Rating: 3.75/5Whether or not you like Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant comic strip, which ran for decades in newspapers across the United States, one thing is certain: the series of oversized, hardcover compilations released by Fantagraphics Books is a stunning affirmation of the power of books—real, honest-to-God, ink-on-paper books—in this age of e-readers and tablets and Kindles. Prince Valiant Vol. 6: 1947 – 1948, which like the preceding five installments, measures a whopping 14” x 10 ½”, is a monster slab of comic art, especially when opened to double its width. Such dimensions are crucial to appreciate the fine line work, composition and draftsmanship of Hal Foster’s art. It’s almost like you’re reading the Sunday comics again.
For readers new to the series, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not Vol. 6 is the logical place to start. At this point, Prince Valiant (or “Val”) has long been established as a good guy living in medieval times, the hero who will act honorably and kick ass when necessary. His loyal wife Aleta is here as well—a quick-minded and courageous woman in her own right, and not the shrinking Lois Lane type one might expect of the era—as are any number of supporting players, lackeys, sidekicks, connivers and so on. It’s not terribly hard to get up to speed with who’s who or what’s going on.
That said, there is plenty of action already in play as this edition opens. Val is visiting Earl Jon, a fellow of uncertain ethics; the action swiftly moves from the Vikings of Scandinavia to the Indians of North America and back again to Arthurian-era medieval Britain. The action proceeds deliberately, each individual page advancing some aspect of the story but with little of the razzle-dazzle of modern comics. Given that the story was doled out in weekly segments, one page at a time, it’s not surprising that there is a certain deliberateness to the proceedings.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the strip is the physical layout. Each page of Prince Valiant was divided into nine panels, three across and three down; many pages maintained these discrete panels. Others, however, merged two or more into oversized horizontal or vertical boxes that gave Foster room to play with the action and maximize visual impact. The page from 2-22-48 (individual pages are not numbered in these volumes) merges the three central panels into one horizontal, while the page from 5-4-47 merges the upper left and upper center panels as well as the four panels immediately below into a striking tableau. Such visual strategies are common, and not only increase reader interest but also allowed Foster to mimic the nascent film industry, with its quick shifts from close-ups to wide-angle shots.
That said—and with no disrespect to Foster, whose art is impeccable—the fact is that Prince Valiant is not a comic book, or graphic novel if you prefer, as we understand the term today. It is an illustrated story, which is to say, you could remove the images and simply read the captions which appear in every single panel and still have a clear idea of the action of the story. There is nothing intrinsic in the artwork to convey meaning; the art buttresses the storytelling but does not provide it.
This doesn’t make the strip, or the book, any less enjoyable, but it does change the nature of its storytelling. Like a movie that relies overly much on voice-over narration, Foster doesn’t trust the image to convey meaning, and so has the narrator do the work. After a few pages (or a couple hundred), the reader will either adjust to this or else find it tedious.
This volume also contains a lengthy essay about Foster which is interesting in its own right and helps to place the artist, and this particular selection of stories, in context. There’s a double-sized foldout page of art accompanying an essay about the coloring process, which is a nice extra. The paper is heavy and bright, the reprint quality excellent, with sharp colors and clear reproductions of Foster’s fine-lined, sketchy style. Stacked up alongside the other volumes in this series, these books will make an impressive statement.
Readers unfamiliar with the Prince Valiant strip owe it to themselves to take a look. The stories encapsulate the values of a simpler, less cynical time, and the illustrations are first-rate. Here’s hoping Fantagraphics continues this series long enough to preserve Foster’s entire oeuvre. Now that’s a lot of comics.