Monday, August 15, 2022

The Golden Bookshelf:

The Complete Classic Alex Toth Zorro

Alex Toth left and indelible print on his contributions to American comics, but where does this exceptional artist fall in the continuum of influential comic creators?

Alex Toth has one of the most distinctive art and storytelling styles in American comics, but his talent is often overlooked because he is not closely associated with a famous title or character. There is no Spider-Man, Captain America or The Spirit on his resume; a modest run on Dell’s adaptation of Zorro from the early 1960s is as close as he ever got to a household-name character. In 1988, Eclipse Comics pulled these stories together in two graphic novel editions so that contemporary readers could see for themselves what the fuss was about.

The Zorro books (later reprinted in a single volume) feature the swashbuckling vigilante of Old California, known for carving his initial into his enemies with a flourish of his rapier. A staple of old Western pulps in the 1920s and 30s, Zorro experienced a revival in the late 50s and early 60s thanks to a lighthearted television show produced by Walt Disney. It is on this Disneyfied Zorro that Toth’s work here is based, which means the art is by far the main event.

Fortunately, it doesn’t disappoint. By this point in his career, Toth was simply a master of the comics page. Every angle, every spot of black, every background detail included or omitted has a compositional and storytelling purpose. With architectural precision, Toth renders even the most predictable script into a series of exciting and unexpected shots, playing light against shadow, figure against ground, and one portion of the page against the other in perfect pace and balance.

Zorro, for all its brilliance of design, encapsulates the central problem with Toth’s ambiguous place in comic art history. Everyone from Howard Chaykin to Frank Miller to Mike Mignola owes a debt to his visual style. At the same time, each of them didn’t merely use their graphic talents to breathe life into turgid clichés. Is Toth’s Zorro more impressive than Sin City or Hellboy for elevating worse material to the same artistic heights (not to mention blazing the trail), or does the notable absence of a true classic of both art and story in Toth’s oevre reveal some deep failure of imagination? The collected Zorro editions don’t resolve this problem, but they do give thoughtful readers a good place to start investigating.


The Complete Classic Alex Toth Zorro

Eclipse Books

Publication year: 1988

124 pages b/w, $9.95

Art: Alex Toth (writer uncredited)

Introduction by Howard Chaykin

Rob Salkowitz is a Seattle-based writer and authority on all manner of aging newsprint. You can e-mail your comments and queries to Rob at Use "ComicBase" as the subject line.

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