Dave Stevens and Nostalgia


Sunday, April 26, 2009

For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Brush with Passion: The Life & Art of Dave Stevens. Because this is a blog, and because I think this is now part of a larger project, I’m going to indulge myself by rambling on for a little while. I picked up the book out of idle curiosity while staying at Sammy Harkham’s house in L.A. (fitting, since the book is mired in the kind of illusions and disappointments so well entrenched in that city) and have been fascinated with it ever since. It’s a deeply sad autobiography, left unfinished upon Stevens’ death and wrapped in the cloak of a “celebration” of his artwork. Stevens was the ultimate professional fan artist—pulled into comics and popular entertainment because of his love for both, and a rock star in a hermetically sealed world where San Diego Comic-Con is the nexus of the universe, Frazetta is considered one of the great artists of the 20th century, and everything is about “fun”, criticism and progress be damned. It’s the kind of universe that can be wonderfully supportive, very fun, and also severely limiting. For Stevens it was all three. All he wanted to be was some awesome amalgamation of his heroes Jim Steranko, Frazetta, Jack Kirby, Russ Manning, and Alberto Vargas. But by the time he was of age, there was no room left for that kind of work: too labor-intensive for comics, no longer fashionable in fantasy art, no pulps left to publish it… He was a nostalgist with nowhere to channel his fannish obsessions and no interest in transcending them.

I suppose I was drawn to the Stevens book as a lens through which to look at many of the same artists he admired. Guys like Manning, Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, and others are deeply intriguing both for the lives they lived and the idiosyncratic visual worlds they created. Somehow, studying Stevens in the context of this book is helping me think about the work of his predecessors and mentors.

So let’s back up for a moment. There was this thing that happened in the 1960s: Incredibly skilled, visually ambitious artists like Wood, Manning Toth, et al—men who were raised on pulp imagery and the classic American illustrators like Wyeth and Pyle—decided they wanted to do something “sophisticated.” They realized that despite the still-somewhat plentiful outlets (fewer than in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but still a few) for their work, they were never going to be free of the “juvenile” implications of their subject matter. These were guys who wanted to draw comics, but, given the circumstances (generational, financial, etc.), had nowhere else to go. They were, in essence, the last true work-a-day fantasy artists of the 20th century—still basically working for the pulps, at a high level for low pay. And it was a job—they were visionaries in a journeyman’s business. The work they tried to make on their own, like Wood’s Witzend material or Kane’s Savage, met with varying degrees of aesthetic or commercial failure. In any case, they certainly pointed the way so that the fantasy/adventure artists following them, aware of some notion of independence and certainly cognizant of the example of Crumb, et al, had some kind of choice in the matter.

Sort of. Ironically, the guys that came after Wood and Kane and Toth, like Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Barry Smith, and Jeff Jones, followed them right down the manhole, dabbling in independent publishing but basically choosing to be pulp artists at a time when the pulps no longer existed. They chose to be willfully anachronistic. That helped make their work popular to a generation of guys who’d been children (if that) when the ECs came out and were now 20-something fanboys eager for more of the same, but, with the exception of Smith, who really brought a new kind of ferocity to his mark-making, it also severely limited the work. There was nowhere for it to go except for further wallowing in nostalgia – it would never transcend its nostalgic origins. The idea was to just make the best version of Arthur Rackham or Joseph Clement Coll as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, really—it’s just rather limited.

Anyhow, back to Dave Stevens. Here was a guy who didn’t just come after Wood and Toth, but after Wrightson and Kaluta. So, we’re dealing with someone who grew up aspiring to the success of the second-generation stuff as well. But Wrightson and those guys at least had Creepy, Eerie, and other faux-EC mags; by the time Stevens hit his stride there was nothing but lower rung gigs doing storyboards and movie poster comps. And while he was a wonderful nostalgist and decent technician, Stevens was not a visionary. And he knew it. He broke no new ground or created anything very notable, really. His career seems divided between storyboarding, drawing pin-ups, and creating a readable throwback comic The Rocketeer, which became a fun but unsuccessful movie. His career never moved beyond the comfortable boundaries of mainstream fantasy fandom. And throughout his book he constantly seems trapped or burdened by his chosen professions. When his Hollywood dreams turn sour with The Rocketeer, he writes, “No good deed goes unpunished, especially in Hollywood.” And of the constant stream of “sexy girl” drawings he produced to earn a living: “While I do enjoy it and will probably always create pin-ups in some form, I don’t want to be defined by it.” But of course he was defined by it—by his revival of Bettie Page in the pages of The Rocketeer and by the oddly un-sexy women he drew throughout his career—all sinewy, inelegant line and no character. There is no mystery in his drawings—they look forced and labored over, with none of the grace of his contemporary, Jaime Hernandez, for example. And Stevens, so adored by his community, never had a chance to move past it. After all, he was giving a certain group of people exactly what they wanted: instant, safe nostalgia, “innocent pin-up girls”, an independent comic that felt exactly like a 1950s adventure comic. Something contemporary that Jim Steranko and Harlan Ellison (both contributors to the book and both brilliant as young men and then, like Stevens, trapped in their own “cool guy/king of the nerds” self-image and lionized by a lazy fanbase) could get behind; and, for nerd-dom, the all-important illusion of technical proficiency (here defined as a late 19th century notion that conveniently ignores 20th century art history).

And, by all accounts, he was a very nice guy. I mention this because it comes up again and again in the book. There are numerous testimonials from other professionals, and the editors themselves seem completely enamored of their subject. Stevens was loved in the way only this kind of fandom can love someone. What the book puts across is a world in which success if partly based on just getting close to the outside world–film, TV, “famous” actors or models. Success is getting do some throwaway storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is a book that lovingly reproduces storyboards from Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3-D and contains non-ironic jokes about the sexuality of characters from Jonny Quest, and, of course, prints numerous images with which Stevens himself seems dissatisfied. It’s all so insular.

Stevens struggled with depression throughout his last two decades, and, he writes, “By the late 90s I’d become wholly dissatisfied with the caliber of work that I was producing. My technical skills were limited and my ‘style’ seemed nothing more than a vague pastiche of others whose works I admired and had tried to emulate throughout my developing years.” He goes on later in the book to regret lost time and abandoned projects and to describe his own talents as limited: “My progress as an artist has indeed been slow and ponderous. My growth and potential has largely been limited only by my own lack of foresight and commitment.” I suppose these passages could be read as simple modesty, but I found them tremendously moving. Here’s a guy, ill with Leukemia, regretting parts of his life. That’s not unusual in literature, but extraordinary in fan culture, which is all celebration and good will. In the halls of San Diego and in your local comic shop you’re supposed to pretend that these guys are giants of culture, impervious to criticism as they march forward toward development deals and oil paintings for the latest Shadow revival. It’s all very earnest, but completely dishonest. But where else could he ruminate except in the pages of his very own fan-produced book? It’s as though at the end he needed to break out of the mystique, out of character, and just be human.

Now, it would be easy for someone reading this to make a good case that I’m ignoring all the fun Stevens obviously had and the fact that he entertained tons of people, and was clearly loved. All of that is true and all of that is valuable. And I’m not saying that Stevens should have regretted anything. To each his own and all that. But what a thing – to create a book of his own work and then, in his way, publicly disavow or regret so much of it. In that sense, Stevens really did become one of his idols–just like reading an embittered interview with Alex Toth, Gil Kane, or Wally Wood, all of whom were burdened by the knowledge that there was more to do, just out reach. Except that Stevens had a choice–unlike those guys, who loved comics but had nowhere outside of the mainstream to make them, Stevens made a conscious choice to marginalize himself, to live within the bubble of fandom. He was a willful anachronism, frustrated by his chosen intellectual and artistic world but unable or unwilling to see beyond it. Brush with Passion illustrates that conflict in vivid, sad detail.

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53 Responses to “Dave Stevens and Nostalgia”
  1. Frank Santoro says:


  2. Inkstuds says:

    Great stuff. As a side note, Steven’s got Kaluta to do some great work in the rocketeer in back stories.

    But I am a big dork for all the Studio guys.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nice piece, but what i kind of take issue with is can you name ANY artist that thinks they’ve reached their full potential and are happy with what they’ve done over the years(a short list at best!).

    To us,they’re admired, but to everyone outside-“Oh,you’re a funny book artist!”


  4. Anonymous says:

    This article is affecting because so much of it pertains to today’s cartoonists. It seems impossible for people to get out of the past.

  5. ULAND says:

    Really good stuff here.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    Get out of the past young cartoonists!

    “Hello My Baby, Hello My Honey, Hello My Ragtime Gaaaaaaaaaal….”

  7. Dan Nadel says:

    Everyone here is missing the point entirely, which is probably my fault. It’s not about artists reaching their potential, it’s about one artist confessing his insecurities in a book about his own work. And I have no idea how this would pertain to today’s cartoonists, or what Frank is getting at. I don’t see any correlation between the kind of nostalgia Stevens was interested in, and its affect on their work, and any young cartoonists I can think of.

  8. Frank Santoro says:

    Oh, I got the point, brotherman. It’s a good point.

    I just like singing that song. Thats the song I sing when I see cartoonists gettin all “old-timey” ‘n shit.

  9. MrColinP says:

    It’s weird how at the beginning you feel the need to justify your posting of this article on the Comics Comics blog, because I think this is exactly the kind of thing you should be posting here.

  10. peterkrause says:


    “It’s not about artists reaching their potential, it’s about one artist confessing his insecurities in a book about his own work.”

    I really don’t think this is that unusual. Alex Toth often describes his own (supposed) shortcomings in the many books about him.

    Or look at the subtitle on Sean Phillips blog..that certainly leaves the door open to some lack of confidence, and that is on his own website.

    And we have all heard how hard Chris Ware is on himself, often voicing those self-dismissive opinions in public panels at conventions.

  11. redcrow says:

    It’s very true that most artists are dissatisfied with their own body of work; after all, they know more than anyone what they wanted to achieve, while their fans only see the results. Its hard for artists to step back and view their work as a whole, as a process, and instead they get hung up on individual works and their inevitable flaws. Even an incredibly successful illustrator like NC Wyeth was tormented by feelings of inadequacy in his work, and fought bouts of depression in his latter life. The recent biography of Charles Schulz reveals the same. As accomplished in technical skill as an artist may become, there is always another mountain to climb, with the summit always out of reach.

  12. Dan Nadel says:

    Of course artists are dissatisfied with their work. Oy vey. Read the post. That’s not the point — it’s his particular environment, his particular dissatisfaction, that makes it interesting. There’s not a general point here about “artists”. I don’t really know how to spell it out any more clearly without re-writing the damn thing. I’m interested in his milieu and his choices, not in artist torment in general.

  13. Craig Fischer says:

    As you know, Dan, nostalgia for pulp fandom is alive and well. I buy every issue of Daniel Zimmer’s ILLUSTRATION because I love its reproductions of gorgeous pulp art, but I usually find the articles boring: too much ephemera about the artists’ lives, too little formal analysis of the work. (Their craft chops–what you call the “all-important illusion of technical proficiency”–is taken as a given and left unexamined by the guys writing ILLUSTRATION’s articles.) Pulp fans celebrate the idea of the renegade artist, of Norman Saunders chain-smoking in an attic somewhere, chain-smoking and cranking out a Nazi-themed cover for Martin Goodman’s FOR MEN ONLY, as much as they do the achievement of the art itself.

    One exception: Kaluta. For the most part, Kaluta stuck to John Carter fantasies, but his work on STARSTRUCK (with scripter Elaine Lee) shows that he was trying, briefly, to remake himself into the American Moebius. Some STARSTRUCK shorts were published as back stories in Comico’s ROCKETEER ADVENTURE MAGAZINE, but the good stuff was in Marvel’s original STARSTRUCK graphic novel and spinoff 6-issue series.

  14. Benjamin Marra says:

    I’m really interested in reading the Stevens book now. I’m curious to read what Stevens thought of his own work. I remember collecting Rocketeer comics and collections when I was younger and being frustrated there wasn’t more of Stevens’ work for me to consume. I theorized his production level must’ve been limited, judging from the level of attention each panel was given in a Rocketeer story. And I wasn’t satisfied with a pin-up here and there either.

  15. peterkrause says:


    I don’t mean to dismiss Stevens’ plight–it is poignant and you have described it well.

    I only mean to point out that other artists in various milieus and genres also feel those constraints.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure why, but this feels like an attack on a very talented artist. It seems very condescending and self serving, as if to rile people up. I found Dave’s work to be “a breath of fresh air,” compared to the piles and piles of unreadable and unenjoyable sameness that are comic books. Perhaps, if he would have tackled some of characters from DC or the Marvel universe, you would have a greater appreciation for his technical skills. I know in this day and age it’s hard to understand someone who is constantly trying to better themselves as an artist. But, I think it shows his dedication to his craft. Where have all the good illustrators gone? Most comics are created by hacks who have no idea about anatomy or story telling. It’s easy to criticize those who can’t respond back, that way it makes you feel superior.

  17. nezua says:

    He was a sad man, and I feel for him. I do. The book could have been a truly brave admission of what he was about, but at the end he chose still to further his own illusions, the very ones that kept him pinned in a life of mediocrity. Masking them in some last minute revelation, which those thoughts were not. He carried them for years and years. It was a choice. The true tragedy is that even his own impending death couldn’t shake any bravery into him.

    There will be more coming out soon on Naked Dave. That bookjob of his is not to be the last word.

  18. La Diabla says:

    “Anonymous”. Why take it so personal? Does the honest critique by this blogger hit a nerve? This is why I’m sick of comics. These guys think what they’re doing is important!

    “the oddly un-sexy women he drew throughout his career – all sinewy, inelegant line and no character. There is no mystery in his drawings – they look forced and labored over”. This is similar to what I thought about the “Tits ‘n Ass” stuff.

    That was right on point about the Fanboy stuff. Dave liked being a a big fish in a little pond but got himself trapped in that world. He never would’ve grown creatively because he couldn’t mature emotionally.

  19. sammy says:

    I think part of what dan is talking about is how, throughout the book, stevens discusses personal projects-films, comics, artwork, that never got off the ground, or got past first draft status. he speaks with much admiration of mike mignola, someone who was doing what he wish he could-writing and drawing his own creations, and adapting them into successful films, and generally doing what he wanted.
    what the comments so far are missing, is that of course there is nothing wrong with being a pin up artist and that being your legacy. but stevens had higher ambitions. from reading the book, it is clear he wanted to be a speilberg or lucas type of Creator, someone who loves pulp and throwback genre type stuff, and does all kinds of mainstream projects on his terms-films, kids books, “fine” art, graphic novels. and he accomplished none of that because he could never pull it together, due to his own artistic limitations. and he is highly regretful about it.
    someone like chris ware talking about disappointment in their work is quite different.

  20. Anonymous says:

    If your point, Mr. Nadel, was that Comic Book creators are universally lionized by the fans and never have to face their own inadequecies, then all of these comments about Steven’s artisitic failures, social limitations, and lack of emotional maturity should show you just how wrong you are. Big fish in a small pond are no more immune to ad hominem attacks and sour grapes than anyone else. If anything all the bad is just as magified as the good, and it is easy to get overwhelmed from both sides.

    If Dave Stevens was well liked, then maybe it was because people honestly enjoyed his work, and not because comics fans are illiterate mouth-breathers with no appreciation for True Art.

    David Oakes

  21. Anonymous says:

    Smells like jealousy to me…

  22. La Diabla says:

    Me too…

    The insular fan world is in action right here.

  23. looka says:

    Good reads, thanks.

  24. Jeff says:

    “If Dave Stevens was well liked, then maybe it was because people honestly enjoyed his work…”

    Hear, hear.

  25. Dustin Harbin says:

    Wow great writeup Dan–I’ll be thinking about this for a long time, I can tell already. Lame comments though, but WHAT CAN YOU DO?

    For me the most fascinating part was the idea of SELF-marginalization, which I think you could expand to many, if not most, cartoonists. Especially the stylists, the nostalgists. I look forward to whatever longer thing this is a part of, as you referenced near the beginning.

  26. looka says:

    And: I’m possibly not even the last guy you are interested in hearing this from, but isn’t it that “messing up” in ones work is something that comics don’t really welcome?

    As in putting something out that’s potentially not great will always hurt your reputation in the long run.
    I’m a pretty young gun, but it looks like the only thing there is to be in comics is a professional that can deliver in the genre you work in and base your development on it (…mostly).
    I know the readers (i.e. the everyone concerning themselves with Comics) don’t want a book that’s a failure, but shit, how the hell to get a feel for your work if you can’t just put something out that’s not what is seen as quality work but a mess up??
    I like trashing around sometime and it feels good.

    Anyway, good and affecting essay.

  27. Dan Nadel says:

    Sammy, of course, nails it in his second paragraph. Thanks for that.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Hey, Dustin–congratulations are clearly in order! I would have thought it nearly physically impossible to type on a computer keyboard when your lips are so firmly planted in Nadel’s ass. But somehow you manage to do it every time. Good job!!!

  29. Eddie Campbell says:

    It’s a truth and you articulated it well. Your problem is that the only people with half a chance of following your drift, are also mostly incapable of standing outside of the subject to see it in toto.
    Eddie Campbell

  30. looka says:

    Mr. Campbell: I know you said what you wanted to say and you said it to Dan, but would you like to explain further?
    I’d be interested to hear more from you on that.

  31. EH says:

    Just to toss out a thought:
    it’s possible to be a very technically skillful cartoonist/illustrator and not actually have a compelling/original story/idea in your head.

    And it must be frustrating.

  32. Anonymous says:

    This is so right on, I’m glad somebody finally articulated what many of us have felt all along. That he was an underdeveloped, unprolific talent of limited range whose one great monkey trick was THE ROCKETEER (and even that ran out of steam after the initial issues). Thanks, Dan, for summing things up so well.

  33. T. Hodler says:

    Hey everybody —

    Maybe let’s cool it on the personal invective, okay? Nothing’s been deleted yet, but there are more than a few comments that come close to crossing the line. It’s possible to be extremely critical of artists, bloggers, and/or commenters without resorting to mudslinging. Thanks in advance.

  34. Frank Santoro says:


  35. peterkrause says:


    Thanks for the further explanation of the Stevens’ aspirations.

    I have a much clearer picture of his dilemma now.

  36. sammy says:

    nothing dan is saying, at least to me, negates the work stevens DID do. I love the rocketeer and his drawing in general, but the man clearly wanted to much much more as an artist. and its that frustration mixed with the artistic community he was apart of which is worth examining and untangling.

  37. Frank Santoro says:

    I got Rocketeer issues cheap! See me at TCAF!

  38. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Dan, I’d like you to pretend I’m writing whatever response will infuriate you the most.

  39. Dan Nadel says:

    Oooooohhh Tom, I’m soooo mad at you!

  40. Anonymous says:

    Everyone make sure to purchase the beautiful complete collection of Rocketeer stories from IDW in October. IDW is doing some wonderful collections and their design and production is top notch. It will be great to see all of these great chapters collected into one volume. I think the collections have been out of print for over ten years!

    The Rocketeer is a great nostalgic journey and homage to a time when style and elegance were the dominating visions of everyday life. Mr. Stevens really nailed everything, from dialog to fashion to architecture. This is really a beautifully rendered story that contemporary comic book sketchers should study and learn from. It really captures the feel of the Saturday morning chapter serials. This will certainly be a book, that real comic fans can’t wait to get there hands on. I know, I already have put in my order

  41. Frank Santoro says:

    Was the above written by some underpaid staffer at IDW tryin’ to make points with the boss? Isn’t this the kind of marketing I read about in the Times?

  42. Alixopulos says:

    “the all-important illusion of technical proficiency (here defined as a late 19th century notion that conveniently ignores 20th century art history).” This sorta belabors the point, but it should be noted that the darlings of fandom fall short of even those 19th century standards. Stevens was a culmination of those “standards of excellence” while simultaneously standing outside of them. He showed deadline harried professionals what could be done if you had the luxury obsessing over, say, the hind leg of a bulldog in the corner of a panel for three weeks.

  43. Anonymous says:

    All one has to do, is look at your artwork Frank, to figure out what your anger issues are. You have the nerve to criticize someone else’s artistic talent, ughh!!
    Nuff said…

  44. Heidi MacDonald says:

    I think this is all a fair discussion aside from the obvious personal slams and it is certainly true that Stevens never accomplished the things that he wanted to, but it was because he was so sssllloooww because he was so self-critical. It doesn’t negate Dan’s analysis of the frustrations and shortfalls of this generation of cartoonists/illustrators, but Dave’s dissatisfaction with many aspects of his life was undoubtedly part of a deeper psychological problem. In other words, I doubt there was any amount of encouragement, remuneration or opportunity that would have made him more productive. And yet, as Dan points out, the circumstances of his career certainly didn’t do anything to help him break through.

    There’s a balance between paralyzing self-criticism, and slapping any old crap down on the page where the happy creative mood strikes. Some people have it, some never will.

    Plus, I would like to point out that folks also liked Dave because he was exceedingly charming, kind-hearted and talented, not just because of the time-warp of his artwork.

  45. Robert Fiore says:

    Stevens’ problem was not any illusion but a reality, which is that there wasn’t enough money in comic books to justify the amount of work he put into them. Comics were the only truly creative outlet he had, and healthy or not, without them he was all dressed up with nowhere to go. What I’d like to know though is just what deep truths of human experience you thought he had to tell. What Dave Stevens had to offer the world was eye candy, and all that has to be is sweet. Not being able to work consistently in creating comic book stories he wasn’t able to develop his narrative skills, but he’d found the right idiom for them. The difference between Jaime Hernadez and Dave Stevens is that Jaime had a thousand stories to tell and Dave didn’t have any. That’s why he dealt in received imagery. In this he wasn’t indulging in illusion or nostalgia but working within his limitations. He can’t be classed as a wasted talent the way Alex Toth was a wasted talent. His talent was wasted by the comics industry. In the comic book field a cartoonist who can’t write his own stories is at the mercy of others. It was the task of the comics industry to give a talent like Toth good work to do, and the industry failed him. The people who could give him good work to do had a point of view Toth couldn’t stomach, and he wasn’t going to surrender his ideals for a good story to tell. After delineating reams of material that was beneath him he concluded that if the only job on offer was whore then he’d be a damned fool to be the sort of whore who worked for pocket change.

    And I have to say that if Dave Stevens had a weakness for received imagery then you have a weakness for received notions. I’m talking about this “the book is mired in the kind of illusions and disappointments so well entrenched in that city” bullshit. Surely it cannot have escaped your notice that the entire pulp enterprise you deplore was invented in New York City. Surely it cannot have escaped your notice that a full time factory of false gods in comic book form operates out of that city to this very day. Surely you cannot be that ignorant. What you can be is blinkered. When you treat vices as if they were characteristics of places rather than individuals then you’re not engaging in criticism, your feeding complacency and vanity. And what aggravates the living daylights out of me is that there’s no reason why you can’t get away with it. There are a million boobs who’ll eat that stuff up and hardly a one that will keep you honest. The only thing that will keep you honest in this context is integrity, so the question is, do you have integrity?

  46. T. Hodler says:

    @Anonymous — Your psychoanalytic theories need work, since Dan wrote this post, not Frank.

  47. Dustin Harbin says:

    That “Anonymous” guy keeps changing his mind, I can’t keep up.

    I may be missing the point of Fiore’s essay/poem a little, insofar as its second paragraph about received notions. But I realized while pouring coffee that the sort of self-perpetuating cult-of-personality that Dan refers to as stunting Steven’s work (I’m sure I mashed all that up, but it was only the second cup of coffee), is something I deal with on a daily basis in running a convention. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me yesterday, but yes YES YES! Comics are filled with insanely talented people who have been convinced by an unchanging fanbase of their perfection and genius. I think professionalism prevents me from saying more; also I can’t get my lips out of Dan’s ass.

  48. T. Hodler says:

    @Dan: I agree with Fiore. How DARE you claim that illusions and disappointment exist in Los Angeles?! Are you so BLINKERED that you don’t realize those evils can ONLY be found in your precious New York? And to build your entire post and all of its logic around this blatant geographic bias! Have you no decency?

  49. Dan Nadel says:

    @Fiore: Well, anyone who knows me knows that I have no integrity. So let’s set that aside. As for the rest, well, that little parenthetical was indeed cliched, but it certainly doesn’t imply the LA has the market cornered on that stuff. I didn’t write “the only place on earth”, etc. And I thought I was clear about the difference between an artist like Toth and one like Stevens. It’s apparent from his own writing that Stevens aspired to a career outside of comics, and saw his talents as much larger than the medium, which, for him, seemed to always be a “fun” side project.

  50. Anonymous says:

    I think Dan’s assessment is a fair one. One can be critical of Steven’s work and still have empathy for him as a person and understand his admissions about his personal disappointment in how things ended up. (it’s all in there, in the book!) It’s a very human book, a bunch of ups and downs, really. What he was and what and what he wanted to be.

  51. Charles Hatfield says:

    It was the task of the comics industry to give a talent like Toth good work to do, and the industry failed him. The people who could give him good work to do had a point of view Toth couldn’t stomach, and he wasn’t going to surrender his ideals for a good story to tell.I don’t buy this, unless by ideals you mean an extremely narrow view of storytelling and of life. Based on what I’ve been able to glean from my reading, Toth was remarkably like Dan’s characterization of Stevens, that is, stunted artistically by self-imposed limitations.

    Toth gets a free pass from a lot of readers due to his often stunning technical mastery, his elegance of line, his graphic sense, his damn wonderful drawing. But the fact that he did not do substantial comics work in his later life was not due to the “failure” of the “industry.” It was due to Toth’s sheer dogged refusal to leave behind a one-dimensional heroic ideal and apply his great skills to something more substantial and meaningful.

    I can’t think of a more powerful example of the disconnect between formal craft and thematic content than Toth. Beautiful comics with a great hollowness at the center. So I can’t buy the idea that Toth’s limitations were do to the purity of his ideals. I’d say they were due to his refusal to come to grips with any story content that actually challenged his assumptions.

    Granted that most so-called mainstream comics of the past forty years can’t hold a candle to Toth for sheer graphic panache. But his broadsides against the industry have about them an air of furious self-justification rather than honest assessment.

  52. peterkrause says:

    If Toth was a “wasted talent”, well, that’s what I aspire to be.

    And, Robert Fiore, Toth did write some of his own stories–“Bravo for Adventure”, for one. Why he didn’t continue on would be conjecture on my part, although I do remember him saying that his writing fell well short of his aims.

    Alex had his demons, to be sure. And the last paragraph in Charles Hatfield’s post has a ring of truth to it–at least to this Alex Toth fan.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Toth was awesome – but the writing of almost all his stories was dreadful (he even seemed stuck with the worst EC scripts).

    Back in the 60s/70s, comics often felt like a branch of the whole nostalgia craze (and even the best underground cartoonists still have big elements of nostalgia – however barbed). Check out those mainstream 70s trends – Conan! Lovecraft! The Shadow! Universal horror! The whole schtick probably culminated with George Lucas and his billions. That some got swamped by their influences points to a lot of lost potential.

    I think guys like Stevens (or Mark Schultz) could have benefited a lot from the demands of a ‘star’ writer like Gerber or Moore back in the 80s (much like Steve Bissette did) – and this may have helped them towards finding their own ‘voice’. But then Toth could have done with a Stan Lee or Roy Thomas (or even Bob Khaniger). I can READ 60s Marvel – I can only LOOK at Toth.

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