Over 70 years ago, Hal Foster created a world of epic adventure and fantasy. Set in the days of King Arthur, the Prince Valiant Sunday comic strip captured imaginations with it’s realistic depictions of knights and legends. It remains one of the respected masterpieces of the medium. With this second hardcover collection, Fantagraphics allows gives fans of the character much reason to rejoice. Thanks to the use of the original proof sheets (and the marvels of modern printing technology), these strips look better than they did when originally published. In this volume, Prince Valiant becomes a Knight of the Round Table, frees his father’s kingdom from tyrannical rule, grows bored with a life of peace and sets out to seek new adventures. And that’s within the first 30 or so pages! Wherever Prince Valiant goes, adventure follows and every bit of it is breathtakingly beautiful thanks to the work of the legendary Hal Foster.
As a kid, I was always drawn to the Prince Valiant strip but could never fully understand it. Obviously, by the time I would’ve read it, Hal Foster had long since left the strip, replaced by another remarkable draftsman who managed to work magic and capture the imagination of many a young boy despite having to illustrate what is undoubtedly the most unfortunate haircut an action hero has ever worn. But for as beautiful as Prince Valiant may have looked, it was just boring to me, most likely due to the fact that I was raised on a steady diet of Marvel Comics and G.I. Joe cartoons. A bunch of pictures of knights in armor standing still accompanied by text (no word balloons!) … well, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I tried. Oh, did I try. Every week I’d do my best to trudge through a Prince Valiant comic only to get bored about halfway through and wind up just looking at the pictures that actually depicted some action, which to my young mind, were far too few.
Fast forward to now and the adult version of me is (arguably) a whole lot smarter than the kid version. My tastes have grown with me and by now, I know damn well who Hal Foster is and while I’ve still never managed to make through an entire Prince Valiant strip, I understand why the man is so respected. At least, I think I do… and by the time I got about 5 pages into this second volume of Prince Valiant, collected in chronological order, my mind is blown. I don’t know that I can put into words what I have witnessed on the printed page, but I do know this: If you have any interest in this medium we call sequential art, whether as a fan, a historian or someone who hopes to make a living as an artist, you probably ought to pick up some of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant.
There’s actually a very interesting forward in this volume in which Mark Schultz seeks to answer the age-old debate of whether Foster was an illustrator slumming in the world of sequential art or a cartoonist who brought a stunning new sense of style and grandeur to the medium. In truth, the answer is probably “a little from column A and a little from column B” but there can be no doubt as to the man’s genius. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out why Prince Valiant didn’t feature a more linear narrative with the story, action and dialogue flowing from one panel to the next. You know, like a comic book. As it turns out, it’s because Foster didn’t have to; each panel of this strip contains more story than most full pages of comic book art. Each and every character is so masterfully posed, their expressions so descriptive, that one could probably spend half the day getting through just one strip – and that’s before reading the text! There are not enough words in the English language to describe how stunningly beautiful the artwork is in these comics. If there was ever any doubt about whether or not comics are art, an afternoon spent with Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant should put those doubts to rest to anyone with a functioning pair of eyeballs.
Ah, but it isn’t all about the art! I mean… yeah, it’s mostly about the art, but these are some fine tales as well. I guess I must’ve been a pretty stupid kid because for the life of me, I can’t imagine how I could’ve ever found these stories boring (though I’ll admit that being able to read two month’s worth of strips in an afternoon probably helped a little bit). I couldn’t put the thing down and had to tear myself away from it, as I quickly found myself carrying the book around with me and devouring it during every moment of free time. If you like adventure and you like art, you gotta pick yourself up some Prince Valiant. It sets the standard for both.