In September we told you about My Father, My Faith, an upcoming book devoted to comics and animation-art genius Alex Toth (you’ll find that notice here if you missed it first time around). Its status has shifted from “upcoming” to “now on sale” (more on that later), and I’m pleased to say My Father, My Faith more than delivers on its promise of being a Toth book like no other.
True geniuses are not — and cannot be — like the vast majority of humanity, because they see things others don’t see, they perceive patterns invisible to the masses, they set standards that are both impossible for friends, family, and peers to attain and a struggle for they themselves to achieve. The stresses and strains inherent in this condition, on the person in question and on those around him/her, are often dismissed as eccentricities, but are rarely broadly examined in biographical works that are more interested in extolling the fruits of genius than in examining the price of harvesting those fruits. Several print and video projects devoted to Alex Toth (including our own Genius trilogy) have presented the ways those stresses and strains affected Toth, but My Father, My Faith explores this aspect of Alex’s genius further than any of its predecessors. Author Dana Palmer Toth, as the eldest of Alex’s four children, is uniquely positioned to provide perspectives no outside biographer could offer on both her father and his family. Consider, from page 33 of the text:
“Noise was uncomfortable for [Toth]. He was hypersensitive to any of it, including four kids at the dinner table, or the phone ringing in the middle of a meal. Looking back, I can see that he was constantly trying to grab a piece of serenity — a seemingly impossible task.
“When I was in my teens, my mother asked me if I knew that there was a fan club for my father and his work. I had no idea. To me, he was just my father. He was someone I wanted to know, but even more profoundly, I wanted him to know me — or at least to want to know me. And yet it seemed that almost any conversation with my father was about his work … he didn’t know how to talk about anything that a child might want to talk about. I’m not sure that he, himself, ever had the freedom to truly be a child. By the age of sixteen, he’d already taken on the responsibility of supporting my grandmother. As a young boy, he also found himself breaking up physical arguments between his mother and father. He was a latchkey kid, and his art offered him company within the isolation, His talent offered him a future.”
That talent allowed him to craft images that set standards by which modern-day comics artists still measure themselves, but it exacted its price, contributing to Alex’s divorce from the mother of his children, wedging a distance between the artist and Dana and her siblings throughout their formative years, and increasingly isolating Toth as his dealings with editors, producers, fellow artists, and friendly fans often included — and sometimes ended in — bitter rancor. In her book Dana tells of circumstances that led her to end contact with her father for a decade; others reached the same conclusion, sometimes in a permanent manner.
It is well known that Alex spent years sealed away in his house high in the Hollywood hills, building an arm’s-length support network through letter, postcard, and telephone. My Father, My Faith describes heretofore unchronicled aspects of that period before taking readers inside its conclusion, during the “intervention” conducted by family and his best friend that convinced an increasingly-ill Toth to at last leave his huddling place and seek hospital treatment against his deteriorating condition.
Dana offers a sometimes gripping, sometimes funny, always honest account of the artist’s final years, in which he found at least a degree of the serenity he had sought for so long. She also unflinchingly chronicles the shortfalls in his medical treatment that threatened to prematurely send him to meet his maker (the quote that fronts Chapter Seventeen is pure Alex Toth, a remark to a stuffed-shirt doctor that is stripped to the merest essentials as it conveys humor and rebuke in equal measure).
Dana Toth Palmer makes faith a prevalent and prominent theme in her book, but the other major theme on display throughout is courage. Alex’s courage to live his life on his own terms has been discussed by many and is reflected in this narrative, but the author provides new perspective on his courage throughout his medical woes, as well as on the courage it took to eventually reconcile with several of those who had been close to him, to achieve a state of grace that in many ways made Toth’s last act his best act.
What Dana also displays without calling attention to it is her own courage as she illuminates how being Alex Toth’s daughter shaped her life (in ways good and not always quite as good). She downplays the courage it took for her to begin a reconciliation process with her father after ten years of separation, the courage she needed to advocate for her Dad in the face of concerned-but-wrong or indifferent treatment by members of the medical establishment, and the courage it took to put fingers to keyboard and tell this affecting story.
While examples of Toth’s famous doodles adorn each chapter page, do not come to this book expecting to unearth rarely-seen pen-and-ink gems. My Father, My Faith is not a book about cartooning or artistic process. Instead, it is a further and revealing portrait of Alex Toth, the man, one that brings dimension and vulnerability to a public figure who has often been depicted as being of dominating talent and domineering will. It is a story about chinks and cracks in the armor of modern-day medicine, and a reminder that it can be necessary to speak Truth to those wielding power that may be the difference between life and death. Most of all, this is a love story that guides its readers along the often-rocky road of affection between a father too often consumed by his talents and a daughter whose faith and, yes, courage helped make possible the genius’s last, best act.
How does one obtain a copy of My Father, My Faith? Surely your local independent brick-and-mortar book store can order a copy for you, and it is always a noble practice to support such businesses. If you’re more of a 21st Century buyer who prefers zapping about in the realm of bits and bytes, the mega-seller has a page devoted to the book, and has its audiobook version available, here. The brick-and-mortar chain with a strong on-line presence and two red circles in its brand motif is also offering the book right here.
Perhaps the most advantageous way to order it is from Dana’s dedicated and secure My Father, My Faith webpage. In appreciation for ordering directly from the site, Dana is including the cost of any state sales tax and media-mail-rate shipping in the price of the book. Talk about “an offer you can’t refuse …”!
My final observation: with the holidays approaching, I’m obtaining extra copies as presents for select family members and a good friend. My hope is that, by reading of the Toth family’s courage, My Father, My Faith will help them reaffirm (or perhaps recognize for the first time) the courage they displayed while navigating their own brushes with the Medical Establishment, or working through their own difficult relationships with parents, or bestowing loving care on aging relatives. That seems a gift well worth the giving.