I’ve been a comic book reader in some form or another for nearly 40 years and something I never was exposed to was Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.
I’ve been curious about it for some time and when I recently learned it was available in a series of reprints starting at the very beginning from Fantagraphics, I decided to dive right it.
I’m about 3 years into the decades-long run (each volume reprints 2 years of strips). This is a Sunday strip so each page is one strip dated in MM/DD/YY format usually near the bottom.
I love it. It’s awesome. The amount of detail in the artwork is astonishing and I’ve read that Foster could spend up to 60 hours working on a single Sunday strip. It shows.
The books themselves are really nice. They are large, close to a modern comic book page in size. They are in color, which is fine, and I realize that the sources they are working from being 80 years old are very limited, and every stop just doesn’t exist in black and white.
There’s nothing that can be done about that, and they are working from the best materials available, so it’s an unrealistic thing to criticize based on reality and expectations.
This is sword and sorcery stuff, and to me, it blows away everything else in that genre (Tolkien, George RR Martin, Excalibur, Braveheart, etc.). There’s very little writing on each page, maybe 10 sentences at most, but this isn’t literature. It’s an epic visual story told in a way that maximizes its storytelling through painstaking detail and unrestrained creativity.
Things that would take George RR Martin 40 pages or Hell, Tolkein 100 pages to go through might take Foster 2 Sunday strips. Why? Because he (Foster) isn’t describing every single thing that everybody eats and wears for seemingly neverending pages. He shows you all that stuff and in a panel or 2 and then moves it along.
King Edward VIII called this comic strip –
“the greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years”.
A Brief Synopsis (1937-39)
Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur is about Valiant, Prince of Thule (which is believed to have been in Norway, but Iceland and Greenland have also been considered) whose father has been deposed and is in exile when he arrives in England seeking refuge in the early 5th Century.
The King and his family are granted some marshland to build a settlement. From there it goes into Val’s boyhood where he fights a dinosaur and a giant turtle out in the wilderness as he has little adventures that begin his career.
By the time he becomes a teen he is out having adventures with Sir Gawain and Lancelot of the Round Table. He becomes a squire and eventually is Knighted by King Arthur.
This is pre-Saxon England and even though Val is a Prince of another Kingdom he really has embraced this Celtic/Brittonic England and its people. He fights the Saxons, the Vikings, and anybody else who decides to cause trouble for this island and eventually all of Europe (the Huns).
One of my favorite storylines so far involves a maiden named Ilene that Val falls in love with. Her parents have been captured and are now imprisoned in their own castle by a group of bandits led by a guy that calls himself the Ogre of Sinstrar Wood. Val decides to fight the bandits, win back the castle, and free her parents.
Val fashions a costume including a mask made of goose skin that looks exactly like Kirby’s Etrigan character (created in the 1970s, so clearly Jack was influenced by this either on a conscious or subconscious level). He makes a big entrance in the castle; like Batman scaring everyone with this getup. The Ogre drops dead of fright at the sight of him.
Soon the rest of the bandits realize he isn’t a demon at all, just a kid in a costume, and begin to hunt him. He sneaks around the castle like John McLane in Die Hard taking them out and rescues her parents.
All of this takes place in 8 strips.
Another storyline I really enjoyed is when another young Prince named Arn shows up and wants to marry Illene. Anr and Val decide to settle their dispute of who will marry her by combat to the death. During the duel, they learn that she has been abducted by Vikings. The Princes set aside their difference, team up, and go off to rescue Ilene and kill the Vikings that stole her away.
One of the weirder tales involves Val battling a human personification of the concept of Time in a cave and being aged significantly. It only takes like 2 additional strips for him to be cured of this ailment.
The whole series is stuff like this and I’ve barely scratched the surface on the tales of Prince Valiant during this 3 year period. I’m really curious about how Foster was able to sustain this for decades with the breakneck pace he tells his stories without running out of gas.
In short, I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s fantastic.
There is a lot of content in these books and a lot of volumes to get through. I generally read 4 strips a day (1 month’s worth) getting through a 2-year volume in just under a month.
Also, how in the hell has this not been adapted properly into a movie or a TV show in the last 15 years? It would slay just about anything else in the genre if done even halfway competently.