Sure, those glossy lips and that pageboy bob makes him look something like ye olde Ramona Quimby, but don't let that fool you. The star of what is arguably the twentieth century's best-drawn newspaper comic strip, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is all hero, through and through, for his age and ours.
The first four volumes of Fantagraphics' collected Prince Valiant reveal young Foster's creation as both the sum total of the heroic ideals that preceded his debut in 1937 as well as a source of serious inspiration for all the heroes that have followed him, in all media formats, in the decades since.
He's part Errol Flynn, part gritty badass, part Joseph Campbell myth on the make, part nostalgic vessel for our grandparents' yearning for some more civilized age, part Mel Gibson-style torture survivor, even part MMORPG knight slowly accumulating levels and power and inventory. (Seriously, like any video game character, Val can't journey anyplace without fighting trash mobs of bandits, pirates, or slavers.)
Here, from the Fantagraphics volumes that cover the first four years of a strip that's soldiered on for 74, are typically gorgeous examples of Foster's genius. Prince Valiant's adventures may have started long ago, but few storytellers have ever equaled them -- even as many storytellers are still ripping them off.
1. He Lances Giant Crocodiles.
That's from the first volume (and first year) of the strip. Val's out-of-time England has magic and monsters, sure, but just a dash of each. The monsters tend to be real animals exaggerated -- a clever reminder that myths of dragons and sea-monsters might themselves be exaggerations of what nature already coughs up.
2. In Noble Last Stands, He Slaughters Dozens of Men.
This bridge battle (also from the first volume) would be memorable in any medium. But here, in a comic panel, it can fully engage our imagination in ways no other medium can manage. Foster is adept at bodies in hurtling and momentous motion, always staged with appealing clarity, even in the chaos. The great joy in studying a panel like this one is dreaming along with it: Where does each figure's momentum take it next? What movement did each take in the breath preceding this?
3. One on One, Prince Valiant Will Break Your Bones
The panels of Foster's full-page Valiant strips often feel something like storybook pages, individual images that lack the moment-to-moment continuity of scene-driven comics art. Here, though, he proves that he -- like Prince Val -- can throw down with the best.
4. Prince Valiant Bests His Individual Enemies but Also Fights as Just Another Soldier in Much Bigger Causes
The second volume boasts a remarkable sequence of strips detailing a siege at the castle Andelkrag. In them, Prince Valiant is a participant rather than the hero. Here, he looks on as his compatriot knights take out a siege machine, a fine example of Foster's mastery of both the epic and the intimate.
5. Every Other Story He Gets Captured, Stripped, and Bound in Some Ridiculous Fashion
This is hugely important. If adventure heroes didn't get captured, no James Bond movie would ever have three full acts. This distressing image (from 1944 and the newly released fourth volume) suggests both DaVinci's Vitruvian Man as well as the sad future of the comics page itself: The full-page Prince Valiant strip would in later decades be shrunk and shrunk again, which Foster accidentally foreshadows here by chaining a ripped and furious Val inside the Family Circus circle.