Sunday, April 17, 2011

John Cullen Murphy on Prince Valiant: "It's My Duty. I'm Responsible For It"

I've mentioned previously that my interest in Prince Valiant started when, as a child, I discovered my father's collection of Prince Valiant comics books.

When my Dad collected Prince Valiant as a teenager in the 1950s, the strip was being drawn by its creator Hal Foster and the Prince of Thule was a brash, rough-and-tumble young man, eager for battle. To be honest, when reading those strips as a child, I couldn't really relate to that Prince Valiant. I mean, I wasn't and I'm not any of those things.

The Prince Valiant that I came to know and sought to emulate as a teenager and young man was actually middle-aged. He was drawn by Hal Foster's chosen successor John Cullen Murphy (right), and his adventures were chronicled by Murphy's son Cullen. Interestingly, as you'll read in the interview below, Foster was somewhat critical of Murphy for drawing Valiant with "too much emotion." Apparently, he thought his creation should be forever stoic! I'm glad Murphy did what he did with the character. Prince Valiant, as drawn and written by the Murphys, still had great adventures and traveled far and wide, but he was also a family man. He displayed compassion, fortitude and wisdom, along with courage, resourcefulness and daring.

How into Prince Valiant was I as a young man?

Well, I made my own Prince Valiant t-shirt – one that bore the red stallion head of the House of Thule. I'm pictured wearing it above at Uluru in 1986. Later that year I had a Prince Valiant-themed 21st birthday celebration (left) in Armidale, where I was completing my Diploma of Teaching. The next year I had my very first article published. Its focus was the 50th anniversary of Prince Valiant!

So, yeah, I was very much into Prince Valiant, thanks in large measure to John Cullen Murphy and his son Cullen.

Following are excerpts from an interview that Brian M. Kane conducted with John Cullen Murphy in 2003. By this time Murphy had been drawing Prince Valiant for 33 years.

(NOTE: The entire interview can be found in Kane's excellent book The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion.)


Brian M. Kane: What did you think of Hal Foster’s work?

John Cullen Murphy: I first noticed Hal’s work when I was 18. I loved it. His compositions were extraordinary. He could really do the big panels. I think he was a little weak on horses, though, and great big close-ups.

Brian M. Kane: What made you decide to approach Hal in 1968?

John Cullen Murphy: [Big Ben] Bolt [the boxing comic strip Murphy had been illustrating since 1950] had lost a lot of readers. By that time [the strip's original writer] Elliot [Chaplin] had left and it was being written by a lot of different guys so the stories weren’t that good. I’d wanted to get black people into the strip because the heyday of Jewish and Irish prizefighters was past, but the executives wouldn’t do it. They thought we’d lose more readers.

Brian M. Kane: When did you leave Big Ben Bolt? Was it before or after you’d started on Prince Valiant?

John Cullen Murphy: After. I continued with Bolt for another three or four years.

Above: A Hal Foster preliminary rough and Murphy’s redrawn and finished panel.

Brian M. Kane: Hal was giving you pencil sketches of each page every week to work from. Did you ever find working with him constricting?

John Cullen Murphy: No, because they were just rough guides. A few years later after I started doing the pages [Hal’s wife] Helen told him, “You’ve got this guy doing the pages, why bother sending him layouts?” After a while Hal quit sending the layouts but continued writing the strip. I think Helen was trying to ease Hal’s workload.

Brian M. Kane: Did he give you any advice about the characters? Posture? Body language? Did he share any personal insights that are not obvious to the casual reader?

John Cullen Murphy: He thought I drew Val with too much emotion. He’d say: “He’s a prince. He needs to be stoic.”

Brian M. Kane: Something that Hal could relate to coming out of a late-Victorian/Edwardian upbringing. Was it hard for Hal to let go of Prince Valiant?

John Cullen Murphy: Very much. It was his baby.

Brian M. Kane: Was it harder for him to give up Val or Aleta?

John Cullen Murphy: (Laughs) Well, he did use Helen as a model for Aleta. Younger, of course. She was a fine lady.

Brian M. Kane: Your first Prince Valiant strip was page 1760, November 1, 1970, but you couldn’t start signing your name on the page until February 17, 1980. Did it bother you that the general public didn’t know you were drawing the strip for almost ten years?

John Cullen Murphy: Not really. Everyone knew I was doing it.

Brian M. Kane: All the cartoonists?

John Cullen Murphy: That’s right, and even some of the fans too. Hal told me he once got a letter from a fan asking him when he’d started using Murphy on the strip.

Brian M. Kane: Have any of the mythic overtones of Celtic history played a part in your development of Prince Valiant as a character and as a strip?

John Cullen Murphy: Not intentionally. Some of the stories have taken place in Ireland, but you never know what Cullen might write into the strip.

Brian M. Kane: What has been the proudest achievement in your professional art career?

John Cullen Murphy: That I’ve been able to keep working all this time. I’m not the most talented person, but I always did my best. I was able to put eight kids through college.

Brian M. Kane: Before we finish I just want to get back to the good Prince. How many papers is Prince Valiant currently in wouldwide?

John Cullen Murphy: They keep telling me it’s in 350 papers.

Brian M. Kane: Other than shrinkage, what other trends have you noticed in the past 50 years of working on the strips?

John Cullen Murphy: Shrinkage is the worst. It’s all right for gag strips but not Prince Valiant. The coloring is not as good as it used to be. The color they had in the papers in the early 1900s is better than what they have today.

Brian M. Kane: Where do you see the future of adventure strips?

John Cullen Murphy: I don’t know, maybe they’ve reached their nadir. Maybe they will come back. I’m told that there are some good strips in Europe.

Brian M. Kane: You seem to have a great love for Prince Valiant – something that goes beyond just a steady income or a weekly paycheck.

John Cullen Murphy: It’s my duty. I’m responsible for it.

Brian M. Kane: What’s the best thing about working on Prince Valiant?

John Cullen Murphy: It’s something new every day. There are an infinite variety of possibilities for stories.

Brian M. Kane: Granted that Hal created Prince Valiant, but after thirty years haven’t you really made it your strip now?

John Cullen Murphy: No. If it’s anyone’s then it’s more Cullen’s than mine. He takes it very seriously. He spends a lot of time on it and he doesn’t have a lot of time to spare.

Brian M. Kane: I did some calculating and you only have a little over two years to go before you do as many pages as Hal did.

John Cullen Murphy: Something like that. I know I’m close.

Brian M. Kane: Are you trying to break Hal’s record?

John Cullen Murphy: I really haven’t thought about it.

Brian M. Kane: Let me put it this way. Once you have done as many pages as Hal did, would you do one more?

John Cullen Murphy: Sure, why not?


John Cullen Murphy retired from drawing Prince Valiant in 2004; his last strip was published on March 14. He died just months later on July 2, at the age of 85. Two years earlier he had begun collaborating with his chosen successor Gary Gianni, who took over drawing Prince Valiant full-time in 2004.

Cullen Murphy shared with Gianni that once his father had retired he was no longer as interested in working on the strip. He nevertheless stayed with it after his father's death until September 2005 when Mark Schultz took over writing Prince Valiant.


  1. Great interview! Also, the picture of you at your 21st is terrific. I do LOVE this blog, Michael. While I have not been the dedicated Prince Valiant reader you have been, I can credit that comic with igniting my imagination as a very young man.

  2. I've been a Prince Valiant fan since the 1950's. Hal Foster was the Norman Rockwell of comic art. Absolutely wonderful. John Cullen Murphy was Hal's equal and a tremendous artist. I was surprised Gary Gianni left the strip earlier this year. But so far, I'm very pleased with the work Thomas Yeates is doing! How about you? Oh and while Cullen Murphy was tremendous as writer, I also laud Mark for his fine writing. King couldn't have chosen better people.

  3. John Cullen Murphy's first signature appears in January 27, 1980. Hal Foster drew three more pages until February 10, 1980 without signature.

  4. I always loved the character, Gundar Harl.