Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Valiant Effort

Many a Sunday morning of my youth was spent on the living room floor with the Sunday comics section spread out in front of me, everything from Peanuts to Andy Capp. Back when Philadelphia had two major newspapers—the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Bulletin–my Father made sure to get both every Sunday for the sports and the comic sections. (Sometimes I think my Dad did that just so he could read one while I was reading the other.) One of the strips that most sparked my childhood imagination was Prince Valiant (charging towards the castle above), brainchild of Hal Foster, born August 16, 1892.

Foster initially resisted working in comics, hoping for a career in fine art, taking work on Edgar Rice BurroughsTarzan for the money and the experience in 1929. Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst recognized Foster’s talent and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse to create a totally new strip of his own design—Prince Valiant, which began on February 13, 1937. Seventy years and 3500 strips later, Prince Valiant still storms castles and gets the girl (shown above getting the girl in a 1940 panel) every Sunday in 350 newspapers across the country. A variety of artists have taken up the mantle of the Prince since Foster stepped down in 1980 (passing away only 2 years later). Fantagraphics Books accepted the challenge of collecting and reprinting every Prince Valiant Sunday strip in 50 volumes, perhaps the biggest republishing project for a comic strip ever.

Foster’s tales of medieval battles and romances may seem slightly dated today, but his artwork still reminds us of what a great draftsman he was. The details filling each Sunday panel, such as the battle scene above, simply overwhelm the viewer. In the middle of all the other roughly drawn and simplified figures of the Sunday funnies, Prince Valiant always stood as an oasis of visual plenty, with something in every corner to look closer and closer at. In an effort to save trees, I now only read comics online (see the latest Prince Valiant here), but just thinking of Hal Foster’s work makes me nostalgic for the days of colorful newsprint and Sunday mornings on the living room floor.

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