This latest Fantagraphics reprint of Hal Foster’s wonderful strip begins with an insightful article by Mark Schultz, which says about everything I’ve thought that makes this strip so worthwhile. I have to admit the plots tend to become repetitive, and as wonderful as the illustrations are, the soap opera feel of the storyline becomes a bit tedious, but Foster shined for two things in particular—the breathtaking landscape scenes he did and the way he could draw a face and convey expression in it.
I’ve always liked to draw since I was a kid, but I have never been able to pull off realistic-looking faces. Foster was a master at this and someone we could all learn from. In this opening essay, Schultz talks about how Foster depicts Valiant and Aleta’s relationship through his ability to show their feelings for each other, as well as how they mask those feelings. Schultz says Foster was unique in this ability to reveal the characters’ internal lives through their expressions and body language, and I very much agree.
This particular volume picks up with the end of Valiant’s efforts to bring Christianity to Thule—and with rather alarming results. Valiant is shown destroying Pagan idols, something that in the twenty-first century I found upsetting and disgusting because we tend to be more open to diversity in these days, and while I was raised a Christian, I couldn’t help but feel the unfairness of this behavior, and when the destruction of these idols infers that they are false because they do nothing to avenge themselves, I can’t help noticing that Foster has the Pagans burn the Christian church down next, and the Christian God doesn’t intercede either, which leaves the reader wondering whether either God is real or exists, at least from Foster’s viewpoint. Of course, the Christian church is rebuilt, and then Valiant and Aleta go off on adventures, leaving the religious theme behind for now until later in the volume when Valiant ends up in Ireland and meets St. Patrick.
Valiant and Aleta part ways early in the volume because Aleta wants to go visit the Misty Isles, but Val ends up being called to help King Arthur in fighting against the Saxons who have allied with the five kings of Cornwall. By the time these battles are done, Val has introduced the idea of using stirrups for the knights, which is often introduced as a reason why King Arthur was successful and able to hold back the Saxons in several Arthurian novels that have been published since then, though I’m unsure who first introduced this idea into Arthurian literature—perhaps it was Foster.
But the real highlight of the volume, as Schultz remarks, is how Aleta manages as a woman to gain control in the Misty Isles, putting down a possible rebellion in her kingdom through her female presence and her cleverness. One of the things I really love about Foster’s storytelling is that while there are battles and swordplay and violence, many of the conflicts are resolved through Aleta or Val’s trickery and cleverness. It’s always more fun to trick or outsmart an enemy than to have to kill him. Bullies and cowards then end up showing their true colors and getting what they deserve.
A trip to the Holy Land, although not overly dramatic, but again with a little trickery to save the day, rounds out the volume along with the introduction of a girl character, Diane, who becomes friends with Valiant and Aleta’s son, Arn. Arn seems to have really grown up in this volume and transition from being a toddler to now a young boy; the strips from his viewpoint are refreshing, plus Diane appears to be a clever young version of Aleta.
The volume concludes with an essay about the 1954 film version of Prince Valiant starring Robert Wagner. The essay puts the film in context with what was happening in Hollywood at the time and changes in the movie industry, as well as discussing the film’s reception. It was rather a flop of the film, but it’s still a film I find entertaining (see my previous review of it at https://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/prince-valiant-in-glorious-technicolor-a-review-of-the-1954-film/), though it takes a lot of liberties with the strip. Apparently, Foster wasn’t too crazy about the film either, according to the article.
Volume 10 has just been released this month, so watch for my next review soon. In the meantime, Volume 9 has plenty to entertain.
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and the new Children of Arthur series, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com