Book Review: Setting The Standard
Genius Isolated, the artistic biography of comic legend Alex Toth released this summer by the Library of American Comics (an imprint of IDW) was understandably lauded with praise and attention (including by yours truly). The book offered a comprehensive look at the life, art, and artistic process of a bonafide genius of the comic art form. The minute I finished my initial reading I began to look for information about the date of release for the second volume, Genius Illustrated, but knew that it was probably not arriving in the near future. (As of this year’s SDCC, the release date is February 2012).
While searching in the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet for the release date (okay, okay, it was just Amazon), I came across a pre-order page for something that looked pretty interesting. The book listed featured Alex Toth’s work at Standard—where he did some incredible work in the early 1950s—and seemed like both a nice supplement to Genius, Isolated and something to hold me over until Genius, Illustrated. I put it on pre-order, and then promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago when I received a notice that the book would ship soon. What I got in the mail was probably the biggest comic book surprise of this summer. Or maybe even this year.
Setting The Standard; Comics By Alex Toth ($39.99 USD; 432 pgs.), published by Fantagraphics Books and edited by Greg Sadowski, is a fascinating work. In that short blurb on Amazon it seemed to me like the book would be an attempt to piggyback on some of the success of IDW’s Genius series, expanding slightly on a period of time already covered by Genius. Which, in and of itself, is perfectly fine. Fantagraphics is well known for its high quality archival material and appreciation for the history of comics. And any project with the legendary Alex Toth as its subject is going to be hard to mess up that much. Setting The Standard has a different aim than Genius, Isolated did however, and arguably suceeds just as well.
I wrote previously about how Genius, Isolated seemed to almost ooze quality (well, I don’t think I used those exact words, but I should have). Pulling Setting The Standard out of its shipping box, comparisons to Genius were quick and inevitable. The paper stock, the size of the book itself, the fact that it’s softcover as opposed to hardcover…in all these things, Genius was a clear winner. I intended to give the book a once-over and get back to the pile of work on my desk. Let me share a bit from the back cover blurb though, to show you what got me so immediately excited, and will make this book a must-buy for your bookshelf. “Universally acclaimed as one of the greatest…” yeah, yeah, we’ll skip that part. Oh yeah, here it is: “Now editor/ designer Greg Sadowski has collected Toth’s entire Standard catalog, digitally restored and cleaned…” (emphasis added)
Entire body of work! Yep, those 432 pages are nearly all taken up by beautiful Toth work. I had assumed that Toths’s art would get a lot of space in the book, but had no idea that the collection would be so complete. Fantastic! There’s also a Toth interview from the 1960s and a nice chapter of reference notes for all the stories collected. Alex Toth worked in a multitude of genres while at Standard (crime, romance, and horror among them) and they are, to the last one, collected here. Also, Toth’s Standard work has been reprinted somewhere between infrequently and not at all, and to have it all collected (and collected beautifully; the digital restoration keeps the original look perfectly) in this work fills in a sizable gap in comics history. Bravo for Fantagraphics.
As I continue to reread (and reread again) these phenomenal stories here are three things I learned from the release of Setting The Standard:
1. It’s The Art, Stupid!
Repeating what was said above, Genius, Isolated is the clear winner in the production department; the thing seemed like a shoe-in for multiple Eisners and Harveys the minute it hit the shelf. And the work it did in creating a definitive biographical portrait of a true comic legend and pioneer can’t be overstated. But at the end of the day, one of the primary draws (if not the draw) for an artistic archival project is the art. Setting The Standard does a phenomenal job of reprinting and remastering Toth’s entire body of work at Standard. Having this book means you’ve got access to some of the best work by one of the best artists in a multitude of genres. And it’s all here. All of it. That can’t be stated enough. Plus, it tosses in a couple of stories additionally reprinted from the original black and white pages.
2. Toth Had Gears That No One Else Did
Alex Toth did an incredible amount of good stories, and a high ratio of brilliant stories among those. As with any great artist in any field, the temptation to find a kind of artistic shorthand is pretty strong. “Yeah, it’s Toth, it’s great”; but when Alex Toth was really in a groove, he could hit artistic notes, moods and storytelling points that almost no one else was (or is) capable of. A lot of those were done at Standard, and are collected here. “The Crushed Gardenia” (pg.132), “The Hands of Don Jose” (pg.240) and “Blinded By Love” are all amazing work, and will ruin other artists for you. That’s a promise.
3. Comics Are Too Damn Long!
Or at least that’s what I imagine Alex Toth (in his best grumpy huff) might have said about the modern focus on comic stories told in segments of 22 pages and then usually meant to be read together in chunks of 4 to 6 issues. Setting The Standard is a big, meaty book, but the thing still manages to collect a whopping 60 stories in it. And Toth, being the comic equivalent of the economically brilliant writer Ernest Hemingway, makes the four, five, or six pages he’s given to work in seem more than adequate to convey everything you’d need about the characters, environment and story. I read this book nearly cover-to-cover in two days, and the next batch of comics I picked up at my local comic store seemed incredibly slow-paced, sparse, and ill-conceived. And too damn long. When I said Toth would ruin other artists, I was speaking from recent experience.
If you’ve ever wanted to see what the “big deal” is with Alex Toth, I can think of absolutely no better place to start. There’s no better bang for your buck this year than Setting The Standard.