Review: Prince Valiant, Vol. 1: 1937-1938

When I was kid, Prince Valiant was the living fossil of the comics page. Intricately drawn, with the captions weirdly bundled beneath the illustrations instead of being bound in bubbles, it dealt with swords and mail and bloodshed. Sure, the Phantom was still kicking, Dick Tracy was chasing crooks, but Prince Valiant was so beautiful, archaic and weird that it may as well have been scrimshawed on an ostrich egg.

After reading the first volume of Fantagraphics excellent reprinting of Hal Foster’s creation, I’m surprised at the life within this antique. It’s no surprise that the art is beautiful. Foster’s figures have a fine, illustrated detail—rarely seen on the comics page—but they’re full of energy as they joust, dive and play at swords.

The fine drawings are matched by the colors. Bold, primary outfits stand out against soft, pastel backgrounds, giving the strip an eye-catching blend of feudalism and fantasy.

This brilliant world is enhanced by Foster’s engaging plots. While the volume relies on some sword and sorcery tropes—kings and hags, knights and damsels, King Arthur and Morgan Le Fay—Prince Valiant charges through it all like a can-do, all-American maniac. He chases adventure with little regard for his own life, stabbing and swinging his way through one romp after another. It doesn’t take much provocation to get his knife out of the sheath, but he’s clever, resourceful and fun, even as the bodies pile up behind him.

The stories feel more sophisticated than many of the action shoot-ups you’ll find on the tube or in the theater. The characterization is consistent. Obstacles are overcome without cheats. Foster is even savvy enough to throw in some setbacks as well as real tragedy. The volume’s longest storyline ends bleakly, and it’s surprising to find no takebacks in its wake.

On the whole, this is an excellent package, showing Foster gaining steam as he settles into his style and setting. I look forward to future installments.

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