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One-Page Criticism: Prince Valiant #199

This was originally posted at The Panelists on February 21, 2011.

Prince Valiant from Dec 1, 1940

This time around my One-Page Criticism looks at a more conventional comic.

Foster, Hal. Prince Valiant #199. Dec 1 1940. Reprinted in Prince Valiant Vol. 2: 1939-1940 (Fantagraphics, 2010).

I’ve written about Prince Valiant a bit before (here and here), but when I finally decided it was time to get a few of the volumes of this new edition, I was won over again by Foster’s epic series. Compared to the volumes of the previous edition I have (not covering the same episodes, but close enough in time to them) the reproductions are stunning: the colors are more vibrant and nuanced, the lines are more consistent with much less dropping out (my scan does not do it justice). You also get two years worth of comics in a single hardcover volume, plus introductions.

Instead of writing about the series as a whole (or at least, those volumes I have read), I decided to do another one-page criticism. After much debate with myself I selected the page above, dated December 1, 1940, appearing at the end of volume 2. In some respects this is a typical Hal Foster page, but in many ways it is not, which is partially why I chose it.

Unlike a lot of comic strip reprints, it is not easy to forget in reading Prince Valiant, that this was a serialized newspaper comic (I hesitate to call it a comic strip, since it is consistently a full page rather than just a strip). The prominent header is ever present and often varying. The little portraits of Prince Valiant and Boldoro are typical of the pages. Up until shortly before this page, all four corners of the page held a tiny image, either a portrait or an object, enclosed in a stamp-like border with the label “Save this stamp.” At one point Foster switches to the less prominent use of two images in the header. These ever changing, paratextual elements consistently bring the original context of the page back to the mind of the reader.

At the bottom of the page we also find the “Next week” prompt, a reminder that Prince Valiant was a weekly comic, appearing each Sunday only. Not unlike the weekly serialized television shows of today, Foster begins each page with a block of “Synopsis” text that attempts to keep the reader up to date. Though, with this example being rather typical, the synopsis only really serves to update the reader who might have missed the past page or two, providing little else in the way of context. A new reader approaching this page, might think Boldoro, so prominently featured in the header and here accompanying Val in the first panel, was a major character in the strip, yet his name and face have only just appeared in the previous page as an otherwise unmentioned and unseen “squire.”

Foster sticks to variations of the nine panel grid for his page layouts. After the regular nine panels, this variation, with a double-sized panel ending the page, is one of the most common layouts, offering a steady pace of narrative but ending on a slightly expanded image which is often a cliffhanger or a lesser version thereof. In this case the final panel also serves as an expanded field for placing Val in a location (location and setting are important throughout the series).

Prince Valiant always starts out a little dense, as the opening panel must hold not only the synopsis text but also the first image and the first block of narration. Foster rarely if ever lets an image go by without some amount of narration. These narrative captions have been the source of some “Prince Valiant isn’t comics” arguments. The method is, even now, quite rare in comics, but to my mind is very much a comics method of organizing image and text. In some ways, Foster’s work is a kind of reverse illustrated novel. Can there by any argument that the images are the real focus of Foster’s narrative, the focus of his art?

The narration in its prevalence does offer Foster a great flexibility in how he tells his story: allowing him to provide non-visual information (thoughts, feeling, speech (since he eschews word balloons)), call attention to certain parts of the image, provide details missing from the images (since he rarely uses close-ups of people or objects), greatly vary the flow of time, as well as create the sense of a story being told. Prince Valiant in its epic and mythic qualities places itself in line with textual and often oral tales of the past. The foregrounded narration seems appropriate to this tale, moreso than if there were word balloons and caption-less images.

Because of this narration, time can be quite fluid in Prince Valiant, and this page provides a great example of the ways that occurs. The first four panels on the page make up a rather conventional action scene. Val and Boldoro are chased by Roman soldiers and make an attempt to trick their pursuers by having Val hide while Boldoro goes on with the horses as a decoy. We see Val on his horse, then off, then hiding behind a rock as the soliders pass, then walking off as the soldiers chase Boldoro in the distance. These events all happen in quick succession and are easy to follow panel by panel even without most of the narration, which isn’t to say the narration is useless. Panel one sets the scene, and offers us new information on Val’s pursuers, panel two provides dialogue and the plan, and panel four clarifies the result of the plan. Only panel three seems redundant, providing no added information about the scene, but in its presence maintaining the telling of the tale.

Panel five takes a completely different tact with time and space. From the close cut scenes of pursuit, the center of the page finds us faced with an image of the roguishly grinning Baldoro, seen in close-up for the first time, against a almost harsh yellow background. The narration extends Baldoro’s story past Val’s ken. “They say” he became a prosperous brigand. This information is in no ways essential to the story, but it continues the illusion of a storyteller who is narrating. By imposing the “they say” into the text, the illusion of someone, a narrator, to hear that “they say” and report it back, is created/reaffirmed.

From the first action scene to the central ambiguously placed panel, the last three panels take a less consistently watched pacing of time and setting. Panel six shows us the Roman soldiers, for the first time without Val in the panel (and clearly outside his point of view, for if Val is the protagonist he is not the narrator or the focalizer), as they continue their search up the volcano’s side. Panel seven returns to Val, somewhere else on the volcano, but now time has moved forward a distance to the night. Then the final panel eight jumps forward again to the next day. The narration carries these panels forward through time, as without it, the images’ time-space location would remain ambiguous (the coloring of panel seven (on which more later) to me looks less like “night” than some hellish cavern).

So we can see how the narration can work in different ways even over the course of a single episode/page. But the real draw in reading a Prince Valiant page is the images, and we can see many of Foster’s strengths and weaknesses in this page.

Foster is a master of figures and placing them in space and relation to each other. He seems to be even more successful the more of the figure he uses. His panels showing full figures and groups of full figures feel more vibrant and believable than his attempts at close-ups. While the central panel in this page is not the best example of this, it does point towards the odd, almost humorous quality his faces take on when he draws them large. They have an exaggerated character to them that is successful when drawn as a small part of panel, when we are seeing the full (or most of the) figure and the face is only one element. The exaggeration is then needed to read the expressions. But drawn three or four times larger, this exaggeration become caricatural, theatrical, like a theatrical star acting for the first time in an early film. I find these images jarring in Prince Valiant, out of place with the more sedate realism of the other images.

On the other hand, look at that mastery when he is drawing those figures in panel six. Each is unique in posture and attire and clearly placed within the space. And that space they are in… Some of most stunning parts of Foster’s pages are the backgrounds: the castles and forests, the ships and oceans, the mountains and streams. Foster often combines four or more parts of his nine panel grid to showcase a sweeping view of the landscape. And it is in these landscapes that the strength of his rendering and ink work really shines, his versatility from a detailed and worked realism to a simplified and beautiful abstraction. The contrast between these two poles of his style often creates vast depth in his panels, bolstered by the coloring.

Panel four provides an example on this page. The foreground area around Val features fine line work, hatching, texture, spot blacks, and a variety of hues and tone. But as the eye moves up the panel, into the background of the diegetic world, the rendering is simplified, the coloring is flattened, a powerful example of atmospheric perspective.

What, in the end, made my choice to write about this page, is the last strip of panels. Panel seven is not only a striking example of Foster working in a higher contrast inking style, but also a sumptuous example of the coloring. Based on an interview in the first volume of this edition, the coloring was at some point done by Hugh Donnel, though the introduction to the same volume notes that Foster’s son Arthur also assisted with coloring. So with the information I have at hand, I’m not clear how much Foster himself had to do with the coloring. Whoever did the coloring, did a fantastic job. The colors on panel seven, as I noted above, bring to mind some kind of hellish scene, a darkness lit by fire. The reds blend into blues, on a purple background, simultaneously warm and cool. Over the background purple, a grey haze floats, adding to the mood.

Panel eight is a stunning follow-up to the previous darkness. Day has risen yet Val is still in a hostile, hazy landscape. We can see here an example of the texture Foster could bring to his drawing. The varieties of hatching density, direction, and stroke-length separate the cliffs from the steam/smoke that suffuses the panel. That steam/smoke has such character, particularly in the area around Val where the hatching is lightest, working in contrast with the opposite end of the plume limned only by the coloring. The color here is also more than impressive. Not only the the yellow and white that shapes the nearest plume, but the mottled colors that make-up the rocky ground around Val and above the narration. At the center of the panel, the rising volcano seems to contain and exhale every color in the rainbow in subtle tones. (Unfortunately, my scans do not accurately catch any of these hatching and coloring details. Get the book!)

Having gotten this far without really addressing the story itself, what can I say? Prince Valiant is a skilled and engaging genre piece. As I noted above it, to this point at least though I expect it does not change, falls into the lineage of epic and mythic tales: closer to Homer and Malory than Tolkien, Howard, or any contemporary fantasy. A strength of the story is Foster’s attention to historical detail and mixing various historical times and places into a unified story. As an ongoing epic, Foster can easily shift gears between a variety of moods and plots: romance, comedy, war, court intrigue, etc. And by focusing on a single protagonist, there is plenty of room for a constantly shifting set of secondary characters and locations. It’s a fun read, though it would certainly be a much lesser work without Foster illustrative skill.