Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: Genius Animated: The Cartoon Art of Alex Toth

This is the third volume by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell chronicalling the life and career of Alex Toth.  Toth spent the bulk of his career illustrating comic books but spent a significant portion of his life designing animation for TV.

The earlier two volumes focused on Toth's work in comics and included a fair amount of biographical material from Toth's co-workers and family.  This volume is entirely about his work in animation, though the text is sparse and frankly not very valuable.  The interviewees, including Mike Kazaleh and Robert Alvarez, never worked with Toth.  The bulk of the book are designs, model sheets and presentation art that Toth created for TV cartoons.

Toth was a master of composition and design.  His cropping is unusual and he constantly tried to strip down his drawings to their essentials.  His use of blacks, patterns and textures went far beyond what most other artists in comics or animation concerned themselves with.  His influences included Noel Sickles, Milt Caniff, and Jesse Marsh.

 His initial foray into animation was Space Angel, and in many ways it sums up the issues surrounding Toth's animation design.  Toth's drawings for the show are excellent, but the drawings don't move.  The lip synch was done by photographic real mouths and superimposing them on the drawings.  While the graphics are very sophisticated, the motion is primitive. 

While Toth simplified his work for later animated shows he designed for Hanna Barbera, there was always a considerable gap between the quality of the designs and the style of motion.  Joe Barbera used Toth's work in his sales pitches to networks, but it was all smoke and mirrors and everyone agreed to ignore the truth.  The artists at Hanna-Barbera couldn't draw as well as Toth and there was never a hope that there would be a consistency between the style of drawing and the style of motion.  The network executives knew that the shows would never look as good as Toth's presentation art, but the limited profits for Saturday morning cartoons were not enough to cause them to bother about it.

While Toth groused about the quality of the comic book scripts he was given, they were far better than the animation that resulted from his work.  People forget how truly terrible TV animation was in the 1960s and '70s.  Toth designed the first TV version of Marvel's Fantastic Four.  Take a look at how poor the show's opening credits are.

There are people who are nostalgic for shows Toth designed like Space Ghost or The Herculoids. Toth may have improved the quality of the designs, but the shows never rose to the level of his work.

There are a lot of great drawings in this book.  All three volumes are valuable for showing Toth's evolution as an artist and demonstrating what's possible in visual storytelling.  The third volume leaves an important question unanswered, though.  Are Toth's drawings, as good as they are, appropriate designs for animation at all?  Given the realities of the marketplace, are the designs functional? Perhaps Bruce Timm and company came closest to answering the question, but even their shows feel compromised in terms of motion to me.

Many have commented that Toth is an artist without a monument.  He has no work universally acknowledged as great or remembered by the audience.  That's the tragedy of his career, but it doesn't negate the quality of his drawings or design.  Every Toth drawing is an education, and that alone makes this book, and the preceding volumes, worth having.


Shane Skekel said...

I have an explanation in Regards to Mr. Toth's knowledge of staging and composition; that was due to him having a ruthless editor. (I found this out on ConceptArt.org)

Mark Mayerson said...

I assume that you're talking about Sheldon Mayer at DC. In any case, the people who edited Toth also edited others, but the others didn't create work as good as Toth's.

Floyd Norman said...

I make no excuses for the TV stuff we did back in the 60's and 70's at Hanna-Barbera. Heck, even Bill and Joe knew the stuff was crap. But, that was the production reality we had to work in. The final animated product never came close to reaching Alex Toth's ideal. Still, I was glad to have Toth's input and regarded his art as brilliant. Plus, Alex was always nice to me when I needed help on a show. Sadly, others had less than friendly relationships with the gifted artist. Finally, did you know Alex Toth did some work on Disney's "Robin Hood" in the 70's? Another very weird assignment for the gifted artist.