1960s DC: mostly crazy but occasionally, just occasionally, pure genius. I know, I know. “Genius” and “Eclipso” in the same thought pattern? Hop in the time machine after the jump and I’ll explain myself.
You don’t need me to tell you that Alex Toth was a genius. There are plenty of people who’ll swear by it, even if “plenty” will seemingly never develop into “as many as Toth deserves.” By no means did Toth toil in fruitless obscurity — and yet he’s usually remembered more as an influence on the development of more prominent superhero artists, since so much of his work fell outside that spectrum. If there was a definitive title that could be awarded for Your Favorite Comic Artist’s Favorite Comic Artist, then Alex Toth would be one of the few credible contenders. Brian Bolland considers Toth one of his artistic heroes; need I say more?
A lot of Toth’s early work was for DC Comics — pre-Silver Age DC Comics, that is, illustrating the likes of Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. His most legendary comics work is probably his extended run on Zorro, which is well worth your time; from the mid-60s onward, most of his attention was focused on creating art for animated cartoons (like Space Ghost and Super Friends). In the scope of his work, his brief return to superhero comics in the middle of the 60s is something of an anomaly. For its very existence, yes, but also because it’s some of the weirdest stuff DC comics published.
1960s DC sets a high bar for ludicrous, brain-melting stories that seemed to embrace the idea of rotting children’s minds wholeheartedly. In recent years, spearheaded by Chris Sims (unless someone else was doing it first), the Internet’s been reintroduced to the glory of the craziest of all the crazy DC writers, Bob Haney. He’s the guy who pitted the Teen Titans against hippie biker gangs, created the Biblical horror-host Cain (later repurposed by Neil Gaiman in The Sandman), and gave us the fantastically bizarre saga of the Super-Sons. He also gave the world Eclipso.
The premise of Eclipso is familiar to anyone who’s seen Fight Club (and if you haven’t, sorry for spoiling it, but come on, it came out like fifty years ago). Dr. Bruce Gordon is a handsome man’s-man scientist in the Silver Age tradition, except that whenever an eclipse (real or simulated) happens, he turns into Eclipso, an evil maniac in a weird costume. This is because of magic diamonds or something. Don’t try to puzzle out the whys and wherefores; leave that to Geoff Johns. This is the Silver Age. Just roll with it.
Haney and Toth only worked together on Eclipso for five issues — House of Secrets #63-67, all of which are in that Showcase: Eclipso TPB they did a year or two ago — but those five issues are probably the pinnacle of Crazy Old Silver Age DC. Not only are the stories cheerfully, freewheelingly insane — they’re wedded to art that dares to give these absolutely baffling scenarios some degree of credulity. By this point in his career, Toth wasn’t really a superhero artist anymore; he handles these strips as if they were spy comics or something, rooting them in believable architecture and skilled, subtle character acting. Eclipso himself is a transplant from the horror comics Toth also drew, even his facial structure standing apart from anyone else in the cast. These days, we take it for granted that totally crazy ideas should be rooted in some degree of believability, balancing the fantastic with the realistic. Comics have been on that postmodern kick for ages. This was 1964, though!
It’s one thing to say that this juxtaposition of lunatic stories and plausible illustration paved the way for Bryan Hitch or Brian Bolland or J.G. Jones or whoever else. Are the actual comics any good? I obviously think so, or I wouldn’t have written all this. Each story more or less marches to the same beat — Gordon tries to rid himself of Eclipso and/or enjoy a normal life; Eclipso busts loose, but is contained; Gordon ruminates on how Eclipso will one day return. But it’s the art that keeps me coming back, that keeps me poring over the pages and wondering how it is that Toth had such a knack for finding just the right line. In Our Army at War #241, nearly a decade later, Haney and Toth reunited for a brief little Christian blurt of a story about the crucifixion (you know which one), and while the story is hammy and heavy-handed, it deserves its reputation simply for containing the most dramatic, powerful illustration of Jesus I’ve ever seen. Toth was the sort of artist who took mediocre stories and made them great.
I’ll admit that I have zero interest in whatever Eclipso is up to these days, and even the other stories in Showcase: Eclipso don’t really hold up to more than that first cursory reading on any level beyond “ha ha ha, what the shit.” But for fifty pages or so, Eclipso was awesome, because Alex Toth willed it so. If you’ve never read the guy’s work, then let this be your gateway drug. The first hit’s free; next you’ll be like me, shivering in the street, a fistful of crumpled cash in your waxy palm as you wait for the store to open so you can cop IDW’s Genius, Isolated hardcover, then scurry home to mainline it, only to realize that there’s still so much more of the man to be discovered.