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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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This latest Fantagraphics reprint of Hal Foster’s wonderful strip begins with an insightful article by Mark Schultz, which says about everything I’ve thought that makes this strip so worthwhile. I have to admit the plots tend to become repetitive, and as wonderful as the illustrations are, the soap opera feel of the storyline becomes a bit tedious, but Foster shined for two things in particular—the breathtaking landscape scenes he did and the way he could draw a face and convey expression in it.

PrinceValiant9I’ve always liked to draw since I was a kid, but I have never been able to pull off realistic-looking faces. Foster was a master at this and someone we could all learn from. In this opening essay, Schultz talks about how Foster depicts Valiant and Aleta’s relationship through his ability to show their feelings for each other, as well as how they mask those feelings. Schultz says Foster was unique in this ability to reveal the characters’ internal lives through their expressions and body language, and I very much agree.

This particular volume picks up with the end of Valiant’s efforts to bring Christianity to Thule—and with rather alarming results. Valiant is shown destroying Pagan idols, something that in the twenty-first century I found upsetting and disgusting because we tend to be more open to diversity in these days, and while I was raised a Christian, I couldn’t help but feel the unfairness of this behavior, and when the destruction of these idols infers that they are false because they do nothing to avenge themselves, I can’t help noticing that Foster has the Pagans burn the Christian church down next, and the Christian God doesn’t intercede either, which leaves the reader wondering whether either God is real or exists, at least from Foster’s viewpoint. Of course, the Christian church is rebuilt, and then Valiant and Aleta go off on adventures, leaving the religious theme behind for now until later in the volume when Valiant ends up in Ireland and meets St. Patrick.

Valiant and Aleta part ways early in the volume because Aleta wants to go visit the Misty Isles, but Val ends up being called to help King Arthur in fighting against the Saxons who have allied with the five kings of Cornwall. By the time these battles are done, Val has introduced the idea of using stirrups for the knights, which is often introduced as a reason why King Arthur was successful and able to hold back the Saxons in several Arthurian novels that have been published since then, though I’m unsure who first introduced this idea into Arthurian literature—perhaps it was Foster.

But the real highlight of the volume, as Schultz remarks, is how Aleta manages as a woman to gain control in the Misty Isles, putting down a possible rebellion in her kingdom through her female presence and her cleverness. One of the things I really love about Foster’s storytelling is that while there are battles and swordplay and violence, many of the conflicts are resolved through Aleta or Val’s trickery and cleverness. It’s always more fun to trick or outsmart an enemy than to have to kill him. Bullies and cowards then end up showing their true colors and getting what they deserve.

A trip to the Holy Land, although not overly dramatic, but again with a little trickery to save the day, rounds out the volume along with the introduction of a girl character, Diane, who becomes friends with Valiant and Aleta’s son, Arn. Arn seems to have really grown up in this volume and transition from being a toddler to now a young boy; the strips from his viewpoint are refreshing, plus Diane appears to be a clever young version of Aleta.

The volume concludes with an essay about the 1954 film version of Prince Valiant starring Robert Wagner. The essay puts the film in context with what was happening in Hollywood at the time and changes in the movie industry, as well as discussing the film’s reception. It was rather a flop of the film, but it’s still a film I find entertaining (see my previous review of it at https://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/prince-valiant-in-glorious-technicolor-a-review-of-the-1954-film/), though it takes a lot of liberties with the strip. Apparently, Foster wasn’t too crazy about the film either, according to the article.

Volume 10 has just been released this month, so watch for my next review soon. In the meantime, Volume 9 has plenty to entertain.

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

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Prince valiant volume 4

Prince Valiant, Vol. 4

In this fourth volume of Prince Valiant: In the Days of King Arthur, Hal Foster’s illustrations are fantastic as always—I especially love his extensively imaginative and elaborate castles—but I found the story less interesting than in the past strips.

Ever since Prince Valiant first encountered Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles, he has been smitten with her, even believing that she has placed an enchantment upon him. In this volume, he continues to yearn for her, feel cursed, and seek her. Early in the book, he goes back to visit the witch Horrit to ask her whether Aleta is part of the prophecy she foresaw that said he would never know happiness. Sadly, she confirms that again she sees no contentment for him. Despite this prophecy, in one scene Val actually realizes he has everything he wants and wonders whether life would be dull if he had Aleta for his own, realizing he wants to have his adventures.

And numerous adventures occur in this volume, including a visit to his father where Val stops another king from conquering Thule. And Gawain is back to adventure with Val. I’m always curious how much of an overarching plan for the pacing of the strip Foster had since he didn’t know how long the strip would continue—did he just assume it would always run, or did he feel any urgency to move along the well-known plot points of the Arthurian legend? In this volume, Valiant and Gawain try to get Tristram to travel with them again, only to go to King Mark’s castle, where they witness the king slay Tristram. Is this event surprisingly early in the storyline, considering the strip will run for another seventy years? But Horrit never made any prophecies for Foster himself about the strip, so I imagine he sprinkled in key moments of Arthuriana as it struck his fancy.

I won’t go into all the subplots and little charming stories, and while I enjoy them, some of them are starting to sound like I’ve read all this before. Twice in this volume Val is shipwrecked, and he was at least once in a previous volume.

But I kept reading on, and there are moments where I’m very grabbed by the storyline, even when Val goes wading into a river running through a glacier in his bare legs without wincing once at the ice cold water. I felt Foster hadn’t completely forgotten reality when Val ends up with what must have been hypothermia a few strips later.

Finally, in this volume, Val does find Aleta. And sadly, I was a bit disappointed when he did. In the last volume, she had told him he could not know her reasons for sending him away and why such horrid things happened on her island. Now it seems people were simply killed if they landed on the shore without going into the main harbor because they are then thought to be pirates.

But Val and Aleta’s love-hate relationship isn’t about to end. Let’s just say Val gets a bit violent at the end here when he grabs Aleta by her hair and drags her from her castle, and what happens next…well, we must wait for Volume 5 to find out.

This volume includes the beginnings in 1944 of Hal Foster’s strip The Medieval Castle which was affixed to the bottom row of Prince Valiant, meaning the main strip was left with only two-thirds of its previous space. This volume includes an interesting article explaining how this new strip resulted from paper shortages during World War II. The history of the strip, its frames and layout is interesting, but The Medieval Castle itself was quite a disappointment to me, having little character development, and at times, reading more like a documentary on medieval times. It only lasted another year and concludes in Volume 5, although Prince Valiant was not to regain its full page and the great large panels were never again to be seen in the strip.

So ultimately, this fourth volume is a bit of a disappointment to me for several reasons, but will I journey on with Valiant and Aleta from here? Yes, because I just want to know what happens next.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition. You can also visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

 

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When we last left Prince Valiant (see my review of Vol. 1), the young prince wanted to re-conquer his father’s kingdom of Thule but the invasion of England by Saxons put a damper on his plans. This second volume of the collected Prince Valiant strip begins with Valiant being knighted after he succeeds in creating a plan that leads to the successful defeat of the Saxons invading the Fens.

Prince Valiant Vol 2: 1939-1940

Prince Valiant Vol 2: 1939-1940, published by Fantagraphics

And once the Saxon invasion is defeated, Val successfully leads his people to Thule to achieve its re-conquest, not by violence but by rallying the people to turn against Sligon, who had previously stolen the crown from Val’s father. Old and fearing for his life, Sligon agrees to trade Thule for the English Fens where Val and his people have lived in exile.

With peace restored to Thule and his father restored to the throne, Val soon becomes bored and goes off on adventures again. After a strange adventure in the Cave of Time, Val decides to make his way to Rome, and joins in fighting the Huns, led by Attila, who has conquered the eternal city.

The rest of this second volume takes place far from King Arthur’s court, covering Val’s adventures as he fights the Huns in Europe. Val is joined in his efforts by Sir Gawain and Sir Tristram, who after many heroic feats of rescuing people from Hun rule, make their way to Rome. On the way, Val also defeats a giant through using his wits, and Val saves an oriental merchant from thieves, who in return gives him a necklace that protects him from being bound in chains while possessing it.

As they approach Rome, the three Knights of the Round Table befriend Aetius, the last great general of Rome, who has been out fighting the Huns. Aetius’ victories have made the Emperor Valentinian jealous so he plots to destroy him. And Gawain, who is always getting into sticky situations, also gets involved with a married woman, who then mistakes Val for Gawain. When Aetius’ men slay the emperor to protect him, Val and his friends have to flee Rome, and they split in the process. As this second volume ends, Val finds himself on a ship at sea, and we are told the next strip will be “Scylla and Charybdis.”

I have to admit that while the illustrations are magnificent as always for Hal Foster, and while Val has his two companions, Tristram and Gawain, who are from the Arthurian canon of characters, this volume is far less “Arthurian” than the previous one. That said, the storyline is very readable, the adventures colorful, and a variety of interesting characters introduced.

By the end of this volume, and the fourth year of the Valiant strip, it is apparent that readers must have found Valiant and his adventures entertainment enough regardless of how closely connected they were to the Arthurian legend.

Also, since these volumes were produced in 1939-1940 at the beginning of World War II, one wonders whether Foster’s depictions of Val fighting the Huns, despite the Huns being historically accurate for the time period of the stories, is not some sort of commentary upon the German invasion of much of Europe during this time. That said, Attila conquers Rome in the May 14, 1939 strip, which was several months prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Perhaps Foster just was fortunate in his timing, but doubtless, the succeeding months while Poland and France and other countries fell to Hitler, must have made the fighting against the Huns, commonly a derogatory name for the Germans, resonate with Foster’s readers.

Finally, I was curious to see that for numerous issues of the strip in this volume, there were “stamps” drawn in the corners of the strip, representing various Arthurian and historical people including Attila, Arthur, Charlemagne, modern soldiers, and countless others, with the message “Save this Stamp” written under them. Were the stamps for some sort of promotion where you received something free if you had so many stamps, or were they more like collectors’ stamps, where you just tried to save them for their own sake? They are not explained in the strip itself. I’d be interested if any of my other readers knew the reason for them.

I plan to take a break from reading Prince Valiant for a while now but will return to the write about the successive volumes in future blogs. And if you missed the special 75th anniversary strip of Prince Valiant, you can view it at this other wonderful blog devoted to Prince Valiant: http://aprincenamedvaliant.blogspot.com/2012/02/something-very-special.html

Happy 75th Birthday, Prince Valiant!

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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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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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