Hal Foster is generally considered among the greatest cartoonists ever to put ink to paper, and the Prince Valiant comic is considered his most important and influential work. Created in 1937, the full-page, Sunday-only strip showcased the adventures of the heroic knight of King Arthur’s Round Table as he traveled the world on one epic quest after another.
Foster wrote and drew the Prince Valiant comic until 1970. In need of a collaborative artist, he tried out a variety of talented individuals, including Gray Morrow and Wally Wood, before offering the job to John Cullen Murphy. Murphy drew the strip from Foster’s scripts until 1980, at which time Murphy’s son, Cullen, took over the writing chores.
Prince Valiant, Meet Mark Schultz
Artist Gary Gianni replaced John Cullen Murphy in 2004 and recommended present strip scribe Mark Schultz when Cullen Murphy decided it was time to move on. Prince Valiant, which appears weekly in approximately 300 American newspapers, is currently illustrated by Thomas Yeates.
Schultz was a good choice to pen Val’s adventures. As the creator of the popular comic book series Xenozoic Tales, in addition to a host of other comic-related projects, he knows how to tell an exciting, well-paced story in a fictional world. But why only the words and not the art? “I’m way too slow,” Schultz admits. “It’s a pretty tough grind turning out that strip every week, and I’ve never been a particularly fast artist. I’ve done a couple of fill-in panels and I did one fill-in page for Gary Gianni, but that just served to teach me that I am ill-suited for a weekly comic strip.”
Medieval Meets American
Schultz jumped at the opportunity to write Prince Valiant because he had been a fan of the strip since childhood. “There are so many different types of stories you can do within the framework of Prince Valiant,” he observes. “It is limited by the fact that the time period is medieval Europe, but there is still a lot of fantasy that goes into that. I like to say that Prince Valiant, though it deals with the medieval Old Word in general, is an American invention. Hal Foster brought the sense that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough and there is a democratic element to Prince Valiant that, of course, didn’t really exist at that time, but it allows for a lot of great stories and great characters.”
The spirit of Hal Foster looms large over Prince Valiant, and Schultz readily admits that he went back and reread many of Foster’s original stories when he accepted the job as writer. “Foster is one of those bedrock core comic creators who is at the heart of what I try to do in telling my stories, and in my artwork,” he explains. “I am always referring back to him, regardless if it’s specifically about Prince Valiant or not.”
Collaboration is Key
Schultz and Yeates work about six to eight weeks ahead, and Schultz acknowledges that it is a very collaborative relationship. He will pitch a story arc to Yeates, and the two will go back forth, each adding specific elements and side plots, until the story is ready. “Thomas is both a very good graphic story teller and a very good renderer,” Schultz says. “And that’s not easy considering the space limitations we are under. He has to put in the amount of detail that defines Prince Valiant, but he has to know when to pull in the reins too. It has to read clearly.”
King Features has been fairly hands off when it comes to Prince Valiant, leaving Schultz and Yeates alone to work their magic. Their most important directive was to maintain the strip’s formal structure because it is formatted differently in different papers, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal. “Beyond that, former comics editor Jay Kennedy, knowing my background was in adventure, told me to just be aware that people also want to see the family life stuff,” Schultz says. “Don’t be all epic adventure – take Val back home and get the family dynamics working because readers respond to that.”
An Adventure Forever
In addition to Hal Foster, Schultz claims Roy Crane, the creator of Wash Tubbs and Buz Sawyer, as a major storytelling influence. “Crane and Foster kind of defined the adventure comic strip,” he says. “Those early Washtub and Captain Easy strips were very dynamic because Crane was figuring out how you advance the story and the action. Before then, newspaper comics were more ‘big-foot’ humor strips. Crane and Foster created the adventure genre which inspired the first generation of superhero cartoonists.”
Though he didn’t create Prince Valiant, and is working within a format that was established more than 80 years ago, Schultz says his 15-year association with Val has been nothing but fun. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say my involvement with the Prince Valiant comic is pretty cool because it’s such an iconic character and such a wonderful strip,” he reports. “It’s one I grew up loving.”
Prince Valiant also is an historically important strip because it brought Hal Foster’s visuals and pacing, first established on Tarzan, to full bloom. “Prince Valiant is arguably the most visually beautiful strip ever done, and the most epic as well,” Schultz says. “I honestly believe that if you’re talking about adventure fiction, it’s the greatest comic strip of all time.”
Fans of Mark Schultz’s work will be happy to know that after a 20-year hiatus, he is working on a new stand-alone Xenozoic Tales graphic novel to be published by Flesk Publications. Look for it sometime next year.