Comics’ Sweeping Graphic Novel PRINCE VALIANT Turns 80
by Brian M. Kane
Before television, when most films were still black and white, the Sunday comics were an oasis of color in a Depression-era gray world. Highly popular comic strips drove newspaper sales in the early 20th century, so it is little wonder that their creators were regarded as celebrities. The epic Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur by Harold Rudolf “Hal” Foster premiered in the color comics section on Feb. 13, 1937. Prior to Prince Valiant, Foster originated the adult-protagonist adventure strip genre by adapting Tarzan as a black and white daily strip in 1928, which was followed by the Tarzan color Sunday feature from 1931-1937. Faced with imposing financial and creative constraints as a work-for-hire artist, Foster focused his considerable skills as an illustrator toward producing his own strip. The extraordinary effort resulted in international prominence for both Prince Valiant and Foster. Today, after 80 years, “Val” remains one of the few adventure strip characters still in print.
It is difficult to imagine the impact Foster’s Prince Valiant had on 1930s and 1940s popular culture. When Prince Valiant began, Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 was still over a year away. Many of the first two generations of comic book creators owe a great debt to Foster. Young comic book artists studied Foster’s technique, sometimes copying panels from his strips. “Swipes” of Foster’s art can be found in the origin of Batman, and in comics drawn by Jack Kirby, the co-creator of many of today’s movie heroes, including Captain America, The Avengers, The X-Men and Thor. Most importantly, Val epitomized a knightly moral code, creating an ethical standard of conduct that exemplified truth, justice, and what it meant to be a hero.
Seminal works such as The Hobbit, The Sword in the Stone and The Chronicles of Narnia were nonexistent in February of 1937. By the time Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published, Prince Valiant had already spent 12 years on his own monomythic hero’s journey. Yet, unlike in Campbell, Val’s adventures included strong, self-reliant, heroic women, attesting to Hal’s wife Helen’s influence on the strip. For the uninitiated: Valiant, a lowly Prince of Thule, fell in love with and eventually married Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. To Hal’s and Helen’s credit, Aleta became a role model for the millions of capable women running America during World War II, fighting off offenders with her wit, charm, intelligence and, on occasion, a hidden dagger strapped to her thigh. Aleta was kicking butt long before Princess Leia, Katniss Everdeen or most of the Disney princesses were even a thought.
Though set in the time of King Arthur, Foster’s Prince Valiant was surprisingly contemporary. During World War II, Val fought the Huns, resulting in the strip being canceled in German newspapers. In 1943, Val befriended a boy with a withered leg who could not “play soldier” with the other boys. Nevertheless, the boy was encouraged to hone his skills so that one day he could be “arrow-maker to King Arthur.” The story appeared a year into a polio epidemic and 16 months after Pearl Harbor, and was a call to service to all who could not go off to fight. After the war, as American troops returned home, Val and Aleta sailed to the “New World” and had a son, heralding the coming baby boom. Then, as the demographics of 1950s America changed, multi- cultural couples in Prince Valiant married and had children just as they did in the popular sitcom I Love Lucy.
Foster’s Prince Valiant is not just an adventure, or romance, or humor strip — though it is sprinkled with all those elements. Prince Valiant is a graphic novel about life, where people fall in love, wars are fought, children are born and grow older, hearts are broken, friends die in battle, couples marry, and even disfigured and disabled characters young and old, male and female, have a place and purpose in this brave world Foster fashioned. While some may feel Prince Valiant is archaic by today’s standards, perhaps its unabashedly inclusive “Might for Right” message is simply ahead of its time. Long live Val!
Text © 2017 Brian M. Kane
Brian M. Kane, Ph.D., is the author of the IPPY Award-winning biography Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators, and edits the New York Times Best-Selling Prince Valiant reprint series from Fantagraphics Books.