The first hardcover collection.
Writer and artist: Harold Foster
Prince Valiant is one of the comics I read when I was a kid (along with Asterix, Tintin, Donald Duck, Modesty Blaise, and others). Here in Finland only 9 albums were published in 1976-1979 and I still have them all, although bought from second hand bookstores. However, I was more than a bit surprised to start reading this English collection and find out that the Finnish albums didn’t start at the beginning of the comic but instead at near the beginning of Volume 3. So I was in the delightful position of reading new material from the beginning of Val’s tale. I did know that the Finnish albums don’t follow the whole tale so the final albums are also new to me.
Prince Valiant comic was originally published in newspapers. The first volume includes a brief biography of Foster and a rare interview. The hardcover collection is far larger in size than usual comic collections which allows the art of shine.
The comic follows the young Prince of Thule, Prince Valiant, and his adventures “in the times of King Arthur”. The comics have very little magic and are mostly a historical adventure tale. While Val is a swordsman and aspiring knight, he uses brains at least at often as brawn to win. This often leads to light-hearted and humorous situations. Since the comic follows Val’s life from a boy to old age, he grows and changes, and so do the people around him.
The tale starts with Valiant’s father who has was the king of Thule but he has just been overthrown by terrible tyrant. The king, along with his wife, son, and twenty loyal soldiers, flee across the sea to England. After battling the locals, the king is given a patch of land at the marches and the group settled down there. As the son of an exiled king, Val doesn’t grow up among luxuries; instead he explores the swamp and becomes an able hunter and learns to use his brains. He also encounters a witch who prophecies that he will have grand adventures but never happiness.
However, as a young man he yearns for adventure and leaves the swamplands after his mother dies. Soon he meets Sir Launcelot and has his heart set on becoming a knight of the Round Table. However, as a penniless exile that’s not easy. Fortunately, Val meets and quickly becomes friends with the young Sir Gawain who takes Val as his squire. Together, they have a couple of adventures until Val’s heart leads him to other places.
Foster established his characters quickly and, of course, uses the reader’s knowledge of the legends of king Arthur, as well. In this first volume the Arthurian characters are prominent but in the coming collections Val leaves Camelot behind and travels to other lands and continents.
While many of the stories are centered on knightly ideals and, one is even a contest between Merlin and Morgan Le Fay, often Val needs to use his brains to overcome obstacles. He also suffers setbacks and even tragedy. I was a bit worried that the stories would feel dated but they’re not, at least to me.
Val has many of the good qualities associated with an Arthurian knight: he’s almost fearless, loyal, good-natured, and defender of women and other less powerful people. On the other hand, he has faults, too: he has a quick temper, especially as a youth, reckless, is so proud that he’s arrogant, and stubborn.
Many of the side characters in the comic can be two-dimensional: the invading Saxons are unthinking horde, some people are conniving evil-doers, and Morgan Le Fay is just an evil sorceress. But sometimes enemies have a nobler side and can even become allies or friends.
Foster’s art is gorgeous. The only fault I can find is that all the women look the same: except for a few old crones, they’re all young, beautiful, and slim. From the facial features alone you can’t distinguish Queen Guinevere, Val’s first love maid Ilene, or Val’s eventual wife from each other, even though they’re supposed to be of different ages. While most males are also young or youngish, there are several prominent older male character, such as Merlin and Val’s father.
The collection ends in the middle of a storyline with two cliffhangers: Val has just started to inspire his father to take back Thule’s throne when he comes upon Saxon invaders and rushes to tell about them to King Arthur.
Fantagraphics has excerpts of the collections on its webpages.