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TothPix

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 6

The Land Unknown picks up on page 13 with a bang - a quintessential Toth comic book panel. This shot is so ahead of its time, it would fit right at home in his superb Bravo For Adventure, drawn nearly thirty years later. A big ol' bold sound effect, daring silhouette figures and objects, negative graphic symbols, and impressionistic inking of the grassy foreground. This frame makes me wanna go "OOOOOOOOOOO!"

Every panel in this two-page sequence is strong, as well as the full page compositions. Toth expertly mixes silhouettes, close-ups, mid-range shots, low and high angles and clever cropping to tell the story, all within a basic six-panel grid, which he blows out to stretch across the page in one tier for the debut of another monstrous creature.

The cropping and shadows on this frame focuses attention on the ransacked boxes and supplies, arranged with an assortment of angles which carry through to the following panel, where the characters are placed and cropped for a natural appearance; it doesn't look staged.

The colors on page 14 couldn't be more basic, well-balanced and drawing the eye to the most important elements.

A nice chase shot opens the page, before Toth cuts to a heroic low angle for Hal atop a rock. The two panels are tied together compositionally and with the lizard's growl across the top. Typically of Toth, he spots his blacks and places his shadows with authority to dictate center of interest. I love the loose, expressionistic rendering on the surroundings by this disciple of Noel Sickles and his Scorchy Smith strip.

A classic, heroic adventure comics panel, full of movement and bravado. What lyrical, expressive outlines, sweeping shadows and folds!

When Maggie trips, Toth chooses an unlikely, difficult and extremely effective pose, set against the crazy close-up backdrop of the lizard's massive head. But it only stands out because it doesn't look like a typical, cartoony tripping pose - it's totally naturalistic. Next, he pulls back to another long shot, once again using silhouette, a light line for the creature in the background, and a return of the curve of the display lettering as the horn sounds again.

(These panels have been rearranged side-by-side for display on this blog.)

Capping an incredible sequence, Toth pulls out all the stops with this brilliant shot, the lizard moving away from tiny Maggie, but towards us and out of frame. The size of the creature is thus enhanced, receding towards the background, the curve of its body and path shown by its markings and texture, and the perspective and shadow of and from the fins. All of this surrounded by a variety of shapes and textures of the foliage and trees.

Most artists, I think, might feel compelled to show more of the creature, or have it move away from us, or make Maggie more prominent in frame. Toth's approach in terms of composition, cropping, relative proportion of figures/objects is unorthodox, but superb storytelling and picture making. Gorgeous!

As an extra bonus, check out John Kricfalusi's (Ren & Stimpy) take on Land Unknown, who offers some prime panels and interesting insights of Toth's work, like "He has a knack for drawing buttocks wrapped in khaki." Spot on! Toth really does!

Move on to Part 7, 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.

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 5

On page 12 of Alex Toth's adventure adaptation of The Land Unknown, the crew encounter the T-Rex. This set of panels from the middle tier of the page are a real eye-grabber! A quarter century after King Kong (1933), thirty-five years before Jurassic Park, kids must've been enthralled by this confrontation, far more exciting in the comic book than in the movie from which it is adapted.

It's a fine page, kicking off with a bang as shots are fired and the crew heads to the 'copter to defend themselves and send the T-Rex away.

Toth draws our eye from the upper left to Maggie's figure (indulging in some subtle cheesecake) to the bottom center, bouncing back up on a diagonal to the upper right, lead by Hal's shadowed outstretched arm as he shoots. In panel 2, the pattern is repeated somewhat, across and down by the helicopter and gunshot, then up again to the dinosaur. Panel 1 is superb - great action and composition; and while we view the action in panel 2 from 3/4 above (nice storytelling), the rendering of the grass obscures things as it gets too busy. An older, wiser Toth would've simplified more the backgrounds.

Panel 3 is a daring, exciting tour de force, juxtaposing and balancing light and dark areas, effective in B&W and in color. The chiaroscuro angles of the copter and Hal's leg jut into and across the panel, cutting towards the approaching T-Rex. Nearly in silhouette, the 'copter is pushed into the foreground, broken up smartly by the foliage (colored red to heighten the sense of danger), the dinosaur the only cool element in the frame, surrounded by warm and hot colors (see above). With panel 4, we get a close-up of the T-Rex as the blades tears into him. Ouch!

From inside the 'copter, we see the dinosaur depart, the crew largely in silhouette, a splash of light on one face, the character faintly defined with subtle and careful rim lighting.

The final panel gets the job done, but isn't a standout. Sure, it makes sense that eschewed the angled action of the rest of the page, but it's too static for my tastes. It'd probably be fixed if the dinosaur was less upright, instead partially cropped in an action-packed pose, heading off-panel, tail flailing behind him. In this and a couple others, Toth's T-Rex looks all too similar to the "man-in-a-dinosaur-suit" look of the movie. It's puzzling, since he handles the other creatures so expertly in the rest of the story, as you'll see in future installments...

Continue now with Part 6, which features a couple superb pages, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series. s always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.

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TothPix: Stop That Man!

Here's a sweet Toth panel from an unfinished, unpublished story he was writing and drawing, Stop That Man! So good - what fun!

This is panel 1 of page 2, the lower half of the page not yet inked. This panel is pure comics! Personality, movement, dogs, action, barks & yowls sound effects, a perty lady, bouncy lettering and balloons, playful, rhythmic dialogue - there's so much going on, but everything's still clear and readable. Take it all in, enjoy!

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 4

In this installment, we'll focus pages 10 & 11 of Alex Toth's adventure adaptation of The Land Unknown, in which the crew deals with mechanical difficulties and faces a T-Rex. As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series.

Having crash landed, the crew discovers broken parts on the 'copter, establish camp and try to make contact with the ships, to no avail. Toth sets up a very nice page, balancing medium shots of in the upper left and lower right, and a shadowed head of the radio man in the 'copter in upper right and lower left. Throughout the rest of the page are smaller figures in long shots, grounded by the four corners.

Each shot is carefully chosen by Toth to tell the story clearly and smoothly. Panel 1 is from a vantage point slightly below so we see the mechanic holding the bent rod, and past him look up into the workings of the main rotor mast of the helicopter. Toth is known for having had a formidable visual library in his head, but I'd be hard pressed to believe he didn't have reference for the incredible detail shown here. The shadows from and on the figure and objects give the pictures and depth.

In panel 2, he moves us inside the cockpit as the radio man tries to establish contact. Hal and Maggie exchange engaging banter and exposition, Hal framed by the 'copter window.

Back outside and from below again, we check out the crew unloading supplies from the helicopter, reminded of its broken parts. Toth uses lots of great diagonals  again here, leading the eye thru the frame and to the two figures. Then, camp set, they hear something from above, looking up, Mr. Radio rushing to his unit. The reader's eye is led from the balloon to the crew then back up towards the sky by black area of the tent, then across with the dark horizontal of the 'copter, reinforces the movement of Radio Man.

With panel 5, we're back inside the cockpit for a classic Toth silhouette, couching the head of the smaller figure just outside. In frame 6, Toth's balloon tail makes us hear the sound from inside then around the 'copter, to the turned face of Maggie, looking on to the mechanic in concern. His down-turned expression tells us all we need to know about their situation. Man, I love those faces, the rendering of the smooth surface of the 'copter and thin lines of the foliage. Toth really mixes it up in interesting ways.

I should mention the coloring on this page is basic, but solid and effective, telling us their locale, balancing warm and cool.

With page 11, just when they might figure they have enough problems, a roar soars through the jungle (across the page), sending critters skittering. Our eye shoots across the page, over the two panels, then back again by half, as Toth smartly send the creatures against our natural reading flow, a jarring effect to prepare us for the debut of the T-Rex.

Opening up that shot to a 2/3-page splash is just right, although the dinosaur is static; he could have more movement and be more menacing. No excuses, but I betcha kids reading it in 1957 thought it was super-cool!

A detail of page 11, panel 2, comparing color to line art. By cropping the heads and tails, Toth conveys movement and action, as well as mystery as to just what creatures inhabit this Unknown Land.

Okay, eleven pages in, we're about 1/3 through the story. Keep reading with Part 5 as Toth really starts heating up! Or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series.

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 3

For part 3, I'll cover story pages 6-9 of Alex Toth's adventure adaptation of  The Land Unknown! As always, one can read the story in its entirety on line.

During the next section of the piece, the crew surveys the warm pocket within the Antarctic, tries and end run around a storm, get hit by a flying object and are forced into a rough landing. Some members of the party deal with repairs to the 'copter while others take in the warm climes and surroundings.

In this first panel of page 6, the 'copter drops down for a closer look at the terrain. The panel and composition couldn't be simpler, but how interesting and effective! Toth splits the frame with a diagonal, balancing the land and snow with mirrored shapes, actually further clarified by the basic flat color (only four: land, 'copter, snow & shadow).

This next frame probably looks better in the original art, but the reprinted black & white version doesn't much change the effect from this color version. After a few close-ups in the 'copter, Toth employs another long shot (the last frame from the same page) which establishes their position and predicament: finding a way through or past the storm. The simple colors work well here, too (again but four), especially the snowy crags in the foreground in deeper blue, complete with rim lighting from the lightning. Not bad for an old four-color comic for kids on crappy newsprint!

Their trip back to the ships is stymied when the blades hit a flying object, obvious to the reader as a Pterodactyl. Though striking in B&W, Toth no doubt designed this frame to read as silhouettes against a single, soupy color of the fog/storm, save for the white/yellow at the point of impact. Very cool.

That page also features the panel which I've covered on this blog previously, in which the pilot has trouble steering.

The next page (eight) is the weakest of the story - Toth could have done more with it, especially the final three panels as the 'copter approaches and lands. The color on the final panel actually improves on the B&W art, separating the foreground, middle-and-background. And still, I love Toth's bold, cartoony sound effects.

Over that page, the next and throughout warm colors are applied to contrast with the subdued, toned-down and cool colors of the first quarter of the story, making the reader nearly feel the heat, none more effectual than in this panel...

Check out Part 4 for some brilliant pages and panels as the crew encounters - DINOSAURS! For an overview and insta-links to all separate other 13 parts of this blog series, visit our handy Land Unknown page.

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 2

In today's TothPix, we continue our exploration of the artist's work on the 1957 story, The Land Unknown with pages 3-5. At any time, visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 14 parts of this blog series.

Having established the locale, mission and characters, Toth covers now the details of the mission and their equipment, and with a variety of angles, well chosen to tell the story and provide tons of visual interest. The ships trudge through ice and prepare to embark on their helicopter. He uses a bird's eye view to give us a sense of scope and the position of the ships to the ice, a look from the deck of a ship, a superb wide shot of the helicopter as it is being readied, three main characters in relation to the 'copter and a shot from below the 'copter, a worm's eye view, looking through the landing skids to the crew as they await the arrival of Maggie. Nice page!

Toth's color note at the bottom of the original art: "'Copter, dark (navy) blue body - pontoons, yellow!!" And inscription, signed August, 1975: "You're still wrong, Howie! Best Wishes ~ Alex Toth." Hm...I wonder what Howie was wrong about? He probably said something nice to Alex about the page.

Toth is sometimes knocked for a lack of finesse and fussiness in his inking, but a comparison of the original art to the reprinted black & white version shows a fine touch, a subtle use of line and texture in the sky, on the lead ship, smoke and fine-lined ice/snow...

Page 3, panel 1 original art (left); the same panel (right) from the B&W reprint (The Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1)

What can appear rough and smudgy in the reprint or poorly printed comic is detailed, refined, bold and sparkling in the original. Just look at the feathering on the helicopter, the pipe smoke done with dry brushed white out, the nicely rendered faces and additional texture on the jackets and collars. Those strokes for clothing folds are to die for.

Page 3, panel 4 original art (left); the same panel (right) from the B&W reprint (The Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1)

Details from each tier of page 3...

And I'm not finished with this page yet! Just to show Toth's expertise in spotting black areas to add weight, depth and contrast, I've blown out the finer lines and detail here...

...so one can also spot easily how Toth uses dark and negative space to focus the eye on the center of interest in each panel, lead the reader's eye through the page and give the page compositional balance. The art of some devotees of Toth looks close to this at times, taken to the extreme, and you gotta admit, it's striking and attractive!

Moving on...

On page 4, the Captain warns Maggie of the dangers of the trip, and Toth sets them aloft on the helicopter. The colors from the printed comic (below) are simple but effective. Interesting again how white is used as a color, especially in the last three frames. Though we see a talking head of the Captain in panel 1, there's plenty of personality in Maggie's face and hand, though we see her from behind, not even in profile. Very well drawn. In panel 2, we view the crew inside the 'copter, again a fairly straight shot before the 'copter lifts off. The rest of the page displays an assortment of angles and diagonals to give the reader the sense of motion; almost riding in the helicopter themselves. In the final two panels, the crew spies a slew of seals on the ice. Were I drawing that last panel, I bet I'd fill that negative space with more seals, but Toth smartly mixes it up, creating an interesting flow and composition, not staged or crowded but seemingly natural.

Below is that page in black and white, and on the right I marked a red line to track how deftly Toth employs those angles to lead the viewer's eye throughout the page. Brilliant.

With page 5, we're in the 'copter with the crew (shown in striking silhouette; Toth avoids flatness by adding rim lighting as we see into the shadows), a simple line through the windshield indicates a mountain range ahead. Then from outside the vehicle, a long shot to show the 'copter hopping the mountain. In panel 3, Toth places the crew at an angle - they're a little lost and tossed askew during the ride. He then opens up the six-panel grid, utilizing the lower right third for an expansive wide shot that conveys a sense of scale as they (and we) enter a new and wonderous world!

Boy, I love the rendering on the ice and glaciers. Sweet! And look how the dark spaces of the upper left balance the white areas of the lower and upper right. Great page composition!

OK, that's all for now (ain't that plenty?)! Of course, you can keep going with Part 3. Or - visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 13 parts of this blog series.

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TothPix: The Land Unknown • Part 1

In 1957, Alex Toth drew a comics adaptation of a Sci-Fi Adventure B-Movie: The Land Unknown. From the looks of it, the movie is utterly forgettable and cheesy (the trailer video viewable at the bottom of this post), but Toth used that raw stuff and forged of it comics gold. Much like Orson Welles took a cheap, pulp novel in Badge of Evil, rewriting and molding it into one of his best movies, Touch of Evil (1958, which some have called the greatest B-movie of all-time) Toth improved mightily on the source material to create something that stands the test of time.

The entire story is available to read with cleaned and tweaked scans at the Hairy Green Eyeball blog (nice job, Harry!), and can be found in black and white in the Alex Toth Reader, Vol. 1. I analyzed a single panel from this story two weeks back, and in doing so took a real long look at this adventure yarn which I've read and studied for years. So, this is but the first of several Land Unknown posts, in which I'll dissect various pages and panels from this story, comparing the black and white art to printed color.

Now - here we go!

The cover of Dell Four Color 845, 1957 (left) and a striking Toth splash panel from the comics story.

Toth kicks off the proceedings with a frame that works better in black & white than color, in which it is nigh indecipherable. In fact, even without color it's a bit confusing and busy. That would've been aided by different placement of the title and narration text. But even if the opening panel is something of a failure, it fails in spectacular fashion. Toth places the reader on one of the ships at sea, pitching forward into and surrounded by swaths and walls of water. More ships can be seen in the distance, silhouetted against the stormy sky, through the angles of the deck, masts and rigging. Reading quickly, one gets the gist, but studied longer the panel is daring. From there, he establishes efficiently the locale, characters and mission. And even though kept simple and straightforward, the panels are interesting compositions and are rendered with a variety of texture and some dramatic lighting. The original colors help define space, areas and depth. The light blue used for the ice and glaciers is typical, it's effective, the yellows a bit too bright. From here on out I'll be showing the cleaned scans. Though the blues appear more grey, the yellow shades are more subdued. Given this treatment, the colors are more naturalistic, more in line with what one might see in the coloring of Sean Phillips work on the Criminal series. I was hard on the coloring in the previous post, but viewing the entire story in color, it's done much better than one would expect, especially for cheap 4-color printing on newsprint over a half century ago. I've come across some originals from this story, where it's apparent Toth made color notes, so he had a say in how this was presented. It's amazing how white is used as a prevalent color in the piece. Fitting, one supposes, given that it takes place in the Antarctic, but there's less of that blue than I would've imagined.

On page two, Toth further establishes the characters, with close-ups and expression before he shows the people in their setting, the ship further trudging through the ice. Then, the action begins, the horizon line of the ship off-kilter, the angles askew as we see Hal and Maggie on the deck floor from behind another crew member and ladder in silhouette. I love the comic-booky, big & bold Toth hand-lettered sound effect weaving their way through the last two panels.

The lower two tiers of this page work well in color, but also really shine in black & white. The simple rendering of the glaciers and ice caps frame and house the ship and people nicely, the bold folds on the jackets too cool for school, harsh shadows on the ship, characters grounding the page against the frozen backdrop. And for good measure, textures in the sky, on clothing and lines of the deck flooring in perspective vary it all visually. Wonderful stuff, done with an ease and flow most artists dream of and struggle for. For grins, I've included here a sweet, classic poster for the flick, and below, a movie trailer in all its glory!

An original Land Unknown promo poster, promising more than the movie delivers.

Keep reading with Part 2, or visit the Land Unknown page for an overview and insta-links to all separate other 13 parts of this blog series.

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TothPix: Playing on Paper

Later in life, when Toth wasn't drawing comics or designing characters for animation, he continued to sketch and doodle, sometimes on postcards for friends and fans, sometimes a "thank you" drawing, but most times filling sheet after sheet of whatever came out of his head. He drew known superheroes like The Shadow, The Batman and Plastic Man, a wide variety of people of all types, periods, shapes and sizes. He'd play with graphics in a series of panels seemingly non sequitur, a visual and conceptual stream of consciousness. And he'd break down faces, bodies and expressions to their simplest lines and shapes, as if drawing like a child again, but with years of skill, experience and observation brought to bear.

These are glimpses into the workings of the mind of the artist, letting go of artifice and ego, stripping away the superfluous, finding truth, all while playing on paper.

Some of these can be found in the splendid Alex Toth Doodle Book - recommended not only for the Toth scratchings, but also his thoughts on art, tools, comics, culture, style and substance.

Now pick up your favorite marker, or try a new brush and unleash your mind - point that pencil, pirouette and play on paper!

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TothPix: Trouble Steering

Though the pilot depicted in this comic book panel is having trouble managing his craft, artist Alex Toth is in full control of his. Toth's line is bold and assured, the from-below angle conveying the drama of a tense situation for his adventure hero. The diagonals of the windows, chair, pilot's leg and arm give us a sense of being off-kilter, out of control. The rough and bold rendering of the folds in clothing add urgency and immediacy - the reader feels what the pilot feels. Bravo!

• • •

We all feel out of control at times and have trouble steering through life. Toth certainly did, in his childhood, dealings with clients/editors and interactions with fans and colleagues. Despite this, he produced an incredible body of work, at the drawing board during and through difficult times. No doubt drawing for himself and on the occasional postcard was for him a solace for many years after he lost his wife. He found comfort in doodling... and died at his drawing board.

I literally had trouble steering more than two years ago now, unable to make a turn, sliding on a snowmobile sideways into a tree, breaking many bones. I was fortunate to have not been hurt worse, lucky to be alive. Still, after 27 months, I'm still having trouble steering sometimes: with work; as a parent and husband; with daily habits and activities of life, with my creativity; even in my car. But like this pilot, like all of us, I hold onto that stick or steering wheel for dear life, zig-zagging and maneuvering as best I can, making a serpentine line for my destination and goal. It may take me a while to get there at times, but I make it. Step by step, action by action. And when I take a bad turn or am going the wrong direction, with a little help from my family and friends, I right the ship and get 'er back on track.

Art like this gives me inspiration and the energy to strive to be better, to go for more.

• • •

If anyone knows the source of this panel, please clue me in - I've no idea. It sure shows a Milt Caniff/Frank Robbins influence. Good stuff, Maynard!

Update - June 2, 2011

In Comments, fellow Toth fan and superb artist, Roberto Zaghi answers my question and clears up some confusion about the panel I originally presented. I should have caught it, but the art I posted was a copy of Toth's panel, and very well done at that - sure fooled me! I let it get past me, even though it didn't have a word balloon - d'oh! That copied/covered panel is now at the bottom of this post.

Everything I wrote about that panel still stands, Toth's original inked panel now at the top of the page, above. As Roberto points out,  that panel is from The Land Unknown (Four Color 845, 1957, Dell Comics), but also reprinted in The Alex Toth Reader (Pure Imagination). Fortunately, I possess a copy of that book, so was able to scan the actual Toth panel for inclusion here. I also have the story in color on disk, so grabbed that and cleaned it up. No doubt the red knock-out color on the pilot is shocking and corresponds to the action depicted, but the coloring here and for the story overall is not very well done. I much prefer the black and white version of The Land Unknown from the book linked to above. I'll do another post about that story in the near future, as it features tons of incredible Toth panels.

Thanks for the correction, Roberto. I should've gotten it right in the first place!

Update 2 - June 17, 2011

I tracked down the source of this image, done as an exercise by superb cartoonist, Tonci Zonjic. I should've done my due diligence from the get-go. Check out ToZo's comics & illustration and/or follow him on Twitter.

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TothPix: Monstrous! Magnificent!

All in the eye of the beholder...