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Archive for August, 2021

The Prince Valiant saga continues in the latest two volumes reproduced by Fantagraphics, and I must say these are two of the best volumes yet in the series. Ironically, Volume 22 contains the last of creator Hal Foster’s contributions to the strip. He had already quit doing the final artwork some years earlier, handing it over to John Cullen Murphy, but through 1979, he continued to create the scripts and concepts for the artwork, until at age eighty-seven, he fully retired. The writing was then taken over by John Cullen Murphy’s son Cullen Murphy. With all due respect to Foster—for we would have no Prince Valiant without him, and his incredible work marked the strip’s first forty-two years—I feel there is no falling off in artwork after he left, and the plots, as evidenced at least in the first three years completely in the Murphys’ hands, may well be even stronger than in Foster’s original work. Having your successor keep up the momentum and quality of your work is rare indeed, and countless examples can be provided of works that have retained popularity but still fell off in quality when the original creator was no longer involved. One example is L. Frank Baum’s magnificent Oz novels. The series has continued for thirty-plus volumes after his original fourteen novels, but while they continue to be written and be popular, none of his successors ever really achieved the quality and whimsy of his original novels, as readable and enjoyable as many of those sequels are.

Volume 22 of Prince Valiant continues with one of my favorite elements of the strip, watching Valiant’s children grow up. We see his oldest son, Arn, now a squire to Sir Gawain and setting off on his first quest. Valiant’s youngest and fourth child, Galan, becomes a page so he can learn the manners of the court. The twin girls get less attention in these volumes, but they are ever present. Among the highlights of this volume are Arn and Gawain’s journey to the Isle of Man to help protect it from Viking raiders. In another storyline, Valiant is captured by brigands and sold into slavery, causing Arn to travel as far as the Sahara to find him, with a dramatic rescue happening during a sandstorm. Perhaps best of all, Mordred moves into the forefront of the plots beginning in this volume. In Prince Valiant, Mordred is Arthur’s half-brother, not his son, but he is just as evil. He begins to poison King Arthur to try to take the throne for himself, but of course, his plot is discovered. After Arthur recovers, he banishes Mordred from court, declaring “May your children scorn you and your grandchildren call you Judas.” This is a significant moment in the storyline, although the reader will not realize it for some time, but more of that in a moment. Several other adventures occur in this volume that I will leave for readers to discover on their own.

Volume 23’s highlights begin with a wild boy who comes to Camelot. When his presence leads to some tragic results, a female wanderer appears and tells Arthur and Valiant that they must pay for their pride. She then sends Valiant to find an old man in the Alps and ask him for humility. The quest has surprising results for Valiant, who receives from the old man a gold casket that he can’t believe is “humility.” When he brings it back to the female wanderer, she tells a story of how it contains her beauty, which she lost because of pride. She will return into the strip later.

Next, Valiant journeys to his father’s kingdom of Thule where he meets up with Arn. Mordred reenters the plot because he is in Thule, plotting behind the scenes to get his revenge on Valiant for foiling his plot to poison Arthur. He ultimately overthrows Valiant’s father, King Aguar, driving him from the kingdom and back to living in Britain’s fens, bringing the strip back to its origins, since Aguar refuses to take charity from Arthur. Then Mordred makes an alliance with the Picts and attacks Camelot. We are told many records of the events of this time are lost because they were destroyed during the pillaging. Valiant’s twin daughters and son Galan are sent for safety to Ireland where Galan learns a secret of the High King of Ireland; he then basically blackmails the king into going to Camelot’s aid. All is righted in the end; Camelot and Thule are returned to their rightful rulers. A dramatic fight at sea between Mordred and Arn as Mordred escapes results in Arn falling into the sea and washing up on the shore of a remote island where he meets the beautiful huntress Maeve. He is smitten with her, but she rejects his love, and through the rest of the volume, we find him pining over her.

Meanwhile, Aleta is pregnant again, to Valiant’s surprise. She decides to return to her kingdom of the Misty Isles to give birth to the child. On the way, she and Valiant visit Constantinople, where they meet Justinian, nephew of the Emperor Justin. Justinian has feelings for Aleta, but he also has a wife, Theodora. He wants a male heir, but Theodora, though pregnant again, has only produced boys. Through his evil plotting, Justinian has Aleta’s newborn son kidnapped, planning to switch babies if Theodora has a girl. When Theodora has a boy, the doctor who lied and told Aleta her son was stillborn decides to take Aleta’s baby and give it to a peasant couple. Eventually, Valiant learns what has happened, and Arn sets out on a quest to find his baby brother, who has been adopted by a Jewish family and named Nathan. As the volume ends, Justinian, now emperor, is plotting to kill all the Jewish babies to stop Valiant from finding his child, but Arn has just discovered him.

Interwoven into the search for the lost child is the story of Galan’s friendship with Yuan Chen, a scholar from Cathay (China) who makes the boy begin to be curious and think about math and science topics. Eventually, Yuan Chen convinces Valiant to let Galan travel with him to India. Valiant agrees but sends a guard with him. Galan and Yuan Chen have their own adventures when they arrive at their destination.

What I loved especially about Volume 23 was that often two plots were going on simultaneously, which made the pacing better. Frankly, in some of the earlier volumes the plotting got kind of boring.

Like all previous volumes, there are opening and closing essays. Volume 22 begins with an article by Cullen Murphy first published in The Atlantic in 1994. I loved reading it because I read it when it was first published in The Atlantic at the time I was beginning work on my book King Arthur’s Children. It was my first introduction to the Prince Valiant strip and revealed something interesting to me—that Valiant’s son marries Mordred’s daughter and their child will inherit Arthur’s kingdom. Although it would be years before I would religiously begin reading the strip, I was intrigued from that point on. Spoiler alert: In Volume 24, it appears it will be revealed that the woman Arn loves, Maeve, is Mordred’s daughter and a love affair will ensue.

The final essay in Volume 23 discusses historicity in the Prince Valiant strip, which is interesting because it points out both the depth of research Foster and the Murphys did to make the setting appropriate to the days of King Arthur and where they introduced anachronisms. For example, by providing a timeline of Valiant’s life, he would have to be ninety-nine years old to live long enough to meet the Emperor Justinian. Oh well, the storylines are fun if we don’t try to impose too much historical accuracy on them.

Volume 24 has an essay on art, including the role of nature in the strip. It includes mention of other strips that were influenced by Foster, including mention that he was himself influenced by Howard Pyle. The concluding essay is really a collection of the drawings/scripts Foster created to work from.

Overall, I would say these volumes created a real resurgence of interest in the Prince Valiant strip for me, especially with Mordred being brought more to the forefront. I eagerly await Volume 24, to be released in December 2021.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other novels and nonfiction works. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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