Jul 7, 2010

Alex Toth vs. Steve Rude

If anyone was blatantly missing from my Top Ten Most Influential Comics Artists, many would say it was Alex Toth. A Golden Age artist who would become known for being the chief designer and animator of properties like Space Ghost, Birdman, and the Super Friends, Toth's influence on comics is more than considerable. Employing a minimalist style with an emphasis on storytelling clarity as opposed to intensity, Alex Toth's panels moved with the fluidity of an animated cartoon, and I'll point you to this excellent tribute here on Comics 101.

Alex Toth's influence is felt in both comics and cartoons today. It's most prevalent in Bruce Timm and his designs for Batman: The Animated Series, but you can also see it in stuff like The Powerpuff Girls and in the work of people like our subject today, Steve Rude.

Steve Rude is greatly influenced by Alex Toth. And it's obvious. Check out that minimalist style:

So what happened when Steve Rude asked Alex Toth to critique his work? Let's check it out!

The following is a critique of a Steve Rude Jonny Quest story done by Alex Toth. Toth was not the kindest man in the world, and was very curmudgeony (it shows in interviews), and some of his comments here just strike me as odd. Check it out.

In particular, I don't understand Alex Toth's reprimanding of Steve Rude for "faking" the backgrounds and props, such as the palm trees and cameras. Rude is known - notorious, even - for finding the proper photo references, and honestly, even in its rough layout stage, they look authentic enough to me. If Rude was indeed faking, I think he was faking it well enough.

And while I get Alex Toth's insistence that Jonny Quest and the other principal characters (especially that female, whose face seems to never show up in this story) get close-ups and more camera space, it seems to me that Alex wants it done all the time for every panel, which is odd. Take note of this Young Romance page done by Alex:

Sure, the story is very clearly told, and well told for that matter, but if there was a panel in there where the girl was seen from the back or from far away, I don't see how it would really hurt the story. Comics rely on symbols; we know who Jonny Quest is from the cover of the book, the previous issues, and the speech balloons - blond hair and a black shirt say "Jonny Quest," and I don't see the need to have him dominate every panel he's in.

Another interesting point is Alex Toth pointing out that Steve Rude was violating the 180-degree rule on page 9. Rude's response, which you can read in full here, is:

Pg. 9, is the one I remembering Alex getting so crazy over because of the “180 degree” rule. I eventually came to define this rule as applying far more to film than comics. In films, it’s critical to the directional continuity; in comics, because it’s seen in the context of a whole page of panels, it is not as critical. I threw the rule aside in one panel to show the pandemonium of the situation starting with the snake, and the highly agitated Frenchman who was beginning to lose his mind thru paranoia. Probably the better question to ask is, did it cause any readers to stop reading, and boldly incite a violation in screen direction? Just curious.

And I think he's right. Toth's style is so ingrained in animation and staging that it seems to me that he applied the same rules to comics exactly. Now, a good knowledge of animation and staging is essential in comics, but I think every now and then, rules can be broken, and I think this is one of them.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think Steve Rude gets off clean here - there are certainly things he could have changed, specifically why so many faces were hidden (unless that was the effect), but I think Toth's critique is unnecessarily harsh, and in that harshness, I think some of the message got lost.

Bruce Timm responded to this with:
....years later, i got ahold of the infamous toth critique , and read through it nodding my head all the while....without a doubt, toth was going overboard with the scorn, but if you get past the curmudgeonly venom, you realize that point by point, he's bang - on....and the thing is, even after getting toth's critique, steve STILL makes the same kinda off-kilter storytelling choices as he did in the JONNY QUEST story, to this day...as if he didn't take a single piece of toth's criticism to heart....i hate to say it, but since reading the toth critique, i can't fully appreciate steve's stuff as much as i used to....sure, his draftsmanship is still as dazzling and rock-solid as ever (and godDAMN, how the man can PAINT), but i find myself focussing on the odd storytelling quirks rather than the pretty pitchers...
And I have to say I get it, in a way. Rude's layouts aren't the easiest ones to facilitate reading, but I think it's a case of clarity versus intensity. For the most part, Rude's work is clear enough to read, and it almost always looks great, so on the whole, I think the stories he tells are still served well by his art.

At the end of the day, though, Alex Toth had some good points, and those last two pages are a good manifesto for any aspiring - or current artists.

Thoughts? Comments welcome!

This was found at ConceptArt! And David Marshall has a point-by-point view of things here.


The Professor said...

Back in the early 1990s, I noticed a friend of mine pouring over a bunch of low grade western comics at a local show. I was surprised since he was a working comic artist, and westerns were certainly not hip. "I'm looking for anything by Toth," he said.

Starting from that conversation, I became a huge fan of Toth's work.

He's well known for having gone on a few rants about the current state of comics, and generally speaking, I think his criticisms were spot on. His work is full of "wonder" and it is crafted in a way to help tell a story. Great stuff.

Duy Tano said...

Awesome! Is this friend anyone we know? I've only seen some pages of Toth's work on the Westerns -- Pow-Wow Smith, I think, was the main character.

I think, like you, that most of his criticisms were spot-on from a general perspective, but I still don't get certain comments - specifically the one about faking. That palm tree sure looks like a palm tree to me.

As for Rude, I don't get his need to hide a bunch of faces as often as possible - I see it often in his work, and I think that his writers have noticed it, because a lot of the time these days, I think it's intentional.

It is interesting to me that Toth doesn't take anything for granted. That panel with the statue head, for example, I would have just assumed was important to the story, since it's given so much space. But Toth pulls no punches, and he makes good points, so it's a case of clarity versus effect.

I also think it's interesting that as cartoony as Toth's style is, he places a lot of value on realism, insisting that Rude was faking the backgrounds and that Jonny and Hadji should be weighed down by the boxes. I'm not sure if anyone really expected that kind of attention to detail in a Jonny Quest story - they certainly wouldn't have from the cartoon.

Duy Tano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fanboy420 said...

I didn't realize Toth could play hardball like that. Some of his comments sound too mean to be productive. Nevertheless, at least he's honest and unmerciful.

Duy Tano said...

"Too mean to be productive" is pretty much exactly how I'd describe it... it's the kind of critiquing style that would, if anything, inspire the one being criticized to KEEP doing what he's doing, just to prove the critic wrong.

Toth is absolutely right about the basics of laying out the page, but I don't think Rude's story is hard to read. Even in the preliminary stage, it's relatively easy to tell what's going on. Then again, maybe I just think that, and the actual story is completely different from the one in my head.

The Professor said...

My friend the Toth-fan was Tim Hamilton. At the time he was working on "The Trouble With Girls". It was a very fun book put out by Malibu comics.

Tim does a variety of things these days. His webpages are at:


And the comments above are right ... Toth was being mean and that was counter-productive. Just because you are good (great!) and right doesn't give someone a license to be mean.

Duy Tano said...

Whoa, you know Tim Hamilton? That is awesome.

I read an interview where Toth said he wanted to be a teacher. I imagine he would've been the kind that kids tried avoiding, even if he was great.

That having been said, I find Toth's perspectives really interesting, and I may be blogging more about him in the near future.

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.