Taking Off With Alex Toth's Bravo For Adventure

Bravo for Adventure
Written and Drawn by Alex Toth
Published by IDW Publishing

“... strip it all down to the essentials and draw the hell out of what is left.” Alex Toth from his Points to Keep In Mind (As I Try to Do! (And Often Fail, I Might Add!)

The list of comic book artists I see when I look at Alex Toth’s Bravo for Adventure is exhausting. Jose Garcia Luis Lopez, Steve Rude, David Mazzuchelli, Eduardo Risso, Chris Samnee, David Aja, Tonči Zonjić, Mike Allred, Matt Wagner, Jacques Tardi, Jordi Bernet and even a little Mike Mignola and Jean Giraud are just some of the names that come to mind. And between all of those artists, there may be some connective tissues in their dna but they’re all very individualistic and distinct artists. That’s the reach and influence of Alex Toth in the world of comics even if at best his career was that of a journeyman, going from job to job without ever having a well known defining run on any one title or character. His uncredited Zorro comics from Disney may be the closest to a career defining work but then that just skips over so many other of Toth’s comics that are just as important and influential.

Maybe if Bravo for Adventure had ever remained in print as an evergreen title over the decades, then it would have been considered the definitive Alex Toth comic. Now IDW has published a deluxe edition of this comic that was originally created back in the 1970s for a burgeoning European comic market. Never published by the company that originally commissioned it from Toth, Bravo for Adventure saw a couple of haphazard releases in the late 1970s and early 1980s before completely disappearing from the comic shop landscape. Toth’s adventure of a Hollywood stunt pilot is right out of the golden age of Hollywood. The men are men and the women are dames. They’re tough but they’re still dames.

When you think about the New Hollywood movement in cinema during this time when filmmakers were working in familiar genres but pushing them into new, expressive views of the world (think Bonnie and Clyde or Taxi Driver as two prime examples,) Toth’s story seems so out of touch with what was happening around him. Not that he was paying attention to Hollywood but his comic owes much more to the old comic strip artists like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon. After years of doing all kinds of comic, Toth's original story almost feels like it could be another of those many Dell or Disney adaptations he did throughout his career.

The fun part of the character of Bravo is that Toth knows what he’s doing because he’s modeled the character after Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. He even calls out the likeness in the short feature “Who Is Jesse Bravo?” Bravo is the perfect golden age of Hollywood hero. He’s got the resume of an Ernest Hemingway character but with the personality of a Clark Gable or Errol Flynn. He’s a working man as much as he is a hero. And while his story meanders a bit as it tries to envelop filmmaking, stunt piloting, high crime and a bit of romance, Toth’s old fashioned charm is what keeps the book enjoyable but never makes the main story much more than a good yarn.

But you don’t come to a Toth comic for the plot or the characters. You come to a Toth comic for the art. The things that man could do with a brush and ink are skills that are largely missing in modern comics. It’s hard to even figure out where to start talking about art in with this book so let’s start at the most basic point- his line. For too many comics today, the line an artist employs is the least important thing about his artwork. When it becomes a mere contour mark or a border for the colorist to hold true and fast to, it usually becomes a utility piece in the construction of the comic. Sometimes that works for the aesthetic of the comic but in this digitally manipulated and digitally viewed age, few popular or up-and-coming artists have the ability to make a mark that has tone and beat and rhythm.

By the time he was working on Bravo for Adventure in the 1970s, Toth had already been a 20+ year comic veteran but almost every page shows that the man still felt the need to prove himself. Each and every panel is a masterful drawing, even the panels that are more abstract than representational. He wouldn’t waste any page with a rushed or unneeded panel. But he also knew what each panel needed so some drawings are incredibly detailed and show off his rendering skills. Whether it’s drawing a room with each and every chair shown or a dramatic closeup of a face, Toth lets you know exactly what’s going on. And then there are the panels that don’t need those levels of detail. Sometimes you need a lot of ink to tell a story. Sometimes you need just a few quick brush strokes.

And then there are the flying scenes. Could anyone draw a plane cutting through the sky like Toth could? The aerial acrobatics are never mechanical or technical. Toth’s planes are these sleek, weighty but graceful creatures in perpetual motion. Planes and cars were hardly ever just immobile apparatuses to Toth. In Toth’s comics, people just don’t get out of stopped cars. They jump or are ejected out of cars that are still speeding forward. But it’s the planes in Brave For Adventure that Toth is fascinated by. They represent freedom but it’s a freedom that has to be earned and mastered. Not everyone is allowed to fly with Bravo. Recklessness has no place in this story, mirroring the way that there’s nothing reckless about the way that Toth draws and tells this story.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a playful side to Toth. From all accounts, Toth was a creator who would not put up with fools and demanded the same level of professionalism and craft out of others that he expected out of himself. But when it came to storytelling and art, he was as prepared as anyone to follow his own stream of consciousness and go where whimsy may take him. In 1982, Toth wrote and drew a story where Bravo takes a hit to the noggin and then spend 17 pages in a hallucinatory state. So much less formal and constructed than the main Bravo story, this little oddity sees Toth playing and experimenting with his art. The only thing that remains structured in this story is its consistent six panel pages. But the panels could be a rendered and realistic image or it could be lines that remain abstract and formless.

Toth is one of the master storytellers in comics. He was an artist who could do almost anything from romance to psychedelia. While Bravo For Adventure may have been some lost classic from the 1970s, it’s hard to say if it’s really any better than any other of Toth’s comics because it was always so consistently excellent. What Bravo shows us is what we could have gotten from Toth if he was allowed to do more of what he wanted. For so much of his career, he was a journeyman storyteller. For all of his passion, he jumped from job to job. Bravo for Adventure gave him a chance to draw the story that he wanted. And that story was a bit old fashioned, a throwback to probably the Hollywood that Toth grew up with. Toth proves that it isn’t always the story that matters but the way that you tell it. The passion and skill that goes into each page of this book reminds us just how much can be accomplished with simple brush and ink.