Friday, March 14, 2014

Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952–1954. Edited by Greg Sadowski

What a great artist can do with mediocre material
Setting the Standard is a collection of graphic short stories illustrated by Alex Toth, a master of comic art who chronologically and stylistically bridged the gap between the classic newspaper strips of the World War II era and the Silver Age of comic books. From 1952 to 1954 Toth worked for Standard Comics, where he drew stories for magazines like Intimate Love, Fantastic Worlds, New Romances, and Out of the Shadows. This book collects Toth’s complete body of work for Standard during that two-year period. The stories range in length from one to ten pages. Altogether there’s about 400 pages of comics, all reproduced to faithfully represent the original full-color printings, complete with garish colors, muddy blacks, and blatant dot patterns. A few examples of Toth’s original black and white layouts are also photographically reproduced.

Editor Greg Sadowski has done a fine job compiling this volume. In addition to the graphic content, there’s also an extensive interview with Toth from Graphic Story Magazine, a brief biography, and a section with notes about each story. In the interview Toth comes across as an extreme perfectionist totally devoted to his craft, and a bit of a prima donna. He acknowledges the influence of a few old masters like Noel Sickles, but he brutally critiques many more, including Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond.

Toth’s art often resembles the cinematography of a film noir thriller. His layouts are a symphony of blacks punctuated by judicious silhouettes. His style lends itself well to crime stories, but there’s only a couple examples of that genre included here. There are several war stories, all set in the Korean War. Toth proves himself extremely adept at rendering airplanes, tanks, guns, and the like, but the writing offers little excitement. Mostly there are a lot of combat clichés and anti-Asian racial slurs. The few science fiction stories are also conceptually pedestrian, but Toth does a visionary job drawing the necessary lizard men and flying saucers. The best stuff in the book are the horror stories. Toth’s art really shines in this genre, and the writing is generally pretty good. These stories aren’t as gratuitously gory as the more famous EC Comics of the mid-1950s, but Toth doesn’t shy away from the dark and spooky imagery.

More than half of the book—perhaps as much as two-thirds—consists of romance comics. For the most part these are serious love stories aimed at an adult female audience. It’s unbelievable how many variations the Standard writers could come up with on the familiar scenario of boy-meets-girl. Though some of the best writing in the book occurs in these tales of the heart, the sheer quantity that’s contained in the book is mind-numbing. The effect is similar to a soap opera marathon. Nevertheless, Toth manages to enliven even these predictable love stories with innovative and inspired graphic solutions.

Toth was a real genius at visual storytelling, and in this chronologically arranged body of work one can witness his talents developing and improving over the course of the book. The writing of the stories, on the other hand, is nothing to get excited about. In most cases, the author’s name isn’t even mentioned in the accompanying notes, though the inker’s always is. Clearly Toth’s art is the main attraction here, and today’s comic art enthusiasts can surely find much to appreciate in his historic body of work. Beyond their importance in comic art history, however, can these stories really be enjoyed on their own merits? That all depends on how nostalgic you are for ‘50s romance.

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