Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Friendship, Betrayal and Outright Aggression

Hal Foster was such a magnificent illustrator that I think sometimes fans of his work often come close to forgetting that he was a brilliant and sophisticated writer as well.

A story arc beginning in June 1955 provides us with a great example of his skill as an artist AND writer. Valiant, his wife Aleta, his three children (young Arn and the toddler twin girls), along with Sir Gawain and two boatloads of Northmen, have ended up in Kiev after a series of adventures. Now its time to head home, something that will require a trip up the Dnieper.

The story of this river journey can be divided into four chapters--with the last chapter involving a lengthy flashback as Valiant, while recovering from wounds, recounts some of his early adventures to his kids. The first three chapters, though, each involves an encounter with a different people group. Each of these people groups reacts in a different way to Valiant's expedition, giving each little mini-adventure its own flavor and maintaining a high level of excitement from beginning to end.

The trip actually begins on a grim note: food supplies begin to run low and Valiant injures his leg while hunting an auroch. It's while he's lying helpless near the dead beast that a couple of local tribesmen appear and seem determined to finish him off. Some of Valiant's men arrive in time to capture the tribesmen before they do any harm.

Despite this rather shaky start to friendship, Valiant manages to cut a deal with the tribesmen. They'll get metal arrowheads in exchange for bringing meat. This provides boat crews with the food they need.

The next crisis comes soon after that. The boats arrive at the Great Portage, where the river becomes un-navigable for a time and the longboats must the hauled across the ground.

By this point, the expedition has arrived in the territory of another tribe. Valiant cuts a deal with them, paying them a fair price for helping to portage the boats.

It takes some back-breaking work, with the locals and the Northmen all working together, to get one boat across the portage. Then the new, young leader of the tribe decides that Valiant's willingness to pay well is a sign of weakness. He demands double pay, determined to back this up by placing some armed men nearby.

This is not a good idea. To quote the strip itself: "Prince Valiant's motto is, treat everyone fairly, but do not depend on fairness in return." In other words, Valiant has armed men in place watching the armed men who are watching him.

The new, young leader never does get any older. Having lost the confidence of his people, he happens to suffer a tragic "accident" one night soon after his failure to renegotiate. From that point on, the tribe and the Northmen are again able to work together and finish portaging the boats.

The boats continue north along the river. By now, Val's leg has largely healed, so he is leading a scouting patrol along the river's edge when they encounter a band of Swedes. There's no chance for friendship or negotiation this time--the Swedes want Valiant's stuff and simply attack.

Outnumbered, Valiant sends one man running back to the boats for reinforcements. He and his patrol hold the line for a few moments, then break and run. The Swedes pursue--but Val was expecting this. When the Swedes are strong out along the trail, he turns suddenly back upon them.

In the ensuing melee, Val is wounded. Gawain and more men arrive to save his bacon, which leads to the aforementioned flashback sequence. By this point, Prince Valiant had been running for nearly twenty years, so its not surprising that Foster decided to recap some early adventures.

By the time Val is on his feet again, the boats have reached the Baltic Sea, bringing the river journey to an end.

It's a wonderful adventure, containing many sharp character moments involving Val and his family on top of the inherent excitement. The art work is magnificent, of course, but it is interesting to note just how well-written and multi-layered the story is. There are times when--in my mind--Prince Valiant comes very close to surpassing Terry and the Pirates as the best adventure strip ever. Like Milt Caniff, Hal Foster wrote as well as he drew and created a perfect synergy between plot and imagery.

Next week, we'll visit an Old West classroom and listen to Hopalong Cassidy teach us how to be a good sheriff.

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