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Prince of a Lost Realm

By (September 1, 2009) 4 Comments

Prince Valiant Volume I: 1937-1938
By Hal Foster
Fantagraphics Books, 2009

From the first moment we see him, when he’s only a small child, he’s doing the two things we’ll come most to associate with him: smiling and fighting against overwhelming odds.

As a little boy he crosses a stormy sea with his mother the queen and his father the exiled king of Thule. Their passage is perilous, and their landfall no less, since every inch of this hostile new realm England is full of men up in arms against them. The exiled king and his followers are grudgingly granted a second exile, to a large island in the midst of a marshy wasteland, but even there the laughing little boy finds only wonders to explore, skills to master, thrilling dangers to face. He’s alive to adventure in ways his careworn parents cannot be, a stranger to fear or uncertainty, as expectant of good fortune as he is grateful for it.

He was Prince Valiant, and when his comic strip premiered in 1937, written and drawn by the incomparable Hal Foster, the odds were already stacked against him. In the then-booming newspaper trade, Prince Valiant faced competition from Blondie, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Li’l Abner, Terry & The Pirates, and a mildly well-known gentleman named Tarzan.

In getting to its top spot in the comic strip food chain, Tarzan was given considerable help by its illustrator – Hal Foster. An autodidact with a fierce work-ethic, Foster elbowed his way into the field of professional illustrating (ads for ladies’ corsets, and other such assignments) just as it was achieving its first great blush of widespread success at the hands of such masters as J.C. Leyendecker, whom Foster later confessed to worshiping. Through dint of industry (and, one suspects, likability – even late in life, when a certain jejune attitude toward life can be expected, he comes across in rare interviews as an effortlessly companionable fellow, with the well-mannered approachability so common in his fellow Canadians), Foster eventually got a shot at illustrating Tarzan, though he wasn’t United Feature Syndicate’s first choice and he had worries about prostituting his hard-won talent in a business notoriously unheedful of such talent’s needs.He quickly became a favorite of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, and small wonder, since he imparted to Burroughs’ best-known creation a visual patina of stoic nobility that almost all subsequent Tarzan illustrators have more or less copied. He became a favorite of the strip’s readers as well. Foster himself once ruefully predicted that it mattered very little who drew Tarzan, since people would always read it simply by virtue of the fact that the character was (along with Sherlock Holmes and Superman) one of the most famous fictional creations of all time. He may have been right (80 years later, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. is licensing no visual Tarzan media at all). He was also fast enough and disciplined enough in producing his Tarzan strips to develop a comfortable cushion of work well before that strip’s deadlines.

This gave him time to work on creating a fictional character of his own. Through work beating deadlines, he gave himself enough time to create Prince Valiant, and the rest is history – history brought back to glorious, indulgent life by Fantagraphics Books in the first of their new series reprinting the entire Hal Foster run of Prince Valiant, starting with those earliest panels in 1937 that, even judged against the stunning work quickly to follow, already shine with visual gusto and ambition.

The ambition becomes most emphatic the more you scrutinize the work. Foster often said he put in between 50 and 60 hours a week on creating the strip, and it shows in these magnificent reproductions, done in a sturdy hardcover with oversized pages and entirely restored colors and shadings (indeed, those of us who’ve seen Prince Valiant reprint editions in the past will need some mental time to adjust to how much we’ve been missing). The earliest panels of the strip show the slightly blurry, ink-heavy sequence-work familiar from much of Foster’s Tarzan work, but in remarkably little time (a matter of weeks only), Foster develops a new and very distinctive style, full of light and motion, rife with a thousand meticulous details.

Since the time of young Val’s earliest adventures is well-established in the strip – when little more than a boy, he journeys to the court of King Arthur intent on becoming a knight of the Round Table – those details of dress, armor, and especially castles (no previous comic strip had seen the like of Foster’s castles) were not, strictly speaking, accurate. The armor should have been composed of Roman cast-offs, and the castles should have been dumpy little affairs behind drab walls, not those soaring Norman confectioner’s pieces that fill the pages of this book. Such anachronisms prompted small avalanches of correcting letters from fans, but Foster took it serenely – he acknowledged from the beginning that his concern would be to give his readers the Arthur’s England they imagined, not necessarily the one that might actually have existed. The prodigious research he undertook for the series must be unique in the history of such backgrounding – surely no artist has ever studied so painstakingly in order to get all his details wrong.

At first, in the earliest months of Prince Valiant, Foster’s Arthurian England might easily be confused with the Cimmeria of Conan the Barbarian: monsters abound. As a boy, Val fights a ‘dragon’ that looks a lot like a plesiosaur, and he fires his arrows at a rampaging swamp-turtle the size of a Zamboni. But only a few installments later, this has sublimated somewhat into history: when Val saves his new friend Sir Gawain from a robber knight and Gawain decides to take the villain to Camelot for summary judgement from King Arthur, the whole party is at one point attacked by another enormous beast – only this time it’s a salt water crocodile! A salt water crocodile the size of a city bus, true, but such a size for such a creature is at least possible in recorded history (according to the Seminoles, anyway). And even at this point, the interplay of personalities that fascinated Foster so much is already overshadowing such Tarzan-style distractions: the robber-knight heroically tries to help Gawain and Val fight the crocodile (most of Foster’s true villains are not capable fighting men, and most of his capable fighting men turn out not to be true villains – we may never know how many creative types learned this particular paradigm from Foster; certainly the entire superhero comic book trade that grew up in the ‘30s leaned heavily on it, and Hollywood directors such as John Ford can be suspected of being Valiant fans), and when they all at length succeed in killing the beast, Val is outraged that Gawain would still seek to have the man tried before King Arthur.

The young prince naturally speaks up in his outrage before the great king, his queen Guinevere and his feared wizard Merlin – and so a career at Camelot is born. Val becomes Gawain’s squire and almost immediately accompanies him on a quest, during which Gawain is captured and Val must use his wits – smiling and laughing the whole time – to free his mentor. On the trip, Gawain is seriously wounded, and the large panel where Val finally gets him back to Camelot is Foster’s first genuine visual show-stopper in the strip: it’s a stunning composition, effortlessly leading the viewer’s eye around the sequence of actions all being shown at the same time – the knights at tournament being urged to halt by bystanders and handlers, the king and queen also calling a halt to the day’s fun as they take in the sight of Gawain leaning heavily on his young squire, and towering over everything the great keep of Camelot’s castle itself … it’s an amazingly deft depiction of a bright sunny day interrupted by bad news, and it’s given back all the vigor and clarity of Foster’s drafting table by the restoration job Fantagraphics has done.

Such show-pieces become more common as the strip advances and Foster feels his way with more and more confidence (needless to say, I’m eagerly awaiting future volumes of these reprints). The traditional nine-panel page is abandoned early on and only resumed when Foster has a great deal of pictorial exposition to get out of the way. Instead, he concentrates his deepening talent on how much subtle information he can pour into one panel, one frozen scene.

The result is astonishingly compact while at the same time feeling quite open, almost leisurely – and the process certainly applies to Foster’s small-scale work as well. There’s one little panel in a subsequent adventure – Gawain’s been kidnapped again (this time by the lovelorn sorceress Morgan Le Fay), and after Val escapes her clutches, he goes to Merlin in search of supernatural aid. The panel where he finds the old sorcerer in his chamber is so thick with mood that it seems almost insulting to call it cinematic, since so few movies actually succeed in creating such an atmosphere.

Certainly there is no such atmosphere in the 1954 20th Century Fox movie of Prince Valiant. The film starred a vacant Jane Leigh, a visibly preoccupied James Mason (who nearly died during a horse-riding accident on the set), and a dramatically handsome and dramatically miscast Robert Wagner as Prince Valiant. Foster was paid a very large lump sum for his cooperation, but he never really troubled to conceal his disappointment with Hollywood’s handling of his characters. And that disappointment is easily understood: director Henry Hathaway’s behemoth “cast of thousands!” approach is furlongs away from the dashing, quick-footed ethos of the comic strip – indeed, Prince Valiant has never been more fitting fare for movie adaptation than right now in today’s youth-crazed and hyperkinetic entertainment market (Stephen Moyer, enjoying current success in HBO’s True Blood, starred in a ‘90s version of Prince Valiant, but his performance was hampered by the fact that a) he was roughly 50 years too old for the part and b) he hasn’t so far in his life been seen to smile – close friends and relatives wonder if he’s even anatomically capable of it; a 2010 version of the comic would be best served by a happy star who’s actually a teenaged boy at the time of filming).

Hollywood misfires notwithstanding, the comic strip Prince Valiant went from strength to strength, and some of its earliest triumphs are captured in this volume – including what is arguably its single most characteristic touchstone moment. This occurs at the climax of a storyline in which young Val, love-struck over the beautiful maiden Ilene, has been heartbroken to learn that she’s betrothed to another, the young Prince Arn. Val vows to fight and even kill Arn in order to win Ilene, but he’s stymied by the eruption of one adventure after another, as well as by the fact that, despite everything, Arn is … well, he’s a good guy. He and Val share many perils together, and it’s impossible for them to truly dislike each other (again, in Foster’s fantasy world, good fighters are always ultimately good people).

At one point the two are rushing to rescue Ilene from the clutches of Viking raiders when Val’s horse is injured. Thinking only of Ilene’s safety, Val urges Arn to ride on to her rescue – he pledges to hold the bridge over Dundorn Glen against all comers, to give Arn the lead he needs to get away. Arn is moved and gives Val Flamberge, the fabled “Singing Sword” forged by the same enchanter who made Excalibur. As Arn rides off, Val resolutely takes his place on the narrow bridge and faces the oncoming horde of Viking warriors.

The large panel that follows is rightly considered not only one of Foster’s best but a high point in the history of fantasy art. The composition is as simple as it is stirring – one lone fighter against innumerable odds.

Cheesy stuff, perhaps, but there wasn’t a reader of the paper that day whose heart didn’t catch a little in his throat. Fantagraphics has given us that spectacular moment again in all its glory, and for that every reader of fantasy owes them a vote of thanks.

Of course, looking at that panel again in 2009 can’t help but bring other, grimmer thoughts to mind. We hear every day of the mounting threat material costs and new media present to the institution of the print newspaper, and enough of these venerable institutions have folded in the last decade to give these warnings heft. In such a context, the sprawl of the full-color Sunday comics (just begging to be spread out on the living room floor and soaked up while laying flat on your belly with your dogs beside you) already feels willfully old-fashioned – and perhaps doomed. Comic strips have already started migrating to the Internet, and no doubt new possibilities open up there.

But old intangibles are lost there too, one fears forever. The look and feel of the Sunday comics, the ease with which those panels could transport you to other worlds, even the brittling and yellowing of the pages you loved enough to save … this tactile, aesthetically interactive world will be lost in the move to jpegs and pdfs, and much of the wonder of Prince Valiant would be lost there as well. A great deal of that wonder is preserved in this Fantagraphics series of reprints, but the mind’s eye can’t help but picture Val on the bridge over Dundorn Glen, fighting bravely against a tide that must overwhelm him.

There’s something glorious in the fighting just the same. Hal Foster knew that when he first dreamt up a smiling young warrior in the days of King Arthur, and his vision abides.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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