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Setting The Standard
posted September 29, 2011

imageCreators: Alex Toth, Greg Sadowski (Editor)
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, softcover, 432 pages, 2011, $39.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781606994085 (ISBN13)

A dark horse contender for comics creator of the year can be found in the unlikely personage of the late artist Alex Toth (1928-2006). Toth has two major books out in 2011: the first volume of the three-part and all-encompassing Genius, Isolated, and Greg Sadowski's relatively close study of a specific slice of his career, Setting The Standard. If is telling the truth, Toth also enjoys a significant number of pages in a Roy Rogers collection from Hermes Press. Alex Toth's work remains among the most scanned and uploaded on all the sites that scan and upload, and the site run by his estate has become a model for that kind of web resource. In an arts culture obsessed with the next big thing and partial to ignoring those that can't speak for themselves, Toth's reputation as an artist and symbol of thwarted comics ambition may have grown since his passing. His is a significant comics legacy.

Setting The Standard aims at a much less grand set of goals than the Genius, Isolated series, but a conceptually sound and compelling one: the publication of Toth's work between 1952 and 1954 for the long-defunct comics publisher Standard, currently celebrating the Emerald anniversary of its demise. The work is in a variety of sturdy, popular genres. The presentation of the comics themselves proves crisp and strong. The manner in which the increasingly valuable Sadowski and his publisher chose to present the supporting material is even better. The volume opens with a mid-1960s Alex Toth interview in Graphic Story Magazine. This is appropriate: Alex Toth as a figure has always loomed larger than his work, no matter how excellent that work might be. The interview may also astonish those whose exposures to 1960s fan magazine writing are that one Gil Kane chat with John Benson and the occasional razzing post about juvenile positions once held passionately lobbed at someone still working in comics today. The details about various house styles locked into place and various working arrangements for Toth at different points in his career fascinate.

The interview -- which bookends with a critical description of each story and some reproductions of original art pages -- establishes right from the start what I'd judge to be the central theme of the book: Toth's aversion to formula, and the cost that practicing this avoidance with something that blended artistic integrity with downright compulsive behavior had on his comics and his career. That latter element may not have been the intention, but it's hard to come away from reading the interview and Setting The Standard more generally and avoid thoughts that Alex Toth's need to avoid churning out average work had a discernible impact on the work he left behind, once disposable and now collected for the ages. Despite their beauty panel to panel, and despite their ingenuity, many of the stories in Setting The Standard make you feel the effort Toth put into every oddly-chosen angle, sudden close-up or formal trick far more than they do the power of whatever story they're telling.

That doesn't mean these aren't stories worth reading. For one thing, most are a lot of fun. Each also holds within itself, even with Toth's relatively early age, moments of grace and crackerjack storytelling solutions. One rule of a market that relies on genre that greatly benefits the stories reprinted here is that they are compelled to provide inventive takes on their chosen subject matter or fail to distinguish themselves from so many others crowding the stands. So a lot of the work here has at least a clever twist in its plot, or some off-key attempt at resolution. Toth obviously drew handsome men and women, and already displays a soft spot for the older, suave gentlemen for which he held significant affection throughout his career. Toth could draw just about anything, of course, making those close-ups and various establishing shots of equal, compelling interest.

There's also a great deal to be said for the act of watching someone come up with endless variations on ways to have people talking to one one another (the romance stories) or scrambling over well-designed terrains (the war stories). While I suspect Toth's innate restlessness and bristling pride may have contributed in some way to our being kept from a string of recognizable Toth masterpieces (and I'm sure Toth fanatics will argue this point), it certainly elevated minor work and there's nothing wrong with a more direct enjoyment of his artistic flourishes wherever they're found. The romances like "Undecided Heart" offer a lot to treasure, for instance the spare design and illustration elements used to indicate a way a reader might interpret a block of text between more standard, drawn panels. Great careers sometimes can't help the shape they follow, the constrictions they have. Toth more than anyone in comics history made routine habit of punching his way, however briefly, into the light.