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TothPix: Wiped Out!

With additional work coming in this week I'm topsy-turvy, in over my head, wiped out! Completion and posting of my Genius, Isolated review will have to wait til next week, if then. I'm not exactly sure what awaits me the next seven days, so... This Toth panel is from Surfside Saga, one of the earlier stories in the One For the Road collection, reprinting all the stories the artist wrote and drew for Peter Millar's Hot Rod magazines in the mid-'60s. The stories show a cartoonier, MADder side of Toth.


TothPix: Under the Gun

I'm up to my neck, under the gun, behind the eight ball, in a tight spot - way too much work to complete and post my review of Genius, Isolated. Probably next week.

This one one sweet Toth panel from his Zorro run: Sergeant Garcia is caught unawares.Most of Garcia's head and figure are in shadow, as is the gun and finger on the trigger.  This creates the highest contrast  with the gun, so the center of interest, also focusing attention on Garcia's reaction/expression. The gun is cropped, Garcia's head tight to the right side of the frame. So, the point at which the tip of the gun meets Garcia's neck is at lower-center panel, though in shadow, obscured.

All lines and curves of this composition leads one's eye to that center point (as shown below).

Another Zorro page is analyzed here and Zorro sketches here.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Closing Thoughts

When I began TothPix 16 months ago, I wasn't sure where it would take me. I thought I'd share some favorite bits by my favorite artist, learn a few things along the way. It takes time and energy to try and keep up with a weekly feature on top of blogging on other things, raising a family, meeting deadlines, staying healthy, keeping the house and grounds cleaned and spruced. I certainly didn't expect I'd embark on a 15-part analysis and exploration of a single Toth story, his adventure comic adaptation of the B-movie, The Land Unknown. Over the last two months I scanned many pages, prepared 119 images (scanned, cleaned, enhanced & cropped). All that has been more than worth it, but I might not have made it if not spurred on by those of you who've read, followed and sometimes commented. Thanks.

To mix things up, and to avoid being pedantic, I varied the approach to the text and presentation, based in part on my whims and as dictated by the story, art and available resources. I hope as a whole the series isn't disjointed, then.

Some closing thoughts on The Land Unknown:

• Alex Toth was 29 when he drew this 32-page story.

• He improved mightily on poor source material, aided by a solid script by Bob Ryder, about whom Toth said,

"Good picture scripting...he wrote, into it, many four-panel spreads and placed the action rather well."

Interesting, as I'd assumed Toth himself may have expanded some panels to cover 1/3 - 1/2 - 2/3 of the 6-panel grid.

• What I'd taken as an okay piece with some great spots is actually one of his best projects of the '50s. Long time Toth friend and fan, John Hitchcock wrote recently on a fan forum,

"Of all of Toth's Dell stories, Land Unknown was one of his favorites. About twenty-six years ago, I asked him to sign my copy. He wrote, 'This is one of my pets.'"

• Thanks to the internet and recently-released Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth book (and interviews for such), I was able to access a few pages of original art, two versions of scanned color comics, along with scans of B&W art from the Pure Imagination reprint book.

• Much of his signature style/approach were already firmly in place by this time, as well as in the early'50s (when he was in his early twenties), not apparent and developed only in his later work. His work was mature for nearly the entirety of his career - amazing! • Toth was obviously a student of film, employing not only an array of camera angles borrowed from that medium, but also was able envision and depict shots from all angles and points-of-view. There is an incredible intelligence, memory and imagination apparent in these pages.

• This artist worked hard to get things right. He obviously did his research, one way or another to accurately render the ships, helicopter, guns and more in this piece.

• Though the B&W reprint books aren't perfect (through a "bleaching" process, much of the fine line work and strokes are not reproduced as well as from the originals), they're still a step up from scans of the printed color comics where much detail and subtlety is lost due to sub-par printing standards. It's fun to see the color as it originally appeared, but what a sight it'd be if this story were to be shot completely from the originals (no doubt impossible) and given the proper treatment by a current colorist, say, Dave Stewart and printed on decent stock. Glory be, that'd be wonderful!

There we go. Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, here in comments, on Facebook or at the TothFans Forum. I'm not sure I have in me another series this long and involved, but I've plenty planned for upcoming installments, never fear.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 13

Leaving The Land Unknown, the crew ascends hundreds of feet straight up in their 'copter, trying to make contact with the ships waiting for them in the Antarctic.

Toth then cuts inside the vehicle for a shadowed profile. The way he's back-lit the figure and highlighted the headphones, he's aimed all the focus on the communication apparatus. Contact established in panel two, we get a straight head shot. They made it!

Moving on to the final page, unleashes a torrent of dynamic angles and action, the ships tossed to-and-fro on the wild waves. The 'copter approaches, crashes, the crew rescued on the high seas. Toth employs an array of shapes, angles, curves, positive and negative spaces, zig-zagging the reader through the page (as shown in red below), making one feels as if they're part of the action. Panel one is a bird's eye view, the helicopter framed by the jagged, white glacier far below. Those little specks in a sea of black are enormous ships, giving us a sense of proportion, depth, height and space. This is an acutely abstract composition, off center and asymmetrical, yet balanced in the stark black and white shapes. One quibble: Toth could have placed the 'copter slightly to the right, overlapping the line along the side of the glacier, further enhancing depth, avoiding couching the 'copter so perfectly within the white shape. Spinning blades, billowing smoke, a spider web of masts, splashing waves lead the eye about panel 2, back and forth between the principle elements in a largely triangular composition. All objects are on a tilt, either in the sky or on the sea. Nothing is secure. We're off balance, but naturally so, as dictated by the environment, physics and story. The layers of depth in panel 3 are astounding, the sea in the foreground cropping the helicopter as it splashes down. The 'copter enters the water at a sharp angle, blades spinning and slashing violently within the middle third. A splash of water frames the crashing 'copter, jutting across a line of water and into the ship in the background at a sharp slant on the turbulent sea. What a frame! Wordless, no sound effects - the drawing carries the action and story. More layers and tilted objects, curving waves, sharp angles, stark shadows, creating picture depth. All of this serving the story, framing the rescue launch on its way. I blew out most line art, cleaning and simplifying positive and negative space here, to showcase Toth's sense of design and composition in each panel, and from frame to frame, over the two tiers. A master at work. Once safe on a ship, though surrounded by subtle and sharp angles, the characters are firmly rooted, standing up straight, order restored. The 3-shot of panel 5 is simple, Hunter and Maggie in profile framing Hal in the middle, all excited and relieved, but blanketed by Hunter's shadow. Frame 6, the final panel of the story is a call-back from the beginning of the tale, Hal & Maggie shown once again from behind, in their element, ready for another adventure. Rather than showing their face here, Toth focuses us instead on their parity and partnership, avoiding a saccharine note on which to end. The adventurers look forward to the future, eyes on the horizon. Ah - finished! Well worth the effort. I learned a lot. And though we're finished with the story proper, I've capped the series with my last observations and my final thoughts. href="">Read the story in its entirety in color here.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 12

Trying to make a clean getaway from The Land Unknown, Hal takes a peek out the 'copter door, to see...


And in color:

Page 29, semi-splash detail; color remastered.

Yeah, so this enormous sea serpent pops up from the water, upending Hunter's raft, sending him toppling, and he gets knocked out during the fall. Though Toth is known most for his line and spotting of blacks, notice how he rendered the cascade of water: not held by a line, but drawn with a series of dots and splotches, left open with negative space, obscuring other elements, letting the viewer's eye finish the picture. The final panel of the page is a standard profile close-up with flare gun in Hal's hand...

But even in this seemingly simple 2-frame tier Toth leads us through expertly with a series of angles (raft, body, oars & gun) and finally a curve that sweeps up along the gun and Hal's nose to his steely gaze. Just wonderful.

Page 30 (below) is sweet (and if you have $5000.00 to spare for the original art, Buy It Now on ebay), a tour de force of composition, design, balance of positive and negative space, shot selection and storytelling. The reader's eye is drawn through the page brilliantly, all in service of telling the story.

The first panel is from a bird's eye view, above the helicopter, the 'copter and Hal with his gun framing the creature below. The curve of the serpent's neck leads us to the tiny head of Hunter as he floats helplessly, unconscious in the sea.

Page 30, frame 1 and detail.

No doubt Toth had good reference for this flare gun, drawn simply but all there. The sharp angles, juxtaposed with curves and circles, along with the asymmetrical black and white space (still balanced) convey urgency and action.

Page 30, panel 2.

The 'copter swings in, the gun shot. Pops, smoke and sound effects lead us across the horizontal, widescreen frame to the point of impact. Zowee! Toth draws the 'copter in near silhouette in the foreground, and once again renders only what he needs to: holding lines dropping out from the serpent's head and maw, conveying the hot, bright flash of the flare, the reader's eye/brain completing the image.

Panel 4: The frame is split in half, then quartered in the lower half, the black horizontal slab of water broken by bits of light/waves. The serpent seeks refuge, returning to the sea - the curve of its body amidst the swirling smoke. The 'copter turns, maneuvering towards Hunter in the foreground, his head shown cutting out of the surface of the water, flat, graphic and bold. This is daring, modern picture-making!

Hal leaps to Hunter's rescue in panel 5, not quite centered in the frame. What an angle! And Toth draws Hal's foreshortened figure with a natural ease and flow. The near-silhouette of the 'copter against the expanse of sea beneath is startling, accentuating the free-fall and danger of Hal's dive.

Atop the next page, 31, Toth divvies up the frame, this time in thirds. Not quite flat or straight on, we see a few lines in front of and behind the figures showing the horizon/water surface. The characters are cropped, engulfed in water, as the rescue gear drops down from above, jutting into the upper 2/3 of the frame. Then, an overhead shot, mixing things up nicely. Time to hoist!

Finally, all safe in the 'copter, it's straight up and away through the gloom, the crew-plus-one making their escape!

For the conclusion of the story, and an incredible final page, jump to Part 13. Or - visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.

Note: This post was prepared and composed to the jaunty, jabbing jazz of Thelonious Monk.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 11

Last we left, the 'copter was just taking off, the crew making their escape from The Land Unknown. From the cockpit they (and the readers) get an eyeful of T-Rex!

Toth's got the hang of these dinosaurs now, ferocious, lively, snarling and snapping. What a shot!

Looking at the entirety of page 27, we can see Toth composes the page not only by spotting blacks, but largely with a series of curves and circular shapes (as shown in red on the right). He leads the eye not only from panel to panel, but through the page and swirling back into the action from the lower right.

He mixes up the shots, too: from above (panel 1); from below eye level inside the cockpit (panel 2); looking outside the cockpit window, filled up by the large head of the beast (panel 3); to a large wide view of dinosaur rearing back as the 'copter takes off.

Moving on to page 28, we get a bird's eye view of the Land, finally seeing the tops of those stylized trees Toth has been drawing in the background throughout the story. What cool trees! They're like floating islands; tropical, green, rooty icebergs. In panel 2, he pulls way back for a long shot, all figures an elements very tiny, placed against a large slate of negative space, and a black, rectangular slab of water.

We're back in the air again now, from above the 'copter, a slight shadow thrown on Hal's cap and figure. The winch juts out and the rope leads us to tiny Maggie and Hunter below, waiting in the boat. In panel 4, Toth does a 180 and we're below, looking up at the underside of the helicopter. Boy, he's really moving that "camera" around! (I do think this frame would have been more effective had we seen all of Maggie's figure, hanging, not cropped.)

Swirls and circles abound in frame 5, the curve of the 'copter, the doorway, the rope and Maggies' figure. A super panel, telling the story well, Hal helping Maggie into the 'copter, safe and secure. Toth uses the shapes and structures of the helicopter to determine his panel and page composition, making them work for him. Hal's face in panel 6 may be stock, but that seems a better Caniff face than Milton himself ever drew, dare I say?!

The whole page holds up very well, Toth once again using curves and circular shapes mixed with a variety of angles, triangles and other shapes (as shown in red on the right) - interesting patterns, motifs and panel compositions within the larger page. Stunning!

I leave you with a small taste of original art, signed by Toth. Click either link to see page 27 or 28. You may have to sign in for a larger view.

For dinosaurs, chases, gunshots, leaps, roars and tentacles (!) go directly to Part 12, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.

PS - this post was prepared and composed to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Fanfare For The Common Man and other works. Not a bad adventure soundtrack.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 10

We begin this week of The Land Unknown analysis with a classic Toth panel, a strong foreground silhouette, about to give Hunter a whack. Toth's figure is solid black save for a thin slash of light cutting into the hair and a small slot of white on the collar. Hunter's head is framed and cropped by the dark figure and club, Maggie's face by the shirt sleeve.

Now without that set-up and context, this next frame would be less clear. Any other cartoonist would show more, maybe more pedestrian, but readable. This is one of his weakest panels of the story, the artist probably trying to hard to mix it up or be different. How 'bout if we just see a hand on the club? A slip, thankfully infrequent.

That next frame is cool, Steve's face cropped at the nose, his hand firmly gripping the club. The hands tell the story here. Hunter is portrayed in a vulnerable position and interesting angle, turned away from the viewer, looking askance at his attacker.

A nice shot, Hunter's face cropped by his clothing...

I love the look on Steve's face here as Hal draws his weapon...

This is just beautiful. Another frame I could stare at for hours! The curves, angles, spotted blacks, textures, repeating shapes (leaves, vines, star & propeller) - Oh, my!

Toth moves us below, looking up at Steve on the 'copter. What a startling angle! Smart composition, what with the blade, arms akimbo, etc. This is not an easy shot to pull off, and Toth does it with ease, all while serving the story. The crazy angle reminds one of the film compositions of Orson Welles, especially as in Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1952) and Touch of Evil (1958).

Ah, now that's better! Here's a similar shot to a frame from earlier in the story, much improved! Better composition and dinosaur.

Page 26, panel 6 (left) and page 12, panel 6 (right).

Part 11 is but a click away! Or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 9

Picking up where we left off in the middle of page 22 of The Land Unknown...

Rescued by castaway, Hunter, Maggie comes to the conclusion she must sacrifice herself to save the rest of her crew. This moment of thought and respite (above) is a sweet, sweet panel. Toth is not satisfied to simply establish Maggie in thought and the open raft, but does so with style, couching the main two elements in an arrangement of textures and patterns: bushes of star leaves; the curved triangles of large plants; the lines and crosshatch of tall grass; curved ripples on water; spotted blacks of shadow and craggy rock. I could stare at this drawing a long, long time (and have).

Toth prolongs the suspense with a long shot from the weeds in silhouette in the foreground, the calm before the storm. Then, time stands still as Maggie encounters a sea serpent in a wordless panel. This creature is not static, but alive on the page, frightening as it hovers over Maggie who doesn't move a muscle.

Combined with panels covered in detail in my previous post, it's a very nice page, well composed, balancing black areas with negative space, action with stillness, juxtaposing angles and lines with swirling, circular forms as shown on right (below).

All hell breaks loose atop page 23 as the serpent attacks, all teeth and folds of reptile skin circling its long neck. Cropping out the creature's eyes focuses attention on the sharp teeth, accentuating its size. Toth utilizes again flowing display lettering for the growl, weaving it behind and in front of the serpent. Surround Sound on a 2-D page! We see Maggie and the raft from the POV of the water surface.

Maggie faints in the next panel, but I'm not sure we'd know what was going on right away without the caption. Like I said before, when Toth fails, he does so in grand fashion, as with this unorthodox shot from the raft floor: seat and oars at striking angles; the action carried from Maggie's position, hands and the curve of her jaw. Drawing at this angle, a cropped and foreshortened figure is extremely difficult to pull off, but Toth makes it look easy. He certainly made it hard on himself, trying something different.

Then, it's Hunter to the rescue again, blowing his horn, torch at the ready!

Close ups for the dinosaur in the middle tier, looking fierce. No confusion in what's going on here, Toth clear about who is where in a 3/4 overhead shot, then action profile.

No need for dialogue in this frame, the serpent ominous in the foreground, nearly in complete silhouette as it snaps Hunter's weapon, smoke billowing from its powerful jaws. Hunter prepares another torch.  And Toth doesn't let us forget Maggie, her knees poking up from her raft. What a shot! This could very well be an abstract painting.

Then we're right in the thick of the action, an angle that brings to mind Gregory Peck as Ahab in Moby Dick (1956). Reading this, kids musta felt like they were holding the torch themselves! Superb design: swirling shapes for flame and smoke; serpent curve; circular patterns of horn; half-circle bubbles; flowing mop of hair in black; the sturdy line of Hunter's staff and arm.

Unconscious Maggie floats on in the background...

Hunter saves Maggie again in this overhead shot. Curves of boats, diagonals of staff and oars. Then, back at the cave, we get a glimpse of what's next in store for hero Hunter...

An exploration of Alex Toth's Land Unknown comic (1957) continues with Part 10. We're nearing the conclusion, still with 4-5 posts to go. Check the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 8

T-Rex is back!

We're now well into the final third of Alex Toth's Land Unknown comic (1957). Every panel of page 20 is a winner. A lady in profile, close-up, upturned heads looking to the sky. I love Steve's dejected expression and body language in frame 2. Nice background inking and natural posture of the background characters. Word balloons notwithstanding, Toth draws our eye from the upper left on a downward right angle to Hal's face, the up again across to the upper right corner of panel 2.

Longshot, characters center-right, the foreground fading to white with impressionistic dots and dashes of foliage, a la Sickles.

Medium shot, from behind, Hal and Maggie turn toward the viewer startled by the roar of a dinosaur. Trouble! Ominous shadows are thrown over most of Maggie' curves, on Hal's shoulder and right half.

Action-packed figures in silhouette disperse as T-Rex reappears! Hal's figure is superb, his outline easily read, heading one way, turning another; sharp, deliberate, balanced. More action in the last frame of the page; Toth sets us nearly in Hal's shoes, fanning his hammer, rapid-firing at the dinosaur, which Toth is now drawing in more lively and threatening fashion. The two panels are tied together by the roar sound effect strung behind the figures.

Top panel of page 21, from the original art. Wow, look at the loose but assured, bravura inking by Toth in this action panel as the dinosaur gives chase! Head down, Hal runs with purpose, an effect enhanced by Toth's bold brush work of folds and shadows. It's shots like this that convince me that Toth surpasses masters and his mentors, Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins and Milt Caniff to be the superior comics artist.

More action, unconventional composition, Hal's path accentuated by the awesome angle of the rocky crag. The backgrounds brushwork here is phenomenal!

And the panel works in color, too, though the middle space could be improved with a light yellow rather than the white used. (This'll probably be the last of color you'll see featured in this blog series, as the coloring for most of the 2nd half of the story are subpar, rushed and glitchy.)

The lower 2/3 of page 21 is all angles, growls, exotic trees, a tangle of untamed tentacle plants, curves, more tame cheesecake and the mist of white brush spatter. Toth's T-Rex is really coming alive now as he blows out two panels for a vertical mini-splash. And in case you missed him, there's tiny Hal looking on from below.

Art from this page was shot from the original art, available for viewing online here, and in the superb new first volume on Toth -  Genius: Isolated.

Page 22, panel 1: More curves, shadows and struggle as Hunter casually comes to the rescue...

...then not-so-casual! Hunter's not just a doctor, but a Man in the Arena! More bold curves & shadows as we're right in the thick of the action. Note Maggie's tiny, cropped face in the background. With Maggie safe, Hunter is off, running in the extreme foreground in full silhouette.Toth brilliantly frames Maggie with Hunter's legs, and again with a variety of textures, shapes and patterns of the background. In Part 9, see dinosaurs, chases, gunshots, leaps, roars and tentacles! Or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.


TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 7

Mid-way through the tale, over the next five-page span, the crew meet long-haired, bearded castaway, Dr. Hunter. After the huge lizard slithers away, Maggie is grabbed from behind in a panel even more effective in color than B&W: only five colors which clarify objects and action. Toth can draw as many big leaves and shadows from which Hunter emerges, since the dark green knocks out and flattens the backdrop.

Why draw a screaming lady's face as she's carried away when you can feature her rear end? Harmless khaki cheesecake for boys!

Nice design: The rule of thirds applied, the lower 1/3 rendered with simple arcs for water ripples; a variety of outlined shapes and patterns for foliage in the upper 2/3; blacks spotted on the boat and figures for depth, contrast and interest; slight perspective on the boat so it's not a straight horizontal; textures on the boat side, rudder and rope to differentiate from the open space of the water and the background.

3/4 overhead shot. No holding line for the shore, formed instead where open water space meets chiaroscuro trees and leaves. Simple lines indicated the wake, small dots in water to prevent flatness.

The crew moves through fog in search of Maggie. The stark silhouettes softened by a single muted color, an effect Toth obviously planned for color to indicate the murky soup.

Yet another frame that works better in color than B&W, the color of the ground softening the hand silhouette and shadow on boot, all to focus on the footprints.

A thin sliver of the lake in the foreground gives way to the shore which shows the footprints which lead to the absent vessel. The characters are cropped by the edge of a hill draped in shadow, framed by exotic roots and leaves.

A panel attractive in both color and B&W. Toth could hardly simplify this shot more, but the three main shapes are interesting and abstract: the lake horizontal with swath of black (depth in color indicated by lighter water tones receding into background); the squarish sky shape, broken by the curve of the rock, rendered with vertical grooves. The centers of interest are offset in the panel, the crew in the raft pointing to the smoke (casting a shadow) emanating from an opening.

A close-up on Hunter, mysterious with his face nearly all in shadow, lit by a fire in a cave.

In panel 1 of page 19, Maggie's tookus is featured again, framing a cropped Hunter speaking from the background. The characters are cropped and framed by Hunter's handmade ladder.

Another posterior (!) - this time in the background as Maggie climbs the ladder, though her figure is cropped to avoid drawing to much attention from the talking heads in the foreground. The crew (again, cropped) then takes their leave as Hunter raves in silhouette. Simple curves and dots indicate water.

Storytelling! Back at the site, Hal counts the days. Angled heads throw shadows. A foreshortened hand. And in the final panel, sparse rendering of foliage. Subtle, pretty stuff!

For dinosaurs, chases, gunshots, leaps, roars and tentacles (!) go directly to Part 8, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.