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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).

PV11

Volume 11 of Prince Valiant.

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.

Volume 12 of Prince Valiant, in which Valiant goes searching for the Holy Grail.

Volume 12 of Prince Valiant, in which Valiant goes searching for the Holy Grail.

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.

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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.

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This tenth volume of Prince Valiant is full of the usual adventures, fabulous artwork, humor, and variety we’ve come to expect from Hal Foster’s greatest comic strip. While I would not say it is one of the best or worst in the series to date, it has several notable moments and some awe-striking images.

Prince Valiant, Vol 10 - witches and war just barely start to describe the adventures in this volume.

Prince Valiant, Vol 10 – witches and war just barely start to describe the adventures in this volume.

The story begins with Prince Valiant, Aleta, and companions leaving the Misty Isles. Because they wish to return to Thule, they decide that rather than sail through the Mediterranean and then up through the English Channel to the Baltic, they will journey to Constantinople, through the Black Sea, up the Dnieper River, portage overland, and then sail into the Baltic Sea.

It is a long journey full of danger, excitement, and dress buying—after all, Aleta insists they stop off in places like Constantinople and Kiev so she can buy new clothes and get a good bath. In the process, she often puts Valiant and his companions in some sticky situations, but her sense of humor and ability to flirt quickly get her out of them. At one point, she even finds herself married to the local khan, whom she then convinces to dance to his death for her, making her queen of the land—that is, until Valiant shows up to rescue her. No one seems to care that Aleta committed bigamy—after all, she was forced into it and played along with the monarch to buy time while never really stepping over her boundaries. If any woman in literature ever knew how to get herself out of a sticky situation with aplomb, it is Aleta.

The portage scenes were truly striking. Not only is the image of a giant Viking ship being rolled over land and slid through mud beautifully drawn, but the thought of such an undertaking is completely mindboggling, yet I am sure Foster is not exaggerating in depicting such an event.

Once the Valiant family is safely back in Thule, we get a good sense of how much Prince Arn has grown. Foster doesn’t give his age, but in the illustrations, he looks to be between about eight and twelve. And he is ready for his own adventures. Thule has issues with having enough food to feed all its people, but over its mountains lie pleasant valleys, perfect for farmland. Arn decides that finding a mountain pass to those valleys will be his first big adventure, and he wants to have it by himself, though eventually, he agrees to take Garm, a grown squire, with him. The two go into the mountains, but winter is coming on, so before they know it, they get trapped in a storm and have to build a shelter. They have quite the time trying to survive before they safely return home.

These winter scenes in the mountains are some of Foster’s most dramatic in this volume, and they reflect his knowledge of winter climes, given his Canadian background. There is also one striking image of sailing into Thule, which Foster notes is based on drawings done during a visit to Norway in 1955. Foster truly did visit the places he drew—he cared that much about accuracy, and it is reflected throughout this volume.

Of course, Valiant can’t sit around in Thule forever, so as spring approaches, he decides he’ll return to Camelot for the tournament at Pentecost. This adventure results in his discovering a new champion at Camelot whom he will aid in winning a fair maiden for a wife, and by a strange twist of events, he’ll also pick up a new squire, Alfred, whom I suspect will figure in future volumes.

Volume 10 concludes with some additional advertisements and commentary on Foster’s work for the Northwest Paper Company and his drawings of Canadian Mounties that there wasn’t room to include in Volume 8. In addition, it is clear from these images that Foster was inspired by many of his winter scenes for this work in later depicting winter scenes in Prince Valiant, including in Volume 6 when Valiant is shown snowshoeing in North America.

For me, seeing Prince Arn growing up is perhaps the most fascinating part of this volume. As the strip progresses, the characters do grow up and age, and while that aging is a bit delayed compared to real time, that’s all the better because then Prince Valiant and his companions stay young longer, and as a result, we have a strip now approaching its eightieth anniversary.

Fantagraphics has already produced Volume 11 of the series with plans to release Volume 12 in December so stay tuned for more reviews.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy and Melusine’s Gift, and he has written the nonfiction book King Arthur’s Children. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

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The jury is still out on theories that King Arthur visited North America (more on that topic to come in future blogs), but I wonder whether Hal Foster knew of such stories; regardless, in this volume he brought Prince Valiant to North America, and he definitely knew of theories that the Vikings had made it to North America.

Valiant doesn’t set out to discover America in this book, but rather it is an unexpected journey that begins with Aleta being kidnapped by Val’s fellow countrymen from Thule, which sends him and his men on a journey over the sea to an unknown land that turns out to be North America. The journey takes Valiant down the St. Lawrence Seaway and over Lake Ontario all the way to Niagara Falls.

Of course, Val succeeds in rescuing his wife, but by that point, it is autumn so Val and his men decide to spend the winter in North America among the friendly Native Americans who have aided Val after he convinced them to help him because Aleta’s kidnappers were wreaking havoc on the land.

Prince Valiant, Vol 6 - yes, that's Niagara Falls in the bottom frame

Prince Valiant, Vol 6 – yes, that’s Niagara Falls in the bottom frame

This special Fantagraphics edition comes with an introduction that discusses Foster’s own journeys through the area depicted during a canoe trip in his youth with his pregnant wife, which inspired the story and Aleta’s pregnancy and the birth of Val’s son. This introduction is interesting for two reasons. First, it discusses how Foster sought to be respectful in depicting the Native Americans, not turning them into the typical enemies or sidekicks they were in other media at the time. While for the most part, this is true, he does make a reference to the Indians taking pleasure in cheating their customers when bartering. Worse, he builds on the myth of the Fair God, allowing the Natives to think Aleta is a goddess, and Val does prophesy his son will someday return to the land to lead the people to greatness, which supposedly became a legend that made it to the Aztec empire, causing them to think Cortez the fair god—a bit of a stretch in my opinion. (Later in the 1960 installments of the strip, Prince Arn does return to North America to teach the Natives white people’s ways, only to realize they already are doing fine on their own, which shows some progressive thinking on Foster’s part, though perhaps it was in line with Civil Rights thinking of the 1960s and not something he would have considered in the 1940s). The strip is more groundbreaking in the sense that a few years later, one of the native women marries one of Val’s men, and in 1953, the first interracial baby will be born in the strips.

The other key event mentioned in the introduction, and perhaps the most significant part of this volume, is the birth of Valiant and Aleta’s son, Prince Arn. The introduction even includes photos of birth announcements sent out in Foster’s circle of friends regarding this event. Arn was actually the name Foster first proposed for the strip, but it was decided Valiant would be a better name. Still, he introduced a character named Arn into the strip, who possessed the Singing Sword and loved the same woman as Val. When that woman died, Arn and Val both agreed never to marry another. In friendship, Arn then gave Val the Singing Sword.

After returning back to England and some other adventures, Val reunites with his old friend, Arn, wanting Arn to be the newborn Arn’s godfather. In a comical moment, Arn berates Val for not being faithful to their oath never to marry, only for Val then to see a baby who turns out to be Arn’s son, and named Val for him—truly the most delightful moment in the book.

All in all, I have seen many reviewers rave that this is the best volume of Prince Valiant to date. Honestly, I thought the story could have used more plot. Once the characters arrived in North America, it was a bit slow for me. I am turning out to be less of a fan than just curious and interested in the Prince Valiant strip. I will continue to read each volume as it comes out—though Fantagraphics appears to be taking longer and longer between each volume—Volume 7 won’t be published until September. I am perhaps most looking forward to seeing how Valiant’s children turn out, so I will be patient and continue to read on.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. He is currently working on a series of novels about Arthur’s descendants. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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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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