Seattle-based publisher Fantagraphics’ second volume of the collected Prince Valiant by series creator Hal Foster is a sumptuous package bringing together the Sunday strips that were published during 1939-40.
This second volume finds Foster’s titular 5th century hero in typically adventurous mode as, in the space of roughly 100 pages, he (take a deep breath now):
- Helps fight off a Saxon invasion of England.
- Is knighted by King Arthur to become a Knight of the Roundtable.
- Goes off in search of adventure and ends up embroiled in a campaign against the vile Huns.
- Helps found the city of Venice.
- Is implicated in the murder of the Roman Emperor Valentinian.
It would be fair to say that, while lacking in some sophistication and nuance, Foster managed to cram more story into four of his single page weekly narratives than many contemporary comic book creators manage to achieve in the space of a six issue mini-series today.
That said, Foster’s work, in terms of storytelling, was very much of its time and it’s interesting to compare these strips with the early superhero comics that were being published at roughly the same time. The early Siegel and Shuster Superman stories and the initial Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson Batman strips all have a similar furious pace and energy to them that is clearly influenced by both Foster’s work on Valiant and his earlier Tarzan strips.
Despite those similarities, there are also a couple of major differences that set Foster’s Valiant apart from the superhero strips of the day. Firstly, the superhero stories were longer, usually somewhere between 6-12 pages, and they eschewed the text only/no-dialogue approach that Foster favoured in his storytelling and instead opted for a narration/dialogue style. In my opinion, Foster’s approach is the only element of the strip that appears overly antiquated, as it’s a distancing device that will inevitably stop some modern readers from engaging with the material. That said, these slight narrative shortcomings are made up for in spades by the quality of Foster’s artwork.
A sophisticated draftsman and a mature professional illustrator even before he began working on Tarzan and Valiant, Foster was a consummate artist, whose strip is a masterclass in the use of colour, character, texture and composition.
Whereas the Batman and Superman strips of the day were drawn by teenage boys with all the attendant energy and enthusiasm (and flaws) that youth brings, Foster’s art is controlled, mature and powerful, with depth and range. In his mid-30s when he began work on Tarzan, and a keen outdoorsman, the physical actions of the characters have an integrity and verisimilitude to them that the work of proto-geeks like Siegel and Shuster clearly couldn’t compete with.
Lovingly reproduced in an oversized format and digitally re-coloured from the original proofs (luckily donated to Syracuse University by Foster himself), this restoration of one of the most influential comic strips of all time takes its place alongside other recent high quality restorations of works such as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Milt Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat as an essential purchase for anyone interested in the history of the American comic strip.