Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hot Wheels #4

Hot Wheels #4 (On Sale: July 21, 1970) has a nice cover by Alex Toth.  After the last couple of covers by Neal Adams it is nice to see Toth back representing, what is basically his book. Everyone attributes this cover to Toth alone, but it looks like Dick Giordano's inks to me, particularly when compared to the interior art that is 100% Alex Toth.

Hot Wheels was an interesting book. It is based on a Saturday morning cartoon, based on a children's toy (maybe the first ever), and it has no right to be anything but pure marketing bullshit. Yet, this book was far from bullshit and the reason for that was Alex Toth.

Toth had designed the characters for the cartoon, so was a natural for the comic book. He really put some extra effort into these books, elevating them to something probably no one expected. This book was as doomed as the TV show it was based on, which was yanked off the air by the Federal Trade Commission who deemed it not an actual cartoon, but a half-hour ad for Hot Wheels toys.

The elevation from toy ad to work of art is easy to see in this issue as Toth just lets it all hang out. "Eye of the Storm!" is by Len Wein and Alex Toth and, if their was a god, would be reprinted multiple times by now. A book about kids who like to race cars should be anything but moody and gritty, yet that is what much of Hot Wheels was like, at least these few issue where Toth was allowed to ink Toth. The guys are out at a dune buggy race at Cove Beach unaware that a huge storm has dramatically changed course and is bearing down on them.

Toth uses his neat clean style to juxtapose the seemingly calm, yet increasingly worried, weather bureau with the hectic, frantic action of the gritty race, splitting the two with a ticking clock and bringing the storm and the kids closer and closer together. When the race is halted all of the drivers stop except Hank Jeffries who wants to win so badly that he refuses to give up; the results are disastrous.

Toth manages to give us a grand two page spread of automotive excitement and carnage, accentuated by his mastery of sound effects, the final results in dark silhouette. The clean bold lines he is employing are contrasted with a gritty grease pencil.

The kids and Jack's dad, Mike Wheeler, head off to the hospital to see how Hank is doing. Later when Hank is out of the woods Commissioner Martin asks Mike if the Hot Wheels can help him. It seems Professor Ben Moss, the old meteorologist who lives at the weather station atop Oak Mountain had been delivered some meds the day before that ended up being the wrong meds. The druggist discovered his error but they only have five hours to get Professor Moss the antidote or he will die. With the weather front coming in, getting there in time seems impossible, except for maybe by dune buggy.

They quickly refit one of their buggies for the rough, muddy terrain and Jack is ready to leave when Tank informs him that he will be going as well. Once on the road, Tank confesses that he had to come with Jack because Ben Moss is his grandfather. It ends up they have not talked in years, since Tank decided not to follow his grandfather's career and instead started working for Jack's father on cars.  Tank wants one last chance to make his grandfather understand the choices he has made for himself.

This is a silly book about kids who race cars, but Toth doesn't treat it that way. From the grainy washed-out panel of the rain pouring down on the car in town to the somber emotion inside the car, to the power of the buggy churning mud on the way up the hill this work just reeks of moody humanity. Toth is putting on an exhibition of how the art can elevate the story way beyond what it deserves.

Toth takes the ride up Oak Mountain and turns it into a thing of harsh, stark reality. A landslide almost gets them blocking their return route and sending them into the dark depths of a tunnel. On the other side, the world can only be seen in the lights of their buggy as they bounce off the rain-soaked landscape. Toth pulls no punches here, he gives us a work of wet dripping wonder, harshly illuminated.

Suddenly a tree blocks their way and the boys work together in the pouring rain to wench the tree from their path. That leads them to an old bridge that they barely make it across, but in doing so the bridge collapses, trapping them on the mountain for sure.

Mile after mile rolls by and finally they make it to the weather station and Hank's grandfather. They are just in time to give him the antidote. When his grandfather recovers Hank explains that they got up the mountain in a car that he built with his own hands, that that is where his love lies and he was sorry he let his grandfather down.

Ben says that he was the one who was wrong and should have let Tank follow his heart, just as he had done. Jack announces that the storm is breaking and a medevac helicopter should be coming up for Professor Moss.

The back-up story is "The Powderpuff Run" by Len Wein and Ric Estrada. I have always had a fondness for Ric's work, but he really suffers here in comparison to the master's course given by Toth.

Due to, I am sure, licensing issues none of the Hot Wheels books have ever been reprinted, nor are they likely to be reprinted in the future. If you want to see this amazing work, you need to find original copies.

The entire thing is edited by Dick Giordano.

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