Prince Valiant vol. 1: 1937-1938
Written & Illustrated by Hal Foster
Published by Fantagraphics
It’s possible, I realize, that I’m a little bit of a comic book snob. I can admit it. I’m not readily impressed by or enthusiastic about anything (with the cancellation of Jim Shooter’s Legion title, quite literally) going on in the realm of the modern superhero comics. The same feeling holds true for many of today’s over-amped, under-thought action films as well. Fortunately, I live in a golden era for the availability of classic adventure storytelling. I can go into Netflix Instant and stream Cool Hand Luke directly to my television. And comics publishers are putting out beautifully produced, carefully recreated, deadly-in-heft tomes of work from the three giants of adventure newspaper strips. The entirety of Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates from IDW is available in six volumes, all of which are easily among my favorite bits of escapism ever written. I’ve just started a similarly formatted run of Alex Raymond’s post-Flash Gordon detective strip, Rip Kirby, and so far, so good.
And, of course, Fantagraphics completes the triumvirate of adventure masters by giving me Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Published in the oversize Sunday page format ala the Fantagraphics’ Popeye collection (also, brilliant), Prince Valiant vol. 1: 1937-1938 collects the earliest of Foster’s tales of the exiled Prince of Thule. As editor Kim Thompson notes in his afterword, the earliest strips have a slight haze, as quality scans of the artwork (seventy-two years gone!) simply weren’t available, but only ten or so pages in, and the quality of the reproduction skyrockets. The colors are warm and vibrant, and the line art pristine.
The stories themselves are a delight. I’m not at all a mark for Arthurian myths, but Foster takes an interesting tack here. The stories are set in Arthurian times, but with the exception of Sir Gawain, they take only background roles during the strip’s first two years. In fact, the legendary characters sometimes feel as if they don’t belong in the story. Foster’s copious research into the geography and lifestyles of the era ground Val’s adventures in a sense of time and place, even if it is a time and place given to occasional giant reptiles!
Moving quickly from one point to the next, Val’s restless nature is quickly established. In only two years, Val and his people go into exile in the marshy fens on England. Setting out on his own, Val has a foreboding fortune told, becomes squire to Sir Gawain and joins him on two quests, journeys with a romantic rival to save a princess, encounters the man who drove his people into exile, challenges for the right to knighthood and warns Camelot of an impending invasion. As each page appeared a week after the previous, Foster drives the story quickly. Something happens on each page, and Foster still manages to fit in solid character work throughout. Val’s burgeoning respect for his rival Sir Arn is handled deftly, as is his desire to be treated as a respected knight of the kingdom. Each of the cliffhangers is consistently fraught with tension.
The art is consistently stunning, stuffed with beautifully detailed landscapes, horses, flocks of sheep, and Val’s beloved, wind-blown fens. Foster’s very, very good at creating a sense of movement, and the tiny details like how clothes lay on a body and how horse’s move and fall only add to the convincing nature of the narrative. The research and illustrative power grounds every scene, no matter how fantastic, in palpability. In short, each page is spectacular to behold.
Now, depending on your mileage, the pacing may be a sticking point. Valiant is, after all, a once-weekly strip, so there is a recap caption in the first panel of each and every page from the second strip on. This storytelling necessity does lead to some repetition. I suppose it would be easy enough to simply skim past the captions, but I found it most effective to read four to six pages at a time and then take a break. The stories were created to be read over time, after all, and the recap isn’t quite so overwhelming when you allow the story to breath. The extra time also allows the breakneck storylines a moment to linger pleasantly on your brain.
Personally, I felt that – when compared to other back-breakingly heavy newspaper strip reprints – Prince Valiant could’ve been somewhat thicker. Four years per book would give the reader a meatier chunk of adventure, and the tome would look more inspiring on a shelf. Of course, that’s nitpicking, but I’m allowed to pick occasionally.
So maybe I’m a comic book snob, but when publishers keep putting out work this great, why on Earth wouldn’t I be? Hal Foster is – rightly – regarded as one of the masters of the medium, and Prince Valiant is his masterwork. The strips in Prince Valiant vol. 1: 1937-1938 are merely the first installment of a massive, groundbreaking, and thoroughly exciting adventure saga that was better than nearly anything during its time, and remains better than nearly anything on the shelves today.