I wish I'd written Dan Nadel's post about Prince Valiant, not only because it's a typically erudite Nadel post, but also because I'm a latecomer to Prince Valiant myself. Like Nadel, I'd ignored Hal Foster's knights-and-adventure strip until Fantagraphics remastered, recolored and repackaged the first two years of Valiant (1937-38) into one of the loveliest reprint volumes of 2009. I became a Foster fan immediately, and bought Brian Kane's Definitive Prince Valiant Companion to learn more about Foster and the other talents (John Cullen Murphy, Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz) who'd worked on the comic during its 70+ years. Unfortunately, I can't recommend The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion (abbreviated from here on out as DPV) with any of the same enthusiasm that I would the Prince Valiant reprint project.
The biggest problem with DPV is that almost half the book is taken up by "A Prince Valiant Story Index" by Todd Goldberg, Carl Horak and Kane, which is a collection of summaries of the dozens of story arcs presented in the strip since its inception. Here's the first entry in the index:
1: Into the Fens
Pages 1 (13 February 1937) - 4 (6 March 1937)
King Aguar of Thule and his family are driven from their homeland of Thule and forced to settle in the Great Fens of Britain. Young Prince Valiant (shown only as a small boy in pages 2-4 and not assuming the leading role until page 3) begins his career of adventure as he grows up in the rugged swamplands.
As the above example indicates, Goldberg, Horak and Kane don't inject any of their own feelings or insights into their synopses--the prose reads like it was written by robots--and the result is nothing more than a dispassionate list of spoilers about the upcoming Prince Valiant reprint books. "A Prince Valiant Story Index" is recommended only for those fans (who are they?) who've read Prince Valiant's complete run and want to relive the experience without the majestic images and lively prose.
The rest of DPV varies widely in quality. Kane includes an article about Foster, authored by Virginia Irwin, which appeared in The St. Louis Dispatch in 1949; Kane also interviews Cullen Murphy, Gianni and Schultz, and authors a short profile of Frank Bolle, who assisted Murphy on Prince Valiant's art from 1996 to 2003. Frankly, all these pieces are short, perfunctory and dismissible, but DPV's long interview with Foster, originally conducted by Arn Saba in 1979 and first printed in The Comics Journal in 1985, is a must-read. In his introduction to the interview, Saba nimbly traces the trajectory of Foster's career, but, more valuably, he gives us a sense of the artist's temperament at age 87:
Meeting Foster had been an experience suffused with sadness. To this day I cannot be sure how much I projected onto the experience, but when I hear the tape with its slow, almost sing-song recitation, I can see again his mournful air, and the rather hurt expression on his face. It seemed to be a look of affronted innocence. I felt I understood. He had been a man of action, who loved the outdoors and loved his work. Now he had neither to enjoy. Old age had affronted him, had robbed him of the ability to act, leaving him with no means to deal with this final challenge. (107)
Saba's prose brings Foster to life (ironically, just as Foster was preparing to die) far more than any of the other articles in DPV.
Even though I'm not enthusiastic about DPV as a whole, I did find one article, Kane's "Of Mead, Whiskey and Brandywine: The Artistic Bloodline of Prince Valiant," interesting for personal reasons. While alive, Foster identified several artists--particularly Howard Pyle and J.C. Leyendecker--as inspirations, but Kane researches others (Reinhold H. Palenske, Frank Godwin, others) who may have influenced Valiant's visuals. Kane devotes a paragraph to Malcolm Daniel (M.D.) Charleston, a Chicago-based illustrator who painted a Prince Valiant-esque figure for the cover of the anthology From the Tower Window of My Bookhouse (1921):
I appreciated Kane's reprinting of Charleston's picture because my own copy of Tower Window is in rough shape, with the cover nicked, scratched and half flaked-off:
I bought Tower last year, when it was donated by my friend Robin Hunt to one of the book sales I organize for a children's museum called The Playhouse. Tower is part of a 6-volume set called My Bookhouse; Robin didn't have a complete set, but I remember selling a couple of other Bookhouse volumes (Through Fairy Halls and The Latch-Key) to a grateful collector of old books. Robin didn't need the books anymore--Tower is a collection of mythic adventure stories for young readers, and her son and daughter have aged out of the "young readers" demographic--but Robin herself has nice memories of reading My Bookhouse at her grandmother's house. Robin also asked me if I knew anything about the publication history of My Bookhouse, which I didn't. Since then, however, I've done a little research...
The Bookhouse for Children was the brainchild of Olive Beaupre Miller (1883-1968), an ambitious author and editor. There's a capsule biography of Miller here, as part of Smith College's online catalog of her papers. She obviously had opportunities other women of the time didn't--she graduated from Smith when college degrees weren't all that common for either women or men--but life after college still seemed to follow a conventional path: she met Harry Edward Miller in 1907, married him in 1908, and had their first child, Virginia, in 1912. According to the Smith College biography, however, Miller discovered her literary talent because of Virginia:
Olive began writing rhymes and stories to entertain her child, and was encouraged by Harry to publish some of her writings. In 1917, the same year the Millers moved to Winnetka, Illinois, P.F. Volland Company published Sunny Rhymes for Happy Children. P.F. Volland Company published two more of Olive's works, Come Play with Me and Whisk Away on a Sunbeam, in 1918. Olive also published selected stories and poetry in The Christian Science Monitor that year.
In 1919, Olive and Harry started The Bookhouse for Children Company, which released 6 successful volumes edited by Olive over the next four years. (Tower, the book that I bought at the Playhouse sale, is the first edition of volume 5, published in 1921.) Also in 1919, Olive's second child, John, died soon after birth, and perhaps Olive and Harry threw themselves into their new business to anesthetize the pain they felt over John's death. The success of The Bookhouse led to a new series, My Travelship, which collected tales from foreign countries into three volumes published between 1925 and 1927.
First,--To be well equipped for life, to have ideas and the ability to express them, the child needs a broad background of familiarity with the best in literature.
Second,--His stories and rhymes must be selected with care that he may absorb no distorted view of life and its actual values, but may grow up to be mentally clear about values and emotionally impelled to seek what is truly desirable and worthwhile in human living.
Third,--The stories and rhymes selected must be graded to the child's understanding at different periods of his growth, graded as to vocabulary, as to subject matter and as to complexity of structure and plot.
On those three simple fundamentals My Bookhouse was built.
Olive continued to assemble book series during the late 1920s and early 1930s (A Picturesque Tale of Progress [9 volumes, 1929], a revision/expansion of My Bookhouse [12 volumes, 1934]), while her desire to educate the young went in controversial directions: she wrote an article titled "How Mothers and Fathers May Tell Children the Facts of Sex" for a teachers' journal in 1934, and a year later released George L. Bird's How Life Begins through The Bookhouse. Her activities as an editor slowed down when, in 1935, she became the Vice-President of the Bookhouse Company. (In the same year, she divorced Harry, who immediately resigned as President.) Between 1939 and 1962, she was Bookhouse's Chairman of the Board, and passed away in March 1965, leaving behind some very pretty books.
Much of the prose in my 1921 copy of From the Tower Window is canonical--excerpts from The Fairie Queen, Don Quixote, El Cid, Beowulf and The Bible--rewritten and "graded to the child's understanding," but what I like best about Tower are its intricate, pastel-colored illustrations. The majority of the pictures are by Donn P. Crane, but there's also work by J. Allen St. John, Maud and Miska Petersham, and Willy Pogany. Like Hal Foster, and like so many of the commercial painters profiled in Illustration magazine, the contributors to My Bookhouse come from a time of high craft and rare beauty, and I'd like to end this post by scanning in some examples of this beauty from Tower.
There's been a lot of excellent recent online commentary on Foster; check out this post from Ng Suat Tong and the list of links Suat provides.