Toth’s Condemnation

On my LiveJournal, Alec Stevens writes:

“Surprised Alex Toth liked Corben, as his proportions were all over the map, and the subject matter certainly fit the ‘dark and warpy’ vision that Toth condemned in comics’ latter days.”

Since that condemnation often comes up in discussions of Toth, I felt that this point was worth answering here, where it wouldn’t be buried in my LJ’s comments section. Many comics folk (not necessarily Alec) complain that Toth objected to anything in the arts that was “adult” or disturbing, but I think that misunderstands his views.

To begin briefly about Corben: though Corben’s work differed from Toth’s in many respects, Toth was a Corben fan from the time he first saw Corben’s comics. Even in an interview given in the final months of his life, Toth was praising Corben’s willingness to tackle tricky angles. Corben’s proportions are wonky, but judging by Toth’s influences I’d say Toth’s heart was closer to cartooning than realism, so I assume Corben’s expressiveness appealed to him.

The subject matter is a trickier question. Toth often railed against the “dark” aspects of modern entertainment, but he didn’t often provide examples of such, so it’s tough to say precisely what he was bothered by. He himself drew plenty of of horror, crime, and war stories… including scenes of nudity, bloody murder, etc. (Though not so much as Corben!) Yet he objected to working on “Torpedo,” in which the only racy or violent elements he had to draw were a few flashes of female nipple and some implied, bloodless murders.

I think what he really objected to wasn’t disturbing or racy subject matter, but rather nihilism: stories that deny the existence of meaning in the universe, and specifically the dignity of human beings. He was apparently fine with moderate depictions of horror and violence as long as they affirm that our sins or deaths are tragic, and not simply amusing or trivial. The “c’est la vie!” approach to sin and death, exemplified by Torpedo and other post-’60s entertainments is, I think, what he really condemned. In a 1969 interview, he said:

“Hollywood has been all too entranced with negativism, as has literature, theatre, television, other media, and I’m damn well fed up with it. Of course our nation and the whole bloody world is sick. But stop showing us the symptoms of the sickness. We know it’s there. Where are the serious suggestions for solutions, cures. This is what films ought to be doing, and books, and art. … If they don’t have a solution, then make another kind of film. But at least make films with some hope instead of this negative philosophy repeated on and on that the ‘common man’ is a pitiful, sick, acid-head slob.”

Returning to Corben, I’d say the reason Toth liked Corben (and Los Bros Hernandez, by the way) and not, say, Robert Crumb, was because though all four draw scenes of violence and sex, Corben and Los Bros show empathy for their scenes’ victims and lovers, while Crumb is just amused.

6 thoughts on “Toth’s Condemnation

  1. Alec, Corben’s stories, though they feature shocking subject matter, tend to follow the same “EC Comics” ethos that Toth’s stories often did: good guys vs. bad guys, wrongdoing is often punished, and when villains win it’s deemed tragic. This is a far cry from nihilistic tales (e.g., Crumb), in which protagonists chase after their desires with no affirmation of right or wrong, apart from condemning inhibition.

    By way of example, from the archive you linked I picked a random story, one I had never read before. I don’t know that Toth was familiar with Corben’s Heavy Metal stuff, so I picked one from the era and publisher Toth would have known: ’70s Warren:

    It features Corben’s usual subject matter: a scantily-clad buxom woman, a monster, an alien landscape. But look at its moral: an infidelity is being punished. This is perfectly in line with the sorts of stories Toth himself drew for Warren and for DC throughout his career.

    • Toth wouldn’t have had to sign off on every story Corben drew in order to admire his work generally. Categories of personal taste aren’t that impermeable.

      Even so, AntiChristmas is just the sort of good vs. evil story I described above. It’s gorier than necessary, but its basic point is wholesome: good ends don’t justify wicked means.

  2. Perhaps in the four decades since you read the story, you’ve mis-remembered its point, which could be summed up by Romans 12:21.

    I was unaware of Bezaire’s Warren work, but I enjoyed his Dan Red Eagle comics. I was unable to find excerpts from his book online, but I did find this interview, which I look forward to reading: Bruce Bezaire: Meticulous Renderings of Glory

  3. Hi Alec,

    Interesting similarity! Two pics of a host of rounded spacecraft swarming a longer craft. Neat find.

    However, I suspect it’s a coincidence. Toth would have been roughly 5 when that cover appeared on (and disappeared from) newsstands, and I doubt he was already buying or reading magazines by that age. He could conceivably have encountered the image later in a used bookstore, but Paul’s stiff, detailed art doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing Toth would have sought out. Also, setting aside the subject matter, the compositions are much different.

    Knowing his affinity for WWII aircraft, it seems more likely that Toth was thinking of Japanese fighter planes converging on an allied warship, and substituted spacecraft for the planes.

  4. Great essay on the line work of Toth. As for the effective use of looseness/imperfection in drawing, have a look at Stan Drake’s Juliet Jones. He really understood how to create a realistic impression by not focussing on the individual lines.

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