Perhaps suitably for an artist whose professional career spanned five decades, an audience’s relationship with Alex Toth — without doubt, one of the finest cartoonists of the 20th century — was almost certainly dependent on their age, and the manner in which they’d come in contact with his work in the first place.
For older readers, Toth was a comic book mainstay. He graduated the School of Industrial Art in 1947 and, despite his desire to follow in the footsteps of artistic heroes Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond and Hal Foster by becoming a newspaper strip artist, ended up at what would become DC Comics drawing superhero strips. He stayed at the publisher for five years, working on titles like Green Lantern, All-Star Comics, and — when the superhero craze died down — All Star Western. Iconic editor Julius Schwartz would even describe him as “my best artist of all time” in a later interview, so beloved was he at the time.
Within two years of quitting DC Comics, he was living his dream. Well…at least kind of. By 1954, he was drawing a newspaper strip, after a fashion… but he was doing it for Depot Diary, the newspaper of the army base he was stationed at in Japan, after having been drafted. It was actually his second time doing strip work, but the first under his own name; he’d ghosted the Casey Ruggles strip for creator Warren Tufts a couple years earlier without credit, one of a number of ghost artists on the strip that also included Superman artist Al Pastino.
Returning from Japan, Toth spent some years continuing in comics — including a run on Dell Comics’ Zorro that is rightfully remembered as iconic and character defining decades later — before moving into the field of animation, where he worked as storyboard and design artist on a number of shows that defined an entire generation’s imagination, including Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, Super Friends, and The Herculoids. Perhaps most importantly, Toth is the man behind Space Ghost — a hero to children of the 1960s and ‘70s, and quasi-ironic icon to anyone who happened upon Adult Swim’s Space Ghost: Coast to Coast decades later.
Constant throughout all of these careers — comic book artist, comic strip artist, and animation design artist — was an economy and confidence of line, and a seemingly unerring ability to spot blacks on the page so that every single page of work he produced seemed timeless and perfectly balanced, as if it had been created by some infallible being. Toth seemingly never put a line out of place, nor ever lost the ability to leave his art filled with seeming spontaneity and life, as if it had been as effortless and enjoyable to create as it was to look at.
Although Toth unofficially retired at some undefined point in the late 1980’s, he never really stopped working. (His final work for DC Comics, for example, came in 1996 when he created a new cover for Batman: Black and White.) He was a constant and eager correspondent to many, and his hand-scrawled missives — accompanied, usually, by quick sketches that were better observed and more vibrant than most people’s finished artwork — would show up in magazines such as Comic Book Artist on a regular basis as he held court on the history of comics or the current state of the industry as he saw it. He remained, even after decades of professional experience, a fan at heart, albeit an occasionally curmudgeonly one, and this, perhaps, was his primary incarnation for a number of fans.
Toth’s seeming obsession with paring back his line work to create worlds with as few brush strokes as possible might have originated with Caniff and the newspaper strip masters of old, but he brought a new dynamism and a mastery of the page as a design unit that took his work far beyond his influences, and created a fandom of his own, with artists including Bruce Timm, Chris Samnee and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola amongst the many artists looking to his work as a guiding light and continuing to learn from his example.
He died, tragically, at his drawing table in 2006. It’s hard to think of a more fitting end, nor one he would have appreciated more.