Comics. Funnies. Graphic Novels. Whatever the label, I take my Grind where I can find it. Thanks to the endless stream of Blockbuster Weekends, where you can’t spit without hitting a Green Lantern or Incredible Hulk, we now live in a geek Utopia where one can audibly froth and pant for comic books without fear of ridicule or excommunication. But us Bastards don’t really care about the spandex, do we? F That! Give us the EC Horror. Give us the Noir Heavy. The Blaxploitation Street Warrior. The Western Revenger. Old or New, as long as the pages bleed and leave the fingertips wet. Grime, Grit, Grunge, Grind. I should feel the ink stain on the skin whether I’m reading off newsprint or a digital download.
Obviously, there is a massive backlog of Grindhouse comics to sort through. Tales From The Crypt. The Spirit. Power Man. White Indian. And thanks to the trade paperback boom, you no longer have to troll the back alleys of comic shop longboxes to experience the punch and the sweat of the four color past. Every week, along with the publication of dozens of nostalgia tainted current monthlies you also have the release of some mind-blowing artifact.
And that’s where I start.
Six feet of dirt can’t stop the legacy of Alex Toth. The man might go down in popular history as the designer of numerous Hanna Barbara cartoons like Space Ghost and Thundar The Barbarian, but Toth’s “artist’s artist” reputation was built on an eclectic career in both mainstream and pulp comics. One moment he’s cranking out Green Lantern punch-ups, the next he’s slashing the alphabet with Disney’s Zorro, and then he’s raising rotting seaweed corpses for Standard Comics. The man has owns his reputation next to Comic giants like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Al Williamson.
Recently published by Fantagraphics Books, Setting The Standard: The Comics of Alex Toth 1952-1954 is a fairly weighty purchase at 432 pages and with a price tag of $39.99. But within its walls you’ll find some of the best mondo grind of the Standard (or EC) era. Standard Comics were basically modeled after EC’s Tales From The Crypt, Shock Suspense Stories, Frontline Combat, The Haunt of Fear, etc. You’ve got your Seaweed Zombies, your jilted lovers, your money-grubbing Satanists, and your war propaganda as well as your anti-war I-Told-You-Sos. It’s a hodgepodge tome perfect for the getup & go or the late night toilet throne.
Like a lot of these retrospectives, Setting The Standard opens with a typical interview (although it’s from Graphic Story Magazine circa 1968) with Toth about his early rise in the medium, his inspirations, and his myriad career. There’s some good stuff there but I suggest skipping over that behind-the-curtain info session and dive right on into the meat of the matter, the comics.
The first story, “My Stolen Kisses” opens with a doozy of a splash page. Child sized corpse crushed under the tires of a toppled automobile, shaking woman exclaims her accountability in the obvious manslaughter. “Oh Brad! It’s All My Fault!…If I Hadn’t Been Driving!” What transpires over the next seven pages is an obviously dated morality tale meant to affirm the importance of Father Knows Best American philosophy while tickling your rubbernecking bloodlust. You see, young Penny has been slutting it up with poorboy Brad, who just quit his job so he could afford that splash page deathmobile. And Penny’s county judge father would not be pleased by this Hoodlum (did you see that green plaid jacket!) & Juliet pairing. Their sneaking about and speed demon antics lead to quite the courtroom pickle in which Judge Daddy must handle the proceedings.
Okay, so I haven’t sold you on the anthology yet? And, again, if you’re reading Setting the Standard from front to back it’s going to be a tough road. The next 44 pages are compiled with more 50s era romance comics and a handful of Joe Yank combat stories. The Joe Yank stuff is actually pretty darn fantastic. My favorite being “Bacon and Bullets!” in which the sexually frustrated Private Yank finds solace in a pig, only to have said pig stolen by nefarious/hungry Commies. Yank accidentally leads a successful assault in an effort to save his darling Clementine…the pig. I realize this is not the stuff for Bastards, but it’s fun nonetheless.
Eventually you get to the grizzly Sleepy Hollowesque ghost story, “The Blood Money of Galloping Chad Burgess” and the Lovecraft wannabe “The Shoremouth Horror.” Both of these stories contain some of my favorite creepy Alex Toth panels and it’s here where Bastards are gonna finally perk up. In Chad Burgess (I know, they could have picked a spookier moniker), a husband and wife ghosthunting team investigate the spectral appearance of an executed English highwayman; not so much in the name of Science, but in an effort to discover Chad’s booty of bleeding gold. The morality of “My Stolen Kisses” is ever present, but the murder and the gore are struck with such gleeful pencil strokes. The reveal of Chad’s 200 Year Dead face on the ninth panel of the third page looks something like Vincent Price pickled in your grandmother’s bathwater. And Toth’s depiction of the wife’s blood born madness is genuinely unnerving, unleashing a perfect Standard Horror climax. “The Shoremouth Horror” is all about the seaweed zombies. Page One, Panel One. As another comic book icon says, ‘nuff said.
However, my absolute favorite story in the anthology is “The Twisted Hands.” It’s a five pager that mixes both the military and the horror comic…swimmingly. After the S.S. Zanzibar is plunged into the sea via hurricane, seven sailors struggle to keep their lifeboat from capsizing upon the rough ocean waves. Bobbing in the distance is their fellow crewman Sanders, screaming and struggling to stay afloat. After a little debate (and the liberal use of a club), the sailors leave Sanders to gargle saltwater. More typical morality ghost/ghoul revenge plot, but honestly what really sells these comics is Toth’s amazing narrative linework. You can strip this whole anthology of word balloons and you would have a perfect understanding of the story.
That’s why Toth has the reputation he does. He can draw a killer Zorro and a badass pile of Empire Ants that really stings your primitive ape brain, but where most of these discovered “lost comics” can be treated like nothing more than a flipbook Toth’s creation lends itself to the visual soak. Yeah, you can use Setting the Standard like bathroom reading but once you’ve consumed it after a few trips to the can you’re gonna find yourself lifting it off the shelf over and over again. Maybe not those lovelorn comics. Bastards don’t care about romance.
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