State of the Art

When I was growing up (sometime between the discovery of fire and the launch of Twitter) the Sunday newspaper featured a glorious mixture of color comics. Pages and pages of ‘em: adventure, humor, detective, SF, and kiddie fare were all well-represented and some of the most popular strips received a full page to themselves. Dick Tracy chased a rogues gallery of cut-throats (both on Earth and on the moon!), Li’l Abner guzzled Kickapoo Joy Juice and dined on Shmoos, Steve Canyon fought Commies and Cold War spies, Dagwood ran over the mailman on the way out the door, and Prince Valiant roamed the medieval world.

Nowadays the newspaper comics have lost much of their past glory and luster (especially after the 1995 retirement of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes), the sections have shrunk alarmingly (if not disappeared entirely), and only the barest handful of adventure strips are still being produced. Prince Valiant is one of those rarified few.

Prince Valiant was—and still is—simply one of the most beautiful strips in the history of comics. Created, written, and drawn by Hal Foster [1892-1982] in 1937, the stories chronicle the deeds of a Nordic knight in King Arthur’s Court. It originally featured some fantastic elements (like Val’s Singing Sword) and creatures along with the magical doings of Merlin and Morgan le Fay. But by 1942 Foster had largely jettisoned all of the overt fantasy and treated it as a more realistic adventure serial (though he routinely incorporated “out-of-era” aspects into Valiant’s 5th Century world: Viking Longships, Muslims, technological advances not made before the Renaissance, and the fortifications, armor and armament resemble the High Middle Ages).

Foster drew the strip until 1971 before turning it over to a carefully-selected successor, John Cullen Murphy [1919-2004]; Hal continued to write the scripts and provide penciled page layouts until 1980. Murphy, in turn, drew Prince Valiant (as scripted by his son, Cullen, and lettered and colored by his daughter, Mairead) until his retirement in 2004 when he relinquished the strip to his own hand-picked successor, well-known illustrator Gary Gianni. Gary had drawn the adventures of The Shadow for Dark Horse Comics and illustrated a trio of books by Robert E. Howard featuring Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane for Wandering Star, so tackling another iconic character wasn’t intimidating. Shortly after taking on the series Gianni brought in fellow artist and writer Mark Schultz to create scripts and Scott Roberts to provide color.

While remaining true to both Foster’s and Murphy’s take on the characters, Gary and Mark also put their own stamp on the series and reintroduced some of the fantasy elements that had been put on the shelf over 60 years earlier; the decision wasn’t without controversy. Some fans of the strip were incensed by the changes and weren’t hesitant in using the Internet to voice their complaints. But others have warmly embraced Gianni’s stylish art and Schultz’s imaginative plots and have spread the word that there’s still some excitement in the Sunday comics section of the paper. According to its distributor, King Features Syndicate, the strip currently appears in over 300 newspapers.

A pair of books have recently been published that will help explain just how special the Gianni/Schultz collaboration is. The first is The Prince Valiant Page from Flesk Publications and is, quite easily, one of the highlights of 2008. Featuring an entertainingly thorough look at Gary’s creative process (as well as numerous examples of his powerfully elegant line-work) and boasting superb printing, design, and an affectionate introduction by Robert Wagner (star of the 1954 film adaptation of the strip), The Prince Valiant Page is both an art book and an invaluable tutorial—as such, it’s a must for artists and general readers alike.

The second book puts everything in context by showing what all the hub-bub is about. Prince Valiant “Far From Camelot” from Andrews McMeel Publishing charts Gianni’s and Schultz’s nearly four years (thus far) of working on the series. A heady mix of Golden Age adventure and contemporary story-telling technique, the book is a showcase for a pair of exciting talents at the top of their game.

I think Hal Foster would have been very pleased.

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