I finally got a chance to read Volume 13 of the Prince Valiant strip put out by Fantagraphics, and I don’t know why I waited so long. This volume is one of the best in the series.
It begins with a foreword by Charles Vess, who was offered the opportunity to take over the strip in 2003 but declined because he felt the strip had become crammed in its smaller format in modern newspapers compared to its previous full page, and that it would limit him, although he thinks those who have drawn the strip since then have done excellent jobs. But what I really liked about the foreword most of all was how Vess pointed out the morality of the principal players in the strip. He argues that the world would be a better place if more people read the strip and learned from it. I couldn’t agree with him more. I could definitely see how young readers of the strip would be won over by the sense of fair play and ideas of right and wrong in it.
As I read this volume, that point stuck with me, and it made me look for examples of how Foster presents moral values to his readers. I discovered that those values also made me realize he was ahead of his time. When we look back at many of the books and comic strips of the early and mid-twentieth century, it can sometimes be disarming to discover racism in them. However, at least in the strips from 1961-1962, that is not the case. Yes, there are the occasional evil Arab characters but there are just as many evil European characters. Foster had no problem in handing out the good and bad characters in equal proportion regardless of race or creed.
One place political correctness and acknowledgment of equality amidst diversity is apparent is when Val journeys to the Holy Land in this volume. In the May 14, 1961 strip, Foster writes: “To some of the pilgrims has come humility but to others the hardships of the long journey have changed faith to fanaticism, and to these Val pleaded: ‘Respect the beliefs and customs of others that future pilgrims be not endangered.’ Had this advice been heeded there would have been no Crusades.” Not only is this statement true, but it is criticizing Christianity more than the Islam or Judaism of those living in the Holy Land.
Later in the book, a Christian preacher, Wojan, begins drawing crowds of poor people to him, which threatens the stability of England. Wojan is innocent, Christ-like, and a bit of a simpleton, so he doesn’t realize his advisors are collecting money from his followers to make themselves rich. This episode in the strip speaks out against religious fanaticism. At the same time, earlier volumes have depicted Valiant seeking the Holy Grail and actively working for the spread of Christianity in Thule and England. In other words, Foster is preaching Christianity but in moderation rather than fanaticism.
Another notable part of this volume is that Valiant purchases a slave, Ohmed, whom he then frees once he hears how Ohmed was taken captive from his home where his loved ones were slaughtered. Foster not only repeatedly has Valiant travel to places all over the globe, but he also has Valiant befriend people from other cultures and make them part of his circle. Tillicum, a Native American woman who was introduced into the strip in Vol 6 (1947-1948), is one such character who plays a supporting role throughout the storyline. In fact, in 1953, her marriage to a white man will produce the first interracial baby in the strip. Ohmed, however, isn’t so lucky. He ends up murdered in the strip a few months after he makes his appearance. Still, that Valiant frees him and seeks to help him is a sign of Valiant’s generosity and Foster’s appreciation for treating everyone fairly.
Also noteworthy in this volume is that Valiant’s wife, Aleta, gives birth to her fourth child, a young boy named Galan. This event leads to Valiant’s oldest son, Arn, deciding he will abdicate his right to the thrones of the Misty Isles and Thule so his younger brother can have the throne and he can then simply enjoy himself. It should be noted that Arn gives no thought to his twin sisters, who are passed over for the throne—Foster isn’t that politically correct yet to let women be in the line of succession.
One of my favorite things about the Valiant strip is watching Arn grow up. In this volume, he is now old enough to travel with his father, go hunting and camping on his own, and truly become a man. Foster doesn’t give Arn’s age, but the drawings make it look like Arn might be about twelve or thirteen—he hasn’t had a romance yet, but it looks like he will soon from the way things are going for him—his female friend Diane is now afraid to undress in front of him when they go swimming, so Arn and his friends are definitely growing up.
I love Aleta, but she didn’t get a lot of time in this book, and the one week when we do go inside of her head, we find her remembering all the times Valiant has been “a magnificent brute” in the past, tossing her into a pond and even spanking her, and how she likes it. Again, not as politically correct as it should be.
Nevertheless, this volume was full of fabulous journeys to the Holy Land, Baghdad, Rome, and Spain, several stories of cleverness outwitting villainy, and just some all-around fabulous drawings. Valiant’s hair is also starting to look a little shorter and less girlish and subtly Foster is making Valiant look more mature—I suspect he’s well into his thirties by this volume and even Aleta is showing a bit of her age after her pregnancy. In their hearts, though, the lovers seem forever young.
I’ll be reviewing Volume 14 soon, so stay tuned.
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, Lilith’s Love, and the upcoming 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. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.