Comic strips have been part of newspapers for so long that people probably never give them a second thought. Those of us who read the comics have favorites we never miss, while skimming or skipping over others.
I’ve always tended to skim or skip over Prince Valiant. As long as I can remember, it was presented in the Sunday comics as just a few panels, but if it still appeared in its original full-page form, I might have read it on a regular basis.
Yes, at one point many— if not all— comic strips each took up an entire page. Prince Valiant was one of those; and thanks to Fantagraphics Books, you can read the early years of Prince Valiant as it originally appeared.
To date, Fantagraphics Books has released 13 oversize (14” x 10”) volumes (with a 14th due in November) of Hal Foster’s celebrated comic strip. Each volume covers two years and according to the cover blurb in Vol. 1, these editions are shot, for the first time, from Foster’s own pristine engraver’s proof.
Harold Rudolf Foster (1892-1982), debuted Prince Valiant on Feb. 13, 1937. According to an essay by Brian M. Kane in Vol. 1, he’d previously worked on a Tarzan strip. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was, “So impressed with Foster’s work on Tarzan that he promised Foster complete ownership of any comic strip he developed.”
Kane also writes that the saga of Prince Valiant was described by the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII, before his abdication in 1936) as “the greatest contribution to English literature in the past 100 years.”
Prince Valiant, or Val, is the son of the deposed king of Thule. He eventually became a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table and acquired a sword— Flamberge— forged by the same mage who created Excalibur.
Foster continued to do all the writing and illustrating on the strip until May 16, 1971, when he handed the reins to John Cullen Murphy. Foster would still do layouts and write and color Prince Valiant until Feb. 10, 1980, according to Kane.
Vol. 1 also includes a 1969 interview with Foster by Fred Schreiber in which Foster called Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, a great influence. “He was such a wonderful delineator of character,” Foster said. “I admired his work very much.”
Vol. 1 opens with the King of Thule fleeing from his enemies in a fisherman’s lugger and attempting to find harbor along Britain’s chalk cliffs. “The half-savage Britons opposed their landing”, the narration from the debut strip tells us. Eventually, the storm-tossed ship is “pounded on the treacherous sands” at the mouth of the Thames.
The Feb. 20, 1937 strip tells us that after some fighting, and a retreat up the coast toward the north, the king and his people are given the choice of fighting a losing battle or settling on an island far out in the fens.
The king chooses the latter.
For young Prince Valiant, in the Feb. 27, 1937 installment, it’s a “new world that promises mystery and great adventure.”
Val grows up quickly. By the March 20, 1937 strip, he’s depicted as a young adult; and by April 24, he’s ready to set out beyond the fens and see what awaits him. That one strip— which covers events of more than a year— also concerns the death of his mother. The narration tells us, “The fens that had caused his mother’s death have lost their fascination.”
Val encounters both a former childhood friend and Sir Launcelot (Foster’s spelling). Sir Launcelot’s squire soon learns that people who make Prince Valiant angry shouldn’t. Val’s an impetuous lad.
Which gets him into a lot of trouble.
Some time later, having captured and tamed a wild horse (and made his own saddle and other accoutrements), Val befriends Sir Gawain and comes to Camelot.
Soon after he arrives, he gets into a fight and is forced to stay behind while almost everyone else goes off into battle. That’s right. He’s essentially grounded for fighting and can’t go off to fight.
Not only is Val impetuous, he’s also clever and resourceful. When Gawain falls victim to a trap in which he’s to be held for ransom, Val single-handedly rescues him.
In a later adventure, Val uses a fearsome disguise, darkness and the overactive imaginations of the outlaws who have seized a castle belonging to a pretty girl’s parents to rout the villains.
Seems even Arthurian-era criminals are what Batman would later famously call a superstitious, cowardly lot.
In another adventure, Val distracts pirates.
In Volume 2, Val’s father reclaims his throne after being in exile for 12 years and Val himself is knighted by King Arthur. While Val returns to Thule for a time, he soon leaves to have adventures as a knight errant. These include several confrontations with the Hun. And, it seems that in driving some of the Hun from the Venetian plains, Val, Tristram and Sir Gawain unknowingly helped in the building of Venice. (July 28, 1940).
The final installment of volume 2 (Dec. 29, 1940), finds Val on a storm-tossed ship. The captain had intended to rob and murder him. Didn’t work out too well for the captain.
So far, I’ve only read the first two volumes, but I’ll read subsequent volumes at some point. While the knights in armor genre isn’t a personal favorite of mine, I still enjoyed reading those early installments of Prince Valiant.
I’m still not sold on the small-scale modern version, even though I did notice— and was amused by— the appearance in one installment in recent years of two characters who looked suspiciously like Laurel and Hardy.
The odds that we’ll ever return to the days of full-page comic strips are infinitesimal. Thanks to Fantagraphics Books, however, we can enjoy early Prince Valiant in all its full-page glory.
Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating