Prince Valiant v.2: 1939-1940
Written & Illustrated by Hal Foster
Published by Fantagraphics
If you read Wednesday Comics, you should know that the entire venture – particularly Gibbons and Sook’s Kamandi strip – owes its existence to Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Those enormous pages were standard for Foster’s acclaimed strip, and the entire narrative approach and illustrative technique used in Kamandi was done in homage to Valiant. Fantagraphics is now reprinting those classic Prince Valiant strips, having recently released the years 1939 and 1940. It’s a great opportunity to find out why Foster’s influence is still being felt and acknowledged seventy years later.
In this second (the first covered the strip’s first two years, 1937-1938), beautifully designed hardcover volume, printed at the originals’ full-size to show off the full glory of Foster’s detailed Sunday pages, readers will find Prince Valiant aiding King Arthur in defense of England, working alongside his father to recapture the throne of his homeland Thule, and then sallying forth on adventures into the heart of Europe. Long campaigns against Hun invaders and a jaunt into the seat of the crumbling Roman Empire, Rome itself, occupy the second year of strips collected here.
Foster’s humorous, quick-moving stories charge relentlessly forward. With only one page per week, he couldn’t dwell overly long on any specific point – characters are introduced, circumstances set up, and Val must immediately react. Whether Val is plotting a way to upend a larger force or enjoying good times with old friends, Foster’s twist-laden narrative comes across with a casual warmth, as if telling of merry adventures around a campfire.
Similarly, Foster’s detailed renderings enforce the earthy grounding of Prince Valiant and his cohorts. Prince Valiant’s most obvious stylistic choice – forgoing word balloons in favor of blocks of text alongside the illustrations, storybook style – works on several levels. Firstly, it’s distinct and different, creating a reading experience not found elsewhere on the Sunday pages. Further, the text allows Foster to expand on ideas more fully than captions allow, as the flow of the narrative operates alongside, rather than within, the images. Finally, the artwork stands by itself, allowing scenes to breathe and reveal their natural majesty as landscape illustrations.
This volume’s introduction, by superlative illustrator Mark Schultz, expands on Foster’s other technical abilities better than I could, but every detail – the costumes, the animals, the ships and fortresses, the grass and rock, hair and body posture – exhibits Foster’s incredible talent for capturing the essence of a moment. Each page is, simply, a stunning exhibit of illustration.
With two years of Valiant strips in each book, and one book per year, Fantagraphics is bringing Hal Foster’s masterwork to readers at twice its original speed. If there is any criticism at all, it’s only that I want it much, much faster. The artistry, the witty and creative plot twists, and the evocative and charming characters all make for a truly timeless, and utterly enjoyable adventure comic strip experience. Any reader who appreciates the innocent high adventure of yore needs to get on board with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.