So I had the opportunity recently to pick up the old Eclipse Comics two-volume set reprinting Alex Toth’s Zorro stories from the 1950s. They’re beautiful comics, so (since I’m short on time this week) here’s a gallery of the artwork, showing off exactly how good Toth really was.
One thing I should probably mention here: the Eclipse editions reprinted the Zorro stories in black and white, with new gray tones laid in by Toth himself. The original comics, however, were in color. Which is fine, but maybe didn’t serve Toth’s lines as well as the black and white treatment. Here’s the above page, as it originally saw print in an issue of Dell Four-Color:
It’s still a very nice-looking page, I’ll grant you. Taking the cheap 1950s comics printing techniques into account, it actually looks very good indeed. But I still prefer the black and white. Zorro’s never blue in it, for one thing. But more than that, stripping out the color really lets you get down to the base drawing. And Toth’s base drawing is stellar.
Interestingly, though, Toth himself didn’t think much of the work. He was offered the Zorro strip after Dell picked the license up, and he jumped at the chance to do it because he was such a big fan of the 1940 film with Tyrone Power. Dell’s license, however, was for an adaptation of the 1950s Walt Disney television series starring Guy Williams (who later went on to play Will Robinson’s dad on Lost in Space). The stories were adapted from TV episodes, and Toth was given very little leeway to change or interpret anything. So his enthusiasm slowly waned as he realized that he was stuck with leaden scripts filled with unnecessary dialogue and unimaginative staging. He couldn’t make the book as good as he knew it could be, so he put less and less effort into it with each passing issue. In his introduction to the black and white second volume, in fact, he apologizes to the reader for hacking so much of it out.
I dunno, though. If this is what Toth hacking it out looks like…
…I’ll take it.
I do see what he means, though. As the stories go on, he’s obviously spending less time on each page, putting in less background detail and having less fun with the art in general. It’s still Toth, though, and Toth was never anything less than professional. The relative simplicity of the later stories, in fact, plays to one of his primary philosophies:
And, man oh man, does he ever do that. Check out this panel, for instance:
It’s a very simple panel, but incredibly effective. You’ve got Zorro in extreme close-up, defined by one eye, his mustache, and the black swath of his mask. The hat takes up more space than the face, and the hat’s just a few lines. A few perfectly-placed, perfectly weighted lines that draw your eye to the cape, which is another dashed-off-to-perfection blob that keeps Toth from having to draw Zorro’s horse, AND provides a field for the pursuing riders to line up against.
And look at those guys! Tiny shapes off in the distance, but with enough variation in size and shape to differentiate them from each other. Their horses look like they’re galloping fast, they have clearly defined hats turned to interesting angles, and they’re carrying poles that not only make them more interesting to look at, but also let us know that Our Hero’s being pursued by armed men.
I wish all funnybook artists hacked stuff out that well. All those little details of placement and clarity were kind of second nature to Toth, though. I’ve read some of his critiques of artists like Steve Rude and Mike Oeming, and though they’re harsh (almost cruel), they demonstrate his eye for all those little things that turn a good page into a great one.
Here’s another, even more abstracted, example:
So, yeah. Zorro’s a guy dressed all in black, with a black cape and a black hat, who rides a black horse and often moves around at night. Not the easiest character in the world to present in any detail. The temptation would be to let the shadows swallow him up. Define him with outlines only, and his exposed chin. And Toth kind of does that here, with the horse in silhouette and Zorro mostly silhouetted himself. But he still puts in just enough highlights to give you a feel for the figure, and sets Zorro’s legs against the gray saddle so that he doesn’t simply blend into his horse below the waist. That stark white background doesn’t hurt, either. I don’t know what this image looks like in color, but I’m betting it’s not as good.
But enough deep-diving. This ain’t How to Read Nancy, after all. Sometimes, Toth’s simplicity of line is best left to speak for itself.
And with that… I bid you adios!