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Wednesday April 7, 2010 6:26 am

Hal Foster and Prince Valiant




Posted by Tom Mason Categories: Editorials

Prince ValiantI get tired of hearing about Mozart. Yeah, he’s a genius and he started composing music when he was 5-years-old. I get it, fine, blah, blah, blah. You know who else is brilliant? Harold “Hal” Foster, the critically-acclaimed creator-writer-artist on Prince Valiant. He created his most famous and enduring work when he was 45-years-old. Malcolm Gladwell, take note.

Continuing my series on cartooning and cartoonists, Hal Foster wrote about himself and his work back in 1964. This is pulled from an oversized saddle-stitched magazine from Allied Publications with the creatively-challenged title These Top Cartoonists Tell How They Create America’s Favorite Comics. It featured an introduction by Beetle Bailey’s Mort Walker and was compiled by Allen Willette.

Here’s Foster on Foster:

“By profession I am a cartoonist, and my work is displayed through the medium of the Sunday comic section. But in reality I am an illustrator, and my methods are those of an illustrator. A thorough foundation of perspective, anatomy, composition and color is essential. Like most of the artists who draw story or adventure strips, I spent many years as a commercial artist. Cartooning is the presentation of ideas. The best illustration or the funniest caricature is static unless it is the visual part of an interesting or comic idea.

Prince Valiant is written in novel form, corrected, changed and researched. Then the page is laid out and the story broken down into captions; the first panel takes up the story where it left off the previous week, and the last panel suggests suspense to be told the following week.

“The layout of the page is a pencil sketch, so that each panel can be planned to offer variety…the portrait, half-figures and intricate and detailed scenes. Two-thirds of the ‘novel’ is discarded, for the captions must be reduced to a minimum. Nobody wants to read a long caption.

“The page, 29x15 inches, follows the pencil sketch. The finished black-and-white page is then photostated and the ‘stat colored. It is this colored photostat that the engraver follows in making plates.

“Much research has gone into the illustrations; the costumes and weapons, architecture, harness, even farm implements must be of King Arthur’s period. Even more care must be taken with the story, for each actor must remain in character, and the action must be ever-changing. Too much drama or violent action can become boring, so I try to follow with family scenes, introduce new actors, or add a touch of humor, before the next dangerous episode.

“There is an old saying among cartoonists, “No one ever sold a funny drawing, but a funny idea illustrated puts meat on the table!”

I have emphasized the story idea here, because of all the aspiring young students who have asked my advice, not one has seemed to consider it at all. Their interest was in the pens and brushes, the paper, size, how to draw a funny figure…and would I introduce them into my syndicate.”

There was this brief bio of Foster at the end of his essay that was probably provided by King Features:

“He was born August 16, 1892 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the time he was ten, Foster knew how to expertly handle a boat. Before becoming a free-lance artist, he was a newsboy, an office worker and a boxer. He was even a prospector for gold. In 1921, Foster and his wife and children moved to Chicago, where he enrolled at the Art Institute, Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy. He steadily gained stature as a fine artist. Prince Valiant, who began as a boy in the strip and is now a man, was started in 1937. Today, Hal Foster is acknowledged as one of the finest and most successful illustrators in the business.”

And here are some of my thoughts and notes:

How many comic artists were boxers and gold prospectors before they became successful cartoonists? How many of them could also handle a boat? Away from the drawing table, Foster doesn’t sound like a cartoonist who’s going to get picked on.

I like that he refers to his characters as “actors.”

Foster’s first strip was Tarzan, based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that he started in 1929. If you ever get a chance to see a Foster original, from either Tarzan or Prince Valiant, do so. Not only are they huge, but the insane amount of craftsmanship on display gets lost on newsprint.

Foster died in 1982 at the age of 89. He had retired from the strip in 1971, turning it over to John Cullen Murphy. The strip is currently written by Mark Schultz (Xenozoic Tales) and illustrated by Gary Gianni.

Here’s a nice look at Gianni’s original black and white artwork for the Sunday pages.

Dan Nadel did an excellent post on Foster and Valiant back in September 2009 that’s required reading.

Prince Valiant is getting the reprint treatment in gorgeous books from Fantagraphics.

For more on Foster, check out this preview of Brian Kane’s biography that was published back in 2001.

And here’s a nice Tarzan page by Foster that pre-dates his work on Prince Valiant.

[Artwork: an iconic illustration by Foster, © King Features]

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