By J. Elliott Mendez
The School of Visual Development (VIS) at Academy of Art University kicked off its Designer Spotlight series with a discussion centered on legendary illustrator, cartoonist, and artist icon Alex Toth on Tuesday, April 11.
Moderated by VIS Associate Director Chris Carman and featuring guests Pixar Animation Character Designer and Academy alum Grant Alexander and Illustrator, Cartoonist, and Educator Paul Fricke, the panel delved into Toth’s remarkable body of work, from comics illustration to television and film animation. The virtual event also celebrated Toth’s lasting impact on the industry and provided invaluable insights into his unique artistic style and the influence of his contributions.
“Grant convinced me that Toth was gospel. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, Toth, he’s great.’ [Grant was] like, ‘No. he’s the great,’” said Carman.
Toth, whose artistic career spanned over six decades, was known for his exceptional ability to capture the essence of a character or scene through minimalist yet evocative and purposeful visual designs. His distinct style, marked by clean compositions, bold line work, and masterful use of negative space, made him a true icon of the industry. He’s worked with major comic book publishers like DC Comics, as well as studios like Hanna-Barbera.
Carman set the stage by acknowledging Toth’s profound influence on the world of visual development and animation, praising Toth’s ability to tell captivating stories.
“It’s [his] exploration [that] separates it from either classic black and white cartooning or the animation design,” explained Carman. “That’s one thing that’s interesting about his work—the way he brought in other influences, whether it was cinematic influences or German poster art. He kind of brought them all together into one package and, at the same time, changed his look consistently. What’s captivating in his work is entirely not superficial; it’s the approach he took—the whole package.”
Alexander and Fricke joined Carman in their praise as they delved into the various eras and aspects of Toth’s artistry, beginning with his groundbreaking work in the realm of comic books.
“As a young kid, I don’t think I could’ve looked at Toth and appreciated it,” Alexander said. “But as a mature artist, you just get blown away by the choices and the design and the composition. The inventiveness. You start to see all of the craft and the beauty of it. “
“To me, it’s [his] finished comics,” Fricke said. “He stripped it down so much in that it’s pure and it’s direct, and you feel like you have a direct contact with Toth. The superhero stuff in the ’80s. The little eight-page adventure that he did that’s drawn to size, magazine size, and that’s amazing.”
The panelists also discussed Toth’s passion for passing on his work and mentoring young artists. They emphasized his commitment to sharing his knowledge and experience, a legacy that lives on through the countless artists he inspired and guided throughout his career.
His personality was a bit of a both/and situation—he could be incredibly generous, and the same unwavering dedication to his art also made him, at times, hard to deal with professionally. Fricke illustrated this with an anecdote about Toth. The story goes that he was scheduled to be on a panel in San Diego to discuss comics. Toth walked off the panel before it began once he realized moderators had allotted no time in the program to discuss balloon placement. This was how earnest he was about his craft.
Moving from comics to animation, Carman noted that Toth was responsible for the look of Hanna-Barbera’s action-adventure shows “Superfriends,” “Space Ghost,” “Bionic 6,” and “Johnny Quest,” to name a few.
“I find his animation work, in particular his model sheets, to be amazing,” Carman said. “They’re great designs, but an animator who is not as good of a draftsman as Toth would have a difficult time staying true to some of these little subtle choices.”
“True animation, like the Disney mold, it’s a different process,” Alexander said. “The lead animator, the person that’s going to take over that character, they’re going to do the final model because they’re going to put the design through its paces and find something that’s actually animatable. So you could level a little bit of criticism at Toth, just in terms of not really having enough of a connection to that industry and the way things are done.”
The spotlight event showcased a diverse range of Toth’s artwork, from his iconic comic book illustrations to his stunning concept art for animation projects. It touched on just how much animation influenced his later illustrative work, causing him to strip away anything that was deemed unnecessary to get to what would be the final design. Attendees were treated to a visual feast of sketches, character designs, and storyboards, each bearing Toth’s unmistakable artistic touch.
When Toth passed away in 2006, he was at his drawing table, fiercely dedicated to his artistry until the end. His legacy lives on through the many fans that continue to highlight his story and his work, refusing to let it drift into obscurity.
The VIS Designer Spotlight provided a captivating glimpse into the life and work of a legend, and a celebration of Toth’s artistic achievements and his enduring impact on the industry offered valuable insights and inspiration for designers, artists, and enthusiasts.