Prince Valiant

Since its demise, the Golden Age of newspaper comic strips has never been more accessible than now. Lovers of this four-color medium during its classical period have recently been treated to encyclopedic and scholarly compilations centering on Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Popeye, Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, and Gasoline Alley, among others. Now these magnificent series are joined by what is arguably the apex of the art, Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant. Previous assemblages of Valiant being out of print, Fantagraphics, a leader in the field, has stepped forward with gloriously restored art reproduced in generous dimensions and abetted by the essays of experts. This initial volume, collecting the first two years’ worth of strips from the nearly 40-year span of Foster’s involvement in the single-page, Sundays-only offering, demonstrates just why Valiant continues to burn so brightly. Foster’s realistic yet romantic art is astonishingly alluring. Interior domestic scenes alternate with gorgeous, panoramic landscapes and architecture. His vast range of people possess a loose-limbed naturalness and kinetic exuberance. Horses and other animals exhibit the grace of each species. And not only is each panel a small masterpiece, but Foster’s compositional sense on each page conveys excitement. One week, a page is given over merely to four equal panels (week of 8-14-37). Another week, three skinny columns of art make a triptych (week of 10-9-37). Moreover, in cinematic fashion, long shots alternate entertainingly with close-ups. This latter distinction brings us naturally to Foster’s storytelling abilities, the other half of his grand achievement. His ability to portray vivid characters in swift, simple strokes is matched only by his clever plotting. Weekly episodes encouraged compression: for instance, Valiant ages a year between one panel and another (week of 4-24-37). On the other hand, Foster knew when to relax the pace, as when he devotes two entire weeks to Valiant capturing and taming a horse (5-15-37 and 5-22-37). His balance of naturalism and fantasy is a key to his success as well. Simultaneously nostalgic and eternal, Hal Foster’s populist masterwork deserves this accessible enshrinement.