Blog,  Inkslingers Blog

Alex Toth: Space Explorer!

Anyone who corresponded with Alex Toth knows that his pen or pencil was always working, covering untold numbers of sheets of the lightweight 6”x 9” paper he favored.  Some might call it doodling, but I always saw Toth more as a visual, spatial explorer.  From the distinctive textural handwriting that would fill full pages, to the countless mustachioed men, planes, cars, women, designs and landscapes, Toth’s brain was always trying to figure out the relationships between forms and space.  The space might be flat and patterned, or it might be a deep landscape, filled sparsely with elements.  Or it could be some combination of the two, along with a variety of word-play that would often jump-start into shapes, followed by figures and spaces.  Stopping was not an option for Toth.  He was driven to explore.

Over my years of corresponding with Toth, along with the many letters, he sent a couple of dozen sketch pages my way.  Toth always included something with a letter and you never knew what to expect.  It was always a wonderful surprise seeing what was tucked into the envelope.  There might be notes to himself surrounded by lovely ink line work, or a page of faces, like the profile portraits of women he drew as a child.  But my favorites were always his panel sketch pages.  Those were magic.  Toth was like an improvisational jazz musician, starting with a shape, line or space, and then riffing on it for a panel or two or three or more.  He might change angles, or play with the depth of space.  Patterns sometimes became other shapes that might turn into letter forms.  It was like a jam session on blank 6”x 9” notepad paper.

The picture plane is a term in art that refers to the full surface of whatever substrate someone is painting or drawing upon.  The picture plane could refer to paper, canvas or even a slab of clay.  A 100-sheet pad of 18”x 24” newsprint paper contains 100 18″x 24″ picture planes.  Toth preferred working on these small 6”x 9” picture planes, but within those sheets, the panels themselves created an additional space for Toth to explore.  He often played with those spaces outside of the panels, but then used the panels to contain different elements, creating a separation from the rest of the page.  It was a process he knew well from his decades working in the comic book industry.  These sketch pages also reveal a good deal about Toth’s process when it came to sequencing.  Something might start as a riff on shapes or texture, turning into a pictorial sequence.  In many ways Toth was like a pen and paper cinematographer, setting up shots he could see in his mind’s eye.  If you’ve seen Toth’s comic book or animation artwork, you know what I’m referring to.

I am thankful that most collectors of cartoon and comic book artwork do not place a high value on preliminary or process artwork.  While Toth’s published original art might bring thousands of dollars, his sketch pages bring a fraction of those prices.  I’ve been able to pick up some lovely pieces over the years, some of which you’ll see in this post below.  As Bud Blake, the cartoonist on Tiger, once told me, the preliminary drawing “….is where the true creativity is.”  It may not be a coincidence that Alex Toth was an admirer of Bud Blake’s artwork. 

One note: Toth often did not use the entire 6″x 9″ sheet, but I decided not to crop the empty spaces on the sketch pages, preferring to keep the proportions of the sheets. So any blank space between the images below are the empty spaces on the sketch pages.

I hope you enjoy Alex Toth’s explorations.

In the sketch page below, Toth riffs on close-up and open spaces, playing with the camera in the first five panels, and then shifting to open skies and landscapes on the rest of the page. Note how Toth plays with pattern as he winds down the page, breaking landscapes and planes down to shapes and pattern. I do get a kick out of the sudden change of course that Toth takes, starting with a cowboy on horseback in the first three panels, before veering off onto an old automobile.

There is lots of shape, texture and pattern on the follow sketch page, and you can see where Toth goes from exploring hair in the second tier, to the heavy shape-based shadows in the final tier. Space is largely zoomed-in on this page, though the little Mexican jumping beans appear to have enough space to move around in!

It’s Batman! In action and relaxing at home. Toth has created a mini-movie of the guardian of Gotham, moving to futuristic building forms below. Lots of high contrast black and white shapes to play with. Even the crossed-out text forms panel shapes.

I do love the movement in the second and third tiers below. Toth pulls the camera in and out, creating movement through diagonals and line weight. Plus, there’s Zorro, a character Toth worked on beautifully for Dell Comics. Toth was an admirer of Errol Flynn’s, and you see Flynn’s visage show up often in Toth’s work.

Toth often played with flat, unfilled silhouetted forms on his sketch pages, as if he was trying to locate the forms/shapes in space. Some of his favorite subjects are below, including a swordsman, a cowboy, automobiles and planes.

You can start to see a familiar pattern below, no pun intended. Toth starts out with intimate spaces, alluding to some sort of conversation between characters. The space then opens up, leading to high contrast shapes. Toth goes back to the aircraft he so loves, playing with scale in three panels, before winding up with contour line shapes and figure.

You can almost see Toth channeling Noel Sickles on the sketch page below. His use of space, from seemingly simply contour lines, to dark shapes helping to create depth, all create a wonderfully lyrical movement throughout. Even Toth’s small dotted lines help to create movement, texture and space.

Patterns and planes. I mentioned in the opening text how Toth would sometimes morph from one thing into another. You can see that here with the patterns that become palm trees that turn into planes. Then there are pattern-shaped landscapes that once again magically turn into planes. Like Sickles, Toth understood planes from all angles, and used them beautifully in creating individual composition.

It’s Superman! Well, there’s a little Superman, but a number of patterned panels. Toth liked playing with diagonals, whether helping to create movement or pattern. In this case he riffs with triangles and zigzags, all leading to Superman.

Below is an example of some of my favorite exploration of Toth’s. He starts of with bird’s-eye views of spaces, all created with mainly diagonals. Toth then adds in some curved forms, finally dropping the horizon line to the middle of the small picture planes. The last image panel of the horse and cowboy is downright elegant. So much information with such little means. And that space is pushed right up into the foreground. Folks, it really ain’t this easy!

Toth loved his automobiles and was enamored of some of the bulbous steam driven vehicles in the 30s and 40s. You can see him exploring those shapes below, mainly with straight-on two-point perspective views, but also from above.

Toth was rarely this textural on his sketch pages, usually opting for dark shapes to create contrast. But his wordplay on the right seems to have triggered a different sort of space exploration, resulting in lots of cross-hatching and hatching to create atmosphere.

The page below may be Toth’s most cinematographic of the group, as he explores planes flying through space. The types of aircraft don’t matter to Toth, as long as he can play with them through composition and contrast. The shots here are mostly mid-range, though he does pull the camera closer at times.

More vehicular compositions. I do enjoy the way Toth enters or exits some of the panels from a corner. The bird’s-eye view shot in the first panel is jarring compared to the other compositions.

Only three panels on the following sketch page, with the first two being close to reversals of each other. Toth has a different feel with pencil than he does with pen, playing with the weight of the line a bit more.

The final actual sketch page. The first two tiers are some sort of shape/space exploration, collapsing and creating space. The latter three tiers are mostly people, playing with portraits and figures. I wonder what Toth was thinking when it came to the figure on stilts, followed by one of his cowboys.

Finally, the first page of letter that Toth wrote to me in 1997. You can see his wonderful handwriting, as well as getting a sense of his voice. The sketches at the top are wonderful, as we see each scene from a completely different viewpoint.

Below is a four-panel sequence from one of the Zorro comic books that Toth worked on from 1957 to 1960. You can see his wonderful use of space, figures, textures and tone at play in these panels. It’s like a miniature movie in four panels.

My thanks for reading. Until next time (and beyond), be well.

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.


  • Jim Latimer

    Wonderful appreciation. He was a master storyteller, who could tell a story, just in visuals, as few others. His pacing and settings were always beautifully realized. I, truly, miss seeing new work by his talented hand.

Leave a Reply