Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, opened once a month to champion a book that we adore and you should read. The latest: Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938, published in 2009 by Fantagraphics Press.
by Arpad Okay. Nearly a hundred years has passed since Harold Foster started Prince Valiant. You’d recognize the hair first, of course, then the sword, the surroundings, who could it be but Val. The only knight-errant with a full color page in the Sunday funnies. The son of an exiled king, a natural adventurer, a font of courage and kindness: he’s legendary for a reason. Made in the 1930s, looks like the 70s, in the 2020s Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 is both historical record and objet d’art.
Much of what endures about Valiant comes from Hal Foster’s touch. The art is sublime. What gets the reader turning pages instead of skating across the pure aesthetic is Foster’s storytelling prowess. As a writer, he understood the pacing of his medium perfectly. How does one balance the epic scope of a hero’s story with one-page-at-a-time storytelling? Foster on the weekly shows feats of skill that prove Val a badass again and again. Last week he stole a horse. This week he encounters riders on the road. Next week, the castle they were keeping him from.
It’s when you step back and look at the whole that you see each act of valor as a stone in a mosaic, the portrait of a hero. Each swordfight, joust, every arrow loosed from a bow flies along the path of an epic quest. The character deepens while the reading experience remains unchanged. At the end of its second year, Foster literally bookends what comes to comprise the first volume of Prince Valiant with Val visiting the seer of the fens. The first Valiant story in ‘37 of how the young Prince went from precocious to swashbuckler culminates with the witch’s curse: showing Val his future. The last story of arc of 1938 brings him back to his home in the reeds, but the Val who presents the bog soothsayer with the Singing Sword is not the same man. He has grown older and wiser for his adventures.
Foster’s understanding of how to use the medium is how I ended up with a book fifteen inches tall that won’t fit on any of my shelves. Fantagraphics has preserved the work in its original format, and how could you not? Just as Prince Valiant paces its overall story of character development with measured intent, it uses the sizable field of the Sunday paper to play with layout timing. A page can focus on a single event like jumping from the parapet into the moat. Or a (single!) page can start with action, use its aftermath to tie off the last few months’ ongoing story, and then set the stage for the next (indefinitely) ongoing adventure. There’s room for all that. Foster would change the size as well as the speed to suit the week’s story. There’s space for Val to take on fifteen men at once. When he jumps from the castle walls, the fall is down the length of the whole page, a foot drop for an inch-tall hero. Next week, Prince Valiant is as big as half a page in each panel: we are that close to him as he cuts a reed from the moat’s bank and hides, breathing underwater. Once the search party gives up, he is free to find Sir Gawain. Hopefully, they can make it back to Camelot.
It’s heroic romance, through and through. And by that I mean some fit dudes wearing almost nothing squeezing each other violently. Foster’s zeal for anatomy and dynamic action makes his work on Prince Valiant look like comic books-—contemporary genre comics—and not the comic strips made by his peers. The swerving curvy style of Art Nouveau and the Modern Style held sway over early comic strips, with hardboiled pulps like Dick Tracy looking more like Al Hirschfeld than Frank Frazetta. Hal Foster was on a whole other page. Instead of surreal, Foster went Classic. Prince Valiant has more in common with Doré than Beardsley.
Foster embraced realism, making detail the cornerstone upon which Val’s stories were built. Not just anatomical fascination re: fighting heroes, but in the natural world they occupy, and the trappings of battle. He wanted the arms and armor he was drawing to be depicted as truthfully as possible. Castles. Forests. Surging seas. A pile of clouds gathered at the horizon and painted by sunset.
When it comes to the figure, Foster was a sculptor in ink. The form is immaculate, simple because it is refined down to its essence. Each body captures physical presence but still embodies motion, the implication of action. Foster wasn’t the only artist in comics who was moving away from the old vogue in pro draftsmanship, but phew: look at where comics art went over time and Prince Valiant stands out as being years ahead of its contemporaries.
The focus is on the epic roots of romance, not the fantastic. Sometimes there’s Mystery, taking on a giant alligator, the swamp oracle, occasional errands for Merlin. But most of the strips eschew the hippogriff for just some knights absolutely blasting on each other. A Douglas Fairbanks amount of swashbuckling. Foster’s technique for staging exciting fights week after week was to make all the hits count by rarely showing them. The second before the blow lands when the beast rears up to strike, or the moment after it connects, shield shattered, barbarian sent flying off the bridge. Prince Valiant drew on the power of the dance to communicate the impact of the connection, rather than the moment itself. Foster wanted his fighting to feel ambitious and fearless and alive.
Prince Valiant was hot on the heels of Foster doing Tarzan, and swinging around on a rope, sword fighting against multiple foes, you can feel how the ubiquitous popularity of stories like Burroughs’ and Zorro’s were a key element in the genesis of stories like Batman’s. I really love that the demon mask from Prince Valiant has a legacy as Jack Kirby’s Etrigan. Hal Foster’s influence on comics was tremendous, but more on how characters interacted than how they looked. Kirby found a way to keep Foster’s influence alive; in an industry of epic storytelling where the pantheon eclipses the poetry, contributions like Foster’s are hard to quantify despite their importance. Hell, Kirby started out doing strips, too. The broadsheet is the earth from which superheroes grew.
Fantagraphics Books / $29.99
Written and illustrated by Harold Foster.
Introduction by Brian Kane.
Afterword by Kim Thompson.
Interview by Fred Schreiber.
Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 is available now. For purchasing information, click this.
Check out this 3-page preview of Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938, courtesy of Fantagraphics Press:
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