Between 1987 and 2004, Fantagraphics Books published 50 softcover volumes of Hal Foster's masterpiece Prince Valiant from the beginning (February 13, 1937) through strip #2271 (August 17, 1980). In 2012, the same publisher began a rerelease of the same material, except this time in hardcover and reproduced from the artist's own syndicate proofs. I decided not to buy it... at first, at least not until I saw how absolutely  gorgeously stunning the reproduction was. At this point, they are up to the 23rd volume reprinting through strip #2394 (December 26, 1982) with a 24th solicited for release December 29 of this year. Each of these volumes reprints two full years, about three times as much as the softcovers. 

I have read though volume 50 of the original series, but everything since August 17, 1980 I have not read since its initial publication. The last time I attempted a read-through from the beginning, I left off midway through Volume 6, which reprints stories from 1947-1948 set circa A.D. 456-457. I have just finished reading some 8400 pages of Lone Wolf & Cub and am in the mood for another epic to sink my literary teeth into. In the Spring of 456, The Viking Ulfrun kidnaps Prince Valiant's wife, Aleta, and flees to sea. Val and his crew pursue him across the ocean, eventually discovering the land which would one day be called North America. 

Prince Valiant takes his revenge on Ulfrin and stays in the New World for the birth of his son, Prince Arn. The Native Americans (probably intended to represent the Algonquin tribe) see the blonde Aleta as a woodland goddess and give her many gifts, including a middle-aged squaw named Tillicum who becomes Arn's nurse and Aleta's faithful companion. Eventually, it comes time for the Vikings to undertake their long journey home. I left off on strip #590 as, skirting the shore of Ireland, Val's ship is met by another bearing the lion crest of Sir Launcelot.

I plan to pick up with #591. 

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Upon reaching the English Channel, Val releases his men to return home to Thule after a year away. He and his party will continue on to Camelot via the River Usk "Indian style," using a canoe brought back from the New World. After a brief adventure deposing the mad King Tourien, it is time to think about Arn's Christening. Val is about 24 years old at this time, but when he was 16, he met and fell in love Ilene. Chief rival for Ilene's affection was Prince Arn, Valiant's son's namesake. When Ilene was kidnapped by Viking raiders, Val and Arn joined forces to save her. (It was during this adventure that Prince Valiant aquired the fabled Singing Sword, a gift from Prince Arn.) They eventually catch up to the vikings, but too late; Ilene has drowned. They both vow never to marry.

Val and Aleta have decided that Prince Arn should be baby Arn's godfather, but Valiant must first break the news that he has reneged on his vow to the memory of Ilene. Arn is at first quite upset, until their conversation is interrupted by a little baby named Prince Valiant! Arn, too, has broken his vow and married the pretty Linet. 

When Hal Foster first conceived of Prince Valiant, he wanted to call him Arn, an authentic Viking name, but the syndicate objected. He used the name anyway in the story described above, but now he has given that name to Valiant's own son. The second Prince Arn will eventually grow up to have adventures of his own, so in that respect, Foster got his way after all. 

I seem to have jumped the gun slightly (two months) starting this discussion as another "epic" to follow Lone Wolf & Cub. (I was delayed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, another epic, among other things.) Lately I have been talking about comic series I buy on "faith" without necessarily reading them right away. Prince Valiant is not that. As mentioned above, I have previous read from the beginning through 1980 at least once.  And the 24th volume, solicited for December 29th release? It already shipped last week, a month early. Now my goal is to read through 1984, picking up where I left off last time. My intention is to post reactions one volume at a time, rather than each individual story.

VOLUME 7: 1949-1950

This volume picks up with the the christening of Arn and Valiant in a large, beautifully rendered and highly detailed panel, of of Foster's best. After that, King Arthur assigns Prince Valiant and Sir Gawain to investigate reports of black magic in Wales. They meet a terrified knight named Sir Cador who reports that the castle of Illwynde is ruled by all manner of frightening creatures. Val has learned from Merlin that magic is but science in disguise. Resolving to fight fear with fear, he issues a challenge to Illwynde's Demon Knight to a trial by arms. The "demon" is unseated by Cador and turns out to be a woman, Lady Gwynn. In fact, the entire castle is held by women and led by Lady Wildwyn. Sir Cador falls in love with Lady Gwynn and stays behind. So too does Val's squire, Osk.

On their way back to Camelot, they are challenged to a joust by 14-year-old Geoffrey. Geoffrey is easily unseated, but is brought back to Camelot for proper training. Geoff falls in love with Aleta (platonically) and begins his training by becoming a squire. 

Arthur next sends Valiant to inspect Hadrian's Wall where he finds the Picts gathering to invade. Val plays the Pictish forces against each other, but this is only a delaying tactic. Meanwhile, in his eagerness to gain knighthood, young Geoffrey has stolen one of King Arthur's horses and ridden off to join the fray. Val is wounded and sends Geoff back with a report to Arthur. Aleta returns to care for her injured husband and ends the invasion by talking with the Picts and offering them food and safe passage back into Scotland. 

Aleta travels with Valiant to Newcastle so that the injured knight can return to camelot by ship. She sends Geoffrey to Camelot to fetch Katwin and Arn, but he is promptly arrested. He escapes long enough to deliver the message, but Arthur banishes him from England for a year and a day. Katwin, Geoff and Arn set sail for Newcastle and encounter Val's Viking friend, Boltar, along the way. Since Arn is forbidden to set foot on British soil.  Boltar ties Arn's feet inside sacks of Caledonian soil so that he may come ashore. Geoff is recognized by one of the locals as a runaway named Arf, who changed his name and fled a wicked stepmother. He learns that she is now out of the picture, but he decides to continue his quest for knighthood with Val.

Because of Arf's exile, they decide to go to Prince Valiant's home in Thule. Boltar engages in a raid first, endangering the passengers. Arn's maid Tillicum berates him for his carelessness, and they pass Orkney Island and Shetland Island without incident. They arrive in Thule and King Aguar meets his grandson for the first time. They spend the winter of 457 in Thule.

A Jarl named Egil makes a pass at Aleta, who rebukes him. That would have been the end of it, but Arf saw and pressed the matter, which eventually led to a dual between Egil and Valiant. Val is at a disadvantage because of his wound. His horse is killed and the battle continues on foot. This is really a no-win situation for Egil. If he is not killed, then his king will seek his death for killing Valiant. Arf brings the battle to an end by climbing a nearby roof and dumping them with snow. 

In the Spring, Christian missionaries arrive. Aguar sees value in turning his people from their violent ways and sends Val, Egil, Arf and Rufus Regan to rome to bring back some learned teachers. With Val away, Hap-Atla of the Inner Lands leads a raid against Aguar's kingdom, which Aleta repels using tactics her husband had told her about. She meets Hap-Atla's wife during a peace conference and the two women bond over their children and bring the war to an end. 

On their way across France, Valiant and his party overthrown a petty king and arrange marriages for four of his five daughters with prisoners held for ransom in the dungeon. The youngest daughter takes a shine to Arf and invites him to return some day to be married and to take the kingdom from her sister's husbands. 

Next they encounter a democratic leader named Sieur du Lac, who has divided his land among his men so that he may devote his time to alchemy. One of his experiments (with gunpowder) backfires and burns off most of the knights' hair. 

Then they meet a troubadour who convinces them to rescue his red-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend. They separate and each of them finds a woman fitting the description, but none of them is she. The actual redhead can't stand him, and when the boyfriends and brothers and fathers and husbands of of other three appear in a mob, Val and his friends beat a hasty retreat. 

Next they get caught in a feud between warring neighbors, Ruy Foulke and Black Robert, but that's where the volume ends so you'll have to wait until next time to find out what happens. 

[EDIT: Shoot, that's long. Maybe I shouuld do this by story and not volume.]

VOLUME 8: 1951-1952

As volume eight begins, the castle of guy Foulke is under siege by the forces of his neighbor, Black Robert. Prince Valiant and his companions help repel the assault, and when the battle dies down he helps bring about peace by uniting Robert's son and Guy's daughter, who are in love. Furthermore, Val suggests giving the disputed lands to them as a wedding present.

As they continue their journey, they begin to see signs of the impending collapse of the Roman Empire. (It is now AD 458.) They decide on an overland route through the Alps. Val is forced to kill an armed stanger and is pursued by the man's friends. He escapes by causing an avalanche which buries them. He returns to camp to find young Alf suffering from frostbite. Descending the mountain, they are forced to leave Alf in Torino while they continue their mission.

In Rome, they are unable to see the Pope, but a committee agrees to send missionaries back with them to Thule. Returning to Torino, Val learns that one of Arf's feet had to be amputated and the boy has lost the will to live. Valiant tries a little "tough love" on him, relating the stories of two previous characters who lost limbs. Arf regains enough of his spirits that Val assigns him to be the official secretary. It is Arf's job to prepare a report of the journey for King Aguar (in triplicate, send by multiple couriers to better ensure that that at least one copy makes it back). 

Arf could not endure the lenghty journey himself, so Egil and Regen accompany the missionaries by land while Valiant stays behind to travel with Arf by sea. They sail to Sicily first, then catch a ship bound for Thule via the Mediterranean. they pass landmarks such as Mount Etna and Gibraltar while Hal Foster delivers a history lesson. Arf falls into depression again, and Val levels with him that he would never have made a good knight anyway because he's too much of a thinker. He suggests that Arf develop his mind instead. Arf sets himself the task of writing a biography of Prince Valiant. It is revealed that his writing constitutes "The Chronicles" (mentioned from time-to-time hereafter) that Foster is "adapting" for the strip.

The ship stops to take on passengers, including a merchant and his 15-year-old daughter bound for Bristol. She helps to improve his mood considerably. He puts his efforts into writing poetry and singing songs from this point on. The sailors must fight off a ship of pirates before returning to Britain, but other than that the return voyage is uneventful. Upon arrival, the sailors present Arf with a fine wooden leg they have carved. It has been well over a year since Arf's exile, so he can now set foot on British soil again. Because his father's castle is midway between Bristol and Camelot, Arf suggests they go there first. It has been two years since Arf left home, but his stepmother is now gone. When King Geoffrey sees young Adele, he knows what's up.

Prince Valiant returns to Camelot. 

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