Prince Valiant and Sir Gawain, 1954. Artist: Hal Foster.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: King Features
First Appeared: 1937
Creator: Hal Foster
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Hal Foster, the creator of comics' most famous 5th-century adventurer, got his start in comics doing the Tarzan Sunday page. He left it as soon as he …

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… was able to launch a series of his own. King Features began distributing his Sunday-only Prince Valiant on February 13, 1937, and still does so today.

Val was a small child when the strip began, and the first several stories told of his boyhood exploits in the British fens where his father, the deposed king of Thule, had made a home in exile. In one memorable 1937 episode, he met an old hag named Horrit, who prophesied a life of adventure for him, but never contentment. To lend credence to her pronouncement, she added that great sorrow lay in his immediate future; and when Val arrived home, he found his mother had died. Horrit's prophesy was to haunt Val all his life.

The "adventure" part of the prophesy came true almost immediately. That same year, Val met Sir Gawain, Sir Launcelot, and King Arthur himself, and was performing such knightly deeds as slaying dragons and rescuing fair maidens. In 1938, he acquired his famous Singing Sword; in 1939 he was knighted by King Arthur, and in 1940, he engineered the restoration of his father as king of Thule.

In 1946, Val married the fair Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. Almost immediately, she was kidnapped and taken out to sea. Val pursued relentlessly past the Shetland Islands, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and right up the St. Lawrence River, finally catching up at Niagara Falls, a thousand years before Columbus. Their first son, Arn, was born in America, in 1947.

Val and Aleta would eventually have four more children. The twins, Karen and Valeta, were born in 1951, Galan in 1962, and Nathan in 1979. Arn grew up to lead his own expedition to America in 1964. Val became a grandfather when, in 1987, Arn and his wife, Maeve, daughter of Sir Mordred, had their first child.

The high adventure and excitement of Prince Valiant was recognized by the National Cartoonists' Society, which, in 1957, gave Foster its highest honor, the Reuben Award. Many other honors followed, including recognition by the U.S. Postal Service, which, in 1995, included Val, along with The Katzenjammer Kids, Bringing Up Father, Little Orphan Annie and 16 others in its "Comic Strip Classics" series of commemorative stamps.

Val's first comic book appearance came in 1939, when he joined the cast of Ace Comics, which also included Krazy Kat, Blondie and several other King Features strips. He held that position until 1948. In 1941, he headlined an issue of the comic book Feature Book. Both of these venues featured reprints of the newspaper strip, as did a much later comic book published by Pioneer Press.

20th Century Fox made Prince Valiant into a feature film, starring Robert Wagner in the title role, in 1954. That same year, the movie was adapted into comic book form by Dell Comics — his first comic book appearance that was not a reprint of the newspaper strip. This sparked a sporadic series of Dell comic books (seven in all), drawn by Bob Fuji, the last of which appeared in 1958. Also in the '50s, a series of books from Crown Publishers used Foster's art to illustrate prose, simplified from Foster's own stories, by Max Trell (Dick's Adventures in Dreamland).

In 1991, an animated version, The Legend of Prince Valiant, became a regular feature on The Family Channel, with the voices of Robby Benson as Val and Tim Curry as Sir Gawain. A second live-action version was made in Britain, and released there in 1997.

In 1970, Foster, by then suffering from arthritis, began thinking of retirement, and allowed several artists to draw Sunday pages before choosing his permanent replacement. In 1971, he chose John Cullen Murphy, whose previous credits include a sports strip entitled Big Ben Bolt. After turning the art over to Murphy, Foster continued to write the strip until 1980. Murphy used several writers since Foster's retirement, finally settling on his son ,Cullen Murphy. Foster died in 1982.

John Cullen Murphy retired in March, 2004, and died in July of the same year. Cullen Murphy still writes the series (which is carried in about 300 papers). The current artist is Gary Gianni, who has illustrated deluxe new editions of several 19th century classic novels, in addition to his credits at Dark Horse, DC Comics and elsewhere.

Today, the Prince Valiant strip is the subject of two reprint series. Manuscript Press has done its first three years in an ultra-deluxe edition for $150 per year. And in the popularly-priced range, Fantagraphics books has reprinted all of the strip's Foster years in a handsome series of volumes, which ran well into Murphy's tenure.


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Text ©1999-2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © King Features.