Friday, March 14, 2014

Review- PRINCE VALIANT VOL. 2: 1939-1940

PRINCE VALIANT VOL. 2: 1939-1940 (Fantagraphics, Third Printing, 2012; Hardcover)

Collects Prince Valiant Sunday strips 99-203, originally published on January 1, 1939- December 29, 1940

Writer, Artist, and Colorist: Hal Foster

Things kick into high gear for Prince Valiant, or Val as he is often referred to in this strip. The Saxon army is set to invade Camelot, and things barrel along from one battle to the next. Against his father's wishes, he goes out as a knight in search of adventure. Val helps the exiled king of Thule retake his throne. After a brief encounter with a witch, Val helps the kingdom of Andelkrag repel an invasion of the Huns. 

The Huns then become a recurring antagonist, as Val forms a band of “Hun-Hunters”, which grow with each passing battle as the promise of riches thickens their ranks. Val gains 500 more after liberating Duke Cesario. Mighty Tristam and Sir Gawain from King Arthur's Court find Val and join him on a series of battles and adventures. Using their famed battle techniques they are able to make quick work of the Huns, in spite of their superior numbers.

Note Foster's use of light and shade in the last panel.
Val's on again, off again sidekick Slith finds true love with Hulta. Once they decide to get married, Hal Foster's razor sharp dry wit comes into play. His opinion of marriage is hysterical. I quote the following caption from strip 169: “And he writes very bad poems to her beauty and she sings to him little idle songs and all those who are annoyed by this imbecility reflect that marriage will soon put an end to their nonsense!” Wow! There are several other examples of Foster's tongue in cheek humor, but his dry delivery really hits the sweet spot for me. Such subtlety is a lost art. 

Another example of Foster's humor.

While the bulk of this strip is rooted in a sort of reality, or at least a mostly realistic portrayal of Europe in the Middle Ages/Renaissance, there are occasional flairs of fantasy. Val encounters a giant, who in truth is merely a person who suffers from some kind of glandular disorder. Myths are rooted in some kind of reality, and Foster paints giants in a realistic light while keeping the initial premise of fantasy. This strip is mostly sort of set in the mid-5th century. 

Prince Valiant, Mighty Tristam and Sir Gawain arrive in the latter days of Rome. Here they fall prey to the evil machinations of Emperor Valentinian. Valentinian is jealous of General Aetius and decides to kill two birds with one stone by framing Val for his assassination when in truth it is Valentinian's men who do the deed. When friends of Aetius disrupt the trial, the three knights make their break. With the entire army of Rome hot on their heels they decide to split up and go their separate ways to better elude their pursuers. Val books passage to Sicily, and when the greedy captain decides he likes the look of Val's purse, he decides to drug him and steal his money. Val switches goblets and it is the captain who gets drugged! Val switches cloaks with the captain and, under darkness of night, the crew mistakenly throws their captain overboard. Val then assumes control of the ship as a storm blows in. Talk about a cliffhanger. Luckily for me I have Volume 3 in hand and can read it at my leisure. 

Hal Foster's artwork is truly superb, easily among the best artists to ever grace the medium. While I don't outright discount Photoshop as I believe that it is a valuable tool in any modern comic book artist's belt, Foster did not have the benefit of it and his work outshines them all. His panel composition, detail, and coloring are all pen and brush and blow my mind. This stuff belongs on walls in fine art museums, it is that good. Imagine if Renaissance era artists drew comic strips. Foster would have been royalty in another age.
Junk Food For Thought rating: 5 out of 5.

The OCD zone- Fantagraphics always, always, always produces top shelf high quality product. Their books may run fashionably late, but you'll never have to buy an “upgraded” or “remastered” version, as these books are points of pride and labors of love for the company.

DVD-style Extras included in this book: Yes, He Was A Cartoonist- Foreword by Mark Schultz (3 pages).

Linework and Color restoration rating: 5 out of 5. The strips are scanned from pristine syndicate proofs. This is as good as it is going to get. Manuel Caldas was set to launch a competing line to this series in a larger, softcover format, with the main difference being full blown “frame up” color restoration from black and white European film. While the results that I saw from a few of his samples looked gorgeous, I, along with many other folks, could not justify buying into his line with these already excellent Fantagraphics editions already in hand. He pulled the plug on his line, and sent out a scathing email. I understand his disappointment at not getting his better-than-the-best version to market, but these Fantagraphics books are really, really nice. Nice enough for even the most anal-retentive OCD suffering person like myself to sleep soundly at night.

Paper rating: 5 out of 5. Beautiful thick uncoated stock paper with a very, very slight sheen. It also smells terrific, as do as all Chinese made books.

Binding rating: 5 out of 5. High quality Smyth sewn binding, nine stitches per signature, with room for the book block to flex within the casing, allowing the book to lay perfectly flat from the first page to the last as God intended.

Hardback cover coating rating: 4 out of 5. Fantagraphics does not use dustjackets on their books. The image is printed on the hardback itself, in this case one coated with a dull matte finish. My copy had a few light scuff marks by the time that I was done reading it, and that is with being handled in a most anal-retentive fashion. You might not even notice such things, but I suspect that if you are still reading this far down in The OCD zone that you will.

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