Monday, March 28, 2011

Looking Good


Gary Gianni is the third and current illustrator in the 74-year history of Prince Valiant. He took over full time from his predecessor John Cullen Murphy in 2004, the two having first began collaborating in 2001.

In 2008 Gianni wrote and compiled The Prince Valiant Page, an indispensable resource in which he explains "the mechanics of going about illustrating Prince Valiant" via "thoughts jotted down during the production sequences, descriptions of materials and techniques, [and] a word about models and other reference sources." It also includes a richly illustrated look at Gianni's work leading up to Prince Valiant. In short, it's a wonderful resource, full of great illustrations and insightful observations about the creative process. Following (with added links and images) is an excerpt.

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. . . As with many kids, my early interest in drawing (and reading) rests largely with a fascination of comic books. Even before learning to read, I was enthralled by the comics of artists such as Jack Kirby. His visuals enabled me to follow a story line simply by studying the drawings.

Despite my admiration, there's little evidence of my own work being influenced by the masters of the comic field. The high-octave graphics of talents like Kirby seem to be missing altogether. The desire, however, to tell stories through pictures and render the liveliest figures imaginable stem from the art of these remarkable men.

But what is the difference between an illustrator and a comic book artist anyway? Or, for that matter, a cartoonist? The issue is dangerously nuanced and the similarities outnumber the differences. In an interview in the 1970's, [Prince Valiant creator] Hal Foster sidesteps the question neatly.

"I can't cartoon. I am an illustrator. But where the cartoonist ends and the illustrator begins is pretty hard to say."

As Hal Foster conceived it, the Prince Valiant comic strip is a narrative with illustrations accompanying the text. He rarely took advantage of the storytelling techniques found in comic strips. The snub-nosed style of Chester Gould or the cinematic approach of Milt Caniff or Will Eisner would be incongruous on Prince Valiant's stage. Indeed, Prince Valiant is more opera than film. A lyrical Victorian fragrance underlies the historical realism. Foster and [his successor John Cullen] Murphy were concerned with the careful rendering of the detailed tableaus. Groupings of figures are integrated within stately environments . . . For these reasons some critics will argue Prince Valiant is not a true comic strip.

But what of that?

When commenting on the differences between jazz, rock and classical music, composer musician "P.D.Q. Bach" observed, "All musical forms are created equal." Invoking Duke Ellington, he added, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing and if it sounds good it is good."

. . . Or, for our purposes, "if it looks good – it is good."

– Gary Gianni
p. 25



Image 1: From the February 18, 2007 installment of Prince Valiant by Gary Gianni.
Image 2: Photographer unknown.
Image 3: Gary Gianni.
Image 4: From the December 5, 2004 installment of Prince Valiant by Gary Gianni.
Image 5: From the website of Gary Gianni.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Comics Reporter's Review of the Newly Released Prince Valiant, Vol. 3 (1941-1942)

Following is a review of Prince Valiant, Volume 3 (1941-1942), which was released by Fantagraphics Books on March 21, 2011. This review was written and first published by The Comics Reporter.

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In his fine introduction to this new Prince Valiant collection, Dan Nadel briefly invokes Jack Kirby as a cartoonist who picked up on the way of making comics by which Hal Foster became a star, methods practiced by only a handful of others. According to fellow practitioner Burne Hogarth, Foster employed classical ways of drawing and made them work at a size and with an elegance of line that the images retained their power but also kept the eye skipping across the page. Kirby/Foster is an enlightening if offbeat comparison; in addition to the similarities in figure and panel work that Nadel describes, the power each could suggest within a single image, both cartoonists used page design and narrative rhythm to control their work's tone, to cut into what otherwise might be an interminable journey from point A to point B.

In devouring the latest in Fantagraphics' fine, modern-day collections before the introduction, I was actually reminded more of Kirby's fellow Silver Age comic book titan Steve Ditko. Foster's young man seethes and overreacts and even plays the fool in the same way that Ditko allowed Peter Parker the human foibles inherent to those in the process of becoming an adult. (Spider-Man never got mad enough to lop off anyone's hand that I can remember, so point to Valiant there; they did operate in different centuries with their own definition of "responsibility," however.) As long as the readers are invested in the energy with which Valiant seizes after goals both major and minor, we remain intrigued by his story. My memory of Prince Valiant as it progressed in later years makes me wonder if Foster ever got all the way past the bold and obvious appeal of this specific version of his character, to the point that future, similar adventures felt like a retreat for Valiant as opposed to continued growth, explaining also why the story would be shifted to Valiant's son.

There was a time not many decades ago when Hal Foster was considered the greatest cartoonist in the world, end of story, by a significant subset of people that took comics seriously -- my father among them. Like my father, many of the people who thought this have now passed on. This latest collection effort allows those younger than, say, 60 years old, to take a second look at the work without hackles raised, minus the powerful impulse to push back and tear down a conception born of a restrictive view of what art does well and why. With fresh eyes, savvier readers will likely recognize the obvious appeal of the bigger, splashier images but also pick up on the impressive hammer-to-nail effect that Foster could summon from a nine-panel grid. Most readers will see or at least sense the essential economy with which Foster tells his stories, how the more complex imagery serves a specific thematic function either by making unshakably lucid some sensual aspect in play or by drawing a moment that encompasses several smaller instances in a way that stops the eye and makes it consider an effect greater than the sum of those parts. Even untethered from rigidities caused by favoring realistic rendering over all other expressions available to the the form, it's hard not to be come away impressed by Foster's prodigious skill set.

Foster staged individual scenes extremely well. He never wasted a closeup, and he also knew where each man in a group of men might stand in proximity to a threat according to their personality as individuals and as a group. Foster could show a realization moving across the faces of dozens and in what order they came to enlightenment, and he could put a grin on Valiant's face that said everything it needed to about his role in the action to come. Seeing all this work under one cover makes one realize how much Foster accomplished in the context of a delivery system that for most people meant work that slipped from view and memory seconds after being consumed, only to have to muster its entire energy the next time around. Nadel mentions that Foster may have doubted his own greatness, but each time I see and attempt to catalog the various techniques he put into play every time he worked on a page, I come away with enough faith in his ability for the both of us.


Related Off-site Links:
A Review of Prince Valiant (Vol. 1): 1937-1938 – Read About Comics (July 20, 2009).
A Review of Prince Valiant (Vol. 2): 1939-1940 – Graphic Novels Reviews (December 13, 2010).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Valiant Stands Accused


The perils of rescuing a damsel in distress!


Art: John Cullen Murphy (September 1980).
Text: Cullen Murphy.
Source: The Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia); from the collection of Michael J. Bayly.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Harpies!


A memorable illustration by Gary Gianni – the current illustrator of Prince Valiant.

Art: Gary Gianni (#3681, August 26, 2007).
Text: Mark Schultz.
Source: Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot – Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2008).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

First Love


Prince Valiant's first love was the fair maid Ilene of Branwyn, whose parents Val rescues from a band of outlaws.

When Val asks for Ilene's hand in marriage, her father the Thane of Branwyn informs him that she has already been promised to Prince Arn of Ord.

Prince Valiant vows to find his rival and defeat him. Traveling to Ord he encounters and jousts with Arn on a narrow bridge above a swirling river. Arn is unhorsed and topples into the water. He is saved from drowning in his heavy armor by Val who declares: "If you are to die this day, it will be by my hand in fair fight."

The two lads are soon at it . . . with cries of "Ilene or death!"




Their duel is halted by the arrival of a Viking raiding party, which they battle and defeat. From a wounded survivor they learn that Ilene has been captured by Thagnar, the Viking sea rover.

Forgetting their quarrel in the face of Ilene's peril, Valiant and Arn rush to the coast. Armed with Arn's charmed Singing Sword, Prince Valiant buys time by holding the bridge at Dundorn Glen against fifty Vikings.



With rage in his heart and the terrible "Singing Sword" in his hand, Val writes his name large in the memories of his foes.

The Vikings draw back in amazement, but, weakened by a score of wounds, Prince Valiant collapses and is taken to Thagnar's encampment. Here he is reunited with Ilene. The two are soon at sea, prisoners of Thagnar.




With Arn in pursuit, Val strikes Thagnar, reclaims the Singing Sword, and cripples the longship's steering sweep. At Ilene's urging he jumps overboard and swims to Arn's ship. Together, Valiant and Arn defeat the crew of Thagnar's second ship, but the Viking rover himself has repaired his ship and escaped with Ilene.

Arn and Val's search for the woman they both love ends in tragedy with the discovery of Thagnar's shipwrecked vessel – and a jeweled clasp that had belonged to Ilene.




Later the two princes are consoled by Sir Launcelot.

Do not grive for Ilene – fate has spared her much unhappiness. Had she been found you were pledged to fight to the death for her hand; the winner would live on knowing he had brought a bride with his friend's life, and gentle Ilene would be the wife of a murderer, forever blaming herself for being the cause of it all.




Back in Britain, the two friends part company; but not before Arn gives Val the charmed Singing Sword, "to be used in good King Arthur's cause."




Years later, when considering a name for his first-born son, Val shares the tragic tale of Ilene with his wife Aleta. They then decide to name their son Arn. Pictured above is how Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster recaps the story of Val's first love in April 1948.


Image art and text: Hal Foster.
Image 1: From installment #75, July 17, 1938.
Image 2: #67, May 22, 1938.
Image 3: #68, May 29, 1938.
Image 4: #71, June 19, 1938.
Image 5: #75, July 17, 1938
Image 6: #78, August 7, 1938.
Image 7: #82, September 4, 1938.
Image 8: #85, September 25, 1938.
Image 9: April 1948.

Source of images 1, 3, 4 and 5: Prince Valiant #1, Pioneer Comics, June 1988.
Images 2, 6, 7 and 8: Prince Valiant (Vol. 1): 1937-1938 – Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books, 2009).
Image 9: From one of the Prince Valiant comic books my father collected in 1954-55 and which were published and distributed by Associated Newspaper Ltd. of 60-70 Elizabeth Street, Sydney.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dagobert

In his "quest for humility," Prince Valiant is led to an old hermit who dwells in a deep chasm in the Swiss Alps. Here, the old man explains, lie all of humanity's follies and sorrows.

In one underground cavern, Prince Valiant is shown hundreds of scribes, busy at work recording the good intentions of everyone in the world.

But what of that one sleeping scribe?

"Poor Dagobert," the old man sighs. "His job is to record the good intentions people actually fulfill. He has not much to do."




Art: John Cullen Murphy (February 1981).
Text: Cullen Murphy.
Source: The Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia), June 12, 1983; from the collection of Michael J. Bayly.

NOTE: For some theological musings on this particular illustration, see my Wild Reed post, Waking Dagobert.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mark Schultz on the Art of Hal Foster: "Uniquely Appealing, Innovative and Influential"

Mark Schultz, the creator of the Eiser and Harvey Award-winning comic book Xenozoic Tales (a.k.a. Cadillac and Dinosaurs), has been writing Prince Valiant, as illustrated by Gary Gianni, since 2004.

The following appreciation of the artistic legacy of Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster (pictured at right) is excerpted from the foreword Schultz wrote for Fantagraphics’ 2010 publication Prince Valiant (Vol. 2): 1939-1940.

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Hal Foster’s enduring status as the most important figure in the development of adventure comic strips would be difficult to dispute: With Tarzan, his groundbreaking adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s iconic ape man, and then Prince Valiant, his personal invention and masterpiece, Foster virtually single-handedly invented the visual language and set the storytelling standards that would dominate serial comic-strip adventure for decades. What is open to argument, however, is whether Foster was primarily a cartoonist, working with and exploiting the opportunities unique to the sequential medium – or more of a traditional illustrator squatting on the comics page while remaining largely aloof from comics conventions.

The distinction, of course, isn’t that simple. Foster was very conscious of the differences in the disciplines and venues for which they were intended, and he made choices. Which elements of illustration Foster brought to the comics page, which illustrative elements he incorporated from established color comics added up to a singular whole that made his work uniquely appealing, innovative and influential.

. . . [The] one . . . creative choice that Foster made that most clearly separates him from the greater body of cartoonists [was to present] his strips’ text in the form of open captions, with narration and dialogue intermixed. He dispensed with one of the strips cartoonists’ unique tools, the word balloon. A singular stylistic choice, it’s impossible to imagine Prince Valiant otherwise, so completely is this uncommon feature integrated into the formal look of the strip. I have no idea whether or not the decision owes any allegiance on Foster’s part to book illustration, but the conceit does work well to consolidate textual information and organize the panels, with their big dollops of visual information, into easily read designs. Word balloons would have made Valiant a different experience, read in a very different rhythm. . . .

– Mark Schultz
Excerpted from “Yes, He Was a Cartoonist,” the foreword to
Prince Valiant (Vol. 2): 1939-1940 (Fantagraphics Books, 2010)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Valiant to the Rescue


Above: A panel from the November 13, 1977 installment of Prince Valiant.


While in Beirut with their family, Karen and Valeta, the twin teenage daughters of Prince Valiant and Queen Aleta, are kidnapped by Assur, "son of a Sheik from beyond the Jordan." Prince Valiant, armed with the "bright blade" of the Singing Sword, quickly pursues and rescues them.

At first glance, this illustration could be misconstrued to imply that the various artists and writers involved over the years in the creation of Prince Valiant have been careless and insensitive in their portrayal of people from non-European cultures. Yet to think this would be a serious mistake. In the preceding adventure, for example, Prince Valiant's allies and friends were Sheik Abdul El Mohammed and members of his family and household, while the protagonist was a hot-headed and arrogant Teutonic knight named Gunther (pictured below).




Furthermore, as Frank Plowright notes in The Slings and Arrows Comic Guide (1997), from its earliest days, "the plots [of Prince Valiant were] . . . never condescending towards other nations in the manner typical at which they were created."

One of the earliest examples of this can be observed in the Hal Foster created character of Ramud of Tunis (pictured at right, from the August 5, 1945 installment). Brave and resourceful, Ramud is a vital ally in the rescuing of Valiant's future wife Aleta from the tyrant Donardo.

This respectful and even-handed portrayal of people from diverse cultures is a characteristic of Prince Valiant that continues to this day.





Above: Prince Valiant and Neshem of Ab'saba – friends and allies in
the quest to return King Solomon's gold to Africa (#3674, July 8, 2007).



Images 1 and 2: Art: Hal Foster and John Cullen Murphy. (Note: At this point in Prince Valiant's run, John Cullen Murphy, who had been quietly assisting Hal Foster since 1970, was well into his first decade of drawing the strip over Foster's writing and roughs.) Text: Hal Foster. Source: The Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia), March 1980; from the collection of Michael J. Bayly.
Image 3: Art and text: Hal Foster. Source: The Prince Valiant Scrapbook (King Features Syndicate, published by Bill Crouch, Jr., 1981).
Image 4: Art: Gary Gianni. Text: Mark Schultz. Source: Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot – Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2008).