This month, Hal Foster’s masterful comic strip Prince Valiant: In the Days of King Arthur celebrates its seventy-fifth birthday. Foster’s strip first debuted on February 13, 1937, and it has continued to be a hit with comic strip fans, Arthurian enthusiasts, and students of art and illustration ever since.
For many years, I’ve wanted to read the entire Prince Valiant strip. When I lived in Kalamazoo, the local paper used to carry it on Sunday so I got to read it for a short time, but never consecutively enough to follow the story. I had seen books printed of parts of the strip, but it wasn’t until Christmas that I was able to set out on my quest to read the entire Prince Valiant series. For Christmas I received Volume I of the Prince Valiant strip, covering 1937-1938, and published by Fantagraphics Books. I have every intention of reading the rest of the volumes which are coming out every few months and available at bookstores. I’ll write more about Volume I in a future post. Since it’s Prince Valiant’s 75th anniversary, I’ll blog about it throughout the month.
I first became interested in Prince Valiant when writing King Arthur’s Children back in the 1990s, especially because I came across the statement that Mordred had a daughter in the strip, and I’ve always been fascinated by depictions of Arthur’s descendants. It turns out, however, that Mordred is not Arthur’s son but his half-brother in the strip. Mordred’s daughter Maeve ends up marrying Arn, Prince Valiant’s son, and their daughter Ingrid (born in the 1987 comic strip) has been designated as Arthur’s heir while Mordred has been removed from the line of succession. My guess is that Foster chose to depict Mordred as Arthur’s half-brother to avoid the issue of incest in a comic strip.
Despite this disappointment for me, what little I had read and researched of Prince Valiant kept me fascinated. The first volume of Prince Valiant has an interesting introduction that talks about Hal Foster’s artistic style and his background. I was thrilled to discover that before writing Prince Valiant, Foster had worked on the Tarzan comic strip—Tarzan being one of the few characters in my opinion that ranks up there with King Arthur—so I hope to read Foster’s Tarzan strips as well some day.
Foster’s work is very impressive. You wouldn’t think a comic strip that only came out once a week was an arduous task, but Foster would spend about sixty hours a week working on it. Actually, you realize it had to be a big job to create the strip once you look at the art work. Foster’s drawing is superb, and he adds great detail to every panel of the strip. He also had to take the time to plot out the story, and he was usually 9-12 weeks ahead in creating the strip. He also spent considerable time researching the historical Britain of King Arthur and visiting all the places that he would include in the strip. Then he had to take the plot and break it down into week by week separate “chapters” and then each chapter into a panel or “scene.” Foster was a master at offsetting the visual and written aspects of the strip, and it is well-known that he was revolutionary in removing the balloons for speech. The result is something that is closer to book illustration than comic strip, but it is this superior style that has made Prince Valiant endure all these years.
Foster is also great at creating diverse characters and keeping the story moving in multiple directions as well as reintroducing characters as needed. For example, Valiant travels to Camelot, goes off on adventures, and then returns to Camelot repeatedly which provides relief from the strict King Arthur story.
But after seventy-five years, does the strip still stand up? Yes, it does. I have to admit that I don’t think I could read it weekly and stay interested in it, but that is partly the result of our time period today. Back in the late 1930s, in the years before television was common, and far from the days of the Internet, when movies and radio were the primary forms of entertainment, people may have had a greater attention span and been willing to wait for the fulfillment of the cliffhanger each week. Today, cliffhangers still work with half hour television programs, but a strip that only takes a couple of minutes to read each week is a bit different. However, reading the strip in book form works well. I found myself reading about a year’s worth of strips, fifty-two per year obviously, in about an hour, although I paused to admire the art work numerous times. Furthermore, this new edition is beautifully reproduced, along with essays that describe the reproductions to create brilliant colors, and the price of the books at $29.95 (and selling online for about $10 less) can’t be beat for such large full color pages. Prince Valiant is still a remarkable adventure, and if it has a tendency to wander about like a soap opera rather than have a tight plot, that’s the result of the medium, and given its restraints, Foster knew how to keep it interesting for decades, and his successors continue to do so years after his passing.
Not long after the strip debuted, the Duke of Windsor (King Edward VIII) actually went so far as to say that Prince Valiant was the “greatest contribution to English literature in the past one hundred years.” I don’t know how much of a reader the Duke of Windsor was, but if that were true, it would make Prince Valiant more significant than anything written by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Bronte Sisters, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennsyon, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, J.M. Barrie, and countless other great English authors. High praise indeed!
In any case, Happy Birthday, Prince Valiant! May you continue to ride through Arthur’s England for many years to come!
For more Prince Valiant in all his manifestations from toys and figurines to books, visit www.PrinceValiant.org
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com