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.