferable curmudgeon! His was a peculiar condition, similar to the one of an artist I met years ago, with whom I collaborated, writing the scripts that he would then draw. It’s a mild (if a volcanic temper can be called mild) form of epilepsy, in which, for no apparent reason, a person suddenly starts erupting, getting dangerously close to physical aggression. I only met 2 people, in my entire life (I’m 60 years old), with such disposition – but, man, it’s something you gotta see to be able to believe! I’m pretty sure that, within their minds, there is a reason for those sudden outbursts; but, believe me, it’s something untraceable – no amount of thinking about it will lead to any positive conclusion. Your account of the way he treated your daughter is the other side of the coin. And, if you can believe that Astrology is a science, (it is), I can tell you that, many natives of the sign Cancer, as Alex, have this way of treating some people in the sweetest way, while hammering mercilessly at others. Not going to the extremes he did, of course. If there is an afterlife, I hope that, over there, he can appreciate the fact that, through his art, he was loved.
    Peace and be well!

  10. Alec Stevens says:

    Alex Toth’s manic, bipolar behavior was as well known (and still discussed) as that of, say, Big Band drumming legend Buddy Rich (secret recordings of Rich’s meltdowns with his bandmates while on the tour bus are notorious).

    I agree that less is not always more, and sometimes less is simply less. That would account for why Neal Adams and Berni Wrightson had far more comic book cover assignments than Toth did in the early to mid ’70s. Toth’s best work, however, places him in the top five comics artists of all time, in my estimation (along with Bernie Krigstein – whom I knew very well in his final years).

  11. Dan Goudreau says:

    Bill, I became a huge Toth fan in 1988 when I had already been a Jaime Hernandez fan from his Mr X and Rockets’ work. I started collecting every issue with Toth work I could collect. I wrote to Alex (in my 20’s and an aspiring comic strip artist) and we had many correspondences all handwritten. He was very friendly, since I was a fan and a stranger and poured praise on him for his work. He got me in touch with Jim Vadeabouncier (misspelled I know, sorry). I got the “list” of work and began collecting the snot out of it. Once I had this massive collection, I poured over Alec’s work and so much of it was just fantastic. My favorite piece of his just may be that Batman Black and White Cover that seems to be some kind of Swan Song.

    Anyway, I would tell him via handwritten mail, about my other heroes in the comics world such as Frank Thorne, John Buscema, Kubert, Jaime Hernandez, Kirby, Jack Katz, etc. He said he admired them too, but said Thorne was good, stuck needle and all (meaning Sonja/Ghita seemed to be Thorne’s sole passion). He had good things to say about Jack katz. I’m sure I was raving about “First Kingdom”, of which the first 6 issues are the most underrated comics masterpiece in the whole field. If it had all ended in 6 issues, we would still be comparing everything to First Kingdom to this day. I digress.

    I told Alex I had a Steve Rude sketchbook and Rude praised Alex with his Space Ghost pages. Alex was surprised Rude had praised him in a public sketchbook and told me to send copies. I’m sure I did. Later in life, someone sent me the “letter” that Rude got from Alex when Rude was a young hungry artist that had sent pages to Alex to critique. Alex played the tough editor and ripped every panel apart from the worst rubbish ever committed to paper to the highest being something like “this panel is adequate…I guess”. Rude was ripped a new one but the thing is Alex was right! It wasn’t the nicest way to “train” a young artist but you better believe Rude improved based on that rape session of his work. I still have it if you want to see it.

    Alex would tell me “don’t imitate comics” go learn to draw from nature and drew his little duck all the time in the hand written correspondence. He really seemed lonely after losing his wife but was never rude to me personally. He answered all my questions and gave me tips etc.

    Later, I had to sell my whole Toth collection including one of the personal notes. The guy who spent all that time in the hospital with him is the one who bought it from me on Ebay and said he would tell Alex why I had to sell my stuff.

    He seemed to have admiration for Chaykin work, now that I think about it. Maybe you are right that he was jealous of the “success” of these working “fans” of his. I know Chaykin felt as you do about the man but he did appreciate Chaykin’s work. (Don’t we all!). By the way, Chaykin is the only famous comics artist I ever met at a convention and I tried to talk about his Cody Starbuck work and he was rude to me and I was just a teen so ironically Chaykin made me afraid of you famous Pros. LOL.

    I forgive you Howard.

    OK, having said all that, here is the secret to Alex Toth. He LOVES women. He HATES men. That’s all there is to it. That is why your daughter got a different Alex. That is why losing his wife ended his career. That is why he worked for Warren, because he adored Louise Simonson and said so, calling her “Weezie”. Ok you all did that but when he said it sounded like he would do anything for a woman. I bet if there was a woman artist he respected who asked for a critique of her work, it would be a different Alex Toth critique than Steve Rude got. If all you famous Pro’s in comics had just been women, your article would be about super lovable ol’ Toth, the kindest, loveliest man in comics.

    Lastly, I have Nickles reprints and in my opinion Toth surpassed him and Caniff. The only artists of economy, the true living masters who can be considered Toth’s equal in that world of economical line are Jaime Hernandez and Mike Mignola. Alex might even agree with that technically, the only problem being that he would likely hate them as people.

    I miss Alex Toth. I wish I had met him. I’m afraid of all you guys after Chaykin at a convention.

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