Monday, February 13, 2017

Comics’ Sweeping Graphic Novel, Prince Valiant, Turns 80


By Brian M. Kane

Before television, when most films were still black & white, the Sunday comics were an oasis of color in a Depression-era gray world. Highly popular comic strips drove newspaper sales in the early twentieth century, so it is little wonder why their creators were regarded as celebrities. The epic Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur by Harold Rudolf “Hal” Foster premiered in the color comics section on February 13, 1937 (left). Prior to Prince Valiant, Foster originated the adult protagonist adventure strip genre by adapting Tarzan as a black & white daily strip in 1928, which was followed by the Tarzan color Sunday feature from 1931-1937. Faced with imposing financial and creative constraints as a work-for-hire artist, Foster focused his considerable skills as an illustrator towards producing his own strip. The extraordinary effort resulted in international prominence for both Prince Valiant and Foster. Today, after 80 years, “Val” remains one of the few adventure strip characters still in print.

Above: Detail of the November 4, 2016 installment of Prince Valiant
by the strip's current illustrator, Thomas Yeates.

It is difficult to imagine the impact Foster’s Prince Valiant had on 1930s and 1940s popular culture. When Prince Valiant began, Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 was still over a year away. Many of the first two generations of comic book creators owe a great debt to Foster (right). Young comic book artists studied Foster’s technique, sometimes copying panels from his strips. “Swipes” of Foster’s art can be found in the origin of Batman, and comics drawn by Jack Kirby, the co-creator of many of today’s movie heroes, including Captain America, The Avengers, The X-Men and Thor. Most importantly, Val epitomized a knightly moral code, creating an ethical standard of conduct that exemplified truth, justice, and what it meant to be a hero.

Seminal works such as The Hobbit, The Sword in the Stone, and The Chronicles of Narnia were non-existent in February of 1937. By the time Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published, Prince Valiant had already spent twelve years on his own mono-mythic hero’s journey. Yet, unlike Campbell, Val’s adventures included strong, self-reliant, heroic women; attesting to Hal’s wife, Helen’s influence on the strip.

To the uninitiated, Valiant, a lowly Prince of Thule, fell in love with and eventually married Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. To Hal’s and Helen’s credit, Aleta became a role model for the millions of capable women running America during World War II; fighting off offenders with her wit, charm, intelligence, and, on occasion, a hidden dagger strapped to her thigh. Aleta was kicking butt long before Princess Leia, Katniss Everdeen, or most of the Disney princesses were even a thought.

Though set in the time of King Arthur, Foster’s Prince Valiant was surprisingly contemporary. During World War II, Val fought the Huns, resulting in the strip being canceled in German newspapers. In 1943, Val befriended a boy with a withered leg who could not “play soldier” with the other boys. Nevertheless, the boy was encouraged to hone his skills so that one day he could be “arrow-maker to King Arthur.” The story appeared a year into a polio epidemic and 16 months after Pearl Harbor, and was a call to service to all who could not go off to fight. After the war, as American troops returned home, Val and Aleta sailed to the “New World” and had a son, heralding the coming baby boom. Then, as the demographics of 1950s America changed, multi-cultural couples in Prince Valiant married and had children just as they did in the popular sitcom I Love Lucy.

Foster’s Prince Valiant is not just an adventure, or romance, or humor strip—though it is sprinkled with all those elements. Prince Valiant is a graphic novel about life where people fall in love, wars are fought, children are born and grow older, hearts are broken, friends die in battle, couples marry,and even disfigured and disabled characters young and old, male and female have a place and purpose in this brave world Foster fashioned. While some may feel Prince Valiant is archaic by today’s standards, perhaps its unabashedly inclusive “Might for Right” message is simply ahead of its time. Long live Val!

Brian M. Kane, Ph.D. is the author of the IPPY Award-winning biography Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators, and edits the New York Times Best-Selling Prince Valiant reprint series from Fantagraphics Books.

For A Prince Named Valiant's special series of posts celebrating the 75th anniversary of Prince Valiant in 2012, see:
Prince Valiant Celebrates 75th Anniversary
Something Very Special . . .
How It All Began

See also the previous posts:
A Valiant First Effort, Wouldn't You Say?
"He Wasn't a Superhero But He Was a Hero"
Remembering Episode 3000, 8/7/94
John Cullen Murphy on Prince Valiant: "It's My Duty. I'm Responsible For It"
Mark Schultz on Prince Valiant as an American Invention
Gary Gianni's Prince Valiant: Looking Good
Thomas Yeates: "My Biggest Thrill is Seeing the Prince Valiant Logo on My Drawings"
Celebrating 79 Years of Prince Valiant

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