Book Review: Prince Valiant Vol. 27: 1989-1990 by Hal Foster, John Cullen Murphy, and Cullen Murphy

More than 50 years after its 1937 newspaper debut and years after the departure of its original creator, Prince Valiant continues his globe-trotting adventures in this latest two-year collection of weekly newspaper strips. Artist John Cullen Murphy was hand-picked by creator Hal Foster in 1971 to continue the strip, initially working from Foster’s layouts and scripts throughout the 1970s before taking the reins in 1980, with Murphy’s son providing the scripts.

After so many years in continuous production, the Valiant cast had naturally expanded, introducing numerous children and even grandchildren, as well as assorted foes and compatriots. As this installment opens, Val is nowhere to be seen, with the focus instead on an adventure by his oldest son and daughter to locate her boyfriend’s missing father. Val is quickly back in the mix though, and soon sallies forth on escapades including an Asian expedition that nearly leads to full-scale war, a trip to Greenland to locate a lost tribe of countrymen, and a side quest to the Isle of Lost Youth. The best tales are close to home though, particularly a knightly competition organized by King Arthur where Val has to outwit a team of ringers organized by a cheating gambler, as well as his wife’s hilariously ill-fated mission to introduce forks to the kingdom, implements quickly and cleverly repurposed as ice-bound weapons by Val. 

Murphy’s character renderings are a fair facsimile of Foster’s designs and kineticism, but his sparse backgrounds fall far short of the epic grandeur of the originator. Where Foster would craft intricately detailed landscapes and architecture, Murphy utilizes barely sketched-out or blank backdrops, as easily seen on the cover art of the new volume. It’s like the characters are acting on an empty soundstage instead of responding to the lush environments of physical locations. There are no Foster-esque full-page splash panels, with most strips adhering to a six-panel format likely dictated by reformatting newspaper editors. The large size of the book pages reveals fine line detail that is more evocative than precise, surely not a concern in the strips’ original shoddy newspaper reproduction but laid bare here. Still, Murphy’s artwork is miles ahead of anything else in newspapers of the time and today, and considering that he was entering his 70s for this installment, it’s an overall impressive achievement.

Murphy Jr.’s writing is surprisingly effective, making the plotting of this installment a high point. He’s perhaps a bit more verbose than Foster, but the characters feel authentic and the situations make for an entertaining read. He does a fine job of spreading the stories around to incorporate Val’s many offspring and associates, such as when Val’s youngest son is in residence with a tribe of dwarves when they unknowingly rescue the bedraggled King Arthur and unwittingly release Mordred, the biggest baddie of the strip. Amusingly, he also makes Val’s wife the victim of wanderlust for a change, with her fork discovery transpiring simply because she had grown bored at the palace and rode out in search of adventure, an affliction traditionally afforded solely to Val.

Oddly, this volume’s bonus features have little direct correlation to the comic strip. The opening pages share a look at the oeuvre of fantasy artist Ertugrul Edirne, whose only direct tie to Valiant seems to be his commissioned work as a cover artist for a few European collections and original novels based on the property. His work is impressive, just not exactly relevant to the rest of the book, especially at a whopping 14-page count. The afterword is even more suspect: a reminiscence about a failed German rock band named Eisenhertz that recorded a CD based on the Prince Valiant legend. While the extras seem intended to show the influence that Valiant has had globally, both Edirne and Eisenhertz were brought into the fold via the European popularity of a U.S. cartoon series based on Valiant, not the comic strip itself. 

Prince Valiant is still running new weekly installments, so Fantagraphics has many more volumes to go if public demand continues. Indeed, the final page proudly proclaims that Volume 28 is on its way, so it seems likely that the book series will continue at least through the end of John Cullen Murphy’s run in 2004. If you’re interested in continuing Val’s adventures in Fanta’s deluxe hardcover format, now is the time to show your support for this superb ongoing project.

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Steve Geise

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