Alex Toth spoke at the 1971 Comic Art Convention in New York in July of that year. He was the keynote address speaker. Back in those days (it was only the SECOND convention ever held) most of the conventioneers would attend the keynote address. The main ballroom at the Statler Hilton was packed SRO. The audience was made up of eager comic book fans. This was long before card games and toys and bootleg videos had afflicted themselves on the hobby. There were also lots of working pros in the audience. The surprisingly young-looking guy seated in front of me turned out to be Al Williamson.
Toth was introduced by Jim Warren, publisher of Creepy, Vampirella and other horror titles, and the Man took to the podium. Even way back in the cheap seats I could tell this guy was not one to be messed with. He surveyed the audience with a steely gaze and pronounced:
“Ninety percent of what you read in comics today is pure crap.”
I can still recall the collective gasp from the audience. He ignored (or very privately savored) the reaction and went on excoriating the comics industry from top to bottom. He skewered writers and editors left and right. He declared that the industry was in the hands of dullards and amateurs and people who were not serious about, or interested in, advancing the medium. He saw comics as a form just as vital as movies or theater with far more claims to legitimacy than television.
Following his remarks was a stunned and heavy silence. This guy was talking comics DOWN! This was a festival to celebrate comics and this big bastard of a Dutchmen was telling us all that what we were reading was pure kaka. Everyone expected a softball speech ala a pep rally for comic book geeks. Instead we were being railed against from the pulpit by some kind of Old Testament firebreather.
The fans in the audience leapt to the defense with questions. Most of these were in the nature of “Does (my favorite comic book here) suck?”
Toth waved these questions aside and said he wouldn’t name names. But, damn, you could tell he WANTED to! Someone brought up Kirby and Toth declared that Kirby was not on the crap side of the equation. He went so far as to say that none of us were worthy of judging Kirby as he stood alone. That got applause. He likes Kirby. He can’t be TOO bad. Then, in answer to a question about Hot Wheels, he waded into the state of writing in comics. He told us of working with writers who had no familiarity with the subject they were writing about. About editors who looked upon their readership as dimwits and mouthbreathers. Toth related tales of tearing up scripts and fights on the phone that eventually led to him ignoring a script entirely and, on his own, coming up with “The Case of the Curious Classic.” He held on to the art and sent it in too close to deadline for them to refuse it. The resulting story IS a classic and a study in storytelling that is unparalleled.
Toth also spoke on comic book violence and his distaste for graphic violence in comics and movies. He told us about a Joel McCrea western he’d watched on TV a few days before. He described how the movie created tension and suspense and moved the story along with not one gunfight or bare knuckle brawl. He talked about how the subtle inference of violence rather than the graphic depiction was more impactful.
He wrapped it up and left the podium to a roar of applause.
So much of this was lost on me at the time. But I knew that what I was hearing was important. It was my first candid glimpse into the mind of a creative talent in the medium I loved. The rest of the convention was colored and informed by the remarks of Alex Toth. It was my first convention. In fact, my first time ever meeting other comic fans. It was a sensory overload for me with table after table piled with comics and original art and pros freely mingling with the fans on the floor. San Diego Con may grow to one day have its own zip code but no convention could ever be as huge as my memories of that first convention experience on the crowded, stuffy mezzanine of the Statler.
But cutting through all of that were those opening words by Toth; to keep my eyes open, be discerning, hold the quality work dearly and toss the rest aside. I recall his speech often and, over the years, what he had to say makes more and more sense to me.
I could go on here about Toth’s impact and importance to comic books but you can read that elsewhere. I just wanted to share a personal memory of a lost moment.
Con program ’71