Man of My Heart by Toth

Toth, Alex (art). “Man of My Heart.” New Romances 16 (June 1953). Reprinted in: Alex Toth: Edge of Genius v.2. Ed. by Pure Imagination, 2008. ISBN: 1566840561.

I’ve had the two volumes of Alex Toth: Edge of Genius on my “to review” shelf/pile for quite awhile. I finally decided that I’ll just write about one of the stories, the last one in volume 2 (theoretically the most recent of all the stories in these volumes[1]) and one of the most refined looking of these stories from the earlier part of Toth’s career.

This is a bit of a ramble, as I read/write my way through the story. I didn’t want to reproduce the whole story here, but I have included a lot of images to keep my commentary comprehensible.

“Man of My Heart” is a ten page romance comic, here reprinted in black and white, originally uncredited (it doesn’t take an expert to know Toth drew it). The story is not horrible, and not nearly as formulaic and cliche-ridden as some of the romance comics I’ve read, but I came for the art.

from page 1

from page 1

Page one starts with a large splash panel which acts as a title page and teaser for the story (which would be only one of a few stories in a single pamphlet), showing a non-diegetic scene that immediately sets-up the basic plot of a woman choosing between two men. That the woman’s eyes are on the older man to the right, might lead us to believe he is the one she chooses. Like you see in a lot of shojo manga (which this would have pre-dated) Toth puts floating iconography in the background of the panel: a field of hearts, a torch (I assume as in, “carrying a torch” for someone, in this case the man who is her boyfriend when the story starts), and an hourglass (the age of the man on the right and the sense for him of time passing (time to settle down)). Very nice balance of blacks on this panel (something that Toth is an expert and thus probably not worth mentioning again except for something particularly amazing).

Following the splash is a large block of narration. With only three exceptions, Toth always places the narration in its own panel, instead of the more common caption boxes inside an image panel. This serves to separate the narration by text from the narration through image. When the narration is longer (as is the case in many of these panels) it is less likely to crowd out the artwork, as it would if placed in a panel. It also keeps Toth from needing to fully illustrate the narration. He can let it sit and then move onto the scenes.

The narration is also, as is the case with a great many of these stories, demarcated by quotation marks as a kind of verbal narration by the female protagonist. Genette calls this a homodiegetic narrator because the narrator is also inside of the narrative itself. We are hearing the story focalized through her. We don’t know what the other characters are thinking (or what they do when she is not around).

This first panel of narration introduces us to the conflict in the story (choosing between two men) and immediately introduces the first man, Jim, the “friend since childhood.” The third panel then shows us Jim and through his word balloon, names the protagonist, Pris. We also get enough hint of the setting to know this is a small town or suburbs (picket fences not being common in cities), which is probably all you need to know.

The writer doesn’t wait in introducing suitor number two. Dan London (a name which gives him a British aura) appears on panel two (I’m counting the narration panels) of page two, typed quickly–with some grey at his temples, hat and cane, and cravat–as an older gentleman. Also, we discover, he is a friend of Pris’s recently deceased father (and yes, on page six Jim does make a crack about Dan as a “father image” for Pris).

Top two-thirds of page 2.

Top two-thirds of page 2.

Panel two, with Dan leaning towards the doorway and Pris just pushing into the panel, almost looks as if it were a prelude to a kiss. A bit of foreshadowing perhaps. I love how the doorway is just a series of black and white strips of differing widths, this is a common tactic by Toth. He manages to abstract elements down to bare essentials without losing clarity.

Toth tends to overlap and flatten characters into panels. In panel three, Pris has been flattened into a silhouette which slightly overlaps Dan in the background. Toth, in general uses a lot of flattened perspectives in his panels, often creating scenes that look like a bunch of flat objects stacked on top of each other. This may relate to his very rare use of renaissance style perspective, his perspective tends to be much more atmospheric in style. It may also relate to his tendency to not model his objects with shading/tone (with rare exceptions in this story with clothes (when they aren’t, as they frequently are, black)).

Page two uses some repeated patterns first seen at the bottom of page one. First, the bush/leaves in panels two and three behind Dan’s head at the door, then the lines of the curtain in panels five and seven.

In panel four we see the first instance of Toth accompanying a text panel with a small image beneath the text. The images are either illustrative or metaphorical. In this case, the image of Pris as a little girl illustrates the text. In panel eight on this same page, the text is accompanied by a heart begin struck with lightning, indicative of Pris’ new found interest in Dan. Throughout the story, these little images fill in the space of the text panels when the text does not fill the space on its own.

Panel six is a striking example of both Toth’s minimalism and his composition/cropping of figures. The background of the panel consists of a single vertical line that could represent anything: wall, doorway, window, corner, yet somehow it works there. Dan’s head is rather oddly cropped in the corner, mostly obscuring his expression, but does provide a focus for Pris’ gaze. This panel is another example of the flat composition/rendering. Pris’ black dress flattens her out considerably.

Panel six of page three.

Panel six of page three.

Page three continues Pris’ conversation with Dan. Panel six’s use of Pris’ bent arm, hand on her hip, to frame Dan’s head is highly effective. While Pris’ is the one talking, Dan, gazing up at Pris, becomes the focus. Pris’ pose, so sharply cropped, conveys a sense of her putting herself up as candidate for one of those “girls” who would find Dan “the answer to her prayers.”

Top tier of page four.

Top tier of page four.

The tier of panels that starts off page 4 is a great zoom in on the characters, who are shown only in silhouette (as is the roof at Pris’ front door). The moon seems stuck to Jim’s head for two panels them detaches in the third, as if that sign of romance has left him after the (between panel) kiss Pris gives him is less than satifactory. Also, the hand comes up to signify something between the two.

There is a great fullness to the rest of the image panels on the page. Toth composes and crops so there is little bare space, just flowers and cloth and paper and hair and skin.

Page five. Click for a large view.

Page five. Click for a large view.

A nice sequence of panel breakdowns begins page five with three shifts of movement from the first to the second panel. The waiter moves closer (another extreme crop in the second panel), Dan stands up from the table, and also the perspective shifts a bit to better show Pris’ face.

The four image panels that remain on the page are also wonderfully sequenced. They each have a growing area of black for either Dan’s suit or Pris’ (in some cases the two melded together, seamless). The panels also slowly decrease the (already small) distance between the two as the scene shifts from restaurant to car. Again the extreme cropping, which really increases the sense of the reader being right there with the characters. Also note the economy of Toth’s compositions as he fits the singer (her song having some significance for the story) and her band into the same panel with Dan and Pris. He doesn’t need another panel to set the scene.

The text panel which separates the dancing panel from the car panel points to the limitations of what Toth was working with. The text here is rather unnecessary to the story, it directly states the scene shift (which we can easily ascertain from the images alone) and adds little to our understanding of Pris or her feelings (which a lot of the text does do). I assume, in the manner of the times and the comics system, he had to include the text he was given. Here it only distracts from the images.

The next panel, while adding to the information available, is problematic in other ways with its “brutal savage and demanding” man who is still “calm and sweet” and “masterful and childlike.” Gag me.

Top tier of page six.

Top tier of page six.

Page six starts with a montage panel, which I’ve seen in a number of Toth’s comics. This is great example of a comics form of what Gerard Genette would call “summary” in narrative. A period where the time of the story is large but the narration is rather smaller. Much time passes in a single panel. This might also be considered an iterative narration, where a single instance in shown to represent a recurring event. The dancing and other events shown in this panel are events that, we can assume, occurred more than once.

A “Bam” in panel five as Pris slams down the phone after a conversation with Jim is, I think, the only sound effect in the whole comic. The one place Toth felt the need to emphasize a noise.

In the bottom tier of panels, Jim and Dan finally meet. The panels are composed so Dan is always above Jim. In the first panel he is just situated higher in the composition, even though he is sitting and Jim is standing. While in the second (Dan) and third (Jim) panels, each man is shown separately, but Dan is just slightly higher than Jim, but also looking down towards him. We can also note that they appear to be in the same restaurant as page five, or, at least, Toth repeats the exact same restaurant booth (economy).

Top two tiers of page seven.

Top two tiers of page seven.

Page seven find Pris and Jim arguing as Dan comes back to the table. His entrance in panel two is in the form of an extreme close-up of his hands tapping a cigarette at his cigarette case. This obscures Jim in the background, another nice metaphorical touch. Naturally, Jim and Dan must get into some kind of duel. Dan is still shown above Jim in the panels of this scene, even looking down his nose at him in one panel, with his long cigarette holder sticking out of his mouth at Jim. I’m sure we could read something into that too, particularly in light of their pissing match.

The panel that closes page seven, Jim and Dan on the tennis court, Pris, like a good woman, watching from the bleachers as men fight over her, emphasizes the distance between the characters. This is the only time we see all three characters in the same panel without any of them overlapping. This is the nadir of the story, I think, as Jim and Dan’s competition is at its most vehement.

Top tier of page eight.

Top tier of page eight.

Page eight returns the characters to close proximity, once again the panel is composed so Dan, cropped at a close-up to show only his legs and hands, towers over Jim, on the distant side of the court. I love the way Toth puts a tennis ball at the bottom of the text panel (panel two) and then that ball whizzes past Jim in panel three (though I would have had it going the other way, to the right rather than the left).

The full body images of Jim in action are the most awkward renderings in the comic. As if, in slipping out of the close-ups and extreme croppings, Toth suddenly wasn’t sure how to draw a whole figure. There is some of that same awkwardness in Pris’ figure in panel seven as she cheers on Jim and Dan in their second competition, swimming.

Panel three of page nine.

Panel two of page nine.

Page nine finds Pris rethinking her feelings for Jim, suddenly he seems more “adult”, and after saying he’s willing to “bow out,” she realizes she doesn’t want to be without him. Up to this point, the whole story has been against Jim, right from the splash panel. It’s a sudden change, narratively and visually. Panel two has a nice design, with two silhouetted heads (Jim and Pris, again cropped harshly) with a background of circles that mix well with the long line of circles leading from Pris to her thought balloon.

Last panel on page nine.

Last panel on page nine.

This is followed by a three panel sequence where Dan slowly increases in size from one panel to the next, in the last getting angry at a jeweler who thinks Pris is Dan’s daughter. Now Dan’s engagement ring seems wrong to Pris, and in the last panel on the page, it is Dan’s head that is obscured by a word balloon, giving him a kind of grotesque appearance of black coat, protruding chin, and long cigarette holder.

Panel from page ten.

Panel from page ten.

On page ten (the last one), Dan invites Jim and Pris over to his apartment and “bows out” of the competition for Pris’ affections. It seems he has decided the age gap is a problem. Panel five finds one last image of Dan standing between Pris and Jim, looming over them, followed by a panel of his head in profile looking down.

The story has its issues. I’ve got to wonder at the way Pris’ doubts about staying with Dan/leaving Jim are the primary focus of page nine, yet the plot has Dan bowing out on page ten to resolve the plot. The man has to make the decision, one almost imagines Pris would have just married him if he hadn’t changed his mind. The story would have been stronger had Pris been the one to make the decision. From the characters’ points of view, that would have been a more positive result for both Pris (making her own decision) and Jim (it wouldn’t be someone else’s giving up that causes him to end up with Pris). Alas, you can’t generally count on this type of outlook from a 50’s romance comic. Still, for the visual stylings of Alex Toth, it’s worth the read.

[1] Though the date in the book (June 1954) seems to be a year off from what I found in the GCDB. The latter also makes more sense with the other table of contents data (a story from New Romances 19 is listed as Dec 1953.