05 October 2009

Daily Breakdowns 026 - Feeling Valiantated

Prince Valiant Vol. I: 1937-1938
By Hal Foster
Published by Fantagraphics Books. $29.99 USD

Foster is a name with which most should be familiar, and yet the circumstances have not been right for a satisfying entry into the series. I experienced a similar problem several years ago in wanting to read some Milton Caniff and only finding some fairly low-rent reprints of Steve Canyon, not as good a work as the earlier Terry and the Pirates. Fantagraphics used to publish Prince Valiant from the '80s to the 50th, final volume in 2004, but these were softcover, 48 page European-styled albums (created in Denmark and licensed to Fantagraphics), not a great value and with at least a dozen of the earlier volumes already out of print by the time it ended, including Vol. 1. Who wants to start with Vol. 2? But at long last, printing improvements, the discovery of many of Foster's original engraver's proofs, and a renaissance in the market for fancy collections of archival strips has led to this new edition.

It's gorgeous. One can see some of that in this pdf preview, but be warned that the pdf doesn't accurately capture the subtlety of the colors. On creamy paper, rather than lit up by a monitor, these moor scenes have more of a watercolor look. That isn't to say the strip looks quiet or pastoral; no, after a handful of strips, Foster really starts to use more reds, golds and bright blues so there is always something popping on the page. And this isn't nearly the best art in the book, which I would argue are the scenes in and around Camelot. Foster is frequently cited as an influence on other great cartoonists, and part of it is his precise line and the way he builds a convincing world from authentic architecture, clothing and armaments. That's part of the appeal, but Foster also excels at staging. Look at the central image from the cover of this volume (click the image to make it larger). Besides the excellent drapery, the texture of the chainmail and the exquisite detail on the sword and the king's bracelets and belt, notice how you are first drawn to Valiant on the left, the center of the celebration, and then towards the glow of the hearth framing the face of one stocky reveler, and finally to the enigmatically clenched fist of the king and his unseen expression. There is a compulsion there to read on, to see if he is happy to see Val or if his heart is heavy from other developments.

Now, if it was just great artwork, then I suppose one would be well served with just an art book about Foster. I've seen one or two before, and while I recall it was pretty clear he's a great artist, I wasn't moved to get the actual comics until now. It's like a still from a movie or something--it can be somewhat effective, but something is lost when divorced from what happened before and after it. I'm always disappointed when a sequential artist I enjoy ends up doing spot illustrations, or only comic book covers, no matter how good they may be.

Val's story is the real hook for me. A young prince taken by his father and the rest of the subjects when they are driven from their kingdom of Thule, they settle in the moors of England, essentially a kind of watery, medieval slum. They are brought low but still proud, and Val learns fighting and swordplay, with the goal of eventually taking back the homeland. It's interesting that one of Foster's principal reasons for setting the story in Arthurian times was to be able to depict dragons, ogres and all sorts of mystical creatures, because after one battle with a giant crocodile and a curse from a witch, he quickly starts to move away from mysticism and into more straightforward adventure, more swords than sorcery. Becoming the squire of the famed Sir Gawain, knight of the Round Table, Val makes some mistakes and learns some hard lessons. As Foster admits in an interview reprinted at the front of this volume, he started to get more and more into the character of Val, and while it would be difficult to discern anything intensely personal or revealing in these often lighthearted, action-packed tales, one can at least draw parallels between the hard-headed but courageous Val and Foster, who after all had quit the popular Tarzan due to dissatisfaction with the scripts he was given and a yearning to do it all himself. Despite its period England setting, Valiant is an American story, a rags-to-riches story but with glory and knighthood the thrilling replacement for ordinary riches.

Unlike daily strip collections, the full, weekly Prince Valiant page ends up a brisk, headlong read, and Foster's stories do not last more than a few weeks or a month, usually. And aside from the about-face from mysticism, Foster seems to have figured out a lot of the key elements in this first year's stories. Of particular interest is the relationship between Val, Prince Arn and Princess Ilene. Both Arn and Val love the fair Ilene, and would duel for her hand, as was the custom, but find themselves bonded in friendship as they join forces to find and rescue her. Chivalry and honor getting in the way of personal desire is almost archaic; it's hard to imagine many contemporary writers exploring the subject in an unironic way, even if their stories were set in this period. But it's a great engine for future stories here. Prince Valiant is something I picked up expecting to admire. I had no idea I would love it.

Christopher Allen

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