Prince Valiant by Hal Foster
'Prince Valiant' (19 June 1938).

Hal Foster was one of the major artists of American newspaper comics, and one of the medium's great innovators. He was the first to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Tarzan of the Apes' into comics format (1929, 1931-1937), but is best-known for his Arthurian saga 'Prince Valiant' (1937-1980), to which he devoted over forty years of his life. Coming from a background in classical illustration, Foster introduced new techniques into the art of newspaper comics, such as chiaroscuro, naturalistic drawing and a thorough documentation. His hybrid of fine arts and sequential narrative contained no speech balloons, but short captions, allowing the artist to entertain lavishly with highly detailed backgrounds, mass scenes and beautiful coloring. Together with his contemporaries Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff, he ranks as one of the most influential comic artists of all time, rightfully earning him the nickname the "Father of the Adventure Strip". His lay-outs, direction and masterful storytelling are an influence to comic artists worldwide to this day, and are sometimes even downright copied.

Early life and career
Harold Rudolf Foster was born in 1892 in the East Coast harbour city Halifax in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. His early life was characterized by tragedy and adventure, much like that of his iconic heroes. Foster's father died when he was four years old, and his stepfather introduced him to the joys of outdoor life and fishing. As a kid he was instantly attracted to the sea, playing captain on self-produced rafts in the harbour area. By 1906 the family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the hope to rebuild their fortune in the western land boom. Although the young man's formal education ended at age thirteen, he continued to finetune his drawing techniques in the local library. He meticulously studied the work of the great illustrators, such as E.A. Abbey, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, James Montgomery Flagg and N.C. Wyeth, and sketched for hours on end. While still a teen, he got a job as staff artist with the Hudson's Bay Company, drawing women's underwear for shop catalogues. Foster turned to freelancing in 1913, but illustration jobs were scarce. With his young wife Helen Wells, whom he married in 1915, he spent the next few years working as hunting guides in Ontario and Manitoba, and as gold prospectors in the Lake Rice region.

Back cover painting for The OilPull Magazine #9-10, 1928.

Feeling more pressure to support his young family, Foster decided to take a more serious attempt at a career in illustration. In 1921, he and a friend cycled 1,000 miles from Manitoba to Chicago to follow evening classes at the Chicago Art Institute, followed by night classes at the National Academy of Design and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He also got a job with the Jahn & Ollier Engraving Company, and later a stint with the Palenske-Young Studio. By now already in his thirties, the artist truly made his debut as a cover and ad illustrator for Northwest Paper, Popular Mechanics, Jekle Margarine, the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Illinois Pacific Railroad. The Foster family eventually settled in Topeka, Kansas, and they would later relocate to Redding Ridge, Connecticut (1944) and finally Spring Hill, Florida (1971).

Tarzan by Hal Foster
'Tarzan' daily strip (1929).

Tarzan comic strip
In 1927 Joseph Neebe, head of the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency, came up with the idea to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs' popular novels starring 'Tarzan of the Apes' into a newspaper comic strip. The jungle hero had first appeared in the pulp magazine All-Story Magazine in 1912. The concept of a human boy who grows up with the apes was popular enough to inspire many sequels. The original novel illustrator J. Allen St. John didn't feel much for the deadlines of a newspaper strip, and declined the offer to draw it. Neebe then approached Hal Foster, whom he knew from his advertising work. Neebe's attempt to let a group of advertising salesmen sell the strip to newspapers failed, and he engaged the more specialized Metropolitan Newspaper Service to do the job. This company later became part of United Feature Syndicate, which would continue to distribute the strip until the end of its run.

Tarzan by Hal Foster

Foster and Neebe's initial story was a direct adaptation from the original Burroughs novel, and strangely enough had a European debut, when it appeared in the British weekly Tit-Bits in November 1928. Canadian and American newspapers started running the strip on 7 January 1929. Foster gave the character a slight hint of nobility, as a reference to his earlier life as the son of a British aristocrat family. The artist presented the strip as a text comic instead of a balloon comic. Hal Foster's first run on the strip ended as early as 27 May 1929, when the storyline was concluded. Rex Maxon was brought in as his replacement, since Foster didn't feel much for the comics medium at the time. Burroughs on the other hand wasn't that satisfied with Maxon's rendition, and Foster was asked back on the job in 1931. The artist accepted, but only took care of the recently started Sunday page, which he drew from 27 September 1931 until 2 May 1937, while Maxon continued to do the dailies. Still his motives weren't of an artistic nature. The Great Depression had hit hard in the advertising industry, and his financial needs prompted him to return to the "inferior" comics art form. Some of his early pages were executed rather crudely, but his attitude changed when fan mail started coming in. This ego boost gave him more joy and fulfillment in his new job, and he was quickly at the top of his game, experimenting freely with impressionistic techniques and chiaroscuro. He turned the comic into an epic adventure tale and the 1932-1934 Egyptian continuity ranks as one of the best in the genre.


As the 1930s progressed, the ambitious artist felt less and less satisfied with his work. Foster wasn't too happy with the quality of the scripts; he didn't even know who wrote them (the writing of the Sundays during Foster's tenure is nowadays credited to George Carlin and Don Garden). He also felt limited working with another person's creation. In his spare time, he began developing a comic strip of his own, which carried the working titles 'Derek, Son of Thane' and 'Prince Arn'. It was based on the tales about the Knights of the Round Table, and the concept was carefully transcribed by the author. Out of loyalty with his employer, he presented his idea to United Feature Syndicate in 1936. Unfortunately (for them!) they turned him down, and Foster took his chances with King Features Syndicate, which was part of the Hearst empire. William Randolph Hearst had wanted to engage Foster as soon as he laid eyes on his 'Tarzan' work, and generously offered Foster complete ownership of the strip, a rare practice at the time. Foster's final 'Tarzan' appeared on 2 May 1937. His successors all used his rendition of the character as a standard. Among the many artists who have worked on the 'Tarzan' newspaper comic until its end on 2 May 2002 were Burne Hogarth, Rubimor, Bob Lubbers, John Celardo, Russ Manning, Gil Kane, Mike Grell, Gray Morrow, Joe Kubert and Eric Battle, while Jesse Marsh and John Buscema were instrumental for the comic book versions.

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster
'Prince Valiant', 16 September 1937.

Prince Valiant
By request of the syndicate, Foster renamed his new project to 'Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur', but it is generally referred to as simply 'Prince Valiant'. It premiered as a color comic in the Saturday tabloid pages on 13 February 1937. Sixteen weeks later, it became a Sunday comic and the feature acquired a full page format, which it maintained until turning over to a half page format in 1971. This large format allowed Foster to use differing page lay-outs, and produce highly detailed and exquisite pieces of art, especially in his epic fighting scenes and depictions of outdoor life. Descriptions and dialogues appeared as captions near the panel corners, leaving the rest of the images free from speech balloons. A lot of the page's aesthetics and depth came from the interaction between Foster's use of black ink and the unique opportunities of the four color printing technique, which the artist used cleverly for creating perspectives, textures and atmosphere.

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster
'Prince Valiant', 2 June 1940.

The epic saga began when the deposed king Aguar of Thule arrived with his wife and young son in the wild fens of Britain. The swampy environments quickly caused the queen's death, leaving the young prince Valiant to venture off and become a knight. During his journeys, Valiant acquired the Singing Sword Flamberge from his competitor-turned-ally Prince Arn of Ord. The sword contained magical powers, as it was made out of the same iron as King Arthur's Excalibur. The hero eventually ended up in Camelot, where he met Sir Gawain and Sir Tristram, and was knighted by King Arthur in 1939. He helped his father regain the throne of Thule by defeating the usurper Sligon, and in 1946, he married his love interest Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles.

Prince Valiant, by Hal Foster, August 1942
'Prince Valiant', 9 August 1942.

The early years of the 'Prince Valiant' comic still featured a lot of fantasy and mythology. Swamp monsters, giants, witches, wizzards and magic were omnipresent. One spine chilling sequence from April 1939 shows a rapidly aging Valiant fighting Father Time himself in a magical cave. Foster however gradually refrained from such elements. According to the author, his characters became more and more real persons to him, and it didn't feel right to put them in such surreal situations. He has stated that he based Valiant largely on himself, but then with muscles, while his wife stood model for Aleta. This resulted in the adding of domestic themes in the strip, with Valiant's married life becoming a core element of the narrative. Foster was the first to depict a pregnant woman in a US comic strip, when Aleta carried the prince's first son, Prince Arn, who was born on 31 August 1947. Their family expanded with the birth of the twins Karen and Valeta in 1951, son Galan in 1962 and Prince Nathan in 1979.

The birth of Prince Arn, on 31 August 1947.

Despite its fantasy-infused beginning and some anachronisms, the 'Prince Valiant' strip stands out for its strong sense of realism. Foster tended to present accurate depictions of medieval castles, costumes, weaponry and the several countries he sent his character off to. The artist was a master in depicting subtle emotions and portraying multidimensional characters with clever nuances between good and evil. Syndicates and foreign publishers often felt Foster went a bit too far in his graphics. King Features frequently forced him to tone down his panels before they ever saw print, but a great many bosoms, decapitations, blood splatters and other acts of violence were still censored by foreign publishers later on. Another unique aspect about 'Prince Valiant' is the aging of the characters. Valiant is five years old when the narrative begins, and the reader follows his coming of age throughout the years. Foster's successors even made him a grandfather in the 1980s! Only few comics apply a similar aging device. Frank O. King pioneered it in his long-running newspaper strip 'Gasoline Alley' (1918). Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' followed in Valiant's footsteps and married his sweetheart Tess Trueheart in 1949, with their baby girl being born in 1951. In most adventure comics, marriage and settling down are out of the question, an unwritten rule seemingly not applicable for comics in the Valiant genre. Other sword-swinging heroes like Hans G. Kresse's 'Eric de Noorman' and Grzegorz Rosinski and Jean Van Hamme's 'Thorgal' are married and have families as well.

Le Chant de Bernadette, by Hal Foster
'Le Chant de Bernadette' (French-Canadian publication of 'The Song of Bernadette' from Le Petit Journal, 20 June 1943).

Other work
Hal Foster went to great lengths to give his pages the required quality. He spent about 53 hours each week to craft one page. He however worked several weeks ahead, allowing him to pursue some other projects as well. For King Features' 'Book-of-the-Month' feature, he made a comic strip adaptation of Frank Werfel's novel 'Song of Bernadette' in 1943. Paper rationing during World War II caused a shrinking of Foster's full page space, but Hearst allowed him to add an independent companion strip which the papers could cut when needed. 'The Mediaeval Castle' ran from 23 April 1944 until 18 November 1945, and was set in the 11th century, while Valiant's adventures were situated in the late 5th/early 6th century. The main heroes were two young English squires named Arn and Guy at the time of the First Crusade. Foster also provided six drawings detailing the birth of Jesus Christ in King Features' seasonal 'The Christmas Story' (December 1948).

'The Mediaeval Castle' (25 February 1945).

With the war over, 'Prince Valiant' returned to its lavishly designed full page format until shortly after William Randolph Hearst's death in 1951. By then, the editors restricted Foster in his lay-outs, allowing newspapers to either reformat the strip into a two-tier horizontal strip or maintain the three-tier original. From the 1950s onwards, Foster began working with assistants, such as his own son Arthur James Foster (1952-1962), Tex Blaisdell (1962-1968), Lee Marrs (1967-1968) and Wayne Boring (1968-1971), with Hugh Donnel doing the coloring. Hal Foster continued to write and draw his trademark comic until the early 1970s, when arthritis began to affect his drawing. Gray Morrow, John Cullen Murphy and Wallace Wood were in the race for replacing him, with each artist providing tryout pages in alternation with Foster pages in 1970. The last page drawn by Hal Foster appeared on 16 May 1971, after which John Cullen Murphy was chosen to become the feature's new artist. Foster however continued to write and layout the comic until the episode of 10 February 1980. The artist passed away in Spring Hill, Florida, on 25 July 1982, three weeks short of his 90th birthday. John Cullen Murphy continued with his son Cullen Murphy as scriptwriter until 2004, when the new author team of Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz assumed control over the strip. Gianni was replaced by Thomas Yeates in April 2012.

'Prince Valiant' (7 October 1951).

Reprints and adaptations
Hal Foster's work has been the subject of a great many reprint edition from a very early stage. Already in 1936 United Feature printed the 'Tarzan' newspaper strories in its comic book series Tip Top Comics. Publisher David McKay ran 'Prince Valiant' in his reprint comic book Ace Comics from 1939 until 1948. Early attempts to release 'Prince Valiant' in book collections were however hampered with commercial and technical limitations, causing a painful loss in quality of Foster's original pages. Hastings Books 1950s book series featured cut-up and reworked black-and-white panels from the 'Prince Valiant' comic, with new texts written by Max Trell and James Flowers. The 1960s Nostalgia Press editions by Woody Gelman were more faithful to Foster's stories, but were painfully recolored, with entire panels presented as solid pink or solid purple! Manuscript Press did a better job with its large format 'Prince Valiant: An American Epic' series of the 1980s, but the costly reproduction of Foster's original coloring caused the series to end after only three volumes. Outside of the USA, reprint collections were launched as well. Notable is the comic book series with Foster's entire run by the Danish publisher Interpresse, which was launched in 1974. Their original series ended in 1981, and the publisher started a new series in 1983. They shared their costs and material with Fantagraphics, who launched an English language comics series between 1984 and 2004. The European material was however recolored as well, and it wasn't until 2009 that a new generation could enjoy Hal Foster's 'Prince Valiant' in its full glory. In that year, Fantagraphics launched the first volume of its luxury large format book collection, with faithful reproductions of the original Sunday pages. 'The Mediaeval Castle' was chronicled in two reprint books. 'The Young Knight: A Tale of Medieval Times' (John Martin's House, 1945) was an adventure text book with images from the strip. Hastings House released a second novelization as part of their 'Prince Valiant' novel series in 1957.

Additionally, two 'Prince Valiant' phonograph records were released, one in 1947 and one in 1968. 'Prince Valiant' was adapted into a motion picture by 20th Century Fox in 1954, starring Robert Wagner in the title role. Foster praised the film's scenery, castles and overall beauty, but he deemed the story "a bit childish" and Wagner "a little bit immature". A second movie was made as a UK/Irish/German co-production in 1997, while an animated TV series called 'The Legend of Prince Valiant' ran on The Family Channel in the USA in 1991. Naturally Foster's work has been subject of parody too. Naming all of them would take us too long, particularly 'Tarzan' would warrant its own page, with Antonio Terenghi's 'Tarzanetto' (1954), Jay Ward's 'George of the Jungle' (1967) and Picha's 'Tarzoon' (1975) being just three examples. But the most famous and hilarious are without a doubt Harvey Kurtzman's 'Melvin of the Apes' (1953, with John Severin) and 'Prince Violent' (1953, with Wally Wood) in Mad Magazine. 

'Prince Valiant' (11 June 1939).

Legacy and influence
Hal Foster is one of the most widely praised comic artists of all time. Edward, the Duke of Windsor, called 'Prince Valiant' the "greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years". Science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury felt Foster was "the greatest illustrator in the Sunday papers that we had, period." But also his colleagues and successors were also full of praise. New generations of comic artists continue to be influenced by his work. International comics series like 'El Capitán Trueno' by Victor Mora and Ambros, 'Eric de Noorman' by Hans G. Kresse and 'De Rode Ridder' by Willy Vandersteen could not have existed without Hal Foster's groundwork. A diverse array of artists have named Hal Foster as a major influence on their work, such as Alfredo Alcala, Enrique Badia Romero, Carl Barks, Jordi Bernet, Bert Bus, Buth, Chott, Rik Clément, Emilio Cortinas, Jack Davis, Gétulio Delphim, Gianni De Luca, Jay Disbrow, Steve Ditko, Mort Drucker, Jerry DumasGallieno Ferri, Frank Frazetta, Paul Gillon, Jean Giraud, Jess M. Jodloman, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Pieter J. Kuhn, Patrice Pellerin, Frans Piët, Mark Schultz, John Severin, Siegel & Shuster, Dave Sim, Bill Stout, Marten Toonder, Bill Ward, Piet Wijn, Al Williamson, Skip WilliamsonMenno WittebroodWallace Wood and Suat Yalaz. Some took their inspiration to the limit. Careful frame-to-frame comparisons have proved obvious deeds of plagiarism in the works of the Flemish artists Buth ('Gawain de Dappere'), Willy Vandersteen and Karel Verschuere ('Ridder Gloriant', 'Tijl Uilenspiegel', 'De Rode Ridder'). But also the French artist Chott has been caught on copying Foster's panels, not to mention Sirius ('Godfrey de Bouillon) and Anton Heyboer ('Zeerovers zijn Heeren'). Closer to home, American artist Joe Orlando copied Foster panels for the core of his Classics Illustrated title 'Caesar's Conquests' (1956). The 'Tarzan' comic has seen a great many jungle heroes in its wake, such as Nikola Navojev's 'Tarcaneta' in the 1930s, Alex Raymond's 'Jungle Jim' (1934-1944), Roberto Renzi and Augusto Pedrazza's 'Akim' (1950-1967), Frank Frazetta's 'Thun'da' (1953), Edouard Aidans' Tunga' (1964), Jack Kirby's 'Ka-Zar' (1965), André Chéret's 'Rahan' (1974), Jaime Brocal Remohi's 'Ta-Ar' (1976), and female jungle heroes like Jerry Iger and Will Eisner's 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle' (1938), Matt Baker's 'Rulah, Jungle Goddess' (1947) and Carole Seuling and George Tuska's 'Shanna the She-Devil' (1972).

The National Cartoonists Society awarded Foster with the Reuben Award (1957), the Story Comic Strip Award (1964), the Special Features Award (1966) (1967) and the Elzie Segar Award (1978). In 1977 he won an Inkpot Award. Foster was posthumously inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1996 and into the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creators Hall of Fame for his contributions to comic books in 2005. He was subsequently inducted into the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame in 2006.

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