Prince Valiant," the weekly adventure strip that started February 13, 1937, and is still published in Sunday papers, celebrated its 3,700th installment yesterday. While there are still some strips around that began in the 1930's (such as "Blondie"), "Prince Valiant" is one of a kind.
I've grown up reading the strip, and I'm always surprised (and disappointed) that I rarely run across anyone else who's a fan of "Prince Valiant." That's too bad -- because "Prince Valiant" is a reading experience like no other. And it's one that (in my opinion) should appeal to many people that don't normally read comics.
First off, it's something more than a gag-a-day strip. "Prince Valiant" is a classic illustrated storybook, published in weekly installments. There're no word balloons; all the text is told in third-person narrative, with illustrations placed just as they would be in a book.
The story itself is pure romantic adventure. A young Viking prince comes to King Arthur's court to become a squire. He's cursed with wanderlust, and so is pulled from adventure to adventure literally across the world. Prince Valiant's first son is born in Thule (Greenland) after Val discovers the New World. Val's also been to China, taken several trips to the Holy Land, explored Africa, traveled Europe, sailed the Mediterranean, and visited Russia.
Hal Foster (the artist and writer of the strip) wanted something that would capture the reader's imagination. His successor, John Cullen Murphy expanded the romantic world of King Arthur's court even further -- his son who wrote the strip had a degree in medieval history.
As a result, strips in the 1980's and 1990's brought in more authentic details of the period -- Queen Aleta (Val's wife) had to fight off the unwanted attentions of Byzantine emperor Justinian in an extended sequence set in Constantinople. And more medieval lore became fodder for stories as well. Val, for example, met Prestor John in India, and often found himself on an island that rises from the mists and offered an allegorical test -- a standard plot device in medieval stories.
The current artist and writer (Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz) continue the same high standards of illustrated storytelling while bringing their own sensibilities and experiences with creating modern comics to the strip. Rather than a shuffling zombie forever recycling the gestures of its dead creator (such as "Dick Tracy"), "Prince Valiant" continues to offer up compelling and entertaining stories set in the medieval world both real and imagined.
And at the heart of the strip is the large cast of characters that have grown and matured with the readers over the years.
Prince Valiant is now a family man in his late 30's, torn now between his desire to remain at home with his beloved Aleta, and a wanderlust for adventure that can never be satisfied. His wife, Queen Aleta of the Misty Isles, has grown from a young girl into a mature, thoughtful ruler who still displays something of a temper -- especially if she jealously thinks (as with the current storyline) Val's somehow gotten tangled up in an adventure with another woman!
I've talked before about the aging process in "Prince Valiant," which let Val's family grow up, marry and have children of their own. This march of time just adds to the appeal of the strip.
The continuing story of Prince Valiant isn't just a never-ending sequence of adventure -- it's the story of one man's life in an extraordinary time and place.
Here's to the next 3,700 Sundays!