The restless Toth not only constantly changed his style with a zeal to learn more, he also seemed to sabotage himself with personality conflicts with editors and harsh public critiques of peers. In a 1970 interview with Graphic Story magazine, Toth said of his career: "I expected to have done a lot more with it than I have. I am my biggest disappointment."
Toth was born an only child in New York City on June 25, 1928, the son of a house painter. He developed his childhood love of sketching at the High School of Industrial Arts where, even before graduation, he was making money drawing short stories and small illustrations for "Heroic Comics."
In 1947, he got a big break when Sheldon Mayer, an editor at DC Comics, hired him to work on Green Lantern and Dr. Mid-Nite.
But Toth's guiding passion was not heroes in tights; his style was shaped by Hollywood swashbucklers, the romanticized adventures in Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip and, perhaps most powerfully, the vivid work of illustrator Noel Sickles in magazines and in the "Scorchy Smith" comic strip.
He sharpened his skills and, by 1950, had become "the finest artist that comics ever had," as his far more successful peer, Gil Kane, wrote in a 1977 essay. Kane added: "His focus was on picture making and its elements, drawing, composition, pattern, tonal values, depth of field and shape?. Toth's investigation into stating form and design with utmost economy lifted the craftsmanship level of the entire field."
Will Eisner, a giant in comics and the father of the graphic novel, said that Toth showed "a mastery of realism within a stunning illustrative style."
By the end of the 1950s, after a stint in the Army, Toth settled in San Jose, a rare decision in the comics and cartoon industry, which was concentrated in New York. Working for Dell Comics, he became a specialist of sorts in titles that adapted comics from television shows and film, among them "Sea Hunt," "77 Sunset Strip" and, perhaps most memorably, "Zorro," based on the Disney TV series.
Superhero comics staged a major revival in the 1960s, and mystery comics, romance titles and westerns ? the fare that Toth was given and most interested in ? moved further to the fringe.
Far from Manhattan's ink and paper community, Toth gravitated toward California's animation opportunities. He moved to Southern California and in 1964 did his first work for Hanna-Barbera, which made good use of his affinity for economical composition.
Toth appeared at comic book conventions and became notorious for his strident views on art and peers.
Groth, who interviewed and sparred with Toth on several occasions, remembers the artist as an outsider of sorts because his politics were "to the right of [Ronald] Reagan," and he detested what he saw as the celebration of liberal or nihilistic comics in the 1980s that earned raves but contradicted his personal values.
Toth's views on art, however, were sought out. His mantra was composition and storytelling above extravagance. He frequently told audiences: "I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into my work, and the second half learning what to leave out."
He influenced a generation of artists, among them Jamie Hernandez, the L.A. artist best known for the lean, evocatively drawn "Love & Rockets." He first saw Toth's cartoons in car magazines.
"His style was clean and simple?. There was no extra line, and every line was in the right place. He knew where it belonged," Hernandez said Friday. The younger artist added with a chuckle: "And he knew that he knew where it belonged."
In addition to his son Eric of Holland, Mich., and daughter Palmer of Mexico Beach, Fla., Toth is survived by daughter Carrie Morash of Evanston, Wyo., and son Damon Toth of Costa Mesa ? all from his marriage to Christina Hyde of Wolf Creek, Ore., which ended in divorce many years ago ? and four grandchildren: Alex, Wyatt, Ethan and Anya.
At the artist's request, no memorial service is planned. The family has set up a mailbox for cards: P.O. Box 1556, Holland, MI, 49422-1556.