Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 4: 1943-1944

By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-455-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever strived or dreamed or wished… 9/10

Almost certainly the most successful comic strip fantasy ever conceived, the Sunday page Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour weekly window onto a perfect realm of perfect adventure and romance. The strip followed the life and exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by sublime master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, the little princeling matured to clean-limbed manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3800 episodes and counting) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz.

This fourth luxurious oversized full-colour hardback volume reprints – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the strips from January 3rd 1943 to 31st December 1944 and sees the beginning of his celebrated but rarely seen “Footer strip” The Mediaeval Castle.

As comprehensively explained in Brian M. Kaine’s introductory essay ‘Hal Foster’s The Mediaeval Castle in the Days of President Roosevelt’ wartime paper rationing forced newspapers to dictate format-changes to their syndicated strip purchases and properties like Prince Valiant began to appear with an unrelated (and therefore optional) second feature, which individual client papers could choose to omit according to their local space considerations.

Apparently the three-panel-per week saga starring the 11th century family of Lord and Lady Harwood, their young sons Arn and Guy and teenaged daughter Alice – a feudal pot-boiler so popular that it spawned a couple of book collections – wasn’t dropped by a single paper throughout its 18-month run from April 23, 1944 to the dog-days of 1945, but Foster was happy to return to one epic per full page once the newsprint restrictions were lifted. This volume also includes a candid glimpse of a painting by the artist lost since his death and only recently discovered at auction.

This comic chronicle opens with Valiant leading King Arthur’s forces in a cunning war of attrition against united Scottish Picts and invading Vikings – but only until the wily young paladin starts sowing deadly discord amongst their assembled ranks, breaking the invasion force by turning it upon itself.

After the clash of arms subsides, restless Val is haunted by visions of Queen Aleta of The Misty Isles, whom he believes has bewitched him, utterly unaware that she saved his life not once but twice.

Determined to lose his dolorous mood, he revisits the fenland swamps of his youth and spends a tempestuous time with the wizard Merlin, before moving on to Camelot and a joyous reunion with his dashing and outrageous comrade Gawain. Even in such company Val’s mood is poor and he determines to visit his father King Aguar in distant Thule, stopping only to eradicate two bands of bandits and cut-purses lurking in the great forest, ably assisted by his devoted squire Beric.

Taking passage to Scandia, the heroes stumble into a turbulent shipboard romance and extended drama which ends tragically as the great vessel Poseidon, carrying them all to Uppsala, founders in a mighty storm.

Enemies become comrades and even friends as they all struggle for survival, with Val, Beric and a few others, including Jewish merchant Ahab and a rowdy Saxon yclept Eric, finally continuing their voyage in small skiff, encountering Viking raiders and deep sea monsters before safely beaching in Trondheim.

Eric joins Val and Beric for the final leg of the journey to Thule, but as they near King Aguar’s palace they become fortuitously embroiled in a plot to oust the aged monarch, leading to insidious intrigue and a spectacular confrontation. As the heroes of the day bask in deserved glory, the boastful and flirtatious Eric is easily and permanently tamed by the delightfully capable maid Ingrid, but the idyllic days don’t last long as the other elements of the proposed coup become known.

For a change, Val uses diplomacy to end the crisis but danger still cloaks him like a shroud. When a hunting accident almost kills him, he accidentally plays Cupid for a crippled artist and a Viking’s daughter and, barely recovered, repulses an invasion by barbarian Finns.

After a collapsing glacier nearly ends his life he is captured by rebellious nobles determined to be rid of his sire. Tortured and used as bait, Valiant escapes, turns the tables on his captors and presides over a grim and merciless siege which sees them all destroyed like vermin.

Midway through that action The Mediaeval Castle debuted, beginning with details of daily life for the noble Harwoods before launching into an epic feud between rival lords that lasted until the end of this collection whilst depriving the lead feature of fully a third of its usual story-space each Sunday.

Undeterred Foster then launched his longest yarn to date: a twenty-month extravaganza which saw Prince Valiant set out for the Misty Isles to free himself of the “spell” of grey-eyed siren Aleta. Returning to Camelot the tormented Prince enlists the aid of Gawain and they promptly set off across the kingdoms of Europe. In Germany they are attacked by barbaric Goths, before taking ship in Rome and being shipwrecked. Beric and the now amnesiac Val are marooned whilst Gawain, who is held hostage by an ambitious Sicilian noble, takes the spotlight for a few weeks.

The sheer bravura of Foster’s storytelling ability comes to the fore now: in modern times an author of a periodical tale would blanch at the spending of a great and well-established character, but as Valiant finally recovers and lands on the extremely hostile Misty Isles one of the most loved players dies nobly to save the Prince’s life…

Aleta, the spellbinder of Val’s nightmares, has been ill-used by fate and is not the monster the bold voyager believes. She is however, in dire straits with a flock of suitors and her own courtiers pressing her to marry immediately and produce an heir. So it’s with mixed emotions that she sees the boy she once rescued burst in, snatch her up and flee the Isles with her as his uncomplaining prisoner.

As for the exhausted but exultant Val, he now has the cause of all his woes chained and at his mercy…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of stirring action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour with shatteringly dark violence. Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring the strip is a World Classic of fiction and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to do so and will be your gateway to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2011 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2011 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.