Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro by Alex Toth

Classic character, classic artist
This trade paperback, published in 2001 by Image Comics, reprints The Complete Classic Adventures of Zorro as drawn by the legendary artist Alex Toth. This volume doesn’t provide the original publication dates of these comics, but a little research reveals they were probably produced sometime between 1957 and 1962. Toth drew these comics for Whitman/Western Publishing, which had a distribution deal with Dell Comics. It’s unclear under which of the three corporate names these comics were released. These adventures were published as a tie-in to a Zorro television series that was produced by Disney. All the preceding information is a bit sketchy, because the book’s brief introduction by Howard Chaykin and the equally brief forward by Toth are more casual reminiscences than informative history.

The character of Zorro, created by pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley, debuted in the novel The Curse of Capistrano, which was serialized in 1919 issues of All-Story Weekly and later reprinted in book form as The Mark of Zorro. The masked swashbuckler soon gained greater fame through movie adaptations starring Douglas Fairbanks and later Tyrone Power. In his forward, Toth expresses a fondness for Power’s interpretation of Zorro, and it shows in his art. The character that McCulley created is a masterful concoction of western adventure, swashbuckling heroes like The Three Musketeers, and romantic lore of Old Mexico. The atmosphere and general parameters of the narrative remain largely unchanged from McCulley’s original novel, though the names of the supporting characters have changed. Zorro is still the alter ego of Don Diego de la Vega, a wealthy caballero who pretends to be a lazy and cowardly dandy so no one will suspect he’s really the masked avenger.

It’s hard to imagine a comics artist whose style is more suited to this classic character than Toth. Though these comics were originally published in color, this volume reproduces Toth’s original inked artwork in beautiful black and white. Another artist has added an additional medium-gray tone, under Toth’s direction. The result is a film noir effect that rivals the silvery highlights and shadows of the Tyrone Power movie. Though Toth drew mostly comic books, his style is more in keeping with the artists of the classic newspaper adventure strips, like Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon or Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby. Like these artists, Toth is a master of light and shadow, and wields his ink-loaded brush with an economy of stroke that infuses each panel with life and activity. His figures strike a perfect balance between anatomical accuracy and romanticized caricature. Toth also does a great job capturing the period feel of early 19th-century California—its old missions, picturesque haciendas, and desert landscapes.

Unfortunately, the writing does not live up to the art. Many of the stories are only six pages long, which allows for only the most childish of plots. A few longer entries, up to 26 pages, are more complex and offer a glimpse into the true narrative potential of the character. In his forward, Toth, a notorious curmudgeon, complains about the stories Disney provided him with, and his lack of creative freedom on the Zorro tales. Perhaps his disgruntlement explains the noticeable inconsistency in his art. Some adventures are drawn with intricate detail while others look hastily sketched. In either case, Toth’s art is superb and worthy of five stars. The package as a whole, however, writing included, merits about a 3.5.

A page from Alex Toth’s Zorro comics

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