Through Concentrated Breath

making images from memory

Monthly Archives: August 2015

Image on Skin

21 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

Here’s a recent image I made on an acrylic skin using acrylics. It came from memory, but it might be more accurate to say I made it up. It started with the vague memory of my father taking my brother and I to a claustrophobic apartment where an old couple lived. The layout of the spaces was strange and uncomfortable. I remember the TV set in the middle of the room touching everything with it’s light. The memory is tinged with an all-pervading feeling that I don’t have a word for. And it was a moment that had been absent of conscious recovery for a long time until I started thinking about it once again when working on my father’s commemorative paintings last year. The memory is what I started with. However, this clouded thing is what turned up.

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Bravo for Adventure by Alex Toth

13 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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Everyone has a first Toth story. In interviews, creators who are Alex Toth aficionados are always asked when was the time they discovered Toth’s work.

Back in the 80s, when I needed alternatives to the comic books on the spinner racks, when I was looking back at classic strips like Terry and the Pirates and Prince Valiant to compensate for a lack I found in the industry, I found an ad in a reprint of Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer that was pushing something called Bravo for Adventure. I had the feeling it was recent work, even if it had all the thematic ammunition of an older era in that one drawing: man with pencil mustache and scarf standing next to an early airplane as a young lady walks by. And in a box, I found the name, Alex Toth. The enigmatic thing about it was that the drawing was devoid of detail, which would have been anathema to me in those days because I loved detail, and yet the image and the name stayed with me for years to come.

This very same image is what you get on the cover of IDW’s new reprint of Bravo for Adventure (except they stripped away the charm of the old black and white by coloring it). It is a handsome edition of what many consider Alex Toth’s finest work, his masterpiece.

If Alex Toth would have been able to secure his lifelong dream to be a syndicated adventure comic strip creator, it would have been something like the content of this book with two important differences: the storytelling format would have been that of strips instead of the comic book pages we get here and it would have been a much larger work, comprising multiple, thick volumes the likes of IDW’s Terry and the Pirates or Dick Tracy instead of this one hundred-page sampler.

Bravo for Adventure follows the exploits of adventure pilot, Jesse Bravo, flying in the exciting vistas of the 1930s (which happens to be the golden decade of the adventure strip). The main story is 48 pages long, providing the reader with a glimpse of what could have been if it had continued. The other two stories were created later. One serves as an introduction to Jesse Bravo and his background and is presented here before the main story. The other is something of a dream sequence in which Toth tips his hat to all of his influences of the adventure strip, people like Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, and Roy Crane. There are also some extra features at the back of the book.

I grew up learning that the word “pastiche” had a negative connotation, and in the introduction of the book, Dean Mullaney calls this work a pastiche, even if he means it in a good way. It could be a good way, I suppose, if a pastiche is nothing less than an homage to the work of previous creators that have been an inspiration to your own work. Though I catalogue the words “pastiche” and “homage” in two different places of my brain, I entered this book with that mindset.

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And when I put the book down after having finished it, I found that it had nothing of a pastiche to it. Of course it was an homage to the old adventure strips but it was more than that. Here we have the blueprint for how to take old material and make it sing once again. Alex Toth took the conventions of those types of stories and played them up here to a higher level of humanism. Unlike the grand adventures of heroes foiling bandit armies or chasing down spy rings, the chief conflicts in Bravo had to deal with gambling debts and smearing someone else’s name. It also dealt a bit with loss as the story unfolds, and it played these more sophisticated themes with greater sensitivity than the classic strips themselves. The dialogue is sharp and to the point, with a level of realism that is appropriate for the specific timescape. Every character had a different set of qualities that set them apart from the others. Even the thugs were sympathetic, almost likable, with real personalities. And personalities were rendered by gestures and facial expressions as much as by a character’s speech patterns and intentions, offering rounded characters in every regard a comic book could offer.

I found there is another important difference between Bravo and the older works it is referencing: as mentioned  above, Toth is laying out panels on a comic book page rather than a comic strip, and this naturally grants far more freedom. The flow is not truncated by four-panel dailies, and it visually breathes better on the book page than any collection of Dick Tracy strips.

Alex Toth is known as the master without a masterpiece (at least, a masterpiece of any considerable length). Could this 48-page story be used as his proxy for a masterpiece, even if it were unfinished? Just from the fact that this was a personal work for him, that it represented the adventure genre that he loved so much, and that he created every aspect of it with no editorial obstacles, this story has got my vote.

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Creepy Presents: Alex Toth

08 August 2015 by Rey Armenteros

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As a seasoned artist, I look at Alex Toth’s work and I am inevitably delighted. I have sat in awe of a story of no consequence of nothing more than a handful of pages because it was drawn by Toth, and it would be like no other – the compositions, the flow from panel to panel, the well-formed figures, the abstracted simplicity, and the way he put all this together. It was my idea, along with that of countless others, that Toth could not disappoint.

Creepy Presents: Alex Toth was a book I had to have and it is a book I will keep, even if it has the distinction of being the least impressive of Toth’s work. From the start, the drawings feel flimsier than anything else he’s done. As I was trying to understand why I felt this way, I found clues in the gray tones. He seems to struggle with the tones; it feels like he’s filling things in. I wasn’t sure. I kept looking into it. How was this possible?

The fundamental problem, as I gathered it, was that Toth was strongest in pure black and white, without tones, unless the tones were clean or mechanically placed. That simplicity he thrived on was sheer magic when he was in complete control of the art, including the lettering. All the work in this book is also without color, but the gray tones muddy that crisp clarity he brought into his simple, albeit sophisticated, forms. Either ink wash or pencil or gray marker (I can’t tell which), the techniques used here form a veneer of possibilities, yet they never go far enough. There are never more than one or two shades of gray, almost no textural differentiation, and the worst: the grays did nothing to heighten the forms or do anything else for that matter. It was grainy in parts, washed out in others, dark and opaque in still others. It felt as if he were rushed. The signature Toth drawing was there, but the forms were often faded by haphazard scumbles – obscured – undermining the clarity he looked for.

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What was the problem here? Was it the printing limitations of the original Warren magazines? No, not at all. Toth contemporaries working with the same array of tones produced many levels above this, using a rich range of grays, employing patterns to great effect, playing with lighting to direct the eye; just look at what Steve Ditko was doing at the same time for the same publications.

The stories in which the gray tones work best still come across as sketchy; I am thinking of “Survival,” where you can find backgrounds obviously influenced by Milton Caniff, one of Toth’s inspirations. The grays enhance here and there but feel almost like surplus work.  In “Proof Positive,” you get an inkling of more effective grays, but they’re still too blurry (perhaps done purposefully to satisfy the theme of photography in this story). At other times, like in the “Hacker” stories, the more concrete shades look divorced from the line work; it reminded me of talented student work. It makes me wonder if Alex Toth was in over his head with these techniques. Perhaps here was an area of drawing that the master himself had not yet mastered. Or maybe he rendered them too quickly; I found signs that betray that he tossed some of these tones together. (If you look at the page illustrated above, you’ll find a halo around every form in Panel Four, the kind of shortcut for which I reprimand my lazier students.) Unsurprisingly, the story with the strongest mark of Toth on it is one of the few without tones, titled “The Reaper.”

So, yes, the art did disappoint. But then again, we’re talking about expectations set by Toth himself. The book does not deliver because even when you scrutinize the panels and find that the foundational drawing is there, the results themselves – as a whole – fall apart.

And the stories certainly don’t help. Most of them are scripted by Archie Goodwin, whose tales may start with a bit of snap or a strong mood, but continue with verbosity that does not read well today, and always end stale with contrived shock endings. The one exception is “The Reaper,” which had a nice rhythm to it that was in precise harmony with Toth’s panels. The stories by other writers run the same course, and word balloons pile on top of each other holding superfluous text, blotting out the art, tearing the reader’s attention from the what’s going on in the panels.

What was exciting for me about this book was the presence of four of Toth’s very own stories. One of Toth’s aspirations was that of doing his own scripting, of which he had few opportunities in his career. This book has four stories that fall completely under his creative control, from writing and lettering to penciling and inking. The stories are more of the same Twilight Zone fluff that for some reason necessitated a surprise in the end, but they are noteworthy because they are better than most of the others in the collection, and here the artist is the complete author of his work.

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The book also includes several stories in which Toth is inking over somebody else’s pencils, and I was least interested in these pages. With the exception of a panel here and there, there was little Toth to be found in them.

Ultimately, am I keeping the book? I have already said I would. Even with all the blemishes, there is still enough good quality inside, especially in the great storytelling techniques. I am thinking of stories like “Kui” (scripted by Toth), which showcases closeups of vegetation and temple walls – essentially abstract panels – heightening the sense of claustrophobia by limiting perspective (regardless if it were spotted with more of that ambiguous shading). I am also thinking of “Survival,” which is simply beautiful, even with that ridiculous surprise ending. Though not Toth’s greatest work, this collection still offers his brand of craft. Toth’s flawed work can still inspire awe.

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