Finally, in Volume 12 (1959-1960) we come to the quest for the Holy Grail in the Prince Valiant strip, but not before some rather less-than-exciting adventures in Volume 11 (1957-1958).
I’ll admit that Volume 11 was a disappointment overall for me. It begins with a long essay about Pal Palenske, who was likely an interesting man as an advertising executive, but the essay’s point isn’t clear until the very end—that Foster worked with him. I can imagine that it is difficult to keep coming up with new essays for this series, but this one was rather marginal in its connection to Foster. I’ll admit not really being interested in Foster’s advertising work, so many of these essays are rather tedious for me. Of course, Foster’s artwork in his ads was marvelous regardless, but it is all tangential to Prince Valiant, which is the main reason why I read the series, and it’s not even Prince Valiant himself who interests me so much as what Foster did with the Arthurian legends in his strip.
Volume 11 has several adventure stories but some of them feel largely like rehashes of earlier plots. The big treat of the volume is seeing Prince Arn growing up and the adventures he undertakes, but overall, I found nothing worth getting excited over in this volume.
Volume 12 is a different story. First off, I appreciated Neal Adams foreword, which told it like it is. Adams describes his own indifference to the Prince Valiant strip growing up, and he hits the nail on the head in pointing out the strip’s faults. He says that the strip is not a comic book so the story didn’t flow as well. Valiant’s page-boy haircut was also a turn off for him. I have to admit both Valiant’s haircut and also his name are turnoffs. He sounds like some sort of romantic and unrealistic Romeo and he is decidedly lacking a masculine look most of the time. One exception being the opening of Volume 12 when he is enslaved, has his hair cut short, and is shirtless. Then he seems manly enough to be a hero. This raises questions of why the strip still appeals to so many people when the modern reader must see Valiant as sort of girlish and old-fashioned in look; even the 1990s television cartoon series cut Valiant’s hair to make him look more manly. But Adams goes on to discuss how as he got older he saw that Foster’s drawings were far superior to those of other comics—they are more like artful movie stills. He also credits Foster with trying to be historically accurate in his drawings, and I admit that I sit in wonderment at the details of the drawings and even how there will be layers of figures on top of each other which must have been incredibly difficult to draw. My problem is I read more for the story, which just doesn’t always come up to the standards of the artwork.
As for the stories in this volume, it is better than the last volume, although some of the plots are becoming the same old, same old, and tiresome. The major plot of interest is the quest for the Holy Grail. King Arthur asks Valiant to look into the truth of the Holy Grail because many knights have gone off to seek it and not returned, which is hurting the Round Table as Merlin had predicted.
When Valiant agrees to go, he and Aleta have a fight about it, resulting in his getting mad and spanking her. This act of brutality would not be acceptable in a strip today, and even worse, when Valiant leaves on the quest, ashamed of his behavior and thinking Aleta will never love him again, Aleta confesses to herself that she enjoyed being spanked and thinks of Valiant as “a magnificent beast.” I’m gagging. It’s disgusting to think women find being mistreated by men to be appealing—a sexist view of the time akin to the scene in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett is happy and smiling in the morning after Rhett rapes her. While Valiant and Aleta usually make an attractive couple and Aleta knows how to keep her husband in line, this was not one of her finer moments.
Of course, Valiant and Aleta will patch things up when he returns, but not until after he travels the land to find out information about the Holy Grail. I was both happy with the results of his Grail Quest and also disappointed that there were not more adventures along the way—there is no one achieving the grail—no Galahad or Percival having mystical experiences—but I can only hope this is not the last we have heard of the Holy Grail in the strip and Foster plans to do more with it gradually. The main highlights of Valiant’s quest is his meeting St. Patrick and later the Beaker folk, an ancient people who have been at Stonehenge one thousand years before the Druids. Ultimately, St. Patrick tells Valiant that no one knows whether it’s true that St. Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to Britain, so the Grail is probably not a chalice but “ a symbol of faith, courage and hope.” The knights, by questing for it, are spreading the message of Christianity throughout Britain, and that is what is most important. When Valiant returns to Camelot, King Arthur accepts this and decides the quest is a good thing despite how it hurts the Round Table.
This volume ends with Valiant and Aleta returning to her kingdom of the Misty Isles so her people can see Prince Arn, whom she wants to succeed her. Some tension returns between Val and Aleta at this point because Valiant wants Arn to rule Thule after him. The summary for Volume 13 at the end of the book tells us the couple will soon have another son, so I imagine this issue will be resolved.
I admit some of the strip has become boring to me, but yet, I read on, wanting to discover what happens next. As long as Fantagraphics keeps producing these books, I’ll likely keep reading and blogging about them.
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, and the upcoming Lilith’s Love and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly work King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.