Foster’s Bestiary: A Prince Valiant Rogues Gallery

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.

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A Bit of Prince Valiant Beefcake

While it goes without saying that Hal Foster was a much more buttoned down, stiff and restrained adventure artist than the ebullient Alex Raymond, he had his moments of gratuitous cheesecake. Here, from some 1939 sequences, Prince Valiant strips down for some manly bathing.

Hal Foster was never shy about pouring on the bloody swords, celebrations of battle, corpse-coated fields of war. In fact some foreign markets censored the strip when they felt Prince Val’s love of war crossed the line. But showing skin? Not so much.

In the Air: Barney Baxter Flies With Style

Even comics aficionados barely recall the very popular aviation adventure strips of the late 1920s and 1930s, perhaps because, well, they just weren’t very memorable. Tailspin Tommy, Scorchy Smith, Smilin’ Jack, Flyin’ Jenny, and Skyroads, to name a few, were definitely of their time, tapping into the most romantic technology of early 20th Century – aviation. The wild tales of WWI air battles, the triumph of machine and human endurance in Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance fueled film, pulp magazines, and even popular science journals with an admixture of human spirit, adventure to far off lands and technical jargon that many audiences, especially boys, ate up. The strips captured that blend. Many of them were created by pilots who brought their love and knowledge of flight to the strips. Much of the art was unremarkable. Noel Sickles’ work on Scorchy Smith was a legendary exception, and Russell Keaton had a polished and breezy style in Flyin’ Jenny. For the most part, however, aviation cartoonists were more in love with the planes than their own characters, and they tended to focus effort and attention on the planes themselves.

Frank Miller, however, brought Barney Baxter in the Air (1935-1949) a special whimsy to the genre both in his characterizations and line work. From the Art Deco/Machine Age feel of his lettering to the rounded nature of his figures, everything about this strip feels sophisticated, considered, modern . His faces are comprised of a few deft dabs of ink. The upholstered texture of his people and objects are somewhere between big foot cartooning and classic adventure realism. And this allows him to bring his style to either extreme as it fits the scene. It reminds me of (or foreshadows) Rick Geary, whose style I also love. Miller is adept at using a variety of panel framings to keep the eye energized across the progression. His narrower close-up panels call out important moments of gesture or expression. And he has such a stylized way of rendering shadows in a pointillist style. It all adds up to a visual signature that light, witty, and yet functional as a vehicle for adventure. The feel is similar to Capp’s Li’l Abner.

His skills often came together in some truly creepy villains.

Miller lavishes attention and invention on his Sunday pages. He is breaking frame, manipulating panel shapes and sizes with the kind of energy we usually associate with McCay, King or Sterrett. The detail and color in his rocky backgrounds are just wonderful for establishing setting. He maneuvers our point of view radically from panel to panel to bring us into the scene by circling us around it. And just look at that open parachute as the visual centerpiece of the whole layout. If that isn’t an homage to McCay, I don’t know what is.

Frank Miller, obviously not the Frank Miller of later comic book fame, ran the strip throughout its 15 year span and until his premature death in 1949.

Happy 100th Bloomsday: Read Something Hard

On June 16, 1922, Jame Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in Paris and quickly became a monument to the many strands of modernism that had been coursing through the literary and visual arts in the first decades of the 20th Century. And it would confound scholars and students ever after. To celebrate, here is a small collection of David Levine’s wonderful caricatures of the great Dubliner from The New York Review of Books. Levine’s puckish takes on revered literary figures in NYRB served as a welcome counterpoint to the somber and studied tone of the critical prose in the magazine.

Whatever one thinks of Joyce’s Ulysses, I am experiencing rereading it this week as an important antidote to the culture of now. So much of our high and low art on the 100th Bloomsday in 2022 is aimed at pandering, to providing messages and experiences that demand nothing of us. The digital targeting of messages and news through social media, art that likewise targets our sense of our own identity, leaders who follow – nothing about our culture makes us work at understanding anything beyond who and where we are now. Joyce is hard and disorienting, and reading him demands both attention and aiming higher than our current understanding. It is worth putting those demands on ourselves and our arts.

Joyce himself was not a visual artist, even if his prose was a master class in imagery. But he did try his hand at cartooning once in an artist’s studio when recovering from one of his many eye surgeries. Below is his rough rendering of Ulysses’ protagonist Leopold Bloom. I believe the words above it are the opening lines of the Odyssey.

If not Joyce, then try something else that is hard to read. Happy Bloomsday.

Fleshy Gordon: Alex Raymond’s Pop Erotica

Alex Raymond loved bodies. Male bodies, female bodies, animal and alien bodies. He couldn’t wait to disrobe them, pop on loincloths or skin-hugging gossamer robes and bras, put them on show, flex their muscles. And this made his 1930s space opera Flash Gordon (1934) a masterpiece of subverted sexual energy. Two of the most famous satires of the great strip, Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine parody, Flesh Garden (May, 1954) and the software porn cult classic Flesh Gordon (1974) got this about Raymond’s work. In many ways, Flash Gordon was laughable. Its dialogue and plotting were sub-literate. Its conceptions of aliens (Lionmen, Sharkmen, Powermen) pedestrian. Its conceptions of technology (Disolvo-Rays, Oxo-Liquifiers) paled beside even Buck Rogers. And its even sillier sexual politics (alien princesses pursuing the irresistible Flash and the forever jealous, swooning, fawning, nagging Dale Arden) were embarrassingly adolescent. And yet it was a fetishist’s delight, and certainly the most erotic mainstream comic strip of all time.

The special genius of Flash Gordon is Alex Raymond’s talent for visualizing primal urges and tired tropes with such detail, energy, operatic extravagance that they registered deeply with the viewer. His mastery of bodily form, facial expression and panel composition supercharged visually the familiar adolescent fantasies and fetishes that he and co-writer Don Moore lifted from pulp fiction magazines of the era. Xenophobia, hyper-masculinity, emasculation, dominatrices, bondage, miscegenation – all of the fodder of adventure pulp stories were dialed up to eleven by Raymond’s art.

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