Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 7: 1949-1950


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-645-4

Arguably the most successful comic strip fantasy ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched as a Sunday page feature 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 and storyteller Harold “Hal” Foster, the epic followed the little princeling through decades of thrilling exploits as he matured into a clean-limbed warrior and eventually family patriarch through 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 3900 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 ceaselessly produced the strip, one enchanting page per week until 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt illustrator John Cullen Murphy was chosen to succeed him as illustrator. Foster continued as writer and designer until 1980, after which he retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John 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 since soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artists Gary Gianni and latterly Thomas Yeates, with Mark Schultz scripting.

Restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs, this seventh spectacularly luxurious oversized (362 x 264mm) full-colour hardback volume reprints the pages from January 2nd 1949 to 31st December 1950 (#621 to 725 if you’re counting).

What has Gone Before: after an extended sojourn in an incredible New World, Valiant and Aleta have brought their newborn son back to Britain and sought out the warrior’s old comrade Prince Arn to be the child’s Godfather. Val is astounded that the bluff solitary hero is also a husband and currently searching for Godparents for his own newborn son and heir…

Before the Dark Ages delights resume, latest illuminator Thomas Yeates delivers a remarkable introductory essay discussing ‘The Long Shadow of Hal Foster’ and the innumerable artists who owe him a creative debt, after which the never-ending saga picks up with the Princes and their families travelling back to fabled Camelot for a double Christening, presided over by King Arthur himself…

Soon however duty calls again and Valiant, Sir Gawain and hapless, bumbling hedge-wizard Oom Fooyat are dispatched to the wilds of Wales to investigate a nest of vile black magic. Seamlessly blending thrills and grandeur with broad comedy, Foster delivers an enchanting light-hearted romantic romp wherein level-headed Val exposes the macabre happenings at Illwynde Castle and plays matchmaker to more than one of his faithful retinue…

Job done and the fief secure, Gawain and the Prince of Thule return to Camelot, picking up en route a boy with chivalric intentions and the determined courage of a lion. The enigmatic Geoffrey is desperate to win his spurs, but when Valiant introduces the lad to Aleta, the prospective page boy is gripped by a ferocious, life-changing, all consuming crush…

Whilst the well-meaning kid perpetually embarrasses himself in his drive to impress his master’s wife, Arthur despatches Valiant and a small band of knights to Scotland to inspect the wall which keeps the northern savages at bay. Aleta then attempts to keep Geoffrey out of trouble by ordering the puppy to follow and keep her husband safe…

It’s an unlucky decision: as Valiant and his inspection force discover when they see that Hadrian’s Wall has been breached and hundreds of Picts are ravening southward…

Confronted with an impossible situation the Prince again resorts to unconventional tactics and traps the huge barbarian army on the English side whilst sending Geoffrey back to Camelot with a message for Arthur… and to save the hero-struck boy from dying in the unwinnable battle to come…

Breaking all the rules of knighthood for the noblest of reasons, Geoffrey speedily delivers his message and is astounded when Aleta rushes off to join Valiant in Scotland. Again disregarding consequences and probably relinquishing forever his dream of knighthood, the boy follows her northwards…

Their arrival precipitates an unexpected and nigh-miraculous end to the war, but Valiant is close to death. After tending his hurts Aleta decides that she will take her husband back to his Scandinavian homeland, and dispatches the now-exhausted Geoffrey back to Camelot to inform her handmaiden Katwin and nurse Tillicum to obtain a ship and meet her with baby Arn at the village of Newcastle

Despite dreading the judgement awaiting him at Court, the boy thunders back and, after arranging for his wounded master’s (wonderful wife’s) wishes to be carried out, surrenders himself to his fate…

Of course the King is no fool and a great respecter of honour and courage. He summarily condemns the boy to banishment: for a year and a day Geoffrey must not set foot on English soil…

Mind in a whirl the redoubtable boy is taken to a barge secured by Katwin and sails to Caledonia with the family party to a reunion with Valiant and Aleta…

Soon the group are headed to Thule, bolstered by the bombastic reappearance to boisterous far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like rogue and “honest pirate” not seen since volume 3…

The excitable old rogue ferries the extended family to Val’s cold homeland – with a few unplanned, profitable but dangerous stops along the way – but soon finds himself smitten by the love bug too…

One mystery has been solved, however, as a chance meeting with an old cleric discloses the faithful squire to be actually called Arf, forced from his home when his father Sir Hugo Geoffrey took a new young bride who didn’t want an annoying stepson underfoot. Now she is gone and the boy can return home if he wishes…

Eventually the expanded party reaches the chilly castle of King Aguar and settles in to a long period of snowbound rest and recuperation – until boisterous Jarl Egil makes an inappropriate advance on Aleta and hotheaded Arf dashes to her defence…

Soon the encounter has escalated and Valiant is forced into an utterly unnecessary duel of honour which can only end in pointless tragedy…

Happily the repentant Arf finds a way to satisfy honour all around but the King is plagued by a knotty problem wit cannot solve. Aguar has been seriously considering converting his Norse realm to Christianity, but the many devout missionaries roaming the land are cantankerous idiots all preaching their own particular brand of faith – when not actively fighting each other.

Thus in Spring, he tasks the fully fit Valiant with an embassage to Rome to ask the Pope to send priests and teachers who actually carry the true and official Word of God. Restless and eager Val promptly sets out, accompanied by Arf, the doughty Rufus Regan and new comrade Egil. Their mission coincides with the planting season when Aguar’s men return to their homes to sow the crops for the coming year…

No sooner have they departed however than vassal king Hap-Atla, seething from an old slight delivered to his deceased sire, rebels and besieges Arguar’s castle. With manpower dangerously depleted the situation looks grim until wily Aleta takes control of the situation and scores a devastating victory that contravenes all the rules of manly warfare.

Unseen for three months, Valiant and his companions at last reappear as they land in Rouen to begin the arduous overland trek to the HolyCity. The journey is full of short bursts of violence and outrageous incidents as, since Rome fell to the Vandals, Europe has become a seething mass of lawless principalities.

Most of these improvised kingdoms are run by brigands or worse, all seeking to fill their coffers at any unwary traveller’s expense…

In one unhappy demesne the quartet dethrone a robber baron and nearly end up married to his daughters (young Arf particularly caught the imagination of the decidedly dangerous and ambitious teenager Ollie), whilst in another Val gets hold of an alchemist ruler’s horrific black powder and is almost blown to smithereens.

Eventually however they arrive at the castle of welcoming noble Ruy Foulke and enjoy a pleasant night’s rest – only to awaken and find the place under attack by heinous villain Black Robert and his savagely competent forces…

To Be Continued…

Also included in this striking compendium is an intoxicating glimpse at the author’s virtuosity in ‘“See America First”: Hal Foster’s Union Pacific Paintings’, a series of painted advertising landscapes compiled and discussed by Brian M. Kane.

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama 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 © 2013 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2013 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

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