Review by Frank Plowright
As indicated by the title, this hardcover book showcases the work of one of the greatest artists to work on American comics. It’s a dazzling reflection of both Alex Toth’s talent and his constantly stretching the boundaries of his storytelling over seventeen short stories drawn between 1965 and 1976, plus four from the early 1980s where he inked the work of other pencillers.
Some artists find their style early and stick with it. Although he improved technically, there’s little difference between a George Pérez Avengers page from 1978 and one from 1998. Toth approached each story differently. Although his line is recognisable, there’s little other artistic connection between the cramped paranoia of ‘Ensnared’ or the following ‘Tibor Miko’, which makes use of the wide open skies. Interestingly, though, thematically it could almost be a prequel to the earlier story. ‘The Stalker’ with its novel application of lettering is prime 1960s psychedelia, while the precision of ‘The Monument’ reflects the architectural trade of the lead character. The neat, thin-lined figurework of ‘The Reaper’ harkens back to Toth’s better known 1950s work, while opening story ‘Grave Undertaking’ is characterised by subtle greytones (sample left).
However, those greytones, used on several other stories, really suffer under a sloppy production process rendering everything flat and muddy. Toth knew his work would appear on pulp paper and was professional in designing his art for the reproduction, but transfer that work to bright gloss paper and the subtleties evaporate. It’s not just the paper, though, as digital production techniques could compensate, but a cheap price has been prioritised over reproduction quality. The strips that are just black and white don’t suffer other than via reflection in artificial light.
For all the wonder of the art, there’s no pretending all stories are masterpieces. Archie Goodwin’s contributions are varied and imaginative and most of his eight collaborations are highlights, maintaining suspense and tension. Toth’s own writing isn’t as polished, but it prompts him to some of the best art featured, the comedy moments of ‘Unreal’ standing out. Nicola Cuti’s ‘Malphisto’s Illusion’ generates viable tension and a gruesome ending, and Bill DuBay’s ‘Daddy and the Pie’ is memorably haunting, and a departure from the remaining material, a precursor to Resident Alien. Most of those remaining offerings either meander strangely (Gerry Boudreau’s ‘Phantom of Pleasure Island’), are trite (Steve Skeates’ ‘Hacker’ pairing), or induce a gasp that the writer had the cheek (Roger McKenzie’s ‘Jacques Cocteau’s Circus of the Bizarre’) although Toth inking Carmine Infantino’s pencils is a very appealing combination. His inking on work by Leo Duranona, Leo Summers and Romeo Tanghal refines some not so great pencils.
The lack of production care is puzzling, yet even taking the disappointment into account, there’s no denying that a cover price of $20 for seventeen examples of prime Toth is an absolute steal. Surely, though, most fans would have preferred to pay more for proper reproduction.