Thursday, February 28, 2008

Artist Alex Toth & Walter Brennan

Today we have comic book versions of Battlestar Galactica, Buffy and even CSI, but this is not a new development. Back in the 50's and 60's, a comic company called Dell (most remembered for doing Walt Disney's line of books) released a dizzying array of titles based on then popular TV series. But these books weren't limited to genre, so there were comic book versions of everything from The Untouchables to Lawman to Tales of Wells Fargo to I Love Lucy to Sea Hunt to...

The Real McCoys. It's a show that seems to have totally fallen off the pop culture radar, and in fact I barely remember it, and then only from the few reruns I must have caught as a kid. Walter Brennan played Grandpa McCoy, Richard Crenna played Luke, Brennan said "Luke! Luke!!" a lot, and it was one of the many rural comedies popular in the 60's. Oh, and I suspect it cemented the "cranky but funny shuffling old man" image for Brennan, who was actually a much better actor than these comedy relief roles implied.

Anyhow, these old Dell books aren't particularly memorable. The cover of one Real McCoys issue features a full color shot of a smiling, bucolic Walter Brennan and this blurb: "The crowd goes wild when Grandpa McCoy enters his horse in the big race at the county fair!" But there were two things that made them cool. One, many of the tie-in books feature striking photo covers, in vivid color, that made picking up a Dell TV/Movie title akin to buying a swank studio still for ten or fifteen cents. More important, a number of these books featured artwork by Alex Toth.

Toth, who died just last year, was one of the best comic-book artists ever, with a spare but strikingly vivid and visual style that was all his own. I think it says something about his abilities that he could take on vapid licensed projects like The Lennon Sisters (think Partridge Family circa 1957), Lawman and the Real McCoys, actually do the actor likenesses AND still imbue the stories with that incredible Toth flair. His McCoys books are especially fun, since the inanities of television's view of farm livin' allowed him to draw chugging jalopies, pretty girls and horses on the run. Toth went on to design animated series like Space Ghost and Jonny Quest, but his comic book work is proof that you could be idiosyncratic and still work within the system... as long as you were really good.

Anyway, I know I'm dreaming, but in a world where it feels like every old comic ever produced is being reprinted in some glorious hardcover edition, a collection of Toth's work from this era would make my proverbial day...