Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Remembering Episode 3000, 8/7/94

Earlier this year Prince Valiant celebrated its 75th anniversary with a truly memorable installment, or episode, by Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. It wasn’t the first time, however, that the strip has acknowledged and celebrated a milestone in its own history.

Back in 1994 the creators of Prince Valiant (at that time the father and son team of illustrator John Cullen Murphy and writer Cullen Murphy) produced a celebratory 3000th installment. In the week before it went to print, the following article by William Grimes was published in many of the newspapers that carried Prince Valiant, including the St. Paul Pioneer Press (from which I cut it out and saved it!) Grimes’ article is reprinted this evening at A Prince Named Valiant with added images and links. Enjoy!

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Prince Valiant Prepares for Episode 3,000


Knight has lasting appeal as comic strip hero, fighting the good fight

By William Grimes
New York Times News Service
August 1994

King Arthur knew Prince Valiant was a knight beyond reproach. But could he have predicted the warrior with the silly-looking haircut would last 3,000 episodes?

Sunday [8/7/94] Val will unsheath the Singing Sword, flex his muscles and fight the good fight, as he has every Sunday since February 13, 1937, when his creator, Harold Foster, gambled that Americans would want to follow the adventures of a young knight in the Dark Ages. He was right.

Today the strip appears in 350 newspapers in 18 countries, reaching an audience that its syndicator, King Features, estimates at 44 million.

Over the decades, as Prince Valiant waged mortal combat with the likes of Mordred, Attila the Hun and his current foe, Alaric, the competition has withered away. Action-adventure strips such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Terry and the Pirates have all disappeared from the funny papers. But Val survives.



Still married to Aleta of the Misty Isles, he’s well into middle-age now, with five children and an infant grandchild. The haircut has not changed. Neither has his restless nature.

The franchise is now in its second generation. In 1970, Foster turned over the illustrating of the strip to John Cullen Murphy, whose son, Cullen, the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has written the stories since 1979. Meg Nash, John Cullen Murphy’s daughter, does the coloring and lettering. (Foster, who continued to contribute story ideas during the ’70s, died in 1982.)

“We stand out because of meticulous drawing, artful lettering and interesting storing,” said John Cullen Murphy. “Hal used to say that drawing can sell a strip right off the bat, but to keep it going you have to have good writing.”

The stock in trade of Prince Valiant is the heroic quest, with its hero setting off for foreign parts, sometimes at the request of King Arthur, sometimes in response to evil designs of colorful archfiends. (At the moment, Val must find the lost shield of Achilles to free his wife and his son Nathan, who are being held hostage in the Alps by Alaric). But often the plots lines can be humorous or homey. One of John Cullen Murphy’s favorites, for example, is Aleta’s attempt to introduce the fork into Britain.

“Hal gave the story line a great deal of latitude, which is a factor in its longevity,” said Cullen Murphy. It has humor, there are family episodes, and he allowed it to veer at times toward fantasy.” He admits a particular fondness for writing mini-adventures that send Val’s ship into a magic fog enshrouding an island ruled by one of the seven deadly sins or one of the four cardinal virtues.

The entire world is available to Prince Valiant, and he has made the most of it, smiting Huns, Saxons and Saharan nomads. The call of adventure has taken him as far as India and China, where he encountered the legendary Prester John. “he’s been on four continents, including North America,” Cullen Murphy said. “He has seen Niagara Falls.”

There’s even room to address burning issues of the day indirectly. “In one episode, Arthur talks about the need for medieval Britain to maintain its bridges and roads,” Cullen Murphy said. “We never used the term ‘crumbling infrastructure,’ but we touched on the idea.”

Hal Foster created Prince Valiant after giving up Tarzan, which he had illustrated off and on in the ’20s and ’30s. The new strip, which originally had the working title Derek, Son of Thule, told the tale of a king and his son who, driven from the Scandinavian kingdom of Thule by the usurper Sligon, fled to the fens of Britain.

The son, renamed Prince Valiant by the president of King Features, became a squire of Sir Gawain, and after proving his bravery, was accepted as a knight of the Round Table. Showing admirable tact, Arthur has never brought up Prince Valiant, the 1954 film starring Robert Wagner.

John Cullen Murphy [left] took over Prince Valiant at episode 1,760, after passing a try-out with Foster in 1970. A protégé of Norman Rockwell, Murphy was a magazine cover artist and the illustrator for Big Ben Bolt, a boxing comic strip that ran from 1950 to 1974.

“When I first started doing it,” he said, “I tried very hard to make it look exactly like Foster’s work. With time, though, I’ve made it a little more modern, a little looser.” At the same time, the format has shrunk from days of yore, when the strip commanded a full-size newspaper page.

In episode 3,000 Sunday, Murphy flashes back to four of Val’s greatest trials, rousing action scenes that involve four memorable villains: wicked Baron Baldon, Einar the Red (torture-master to the Viking king Valgrind), Attila the Hun and Prester John, who attacks Val with a mechanical dragon. As always, virtue and the Singing Sword triumph.

A week later, it will be back to business as usual. As Horrit the Witch once told Prince Valiant: “You will have high adventure, but nowhere do I see happiness and contentment.”



Above: Episode 3000 of Prince Valiant (August 7, 1994). Art: John Cullen Murphy. Text: Cullen Murphy.


See also the previous posts:
John Cullen Murphy on Prince Valiant: "It's My Duty. I'm Responsible For It"
Mark Schultz on Prince Valiant as an American Invention
A Flash of a Cameo

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