Canwell Reveals Toth's "Genius, Isolated"

Thu, May 19th, 2011 at 11:28am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer
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CBR News speaks with "Genius, Isolated" author Bruce Canwell

This month, Eisner Award winning Library of American Comics releases one of the most anticipated books of the year. The publisher of collections such as "Bloom County," "Terry and the Pirates," "Dick Tracy" and many others is set to release "Genius, Isolated," the first installment of a three volume biography of the late Alex Toth.

For decades, Toth has been regarded as an artist's artist thanks to his work in comics and animation. Many people who grew up watching the many Hanna-Barbera cartoons Toth worked on are likely unaware of just how influential a figure the artist was and continues to be to this day. When Toth died in 2006, it was widely acknowledged that he was not just one of the great cartoonists of the Twentieth Century, but also a giant of the design and animation fields.

The writer behind "Genius, Isolated" is Bruce Canwell, the Associate Editor of the Library of American Comics. Canwell has provided many biographical and historical essays for other volumes from the publisher but remains best known for his work on the Eisner-nominated book "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles," which stands among the best books written about comics.

CBR News spoke with Canwell and, after joking that it wasn't necessary to ask about his opinion of Toth and his work because the books' titles say it all, we spoke in depth about what went into this heavily researched project.

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CBR News: Let's start with the obvious question: what made you interested in writing a book about Alex Toth?

Bruce Canwell: The glib answer to that is, "C'mon -- he's Alex Toth! The artist whose work most artists adore and the man whose personality struck sparks throughout the medium for years. Who wouldn't want to write about a colorful subject like that?"

A Toth page from "77 Sunset Strip" that didn't make it into "Genius, Isolated"

The serious answer runs at least a bit deeper. Dean [Mullaney, LOAC's Creative Director] wanted to do a Toth book because he knew Alex personally, is a great admirer of Toth's stuff and is one of the few editors who never clashed with Alex. Eclipse produced the definitive reprinting of Toth's beloved "Zorro" comics from Dell. I knew Toth both as the key man behind Hanna-Barbera's 1960s superhero cartoons (during my boyhood I was a devoted viewer of "Space Ghost" and "The Herculoids"), as a comics artist who had done some work I really liked and some work I really didn't and as a talented and controversial figure within the industry. Additionally, both of us knew Toth was an ardent fan of illustrator Noel Sickles, and we thought a Toth bio would make a terrific bookend to our 2008 release, "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles." Besides, we both thought it would be fun!

As someone from the generation just behind yours, I think Toth continues to be influential but is less well known than ever. Part of the reason is, while we've seen the Hanna Barbara cartoons, Toth's comics are not easily available. Would you agree with that assessment?

I'd partly agree with that assessment.  While Alex's work hasn't exactly been cover-featured on Diamond's "Previews," it never seems to go entirely out of print, either. Dragon Lady Press reprinted the Toth magnum opus "Bravo for Adventure" in 1987, with the Eclipse "Zorro" released the next year. Manuel Auad devoted three big books to Toth during the years 1995 to 2000. From 2004 to 2010, another company released four or five paperbacks of Alex's "public domain" comics stories, with one more reportedly on the way. John Hitchcock released "Dear John: The Alex Toth Doodle Book" in 2006. So typically, there's been some slice of Alex's stuff available for those who want to find it, though it doesn't drop into one's lap they way, say, this month's ten Avengers books or nine Batman titles do.

Here's what I'd add to your assessment: I think what's been missing from those prior collections is context. The more helter-skelter of these compilations is filled with stories seemingly chosen at random, while some of the other projects were put together by folks who knew Alex, liked Alex and "got" Alex, which creates a sort of insider mentality when you actually read those books. For fellow insiders, they were probably great fun; for outsiders, it was tough sledding. It's hard to understand all the fuss about Toth if your first exposure to him is, say, Auad's "One for the Road," which was a collection of Alex's esoteric short comics done for 1960s hot-rod magazines.

If Dean Mullaney, Lorraine Turner and I have done our jobs right, "Genius, Isolated" gives readers the full picture -- twenty full stories, plus a discussion that places them both in the larger frameworks of Alex's life and in the comics environment of those times. We try to help the audience understand why Alex's stuff was so strongly admired in its heyday and why it remains admired decades later.

How long did it take you to assemble this book and what was involved in the process?

Ho-ho -- it's taken more than two years to put together this book! We were probably three or four months into it when we realized this was going to be the most ambitious project LOAC had ever undertaken. And we were right.

What was involved? Man-o-man! Toth was an avid letter writer and he also penned articles for fanzines and some of the comics non-fiction magazines that have come and gone -- we read a stack almost four inches thick of his various correspondences, plus dozens of his opinion pieces, plus articles others had written about him (there are scads of those, too!). We interviewed over two dozen persons -- family, friends, peers, former editors, fans. One of the complicating factors in "finding" Alex's story was how different persons viewed him in different ways -- we discovered we weren't painting a picture of Toth's life, we were assembling a mosaic from all the pieces we were accumulating.

We also contacted national and international original art collectors and Toth devotees. It was gratifying that not only were they enthusiastic about the project, they wanted to participate in it. So many of them loaned us their precious original Toth art for inclusion in the book. It's through their generous assistance that we were able to include twenty complete Toth stories in "Genius, Isolated," many reproduced directly from the original art and including one never-finished, never-before-published story from the 1950s. There are many single-page originals represented in the book, too.

A doodle from one of Toth's letters

We know readers were eager to see this book and we know it took longer than we originally planned in order to release it -- but given the relentless tension between "do you want it good or do you want it Tuesday," we opted to make it good and we like to think readers will ultimately agree we made the right decision.

What are the challenges of a book length project that encompasses a career as opposed to an essay, and what were the challenges specific to writing about Toth?

At the core, both essays and book-length projects present the same challenge: find the story, then tell it in an entertaining way. For readers, an essay is like a leap off the diving board, plunging deep into the water and then quickly back out again. A book-length work like "Genius, Isolated" is more like wading into the pool, then swimming a couple dozen laps, moving from lane to lane. Both of those activities are invigorating, each in its own way.

I'd say the biggest challenge in writing about Alex Toth is tied to the fact that I'm not interested in writing what amounts to an eighth-grade composition that ticks off dry fact after dry fact and makes readers ask, "Manoman, why am I slogging through this?" We've all read that type of material and I don't like it any better than you do. As a result, I try very hard to keep my work lively. In the case of "Genius, Isolated," it took some skull-sweat to figure out how best to structure the story, to weave the disparate threads of Alex's life and career into a cohesive tapestry that can be appreciated and enjoyed, even by folks with no direct knowledge of Alex before they open the book..

I'll also point out here that -- just as he did with our earlier "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles" -- Dean has done a masterful job with the captions. There are places in the text where I didn't have to stop the narrative momentum to shoehorn in extra bits of information, because Dean neatly included it in a caption. "Genius, Isolated" has hundreds of photographs, comics stories and pages of original art; it also has 30,000 words of my text. Those captions are the connective tissue between the words and the images. They help turn the book into a smooth, totally-integrated reading experience.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of this book is a collection of all the "Jon Fury" comics, which is something most of us didn't even know existed. What is it and how did you end up finding it and what do you think its significance is?

The significance part is easy: this is the first comic Alex ever wrote and drew (and lettered). As we discussed in the book, Toth did "Jon Fury" for a year and it appeared exclusively in an Army newspaper after Toth was drafted into the service and stationed in Japan. Circulation was limited to six hundred copies and the paper was printed under the crudest conditions, giving Alex production headaches on top of his creative challenges. Still, Alex looked back on "Jon Fury" as one of his most enjoyable creative experiences, because he got direct and immediate feedback from his fellow soldiers, which he found stimulating.

Down through the years, roughly a half-dozen "Jon Fury" pages have been printed here and there. Alex had his own set of "Jon Fury" photocopies and he gave out "second-generation" copies of those copies to a handful of folks, but we're pleased to have been given the opportunity to scan directly from Toth's personal set of photocopies. This has allowed us to present the most complete "Jon Fury" readers have ever seen. (At least, readers who weren't on that Army base in Tokyo!) And if you like the strip, you owe a vote of thanks to LOAC's own Lorraine Turner, who did the extensive restoration work necessary to make this series a centerpiece of "Genius, Isolated."

Splash page from Toth's "Toreador from Texas," originally printed in DC Comics' "Danger Trail" #2

"Jon Fury" was one of the few times Toth wrote as well as drew a story. If he had been able to write more or just found a writer he was simpatico with (the way Archie Goodwin was for Al Williamson, say), do you think his career would have taken a different shape?

Actually, Alex wrote more than most folks think. He did so primarily in the later stages of his career, and we'll examine that in our second volume, "Genius, Illustrated." Toth wrote "Bravo for Adventure" in the 1980s. He wrote his humorous ‘60s hot-rod comics and in the ‘70s he wrote and drew a much-beloved issue of DC's "Hot Wheels," as well as a number of stories for the Warren magazines, "Creepy" and "Eerie." So while Alex wasn't as prolific a writer as, say, Howard Chaykin or Frank Miller, he did quite a bit more than just "Jon Fury."

Having said that, it's true writing never came easily to Alex and he was certainly hyper-critical of the stories he wrote. So yes, I think you're exactly right -- had there been a "Toth/Writer X" partnership the way there was a "Kirby/Lee" or an "Adams/O'Neil," we would undoubtedly be talking about a different career today. Would it have been a better or worse career? I think we'd need Rod Serling to take us into the Twilight Zone to figure that out!

Finally on this topic, it's funny you should mention Archie Goodwin. Archie was one of the writers with whom Alex really enjoyed working -- they did stories together during the Warren heyday and their "Death Flies the Haunted Sky," from "Detective Comics" # 442, is one of those Batman stories that is endlessly reprinted. We have some examples of the Toth/Goodwin collaboration coming up in "Genius, Illustrated."

The Toth family has been involved in this project throughout it's creation. What kind of help were they able to provide and how would the project have been different without their assistance?

First of all, our "Genius" series couldn't be the official Alex Toth biography without the authorization of Alex's Estate, which is composed of his four children: Dana, Carrie, Eric and Damon. We worked out an agreement that was satisfactory to all of us and they gave us the okay to proceed. Just like the original art collectors, each of Alex's kids was a vital contributor to the finished product -- without them, "Genius, Isolated" would be a thinner and less insightful work. Many of the photographs you see in the book were provided by the children and their mother, Christina Hyde. Each of the family members allowed me to conduct lengthy interviews with them -- Christina spoke about her ex-husband for the very first time and she was thoroughly witty and charming (I word I don't use often). All four of the children read, commented on and ultimately approved the finished product before we went to press. In a way, they were our first reviewers and their positive comments really made us feel we had achieved what we set out to do (well, part of what we set out to do -- there are still two more books to come!).

This has morphed from a one volume project to a three volume project. Is that just about the sheer amount of artwork that you've assembled?

The amount of artwork was certainly a key factor, but so was the amount of biographical detail we assembled on Alex's life and career. Early on, I knew the text was sure to run at least double the 30,000 words that make up our Noel Sickles biography -- as the weeks passed, Dean was connecting with more and more collectors who had artwork to share. Sacrifice art for text? Skimp on text to maximize the art? Cram it all into one gigantic Encyclopedia of Alex so huge that no one would be able to lift it? None of those were desirable choices, so expanding the scope of the project into multiple volumes was clearly the best answer.

Now, "Genius, Isolated" takes us from Alex's boyhood to the birth of his animation career in the 1960s. The sequel, "Genius, Illustrated," will complete the biography, taking us from the '60s to Alex's death in 2006 and beyond. If I do my job correctly, more than a few readers will be reaching for their hankies as they read "Illustrated"'s epilogue (and I BETTER do it right -- I'd hate to be the only one shedding a tear!). Then we'll round out the trilogy with "Genius, Animated," a special artbook packed tight with storyboards and presentation art that celebrates Toth's work in animated cartoons. This final book will help show why even today, Alex's storyboards and character model sheets are passed around from animator to animator as examples of how to do the job right.

In this volume, you reprint a "Zorro" story and "Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion," which are two of Toth's best known comics. Obviously, many of us know Toth from his work in animation, but what comics work can we look forward to in the second volume?

A page from Dell's "Four Color" #1085, an adaptation og H.G. Wells' "Time Machine

If you're a newcomer to the world of Alex Toth, watch the reaction of the nearest Tothite when I say we'll be reprinting both Alex's tribute to the famous Flying Tigers of World War II, "Burma Sky," and the exceptional "White Devil ... Yellow Devil." See the longtime Toth fans grinning from ear-to-ear? Now watch when I say we'll be printing both stories from the original art, which will allow readers to see the "White Devil" pages Toth re-inked after the art was returned to him from DC. See how they're rubbing their hands together and chuckling in delight? That's a good sign that this is great stuff! We owe Dan DiDio and the folks at DC Comics a big debt of gratitude for allowing us to reprint "Battle Flag" in "Isolated" and these two milestone stories in "Illustrated."

We'll also have some of Alex's unused DC covers and examples of his Warren material, including work written by Archie Goodwin. There will be examples of Alex's version of Conan the Barbarian and some terrific superhero images he created for an Underoos advertising campaign that featured not just Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, but also Batgirl, Spider-Man and the Hulk! There will be some of the stories Alex wrote and drew by himself -- and a few other special items I can't give away here. After all, we want to save some surprises for readers when they open up "Genius, Illustrated!"

You know, when he was asked to comment on the recent passing of comic strip historian Bill Blackbeard, Art Spiegelman said, "As my art form develops, it's clear that the future of comics is in the past." At LOAC, we're working hard to show that past to 21st Century audiences and it's both our pleasure and our honor to be giving Alex Toth the spotlight he so richly deserves.

Dean Mullaney, the Creative Director and founder of the Library of American Comics, mentioned that years ago the two of you created a list of projects you wanted to publish. What else is on the list and what projects would you love to tackle?

One of the first dozen items we put on the list will be released in just a few weeks, as our collection of full-color Sunday "Miss Fury" strips hits the shelves. This is the first comic strip produced by a female cartoonist (Tarpe Mills) starring a female costumed hero. "Miss Fury" features Nazis, high fashion and lingerie and an evil scientist who tests his destructive discovery by dissolving a rabbit -- who can resist a lineup like that?

Some projects on our list have gone to places other than LOAC, which is too bad for us, but the upside is that the other companies reprinting classic comic strips do fine work, which means those projects have found good homes. As a reader, I'm enjoying what they're producing.

Meanwhile, we're excited about giving our oversized "champagne edition" treatment to a double-feature by Alex Raymond: "Flash Gordon" and "Jungle Jim." Yes, the Raymond "Flash" has been collected on more than one previous occasion (I still own the six-volume Kitchen Sink Press set), but never with "Jungle Jim" as its "topper" strip, the way readers eagerly devoured it when it appeared in newspapers nationwide during the 1930s and '40s and never with the crispness of image and boldness of color we'll present in our editions. The first volume is coming out later this year, around holiday time -- it'll be too big to serve as a stocking stuffer, but it will look great under the tree!

Sometimes we're also lucky enough to have a surprise project elbow its way onto our list. Did you know "Looney Tunes" director par excellence Chuck Jones once drew a newspaper strip? Neither did we! But we leaped at the chance when we got the opportunity to collect Jones's "Crawford" in a single volume and that book's in production right now. In addition to the strip, we'll also be including artwork Jones developed to support a proposed "Crawford" animated project. I think "Crawford" is going to surprise and delight a lot of readers.

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TAGS:  the library of american comics, alex toth, genius isolated, bruce canwell

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