Friday, November 4, 2022

Prince Valiant Volume 1: 1937-1938 by Hal Foster

The consummate Old Master of comics art
For decades, the prettiest page in the Sunday paper was Prince Valiant, the adventure comic created and drawn by Hal Foster from 1937 to 1971. Foster continued to write the stories until 1980, with John Cullen Murphy as artist, which is the Prince Valiant that I grew up with. (The strip continues to this day, in the hands of other artists.) Prince Valiant was unusual in that it was a Sunday-only strip, so every installment was in full color, and readers had to wait a week between episodes. Foster’s work was extremely influential to the adventure comics genre, and he is hailed as an old master of the art form. From 2009 to 2018, Fantagraphics Books republished all of Foster’s Sunday pages in full-color, tabloid-sized hardcover volumes. Volume 1: 1937-1938 reprints the first 98 pages of Prince Val’s adventures.

Val is the crown prince of Thule (part of present-day Norway). When his father is deposed by a coup, the King, Queen, and Prince flee their homeland for exile in Britain. At first they are not welcomed warmly by the barbaric Picts, but then it is agreed that the Thulian royal family and their retinue can have some land in a fen (swamp) that nobody else wants because it’s a spooky place inhabited by prehistoric creatures. Though his family manages to lead a noble but frugal life on their island in the fen, Val chafes under the isolation. He wants to be a knight, so, seeking a heroic quest, he ventures off on his own. He reaches Camelot, where he meets King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Val is too young and inexperienced for knighthood, but he is granted an entry-level position as squire to Sir Gawain.

The storytelling is wholesome yet violent. Serving as an inspiration for boys everywhere, Val demonstrates impeccable ethics in all his doings, but he does kill people in battle. In typical newspaper serial fashion, the first panel of each page is always a recap of the last episode, and the last panel foreshadows the next. I never read Prince Valiant as a kid, though I did admire the pictures. I’m not sure I would have had the patience to wait for Foster’s stories to unfold over months, but when binge-reading them in the Fantagraphics volume they are quite impressive and fun to follow. You may think you’ve seen it all in this knights-and-chivalry genre, but in these first 98 pages Foster comes up with an amazing variety of adventures and plot twists.

The main attraction here, however, is the fantastic art. As an introduction, the book reprints an interview with Foster in which he says he spent 56 hours per page on Prince Valiant. It shows in his meticulously detailed drawings. It is also evident that Foster put a great deal of research into his renderings of castles, armor, weapons, and other medieval trappings. If one could nitpick on Foster’s impeccable art, it could be said that his drawings could use more shadow. The art of Prince Valiant calls to mind the intricate line work of 19th-century book illustration. I prefer the more heavily shaded film noir style of newspaper comics masters like Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond. Granted, the phrase “film noir” wouldn’t really apply to Foster’s medieval subject matter, but in old master terms I would have appreciated more Caravaggio and less Tiepolo.

Nevertheless, the overall effect of these first Prince Valiant adventures, as beautifully reproduced in this Fantagraphics volume, is quite majestic. Foster took the comics art form to a level of classical beauty it has rarely seen since. If there were a Louvre for cartooning, these debut adventures of Prince Valiant would be its Mona Lisa.

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1 comment:

  1. I grew up reading Danish reprints of Foster's art. First editions were so-so but second editions were lush - much bigger and better printed. The stories are sometimes a bit lackluster but, my God, the man could draw!