Saturday, January 22, 2011

Born on a Sunday

Recently, I finally finished reading my Fantagraphics’ Prince Valiant Vol. 1: 1937-1938 HC to my two middle girls, ages 8 and 10. THEY LOVED IT and so did I! It took almost a year to finish the book, but once we read 50 pages in one sitting. Of course, I’ve been reading PV sporadically for a very, very long time in the Sunday comics (whenever I’d have access to a paper). Today’s feature, while still sporting some top illustrations and interesting stories, hardly holds a torch to the original ones by creator Hal Foster. And since the current ones are still enjoyable (although to be honest I haven’t read the series regularly for almost two decades), that just means these are ĂĽberenjoyable! In this case the main difference is size and ACTION!

The book is tabloid size and includes (I think) the full art with the title illustrations for the very first time. The reproduction is breathtaking, crisp, and bright. Have you ever taken a photo of an outdoor landscape -- one you HAD to capture because it had such an impact on you? Then when you looked at the smaller picture, the magic of the moment wasn’t there. Unless (and I’m dating myself here), you took a slide of that scene and then when it was projected on the screen, it was like you were there all over again. Why? Because (I believe), the image was closer to the size as when you viewed it the first time. Well, that’s one reason why this hardcover is so stunning, the strip is reproduced just the way it was originally intended to be viewed. Of course, Prince Valiant is known for it’s stunning landscapes, usually with an extraordinary castle of some sort. Today’s strip has to suffer the ever-shrinking Comics page and it is probably only a third or a fourth of the size of the original (compared with the size in this book).

I grew up in the John Cullen Murphy days on the strip and I can recall intriguing plots, but I remember them reading more like a storybook than an action adventure. The first two years covered here have tons of action. Prince Valiant even encounters several large “monsters” – one’s a dinosaur, and the other two are giant reptiles: a crocodile and a turtle. Maybe one thing the current strip probably struggles with is that Prince Valiant is no longer the main focus (at least the people age and grow older) and he’s such an AWESOME character. He’s resourceful, ingenious, skillful, compassionate, quick-tempered, and at this stage of his life always trying to prove himself. Some of his ideas must have come right out of a Boy Scout’s handbook – like using a hollow reed to breath underwater. One time he uses three logs tied with a single rope anchored between the masonry of the castle to scale the wall log over log. It’s not just that he’s clever, but it’s never a contrived solution – it always seems natural or organic to the story. One of the most famous adventures (Christmas 1937) is when he disguises himself as a demon using the skin of a goose for a mask and the feather quills for fangs. This image inspired Jack Kirby’s design of his Demon, Etrigan.

This book begins chronicling his boyhood exploration of the marshy Fens and his encounter with the witch Horrid and her dire prophecies. After his mother’s death, he leaves his father to seek adventure on the mainland, soon becoming a squire for Sir Gaiwan where he encounters both Merlin and Morgan Le Fey. He falls in love with the beautiful fair-haired Ilene, but then discovers that she’s betrothed to another, Prince Arn (in a previously arranged marriage that she didn’t even know about). He seeks to battle this man to the death for her hand, but the two end up joining forces when Ilene is kidnapped by Vikings. In one skirmish he’s holding off an entire Viking horde on a small bridge. Unfortunately, their quest ends in tragedy, as Ilene is lost in a shipwreck. (I was really surprised at this because I knew Val’s wife was blonde, so I thought this was the same girl. However, with him later naming his son Arn, perhaps he marries Prince Arn’s sister one day.) Arn gives him the Singing Sword and Val returns to Camelot, where just like Wonder Woman would do years later, he disguises himself as an unknown contestant to enter a tournament, hoping to best a veteran knight. He almost succeeds, but is defeated. Feeling humiliated by their cheers (King Arthur was actually impressed by his boldness), which he mistakenly hears as laughter, Val returns to his father in the Fens almost dying on the way from falling through some icy water. After recovering, Val is determined to help his father regain his kingdom of Thule. However, when the Saxon invasion begins, he races to warn King Arthur on horseback -- right up into the throne room!

When I was a boy, I once checked out a Prince Valiant hardcover from the library, which covered some of these stories. The image of him on his little skiff boat in the marshes was still in my memory. That was the very same edition that Jim let me borrow a few years ago (which I still have). One of the great things about that copy is the beautiful illustrated collage on the inside covers. The inside covers of this book is just a dull brown – the only minus to the whole package. That and the black spine of the book, which gets scuffed up fairly easily (there is no dust jacket).

I’ve already ordered Volume 2 and my girls and I are anxious to see what happens next. I could peak ahead in the other volumes in my possession, but it’s like watching widescreen movies versus pan-and-scan, once you experience this version, it’s the only one that will satisfy.

Oh, I almost forgot…one of the cool things was looking at the dates of some of the strips. Prince Valiant premiered on Saturday, 1937 Feb 13, which happened to be my grandfather’s 21st birthday. One was for 1938 Oct 23rd my Daddy’s BIRTHday. I knew he died on a Sunday, but I never realized he was born on a Sunday too.


  1. Volume 3 should be out soon. This is the best reproduction ever done of this strip and well deserved. Hal Foster's Prince Valiant may never be matched. Hey I want those books back now that I know you aren't going to read them. :)

  2. Sure Jim, I'll have them back to you in a "Flash"! :)

  3. LOL - Very funny Matthew.