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Prince Valiant Vol. 1 hal Foster

Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 by Hal Foster

Because it’s the 75th anniversary of the Prince Valiant comic strip this month, I thought I would summarize and review the first volume of the series, now reprinted by Fantagraphics Book, which covers the first two years of the series in print. Fantagraphics is planning to reprint hopefully the entire series, but so far the first five have been released (the 5th is coming in March actually).

The Prince Valiant strip is subtitled “In the Days of King Arthur” and consequently some people have been skeptical about whether it really belongs in the Arthurian canon. In truth, it is often marginal as Valiant goes off on adventures on the Continent, far from King Arthur’s court, but Camelot remains home base throughout the series. Following is a summary of what occurs in this first volume. I usually don’t like to give away full plots, but since this volume is the beginning of the story, it’s important to clarify just how much of the strip is relevant to King Arthur.

The story begins with the King of Thule and his family being forced to flee from their country. They go to Britain, fighting the locals to land on the shore. At this time, Prince Valiant is just a boy. He looks to be between about ages six and eight in the strip. King Arthur, to keep the peace, allows the King and his faithful followers to settle in the Fens, a marshy area where the people live on islands in a swamp and make their way through the swamps on boats and rafts. Lizard type monsters are also hiding in the Fens.

Valiant grows up in this environment until he approaches manhood. One day, after fighting one of the monster lizards, Valiant sees a mysterious light far off in the Fens and is determined to find its source. In the process Valiant is attacked by a monster who turns out to be a “huge misshapen man, horrible in his deformities.” Valiant wounds the man but then cares for him and takes him home to his mother, who turns out to be the witch Horrit (the first time she is mentioned her name is Horrid, but Hal Foster must have decided to change the spelling in subsequent strips). This meeting is significant because Horrit makes a prophecy that will haunt Valiant for the rest of his life.

As the witch makes her prophecy, Val gazes into the fire and becomes dreamy until he has visions of castles and armies, knights in armor, and then a king and queen, whom the witch says is “Stupid Arthur and his flighty wench, Guinevere.” She goes on to prophesy, “And you will confront the unicorn, the dragon and the griffon, black men and yellow. You will have high adventure, but nowhere do I see happiness and contentment,” and she tells him already his greatest sorrow awaits him.

Valiant leaves the witch to discover his greatest sorrow—that his mother has died. After grieving, Valiant decides it’s time to set off to seek his fortune. Soon after, he meets Sir Lancelot and his squire, and when the squire is rude to him, Valiant pulls him off his horse and beats him to give him a lesson. Lancelot is good natured but stops the fight and then rides off with his squire. The incident makes Valiant determined to become a knight. Eventually, Valiant finds a horse, learns to ride, and then saves Sir Gawain from another knight who attacks Gawain. Soon Valiant and Gawain have formed a lasting friendship.

Gawain takes Valiant to Camelot where two conspirators soon after decide to kidnap Gawain and hold him for ransom. They trick Valiant and Gawain to visiting the Castle of Ereiwold where Gawain is captured and becomes a prisoner. Of course, Valiant eventually rescues him. After the rescue, however, Gawain gets wounded in a fight with another knight, and Val has to take his place to go on his first quest to rescue the fair maid Ilene’s parents, who are being held prisoner in their castle by an ogre.

Once he sneaks into the castle, Val soon realizes the ogre is a fake with makeup to make him look frightening. Val decides to use fear, the same weapon, to conquer the ogre, disguising himself and appearing like a flying demon in the castle’s hall. In time, Val defeats the ogre and his men, and he rescues Ilene’s parents.

Val is in love with Ilene by this point, but she is already betrothed to the King of Ord. Val wants to stay and fight for Ilene, but Gawain has gotten in trouble again, kidnapped by Morgan le Fey, half-sister of King Arthur. Val goes off to rescue his friend, making the mistake of confronting Morgan le Fey, who puts him under a spell, but in time, he realizes his food is drugged and he quits eating so he’s in his right mind. Then he is able to escape from the castle. Val goes to Merlin, who works his own spell to scare Morgan le Fey into freeing Gawain.

Gawain is freed in time for Val to be invited to a tournament to celebrate the marriage of Prince Arn of Ord and Ilene. Val is determined to challenge Arn, but the challenge occurs on a bridge, resulting in Arn falling and nearly drowning and Val saving him. They plan to fight again nevertheless, but when they begin, a Viking raid occurs and instead, they become allies against their enemies. Before the battle with the Vikings, Arn gives Val the famous Singing Sword, which bears a charm and of course helps him to defeat his enemies. Despite his success, Val is captured by his enemies and he and Ilene are taken over the sea, while hoping Arn will rescue them. In time, Val and Ilene are separated and Ilene ends up on a ship that sinks, leaving Val and Arn heartbroken.

Once Val and Arn return to Camelot, Lancelot tells them they are fortunate Ilene drowned because now they are friends whereas otherwise there always would have been strife between them and Ilene would have blamed herself as the cause of it all.

To deal with his grief, Val returns home to the Fens. As this first volume ends, Val overcomes his grief and decides it’s time he lead his father’s people to return and re-conquer Thule, but before they can act on their plan, a major Saxon invasion threatens England. Val returns to Camelot to fight beside the Knights of the Round Table.

In addition to the strip itself, which is in its brightest glorious color because it’s reprinted directly from Foster’s colored plates, there is an essay in the back by Kim Thompson about the reproduction of Prince Valiant and the various plates, which is quite interesting to read, and even mentions a few of the more gruesome scenes in the story that were censored out. The book also contains a biographical essay about Hal Foster and an interesting interview with Foster.

The plot of Prince Valiant is more like a soap opera in terms of its cliffhangers at the end of most strips and its constant continuation with no end in mind. Foster reputedly was usually ahead in creating the strip by several weeks, but one wonders if he ever imagined when it began that the strip could run not only for many years but many decades and encompass all of Prince Valiant’s life basically. He had no need to plot it in a specific direction, yet there are still certain arching points to the story, including the prophecy that Valiant can never know happiness and the basics of the King Arthur story as well.

For people still uncertain whether they would enjoy Prince Valiant, I recommend getting a copy of this first volume and trying it out; then you can determine whether you want to continue to read the successive volumes, which would be quite a time commitment, but there are far worse ways to spend your time than with Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur.

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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.

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster

After 75 years, Prince Valiant still rides!

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

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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