I admit it has taken a while for me to come around to appreciating Hal Foster and his epic Prince Valiant. Foster always struck me frankly as a bit of a stiff – literally. My perfunctory attempts to dig into Prince Val, its stylistic roots in book illustration, its focus on Arthurian legend and royal grandeur, its high moral seriousness, its un-ironic and humorless depiction of heroism – seemed contrary to the very things that drew me to comic strip art in the first place. And even as I press myself into the first ten years of PV, I still find Foster stolid and inexpressive compared to fellow realist Alex Raymond. Foster takes himself too seriously, is too grounded in a realist’s sensibility, to let the campy, erotic subtexts of pulp melodrama energize his adventures the way they do Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates or even Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy. It should surprise no one that Hal Foster at first looked down on cartooning as slumming in order to support his earlier ambitions as a book and magazine illustrator. Personally, I think the strip retained that condescension to the medium even long after Foster himself purportedly embraced the possibilities of the form. While others viewed the obvious pristine artistry of Prince Valiant as somehow the pinnacle of comic strip art, its presence in the Sunday funnies section always felt to me like a tight-lipped dude in a tuxedo trying to get into a keg party.
Which is a long, perhaps insulting way to say that my appreciation for Foster as an artist, if not cartoonist, has grown immeasurably through immersion in Prince Valiant’s first decade. Foster is truly breathtaking at the extremes of of his range – the panoramic and the close-up. And it is in bringing the panel frame into the face and dark heart of his villains where Foster comes alive. Chester Gould’s famously deformed evildoers are the most celebrated nemeses in comicdom, and deservedly so. But Foster brought a high realism and his own sense of the grotesque to his many villains. And so I have put together here a gallery of Prince Val’s enemies that span from the strip’s 1937 premiere to 1961.
At their best, Prince Val’s enemies are shown stewing in their own twisted sensibilities by Foster’s full mastery of gesture, mouth, skin texture and consistency, and especially eyes. Villainy activates Foster, and his many close-ups of bad guys reflect an unusual attention to detail and depth of feeling. Witness Emperor Valentinian, whose entire face seems sunken from being “sick with fear and envy.” My main complaint with Foster is that too often his artistry merely illustrates the prose rather than amplifies and adds feeling to the story. This is not true here or in his many other studies of evil. Valentinian’s eyes seem to ache from his disdain, his fist appears to dig into his own mouth. Even the laurel crown looks as if it is painful more than decorative. And the tapping finger registers the conniving yet to come.
Foster locates meanness in the eyes. The most sadistic and violent bad guys have stares of determination, vindictiveness, detachment in their gaze or often their disinterest in humanity registered by half-closed eyelids. Again, this is where Foster uses imagery to expand the emotional impact of the story – to show not tell. The Slave Master is a study in numbness. It is the absence of facial emotion, the simple deadness of his face, that underscores the inhumanity of the scene. The blue-shaded, white-eyed character is Och Synwy, who within a few panels proves to be a mad sadist. Foster uses the expansive whites of his eyes in every panel to telegraph the character’s perverse obsession. Foster was nothing if not literal-minded, and so the prose often directs the reader’s attention to the right details of the illustration. He calls out Dragda Khan’s “puffy small eyes,” which he makes the centerpiece of the villain’s leering face. And yet even the explicitness of Foster’s prose doesn’t quite get at the richness of his own art. the impact of Khan’s leer really comes through the subtleties of his mouth, the studied backward lean of his head, the griminess of a head that seems ill-suited to a regal helm. Which is to say that Hal Foster was a more nuanced and thoughtful artist than he was a writer
Part of the regal (i.e. elitist) fantasy at the heart of Prince Valiant is that all good and evil emanates from a society’s leaders, from the top down. And so the major villains in the strip are twisted leaders. Some are just power mad or motivated by petty resentments. But others represent softer, often more calculating personality types who warp or oppress the body politic. And Foster often depicts these bad leaders as visually softer, often mildly effeminate, gluttonous, selfish. Here Foster uses half-closed eyes as a symbol of detachment and disdain. But he also marshals hand gestures, smirking lips, narrow foreheads to visualize perhaps a less masculine and forceful kind of manipulativeness. In the “False Duke” character above Foster couldn’t be coding his villain any more explicitly.
When I say Foster worked best for me at the extremes, in his long shot panoramas and his tight close-ups, I mean also that he was least convincing to me when trying to portray human interaction. When conversing or emoting to one another his characters often look and feel like mannequins. Likewise, his man-to-man fighting and battlefield scenes look more descriptive than engaging. His action figure work really does look to my eye like, well, action figures, where the musculature is never engaged, nor is the drama of momentum and gravity.
Which makes this rogues gallery of Foster’s badasses all the more involving. When he focuses on complex, tortured emotion, his talents glitter with detail and seem most able to communicate feeling. And there is a fascinating sense of evil here that is at once Biblical and modern. While Chester Gould locates his evil as a sociopathic disdain for order, normality, humanity itself, Foster tends to locate his in the classic sins – envy, greed, gluttony, jealousy, etc. And yet his visualizations are psychological, bringing to the surface conflict, resentment, irrational motives. This is just one of many ways that Foster’s historical epic was as much about our own times as it was about an imagined past.
But more on this another time.