Toth, Saladino, Schwartz

Images © DC Comics and the estate of Alex Toth.

Recently when discussing 1950s-60s lettering with artist/inker Steve Leialoha he mentioned he had an original unused Alex Toth page from an early issue of STRANGE ADVENTURES, one with a note on it to letterer Gaspar Saladino. I was intrigued and asked if he could scan it for me. He was kind enough to do so and agreed to let me use it here. There are a number of things about this page I find quite interesting.

First, focusing on the caption at upper left as pencilled in by Toth. Alex Toth is an artist revered by other artists, and appreciated by many comics fans as well. In addition to lots of great art, he often did the lettering on his strips, though not on this one, but you can see his blocky lettering style inherent in this pencilled caption with the open initial capital T. Another interesting feature of this page is the preprinted lettering guides, which Steve says are in very light gray. They cover the entire “live art” area of the piece, in other words, the area where art was to be drawn, allowing white margins on all sides. Bleed art, which runs out to the edges of the paper when printed, was not permitted on interior pages, only covers. I’ve never seen art boards with these lettering guides on DC pages, though Steve has another from a Wonder Woman story. It must have saved letterers a lot of time. I’ve seen similar ones made much more recently with pale blue lettering guides, but none from the 1950s like this one.

Here’s an example of Toth’s own lettering on a how-to piece from the 1970s when he was working on the Super Friends cartoon show. Very similar in style to his penciled caption above, but more carefully done, of course.

Here’s the block at lower right closer. This is very appealing lettering, having a nice bounce and attractive letterforms. I love the very angular S, a style which I think John Workman picked up in his lettering. Notice how he adds variety with bold words and lower case. Some of the letters tend to run together making it a little hard to read in places (for example the word MORE at lower right), but it’s nice work. So, the fact that Toth wasn’t lettering his own pages at DC in 1951, the time the art was probably produced, is interesting. Perhaps he didn’t have the option.

Here’s the note to Gaspar Saladino at lower right, asking him to use “legit type” in the sign. Gaspar was, himself, pretty new to lettering comics then, with his first published work appearing in ROMANCE TRAIL #5 cover-dated March-April 1950. The artist on the second story there, one of two credited to Gaspar? Alex Toth! Alex must have liked working with Gaspar, knew what to expect from him, and that he’d be lettering this story. As described in THIS chapter of a series of articles about Gaspar on the “Dial B for Blog” website, they went to an art-training high school together, though Toth was in the grade below, but they must have known each other for a while.

Another possibility is that this 10-pager could be a very early story in Gaspar’s lettering career. There’s no issue number indicated by Toth on the pencils, so it may not have been assigned when when he started it, and editor Julie Schwartz always liked working well ahead of deadlines. The story might have been drawn some time in  early 1950 when Gaspar was just starting to letter comics.

Despite the note, Gaspar would have hand-lettered the sign, trying to make it look as much as possible like a sign with real type. The option of dropping in actual typeset fonts wasn’t easily available then, as it is now with computer lettering. This may have been somewhat daunting to the newbie letterer, but as we’ll see, the redrawn version of this page didn’t have the sign, and I don’t know if it appeared on any later pages. If anyone has the complete story, I’d be interested to find that out. If not, Gaspar dodged the problem entirely, and probably never saw the note on this unused page!

ADDED: Thanks to a scan of the entire story from Michael T. Gilbert, I can report that the gallery sign never appeared on any of the later pages.

Here’s the revised page as printed, also courtesy of Steve Leialoha, and now the input of editor Julius Schwartz comes into play. The first, uninked version of the page is a close side view of the monsters emerging from the pictures, but it’s pretty hard to tell that, aside from the clues in the sign. The storytelling is unclear, there’s no human reference for scale, and the paintings are only suggested, not seen. All these problems are solved in the revised version, very likely at the direction of editor Schwartz, who always said he didn’t know much about art but knew what he liked. Obviously he like things to be made clear! The result is infinitely better in every way.

This story appeared in issue 13 of STRANGE ADVENTURES, cover dated Oct. 1951, with only writer Edmond Hamilton credited. Julie brought in writers he knew from his science fiction fandom and agenting days to write for both STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE, the two science fiction anthologies he handled in the 50s and 60s, and while credits were often missing on other DC titles, the writer at least usually got one on these. I imagine the writers were used to being credited elsewhere, and demanded it. Hamilton was a long-time pulp writer, well known in that arena, and the creator of Captain Future, who was popular enough to headline his own pulp magazine.

Toth, on the other hand, was still fairly new to comics, having started at DC in 1947, and with his best-known work ahead of him. The story was inked by Sy Barry, another regular in the Schwartz stable, and brother of Dan Barry, the “Flash Gordon” strip artist. I know this not only from the Grand Comics Database, but from a list of credits I made for STRANGE ADVENTURES in the early 1980s, when Julie gave me access to his payment records. At the time I was reading through the entire series in the DC library, and taking notes, hoping to write an article for DC’s in-house fanzine THE AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS, but that was discontinued before I had the chance. My note for this tale was: A psychological story with excellent plot and no obvious outdating.

Gaspar did lots of work for Julie, including many of the Silver Age superhero relaunches such as THE FLASH, GREEN LANTERN and JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. He soon became one of the best letterers of all time in my opinion, but that was later. This early example of his work shows him doing a fine, competent job on the caption, perhaps following Toth’s layout exactly (though it differs from the unused one a bit). The letterforms look very much like early Gaspar to me.

I don’t have a larger image of the printed caption, but here’s one from a story in STRANGE ADVENTURES #7, cover dated April 1951. It has Gaspar’s distinctive S shapes, which are not too far from Toth’s, with a wide horizontal center stroke, though the other sections are more rounded. In fact, a lot of Gaspar’s letter forms are similar to Toth’s now that I consider them, and Gaspar may well have looked at Toth’s lettering as something to emulate, much as I looked at Gaspar’s letter forms myself when I was learning to letter comics in 1977-78. Certainly Gaspar’s style has always been more angular than most of his contemporaries.

The story title, however, is not well drawn or designed. It comes across as almost amateurish, in fact. If I didn’t have the evidence of the note on the earlier page, I’d almost say he couldn’t have lettered the story title, but it seems he must have. The chance of Gaspar lettering only the caption and not the title is pretty slim. All we can surmise is that he was still finding his way with display lettering.

The top line in script shows the influence of Ira Schnapp, who would have been working on staff at DC then, lettering mostly covers, logos like the one above, and house ads. Gaspar would surely have been studying Schnapp’s work and perhaps was trying to do something similar here, but not succeeding very well.  The style for OTHER WORLDS is quite atypical for comics of the time, I’m not sure where that idea came from, but it doesn’t work for me, and has all kinds of design problems and inconsistencies. Luckily, Gaspar got much, much better at title lettering soon. Even the story title in the other example above from STRANGE ADVENTURES 7 is infinitely better. Could it be that someone else lettered the “Artist of Other Worlds” title, perhaps someone in DC’s production department? I can’t think of a good reason why that might happen, but it’s always possible.

There you have it, a lot to say about one page of a comic!

7 thoughts on “Toth, Saladino, Schwartz

  1. Richard Bensam

    Boy, Toth sure did love those big dense blocks of type. And given his later reputation for tearing into artists with harsh criticism (the Steve Rude critique being the most famous example) it’s revealing to see Toth have a page (rightly) bounced by an editor for unclear storytelling.

    On a tangent: I’ve always thought Edmond Hamilton getting a published credit when so many other DC writers did not may have had something to do with Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger having previously been his literary agents — he was their first client at the Solar Sales Service — and awestruck fans of his before that. Weisinger had also been his editor in the pulps before either worked in comics, but it seems like Hamilton received far more deference from them than other writers got.

  2. Todd Post author

    I’m with you up to the last point, Richard. Other writers Julie and Mort brought in from their science fiction days received credit, too. For instance, Manly Wade Wellman in the other example in this post. Writers without a track record outside of comics were less likely to be given story credits, though. And I think the policy makes perfect sense. If there was a chance of a Hamilton fan picking up a comic with his name in it and buying it, why not? In a sense, the policy helped pave the way for wider comics credits in later years.

  3. Clem Robins

    excellent insight. Gaspar really paid his dues on those early stories. you could really divide his body of work into two halves: 1950-1965 and 1966-1993.

    the first half was wonderful but workmanlike, as it should have been. his precision and consistency as brought about during those first fifteen years.

    part two begins with January of 1966, with the premiere of the Batman TV show. if schedules then were anything like they are now, Gaspar was working in January on comics that would see print in March and April, with cover dates reading May and June. and this is where you see the unveiling of the New Gaspar. sfx were suddenly four times their previous size, in keeping with the visual style of the Batman TV show. if you’ve got any of DC’s books from this period, the transition is sudden and explosive. for example, the June issue of Green Lantern unveiled the new emphasis on garish sfx.

    as your Toth samples demonstrate, it was the penciller’s job to rough in lettering. Gaspar took his cues from them, as did Joe Letterese and the others in the lettering pool of the time. but Gaspar got it, really got it.

    it would be almost two years, in 1967, before Gaspar was put in charge of all cover lettering. during that period he did some of the most wonderful interior lettering ever.

    if you can find Plastic Man #1, with an October/November 1966 cover date, you’ll find possibly the high point of this. it is very possibly the most perfectly lettered comic book of all time.

  4. Steve Leialoha

    The earliest Toth story I’ve seen where he did the whole thing (pencils, inking and lettering) was in Danger Trail #3(Nov/Dec ’50), “Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion”. It’s nice but clearly not the DC house look. Julie Schwartz said his ideal DC artist in the early 50’s was Dan Barry, so getting Sy Barry to ink everyone was the next best thing.
    Alex Toth mentioned Frank Engli, particularly on Scorchy Smith, as a major influence on his lettering.

  5. Pingback: Todd’s Blog » Blog Archive » Gaspar Saladino’s First Lettering for DC Comics Part 2

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