Jonathan Bogart’s 50 Favorite Cartoonists: #49. Hal Foster
I’ve already written here, here, here, and here about Harold R. Foster, and specifically his Prince Valiant series, and I don’t have a lot to say that I haven’t already, or that even a superficial reading of any but the first volume of the new Fantagraphics reprints wouldn’t convey.
On rereading, I’m struck most often by the elegance of Foster’s storytelling: the conventions of serial newspaper comics means that there’s a juddering stop-start rhythm to the narrative, as the first panel of each strip has to catch up those who may be just joining us now, but he does it so deftly that the reader — who he never expected to read them all in a row like this — is driven along by sheer inertia from the cliffhanger or laugh of the previous strip’s end.
His comic sensibility is less celebrated than his graphic sensibility — which isn’t surprising, as comics nerds are often better suited to appreciating beautiful drawing than they are to laughing at old-fashioned humor — but it’s fully in tune with the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early nineteenth century on which he cut his teeth, and which frequently subtly mocked the conventions of the heroic romance even as it fulfilled them to the letter. Anyone who hasn’t read Jeffrey Farnol and Arthur Quiller-Couch is missing a good deal of the context in which Foster was creating his hyperrealist fantasies.
He was, of course, a man of the early- to mid- twentieth century. Which means he was frequently condescending to his female characters, even as he was claiming to be blinded by admiration of their feminine wiles; and the less said about his depictions of non-European races, the better. (I’m half-cringing looking forward to the North American jaunt Val and Aleta will be taking in the next volume, a reprint of which played a formative role in my own childhood, but which I can’t imagine I’ll be comfortable with today.)
Almost as neglected as Foster’s sense of humor is his sense of gravity. Stories that end in tragedy — or as close to tragedy as an ongoing, unending serial allows — are not uncommon, and the death rate for the supporting cast is through the roof. Aleta is non infrequently threatened by rape, and if Foster is glib about the degree to which a pair of flashing eyes, an elevated chin, and a hidden dagger in a garter deters actual violence, the (unspoken, of course) specter of it is enough to put Prince Valiant on a far more adult level than anything else on the comics page.
Ultimately, of course, Foster’s reputation rests on his astounding abilities with pen and ink. He was a facile storyteller, a rotten historian, and a terrible political analyst, but gosh could he draw.
Next Week: Vaughn Bodé!