Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 13: 1961-1962


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-925-7 (HB)

Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur premiered on Sunday February 13th 1937: a fabulous rainbow-colour weekly peek into a world where history met myth to produce something greater than both. Pioneering comics creator Hal Foster developed the feature after a groundbreaking and astoundingly popular run on the Tarzan of the Apes strip.

Prince Valiant offered action, adventure, exoticism, romance and a surprisingly high quota of laughs in its engrossing depiction of noble knights and wicked barbarians played out against a glamorised, dramatized Dark Ages backdrop. The never-ending story follows a refugee lad of royal blood, driven from ancestral Scandinavian homeland Thule who grows up to roam the world, attaining a paramount position amongst the fabled heroes of Camelot.

Foster wove his complex epic romance over decades, tracing the progress of a feral wild boy who became a paragon of chivalric virtue: knight, warrior, saviour, avenger and ultimately family patriarch through a constant storm of wild, robust and joyously witty wonderment. The restless champion visited many far-flung lands, siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes, enchanting generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

The glorious epic spawned films, an animated series and all manner of toys, games, books and collections. Prince Valiant was – and remains – one of the few adventure strips to have run continuously from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (more than 4000 episodes and still going strong) – and, even here at the end-times of newspaper strips as an art form, it continues in more than 300 American papers and via the internet.

Foster soloed on the feature until 1971 when John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt) succeeded him as illustrator whilst the originator remained as writer and designer. That ended in 1980, when he finally 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, since when the strip has soldiered on under the auspices of other extremely talented artists such as Gary Gianni, Scott Roberts and latterly Thomas Yeates & Mark Schultz.

This luxuriously oversized (362 x 264 mm) full-colour hardback (tragically, the series is still unavailable digitally) re-presents pages spanning January 1st 1961 to 30th December 1962 (individual pages #1247-1351) and comes with all the regular bonus trimmings. This time, renowned illustrator and storymaker Charles Vess (The Book of Ballads and Sagas; The Sandman; Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth; Stardust; The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition) discusses and critically appraises his creative roots and the influential role of the strip – including his own contributions – in the Foreword ‘We Are All the Sum of the Stories We Have Been Told’, after which the illuminated wonders resume.

At the other end of this titanic tome Brian M. Kane continues plumbing the master draughtsman’s commercial endeavours with a lavish exhibition of stunning colour and monochrome illustrations highlighting the acme of domestic luxury available to well-heeled customers in ‘Hal Foster’s Advertising Art: Home and Hearth’. Captivating as they are though, the real wonderment is, as ever, the unfolding epic that precedes them…

What Has Gone Before: After a ceaseless session of troubleshooting for King Arthur, and with his long-suffering wife Aleta increasingly aggrieved at Valiant’s wanderlust and neglect, tensions boil over in the apartments of the Prince of Thule, Valiant again leads a Royal Quest: perhaps the most crucial in Camelot’s troubled history…

The Knights of the Round Table have become obsessed with the search for the Holy Grail. Arthur, agonised as his best and bravest are lost or maimed in search of it, charges Val with proving once and for all whether the story of the sacred cup is fact or myth…

The search takes Val the length and breadth of the nation, eventually brings him to the Mendip hills in search of the isle of Avalon. At the Great Tor and Glastonbury, he finds a Papal mission from Rome building a cathedral, and meets again an old acquaintance from Ireland. St. Patrick happy shares all he knows about the Holy Grail and the questor at last realises what he must tell Arthur…

Returning to Camelot, he embraces every opportunity to fight and delay attempts to reconcile with Aleta. A brief and brutal war almost costs the prince his life, but finally bring him and Aleta together again, and the family decide to return to Thule for his recuperation. With son Arn in tow, the entire clan head for Aleta’s ancestral kingdom in the Misty Isles, escorted by Viking reiver Boltar to shield them from Mediterranean pirates and brigands…

At their destination, rival ruler Thrasos has resolved to add Aleta’s islands to his growing empire, but has never encountered as savvy a strategist as Aleta or canny tacticians like Valiant and Boltar. His dreams of a Mediterranean empire explosively founder against the devious ploys and armed might of the northern warriors, and he perishes in a cataclysmic last battle…

Now, having barely survived the elemental duel, the exhausted prince learns that Aleta too has barely escaped death, and that he is now the father of four! As the parents recover slowly together, focus shifts to Arn and his commoner pals Paul and Diane, whose idyllic beach frolics are shattered when prisoners of war from Thrasos’ crushed army escape abduct them. Fleeing out to sea, the rogues plan on ransoming the royal heir, and selling the other children…

Quickly discovering the crime, Valiant pursues in the speedy vessel of viking Gundar Harl, but is almost too late as his capable son has already escaped and plots to save his comrades from a slavers’ auction block. When a greedy local governor seeks to exploit the little princeling, he falters as soon as the elder Valiant arrives with blood in his eye and the Singing Sword in his mailed fist…

With peace and quiet abundant, the Misty Isles welcome many ambassadors and prepare to ceremonially christen the new addition, granting Val time to spend with Arn, but that ends when a shipwreck washes up pilgrims heading for the Holy Land. Duty-bound to offer aid, and eager to promote the produce and wares of his island home, Valiant ships out beside them, taking his firstborn too. Arn’s days of childhood indolence are over and the time has come time to learn his place in the world…

Arriving in Jaffa, father and son proceed to the Dead Sea, acquiring a manservant/body-slave named Ohmed, and extending their commercial embassage and religious tour into Damascus where they hire wily, canny – and ultimately, dishonest – Greek Nicilos to manage the trade side of their mission. Their odd caravan is finally bolstered in Baghdad by the addition of a Mongol outcast: a warrior woman skilled in handling horses. Despite the constant strife and many close calls that has marked all the players in their recent journeys alone and together, Taloon will inadvertently spark envy, chaos and the bloody end of the alliance…

Eventually, the pilgrimage ends in Aleppo where Boltar waits to ferry father and son back to a recovered and much wealthier Aleta. A brief period of glorious relaxation ends when a knight near death arrives, carrying a desperate plea from King Arthur. Gaul is besieged by Goth hordes, and safe passage across Europe has ended. England’s ruler needs his greatest hero to be his representative to the Pope and end the crisis…

Aleta heads for Albion to secure a sea route, while Valiant and Arn perilously trek overland from Ostia to Rome, finding the city and province a corrupt and degraded viper’s nest of self-serving officials keeping him from the Pontiff. Eventually, Val accepts his mission cannot succeed, but at least young Arn adds fleeting escape and joy to the life of a dying blind girl…

Undaunted, Valiant turns his energies and ingenuity to creating an alternative trade route between the Holy Father and still-imperilled Christian Britain: visiting the future Spain and France and encountering a lost land where monks seem to be guarded by monsters.

The bedevilled region is a hidden bulwark against the superstitious Goths, and introduces the English warriors to a doughty but distressed noble from neighbouring Aqueloen, where Stephan has been disinherited by sadistic usurper Duke Sadonick. The greedy villain’s machinations and bloody intentions for the princely travellers quickly falls foul of Val battle-savvy and political acumen and soon the province welcomes back Stephan as its rightful ruler…

Meanwhile, Aleta’s ships are anchored in the Bay of Biscay. While awaiting her men’s arrival the Queen strikes up a friendship with an otter, accidentally donating a crown jewel to the beast’s campaign to secure his own mate, but at last Valiant and Arn ride up, and a grand trade armada forms a convoy to embattled Britain…

With material needs assuaged, a fresh crisis mounts after a stopover at a monastery unleashes a charismatic iconoclast whose revolutionary spin on Christian doctrine furiously foments civic unrest, starvation and potential regime-change. When Arthur despatches newly-debarked Valiant to investigate, the troubleshooter must first decide if Wojan “the Voice” is a true instrument of God, a well-meaning anarchist or a simple dupe of his scurrilous scholar attendants/business managers Sleath and Dustad

As the near-insurrection ends, bored Aleta decides to join her husband and takes Arn with her. They reunite at the site of a new church under construction, not far from the fens where the boy Valiant grew up. The lure of his sire’s old adventures beguiles Arn, who takes off to explore the boggy waterways and is soon hopelessly lost. In the week that follows, he experiences many of the same privations and perils his father had, before Valiant finds him.

However, as they all thankfully take ship to comfortably return to Camelot, the Royal Family are unaware that greedy, ambitious eyes are watching…

To Be Continued…

A mind-blowing panorama of visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a tremendous procession of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending epic fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama with shatteringly dark violence.

Lush, lavish and captivating lovely, it is an indisputable landmark of comics fiction and something no fan should miss.
© 2016 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2016 their respective creators or holders. This edition © 2016 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.