Superheroes have gotten too super. In their original form, comic book characters like Superman, the Flash and Spiderman were drawn in a way that emphasized their humanity as much as their prodigious abilities.
These days the same characters are liable to be shown as godlike or freakish creatures with only a hint of the human, and even without much conscience: Witness "Man of Steel," the latest Superman film, where the iconic hero destroyed a city. He also took a life -- something the Last Son of Krypton has traditionally managed to avoid doing.
That's why "Prince Valiant" is so captivating and countercultural. The comic book series, which is still running, was created in 1937 by Hal Foster (1892-1982). Fantagraphics Books, a publisher specializing in well-produced collections of the most talented cartoonists around the world, has recently been reissuing the original "Prince Valiant" strips in beautiful, hardbound editions.
These are exquisitely drawn tales. More importantly, they are stories that celebrate chivalry, adventure, bravery, Christianity and gentlemanly romance.
The Fantagraphics reprints also offer a lot of supplemental material -- interviews with comics historians, original artwork, as well as interviews with Foster himself, who rarely talked to the press.
In February, Fantagraphics published "Prince Valiant Volume 8: 1951-1952." But it's worthwhile to start with "Prince Valiant Volume 1: 1937-1938," which was issued a few years ago and includes a nice introduction to Foster's life and work by Brian M. Kane.
As Kane recounts, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, native ended his formal education in the eighth grade, then taught himself to draw by studying art at the Winnipeg Carnegie Library. By 1927, he had created a newspaper adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels.
A decade later, Foster launched "Prince Valiant." William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul who bought the strip, liked it so much he gave Foster all the rights to the character. "Prince Valiant" became a sensation.
The strip is set in Arthurian times. The lead character, Valiant (Val), is a Nordic prince who travels to Camelot as a child after his father, King Aguar, is driven from the throne by the evil Sligon. Valiant becomes a Knight of the Round Table. He also acquires a singing sword, Flamberge.
Eventually Valiant meets -- and falls for -- Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles, whom he later weds. Foster doesn't use dialogue balloons; the story, including dialogue, is told entirely in captions that run at the bottom of his panels.
Unlike most other comic strips, "Prince Valiant" takes place in real time -- that is, the characters age, get married, have children, even die.
In the most recent volumes published by Fantagraphics, Valiant is a young man and a new father. After his son Arn is christened, Valiant, joined by his Round Table comrade Sir Gawain, goes to Wales to investigate reports of black magic at Castle Illwynde. There the occult is depicted through ghosts, demons and sorcerers, but none of this is treated in a way antithetical to faith.
In fact, Valiant's next journey takes him to Rome in search of missionary teachers who can bring Christianity to his homeland, the Kingdom of Thule.
Hal Foster's style was influenced by Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and James Montgomery Flagg, among others. His figures are classically drawn and elegant. They move the way human beings do in real life.
The action sequences portray wrestling, joisting, swordplay as well as scenes of battle, and it's a pleasure to linger over the panels soaking in the details. There is no graphic violence, and Christianity is treated with honor.
It's worth noting that along with "Prince Valiant," Fantagraphics is also reissuing two other collections of comics from celebrated and groundbreaking artists. In the mid-20th century, Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks drew, respectively, the "Mickey Mouse" and "Donald Duck" comic strips for Disney. These are delightful and sometimes ingenious works. The Fantagraphics editions of them, moreover, are excellent.
The Catholic News Service classification of the "Prince Valiant" series is A-I -- general patronage.