Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Review Of: Genius, Isolated by Mullaney and Canwell

The artist biography writ large, that is what Genius, Isolated (2011, IDW) is. Unexpectedly hardback and beautifully art directed, one wonders why all biographies can’t be like this.

Well, for one thing, there is pretty much no one like Toth. I say this as both good and bad really, since his reputation precedes him. It colors our opinion of his work as much as the scribbled postcards that show up in Alter Ego, as much as the nostalgia factor of seeing his hand in Space Ghost, Toth the perfectionist crank has become as much of a charicature as the real thing.

But given that this is the first volume of the three volume series, lets get a few things out of the way, because this review is partly a review of the biography, and partly a review of Toth, and how he is a symbol for discussing comics from the past in a general sense. IDW has pulled out all the stops and the volume does practically what I’ve always hopes that an artist biography would be: Plenty of scans from original pages, older photographs, correct annotations, arranged thematically as opposed to simply chronologically (which accounts for the second third volumes breaking both a person’s life up as well as the different periods of work that they created), clear art direction in both layout, and great readability in the typefaces. Hardback, meant to last, even a bookmark ribbon for keeping place. Crisp printing with deep black blacks, essential for someone like Toth.

It does everything right. Interviews with everyone still living that, and research to dig up quotes from past contemporaries to illustrate both Toth’s employment situations as well as his reaction to them. Mullaney and Canwell do a good job of not trying to sweep Toth’s legendary anger under the rug, but, perhaps, trying to give it some context.

So lets ask this question: for a beautiful book like this, is Toth deserving of it?

It may seem like an odd question really. Toth epitomizes “the artist’s artist”. His work had a documented profound effect on his contemporaries, and he’s been labeled a genius too many times to count for his brevity of line, precise and deliberate negative space and pacing acumen, his work drives many an artist to simply shake their head and say, “I can’t layout that panel better than that.” But a read through the book simply points out the utter mediocrity of the early decades of comics, and how, twenty years on from Bob Kane and Bill Finger on Batman, the industry had learned less than nothing about how to do better work.

Small wonder that Toth fumed and exploded on his bosses at, it seems, almost every opportunity. All that artistic talent and no where to go with it.

So yes, to answer my own question, yes Toth the artist deserves a biography of this magnitude, Toth from the pages of the comics doesn’t. Far too many of his stories were utter crap and then they were colored by hacks who lacked the rudimentary ability to simply determine a light source for the panel that they were rolling their crayons over. I go back to the Miller quote, back before Frank went off the deep end, when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here): “People act like we’ve got fifty years of behind us when we have fifty years of crap.” And its true.

And he’s not infallible either. While the letter that he wrote to Steve Rude ripping apart a story that Steve had penciled has circulated around the internet for years, there are certainly choices where his panel to panel transitions don’t quite up. In a way, it’s a relief to see a story where there are times that he’s not perfect either.

And that moves us to an integral part of the artwork: as the Artist's artist, I certainly can look at superior storytelling and recognize it when i see it. I can also recognize lazy storytelling or inept storytelling pretty damn quick. Trying to explain the nuances of WHY Toth's work is superior is an entirely different science, and one that the book doesn't even try to do. And I'm not sure it should. Digging into the semiotics of comics is a complex science, and one that is fraught with misunderstandings. There is not a common language sometimes that even allows to have that discussion on the interwebs, so no wonder the book decides to circumvent the entire discussion. Toth's work passes the smell test for those of us who know good storytelling when we see it. And if you don't give a damn, then you're not likely to be reading this biography.

But it is a joy to see some brilliant pages where Toth’s simplicity and expression shine through in the original black and white, as opposed to through poorly printed and designed color. It is then that all the elements that make Toth that artist’s artist shine through. Beautiful examples are the originals from “The Crushed Gardenia” (Who is Next #5) pages 115-122 and “I Fooled My Heart” (Popular Romance #24) on pages 123-129.

As professionals in this industry, we take on illustrating stories like the ones presented here, stories that almost seem to prove the long held opinion that comics are for mentally deficient humans. Could Toth have adapted to deeper, more adult work had the industry been there for him to work in? Almost certainly.

It’s a shame that he didn’t have the opportunity to work in a world were Maus had won the Pulitzer, where comics had become a medium to be respected. But, sadly, one is left with the idea that Toth, the tortured artist, Toth, the emotionally immature, Alex Toth, always his own worst enemy, would have fucked it up. And that's sad. This was, after all, Toth, the man who refused to get help for his depression and his OCD tendencies.

So I’m left with two questions: when is the next volume coming out? And… if you can do this sort of treatment for Alex Toth, a true luminary, why can’t this be done for the true king of 20th Century comics, for Jack Kirby?


Mike Moran said...

The Mark Evanier book on Kirby is pretty good but you are right. Not as detailed as this book on TOTH.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

and the Toth book is just one of a series of 3!

Evanier's book is terribly lighweight compared to the Toth work, and while I'm glad that mark got the book published, its a mistake not to be thinking of the Kirby biography on this scale.