By Hal Foster
112 pages, color
Published by Fantagraphics
With the current wealth of classic reprint series, it’s easy to fall behind on your reading. (I don’t even want to admit how far behind I am on the Complete Peanuts books.) With the fifth volume of the Prince Valiant reprints scheduled for this spring, though, it seemed like a good a time as any to catch up on Hal Foster’s legendary newspaper strip. With a slight shift in the format of the strip in this volume, it turned out this was the perfect time to take another look at the series.
I’d found the third volume of Prince Valiant to drag a little bit, so it was a relief to find that the fourth strip in this collection begins a new story, sending Prince Valiant back to his homeland of Thule. With his helping his father reclaim Thule being such an important driving force of the earliest years of Prince Valiant, it’s almost a relief to see the strip shift its focus here. We’re reminded not only of Val’s heritage (he is, after all, a real Prince) but about the prophecies that were laid upon him early in the strip. It feels like Foster himself took the start of 1943 as a chance to kick the book back into high gear and forge new paths for the strip.
From there, we end up with two years’ worth of high adventure. There are wonderfully inventive moments peppered throughout these strips—one of the best being Prince Valiant building a dam to turn an enemy’s castle into the center of a lake—and Foster keeps the stories moving briskly from one to the next. Even with the return to Thule taking up seven months of this volume, it never feels like any stories are overstaying their welcome or dragging.
In mid-1944, Foster also added a secondary feature into his full page strip, "The Mediaeval Castle." Taking up the bottom third of the page, it follows everyday life for a family living in a castle; everything from schooling to being besieged by enemies, it’s a strange but charming mixture of adventure and historical primer. Considering that most installments are only three panels, I found myself a little surprised by how much Foster is able to cram into each installment of "The Mediaeval Castle." Originally I’d planned to skip reading those strips until I was done with the book and then backtrack to read just those (so I wouldn’t mix the two of them together in my head), but I was pleasantly surprised to find not only the two of them distinctly different, but also each succinct enough that there was no need to try and make each its own reading experience.
I’ll admit that I was a little worried when I saw that "The Mediaeval Castle" was taking up a third of the page of Prince Valiant, because one of the things I quickly fell in love with here was how Foster used the huge full page spreads to his advantage, with large layouts and inventive uses of the space. At first, it felt like Foster fell into a pattern; a nine panel-grid where the first six panels were for Valiant, the last three for the Castle. But as the comic progressed, Foster soon clearly felt comfortable enough with the new arrangement that we had him break that structure as need be. The return of Aleta, for instance, is a huge panel the size of four normal ones, letting us not only see Aleta and Valiant, but her entire court, the tapestries hanging on the walls, and even the tears in Val’s cloak.
Then again, Foster is no stranger to fine detail in Prince Valiant, so this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The fine lines that are on every single page are a joy to simply stop and study. From the veins running through stone walls to the individual fibers on a loincloth, Foster made sure every last detail was present. He was also an excellent artist when it came to understanding the human body and how to depict it move. When Valiant frees himself from a dungeon after being strung up, watching him pull his legs up and through the ropes, and then hang from his knees while undoing the rest of the bonds, makes you feel like you’re watching an acrobat move across the page. Every new image flows gracefully from the previous one, a reminder that a lot of modern artists could learn a great deal from Foster’s storytelling techniques and craft.
Prince Valiant Vol. 4: 1943-1944 is not only a great book, I think it could also serve well as a good jumping-on point for those curious about the strip. By this point Foster has gotten a strong grip on his characters and the format of the strip, and with a new storyline beginning so early on in this volume you don’t have to worry about being lost. And while this volume doesn’t end at a conclusion for the last storyline (running a whopping 20 months in all, as it turns out, only the first 7 months are present here), there’s so much meat here that you’ll be eager for Prince Valiant Vol. 5 so you can find out how it ends. I, for one, can’t wait.