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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/31/2004 Archived Entry: "Comics review: "Prince Valiant""

Prince Valiant Vol. 50
Vikings on the Isle of Man
Published by Fantagraphics

Reviewed by Chad Denton

Comics, especially the comics page of the Sunday newspaper, aren't exactly the most diversified medium, but it's always seemed strange to me that historical stories haven't made more of a splash with comics in any form. History is just one endless mine of good stories and interesting characters, while the highly visual nature of comics would lend itself well to a historic yarn. Maybe the thought of having to research the architecture and costumes needed is too much for most artists, but, as people like Jerry Bruckheimer demonstrate time and time and time again, historical accuracy doesn't even rank twenty-seventh on many people's list of priorities.

"Prince Valiant," of course, is a big exception to all this. Well, actually, it's not history per se. Everyone wears idealized medieval outfits or costumes that look late Roman. The stories of "Prince Valiant," even when the characters do interact with the places and forces that shaped that strange era just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, only claim to take legends as their main inspiration, and sometimes even the canonical Arthurian legends don't quite jibe with what we read. Luckily, little of this matters, as it's clear Foster is endlessly fascinated with both the legendary and the historical, even though the former dominates. At any rate, Foster's attention to detail is so exquisite that, indeed, even the most demanding history buff (such as myself) won't be troubled by questions of accuracy. We're in Foster's own world, not our own.

Volume 50, the last to be published by Fantagraphics' Classics line and the last drawn by Hal Foster before his death, is a suitable finishing point. Oddly enough, Prince Valiant shuns the spotlight here. Most of the stories revolve around the series' already unwieldy supporting cast: Valiant's sons Galan and Arn, the Lady Aneta, Sir Gawain, the Lady Enid, and, of course, King Arthur himself. The stories are just as diverse: a simple tale of surival involving a hunting trip gone wrong; the title story, which has Arn go undercover to find the plans of a group of Vikings who have settled on the Isle of Man; Valiant being captured and sold into slavery; and finally a plot by Arthur's evil brother (not son or nephew in Foster's stories) Mordred to poison Arthur and claim the throne.

In this format, it's difficult to read "Prince Valiant" in one setting. The original strips were usually five to nine panels in length, with the first one or two panels usually devoted to providing exposition from the last strip, so it does seem a bit choppy. Also there's little by way of transition between the central stories and, due to the strip's nature, the focus feels as though it sometimes swings from character to character, which can be a bit overwhelming given the size of the cast of "Prince Valiant" by this volume.

Still, one can't help but be impressed by what Foster and his successors have accomplished with the strict limitations of this medium. There's a cliffhanger for nearly every strip and time is taken to actually provide meaningful character moments, like Galan's first encounter with poverty, although, as mentioned before, we're not allowed to linger on them. But Foster's art alone merits this and any volume a glance. Foster's art has a rough but exquisitely detailed and realistic quality that matches its subject matter perfectly. One particular highlight is a highlight showing a looted ship, depicting both the carnage and the victors grimly setting about the task of stripping the ship of goods.

Most likely only those interested in "Prince Valiant" to begin with would be interested in this and other volumes, but just a glimpse should be enough to prove that "Prince Valiant" is still one of the most unique and best things to come out of the comics page.

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