Book Review: Prince Valiant Vol. 28: 1991-1992 by Hal Foster, John Cullen Murphy, and Cullen Murphy

Twenty years into his reign on Prince Valiant, replacement artist John Cullen Murphy and his son and writer Cullen Murphy were still cranking out exceptional comic strip work for Hal Foster’s creation that has now been collected in this new volume. With over 50 years of continuity to pull from, they were blessed with a massive cast of characters and made the most of them with consistently entertaining stories and artwork.  

Buy Prince Valiant Vol. 28: 1991-1992 by Hal Foster, John Cullen Murphy, and Cullen Murphy

The book starts with a thrilling island treasure hunt, which leads into a perilous slave rescue, then takes time out in the court of Camelot to welcome the birth of a new royal, Princess Ingrid. From there, Val and his fellow knight, Gawain, investigate a mystery in a northern town that leads to their discovery of a crucial copper mine. They also stumble across a Druid human sacrifice ceremony, freeing the intended victim who proves to have a unique connection with the longtime enemy of the kingdom, Mordred. There’s romance and action aplenty, all played out in the immense full-page and full-color weekly strips.

In addition to the full two years of strips, Fantagraphics includes supplemental items in each volume, and the newest entries prove to be particularly illuminating. In the book’s introduction by Tom Batiuk, we’re treated to a humorous series of recent dailies from his long-running Funky Winkerbean comic strip imagining Foster’s search for the replacement artist for Prince Valiant. Batiuk also spills the tea on the now-defunct tiny Palm Restaurant in New York City, known as a longtime clubhouse for famous veteran comic strip artists, with its walls filled with original drawings by its patrons including Hal Foster.

The afterword is even more revelatory, written by John Cullen Murphy’s daughter, Cait Murphy, as we learn and see that young John was randomly plucked from boyhood obscurity to serve as a model for one of Norman Rockwell’s renowned covers for The Saturday Evening Post. Her lengthy appreciation also covers Murphy’s lifelong love of sports and prior career as a sports illustrator, with many examples of his work included. His immense experience with staging sports action shots directly contributed to his talent for bringing action scenes to life throughout his Prince Valiant run.

I was concurrently reading Vol. 2 in the series, the early days of Foster’s groundbreaking run as he was reaching his prime, and the stark contrast in the strip’s art over 50 years apart is remarkable. Foster packed his strips with immense detail and a lush color palette, with a particular fondness for depth of environments including pretty clouds and landscapes. 

Murphy’s version is a fine continuation of the strip’s original ideals, but simplified, lacking some depth and detail, with a basic and somewhat drab color spectrum by colorist Mairead Murphy, another of his daughters. He was in his early 70s by the time of the strips collected in this book, which helps to explain his boiling down the essence of the strip to its crucial artistic elements, which were still far superior to any other contemporary strips. Newspaper demands likely came into play as well, with strips’ ever-reducing size requiring simplification to remain legible. And even then, he manages to surprise with occasional bursts of spectacularly ornate panels in this book, particularly the birth and christening of Princess Ingrid.

There’s nothing else like Prince Valiant, an ongoing classic inching ever closer to its 100th anniversary. The latest volume does ample justice to the character, continuing the story with a consistently entertaining series of adventures played out in Murphy’s kinetic art. While it rarely reaches the lofty heights of its original creator, the Murphys admirably keep its fires burning bright.

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Steve Geise

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