Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938
by Hal Foster
Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $29.99.
Who knew that Prince Valiant, a comic strip I always assumed appeared next to the word “boredom” in the dictionary, was so vibrant, colorful, action-packed and gosh-darned fun? Who knew it was actually any good?
Well, I suppose the folks at Fantagraphics knew. That would explain why this is not the first but second attempt by the company to reprint the strip. That initial run, which ran during most of the ’90s, was in softcover. This new edition ups the ante not just through the fancy hardcover, but via state of the art technology that allows for a pristine detail and rich color that’s about as close to Foster’s initial intentions as we may ever be likely to get.
As I said, Valiant was about as far from my favorite newspaper strip growing up as you could get and not be the Jumble. The very fact that Foster refused to allow word balloons and dialogue to mussy up his perfect illustrations struck me as a bit of elitism, as though Foster thought he was too good for the rest of the funny page malcontents with their big noses, googly eyes and poor perspective. A comics junkie even at an early age, I’d read just about every strip in the paper, even Mary Worth. But I never read Prince Valiant.
Turns out I was missing out on some great stuff. Foster, at least in the first two years reprinted in this volume, was a great storyteller. The strip is full of brio and vigor and hits the ground running right from the start with the young prince losing his mom, discovering a potentially dark destiny and heading off to Camelot to learn how to become a knight.
Despite its storybook appearance, Valiant moves rather speedily. Foster’s fight scenes are sumptuous in detail but economical in execution, with Foster rarely showing a glinting sword unless it’s either about to or already has carved someone in half. There’s a sequence here in the middle of the book where Valiant is pitted against a pair of thuggish barbarians in a vast castle. Foster draws the sequence out over several weeks to great effect, with Valiant first gaining then losing the upper hand, until I found myself quickly caught up in the story, eager to find out how Val was going to get out of the next scrape.
It helps considerably that Valiant is not at all the prim and proper schoolboy I always imagined him to be. In fact he’s a bit of a bloodthirsty hothead, who’s eagerness to unsheath his sword (no sexual pun intended) can be a bit disconcerting at times. I suppose part of it is being raised in an era where everyone is concerned about the effects of violence on children, but I always expected Valiant to be the kind of strip where evildoers where knocked unconscious instead of stabbed through the gut. But no, the Prince has no qualms about killing anyone who hassles him and this first volume is filled with the bodies, albeit bodies notably devoid of blood or gore. No wonder the initial Mad parody dubbed him “Prince Violent.”
But it’s all in good fun. And it is good fun. In a world where too often most art turns out to be exactly as shallow as first glance suggests, it’s nice to discover that something like Prince Valiant is capable of surprising, and even enthralling, the modern reader.
And hey, if you ever wanted to see where Jack Kirby got the idea for the Etrigan the Demon, this is the place.