Reality Is The Playground Of The Unimaginative
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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Top Of The Pile: Prince Valiant, Volume One: 1937-1938

Prince Valiant symbolises everything I've ever looked for in a comic strip - and by extension, a roleplaying game campaign.

In its 75 years of Sunday newspaper appearances, it has told a single, continuous story, without reboots and retcons, about a heroic character, his adventures and the lives of those around him.

Valiant has grown up through the stories, become a knight of the Round Table, got married and had children - who, in turn, have grown up themselves.

As it stands the epic is just shy of 4,000 pages, charting more than 40 years of Prince Valiant's life and his travels around the fifth century world.

In this first, gorgeous, large-sized (120-page,10.5" x 14.25" hardcover) collection of full-colour strips from Fantagraphics, it is clear that Foster is still undecided in the direction the story will go, as the young Prince Valiant - exiled from Thule (i.e. Norway) with his father, the usurped King - find themselves in a British wilderness populated with prehistoric monsters and magic-using witches and wizards.

Although these elements appear in the background of this first volume, and there is a fantastic exchange of magic between the mighty Merlin and the evil Morgan Le Fay, it's my understanding that these slide into the background later on, allowing the more historical aspects of the Arthurian myths to take over.

Prince Valiant is compelling reading. I usually read a handful of comics or a graphic novel just before going to bed, but with this volume I was hard-pressed not to just read right through the night to see where Valiant would end up next.

The character of Valiant is an interesting one as well. He's not the wholesome square I'd imagined him to be - before reading any of the stories - but actually a fiery tempered, occasionally arrogant, trickster who succeeds more by his wits and nimbleness than physical strength (although he is quite capable of single-handedly holding a band of vikings at bay on a narrow bridge - armed with his enchanted Singing Sword).

However, he doesn't always succeed - a central story in this volume has a surprisingly tragic twist that I could not have foreseen - and it's how he copes with these failures that shape his character as much as his celebrated successes.

Valiant also isn't afraid of a bit of bloodshed - not that these strips are at all gory - but he has no qualms about killing his enemies, sometimes in quite inventive ways. Again, in my total ignorance of what the title entailed before I actually read it, I think I was expecting Saturday morning cartoon violence, with people being knocked out but never killed. How wrong I was!He also likes his ale, is naively romantic (but totally honourable), stands up for what he believes, gets frequently captured by the bad guys and always manages to escape, is fearless and foolhardy - in other words the perfect hero (even if he has a dodgy hairdo, which you soon grow accustomed to).

Clearly, you can't talk about Prince Valiant without talking about Foster's incredible artwork. With the use of narration rather than word balloons, Foster allows himself space to create incredibly detailed characters and scenery with drama, dynamism, sweep and grandeur, which have influenced the great and the good of the comic book industry ever since.

Quite early on, one sequence in particular rung bells for me. Young Val uses the skin and feathers of a goose to disguise himself as a demon to spook some superstitious bandits... and I realised I was looking at the inspiration of that favourite Jack Kirby creation: Etrigan The Demon (as currently seen in DC's excellent Demon Knights).

Hal Foster's original "demon"; inset: Jack Kirby's Demon for DC Comics
Having released a large number of collections in softback, Fantagraphics is currently releasing these great hardback collections - thankfully slowly so I have a chance to catch up - with volume five due out in April (containing strips from 1945 tom 1946).

Although I am new to the world of Prince Valiant, I'd already consider it a desert island read. While the hardback editions appear to be the definitive presentations, I can't believe I'm only discovering the stories now...


GAME MATERIAL:


New Spell/Ritual: Induce Nightmare
(5th Level Black Magic Ritual)

As a ritual, this spell takes one hour per attempt to cast (with the normal magic spell check at the end of the hour, and if failed - without a mishap - it requires another hour and so on).

The conjurer requires a personal possession, of substantial size (ie. a clump of hair rather than a single hair etc) from his target. Then, once the ritual has been completed and the target is asleep (wherever they are in the world, compared to the caster - although will not work if the target is on a different plane of reality, in an alternate dimension etc), creatures of the victim's darkest nightmares will appear as if real to them.

Only the target will see these phantasms, but they will appear 100 per cent real and terrifying to them because they come from the depths of their inner psyche

The target must then make a saving throw against Fear. If failed then she gets no sleep that night (and no recovery of lost Hit Points, relearning spells etc) and must make a subsequent Sanity Check on 4d6 vs WIS+LVL or lose 1d4 Sanity points.

Although this ritual may only be directed at a single target once per night, as long as the caster holds on to the target's personal possession, he is free to cast the spell again the next night and so on.

9 comments:

  1. You really should check out "Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game" by Greg Stafford... A simple binary rpg with illustrations from the comics. Absolutely a great resource for running an rpg. It's too bad that it is no longer in print, but you can usually find a used version on Amazon for under $15.00.

    Two attributes: Brawn and Presence. A few skills and a micro-one-page version, the regular rules and advanced rules...

    Seriously, if you like Prince Valiant you will love the way it is presented in this storytelling game. It plays much like the comics and was really revolutionary and ahead of its time when looking at RPG Evolution...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, woðbora. I actually have the game and spoke about it yesterday: http://www.heropress.net/2012/02/happy-75th-birthday-prince-valiant.html

      Delete
    2. Augh... That'll teach me to catch up on my blogs by starting with the most recent posts and working backwards...

      Thank you for sharing the Prince Valiant joy...

      Delete
    3. No problem, there'll be a bit more Valiant love later in the week, but not as extensive as these two pieces.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for posting this - I knew Prince Valiant inspired Etrigan but had never seen a picture of the actual inspirational moment. Neat!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to have helped, Eric. Love the revolting detail that the ears are the bird's feet!

      Delete
  3. It doesn't matter how late you've discovered Hal Foster, but just that you HAVE discovered him, and boy do you have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming reprints. The Fantagraphic books have the best reproduction anyone has done of the comic strips yet. Foster renains one of the giants of the field and was a major influence, not only on the young Jack Kirby, but on Frank Frazetta and Big John Buscema as well. Where would Conan be without Valiant?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Charles. I'm hoping Fantagraphics will reproduce all the Valiant strips in this current, magnificent format - but at a slow enough rate that it will allow me time to save up enough to buy each one as it comes out. They are clearly worth the investment of both cash and time.

      Delete
  4. Does anyone remember the Enchanted Aisle episode? I’d like to find it. It’s been years but I remember Val was on an island where men fell asleep if they stayed too long. There were several dreamers on deep sleep already there, Val is getting very tired but he throws himself onto a log in the river and floats out to sea. The farther away he gets from the island, the more his strength and alertness return.

    ReplyDelete

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