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PRINCE VALIANT (revisited) —“Above all strive to do right”

Writer/Artist: Hal Foster and epigoni


TRAVELING MAKES GOOD ADVENTURE, depending on who goes with you. Sunday mornings in a house with a daily newspaper, since my youth decades ago and still today, traveling a while with PRINCE VALIANT inside the comic pages through luscious landscapes and pointed encounters with a wide variety of characters—maidens, kings, crones, giants, warriors, merchants, robbers, wayfarers, beasts, and heaving nature herself battering you senseless, with moments between to rest and recover—always made one of the best adventures. As a child, I admired the red stallion pictured on Prince Valiant’s chest and shield, and may have been drawn to learn chess at an early age so I could handle the head of the knight.

Finding the current Prince Valiant series in the Sunday color comics exceptionally good, by master craftsmen Mark Schultz and Thomas Yeates, I looked to find the original Hal Foster stories and art, and discovered a complete set reproduced in slim hardbound volumes by Fantagraphics that began appearing in 2009, in a deluxe format true to the size of the original full-page stories. Hal Foster turned out these weekly pages steadily from 1937 to 1980, doing it all: the arresting illustrations, dramatic plots, and exceptionally terse text, with sprigs of humor, that carries it along.

John Cullen Murphy joined Hal Foster in the 1970s, and begins to appear in Vol. 18: 1971–1972. From then, several talented epigoni to the master have carried the torch. Happily, the series is not done. PRINCE VALIANT, VOL. 25: 1985–1986 appeared in 2022, as full of traveling, travail, and rolling cast of characters as the others. The following volume is on the way.

Starting at the beginning, one can move forward through weeks and years of work in a pleasant evening, one after another, effortlessly. Somewhere deep in Vol. 4, 1943–1944, I was amazed how my traveling companion held my attention so avidly, and continued to make me laugh and cry in delight at his wit and daring. Val’s intrepid character is his principal trait. Even when young living in the fens, he sets out alone, confident to reach where he is going no matter how wild the prospect.

Imagining England as a great wilderness surrounded by roiling seas and clashing peoples easily transposes to early America and its adventurers, nearer in time, just a flash ago in Oregon on the West Coast, where the wilderness on the edge of our greenways still somewhat glistens with mystery and menace. Real men in the American past, in the stamp of intrepid young Val, have dared the wilds for some special purpose, a heroic love, a career, duty, honor, as in young soldier George Washington setting off alone through backwoods Virginia in the 1750s to bring a vital message to the governor; young artist George Catlin setting off alone into the trans-Mississippi unknown in the 1830s to find and paint the Indians; and young writer Francis Parkman setting off alone trekking the frontiers of Canada in the 1840s to inhale the spirit of the place. Although wilderness these days is hard to come by, the adventures of Prince Valiant set in the time of King Arthur reverberate in our own folklore; maybe in yours, too.

Val does not heave toward his challenges with bluster and force; he considers, rather, how to achieve his ends with the least effort and harm to himself, often using stealth and trickery as any good hunter, and soldier soon learns. As well as being brave and skilled, he is cautious, and uncommonly resourceful. His inventiveness his first year out in the world is sometimes startling.

When he accepts a challenge to rid a castle of a band of robbers who took charge of it and now feast on their loot, Val concocts a drama to incite their fear. He becomes a flying demon by fashioning a mask from a goose skin and quills, and with mask and billowing cape crashes through a castle window on a suspended rope. This is how he gains entry and disappears inside without anyone wanting to look very hard for him. On the page, the crash scene is only a couple inches square, small, but it made me gasp. It’s exactly the same as the cover on the first issue of The Demon in 1972 by Jack Kirby; clearly purloined straight from Hal Foster.

So cool. Once again I clapped in delight, and eagerly set out forward alone, intrepid reader, expecting the best.