'The Bridge' is, arguably, the single most famous panel ever drawn by Hal Foster. Look it up, it is in Page 71 of the Prince Valiant canon, from 6-19-38, officially titled 'The Song of the Sword'.
But if you haven't already bought Prince Valiant, Vol. 1: 1937-1938 -- and you really, *really* should have -- don't worry, because Foster reprises that tale not once but twice in this volume.
But 'The Bridge' was just one of the many great pieces of art that Foster created in his long and illustrious career. And in this volume I stopped reading when I came to 'The Cliff' (Page 534, from 5-4-47), the final confrontation between Val and Ulfrun. Taking up three-quarters of the page, it shows a man falling off a cliff.
That makes it sound simple but Foster's craft elevates it to another plane altogether. The eye is drawn from the churning green waters to the looming grey cliff, to the man standing on the protruding shelf and then, far above, to a bird soaring in the sky. And poised between the two hunters -- the warrior prince and the eagle above -- and the two forces of nature -- the rocks and the roiling stream below -- set against billowing clouds in a sky of purest blue is the silhouette of a man falling to his doom.
There is not a single unnecessary line but the amount of detail is incredible. Ulfrun continues to clutch his sword with his right hand, but his shield has fallen away, and as it falls it catches the sun so that you can see the colors, even make out the design. But what makes this perfect is not even all that but six or seven tiny specks -- the stones falling off that treacherous rock.
And that is just one panel in a single page. And there are no fewer than one hundred and four pages in this volume, bursting with exquisite pictures, done just right -- from Katwin silently handing a single tiny sock to the shocked Val to Gawain's appalled face when Aleta thrusts the baby Arn into his arms to Val's own expression when he first meets his own baby namesake in the castle of Ord.
Foster's art gets so much attention that his skill as a writer is often ignored, particularly his treatment of women. The truth is that Aleta is as much the heart and soul of this book as her husband. Back when these stories first appeared, women were essentially MacGuffins, plot devices to set off the action. (Think of Dale Arden or Lois Lane in various tales.)
Aleta is far more than a plot device, she is the mistress of her own fortunes, and you can't help but feel that she is by far the wiser of the two in her marriage. Aleta has broken Ulfrun long before that meeting on the cliff, and it is she who makes peace between the tribes after the blundering Val has carried away a sacred relic.
"Did you ever see faces so stupid with surprise and admiration?" Val asks. But Aleta is a queen in her own right and will not hear her people mocked -- and they *are* her people.
"Yes dear," she answers, "Morning, noon, and night." And in an instant the joke is on the 'civilized' husband that had been mocking the Indians.
Not content with producing the finest reproduction of Hal Foster's work, Fantagraphics has added generous extras. There is a long interview with Professor Ballengee-Morris, an expert on American Indian affairs, generously strewed with photographs from the Foster family albums. Can you imagine Hal Foster in a baby bonnet and sucking his thumb -- it is there, believe it or not! (And you have to read the book to understand why those last four words are necessary!)
My favorite 'extra' is a fold-out page, a reproduction of Page 551, from 8-31-47, when Val meets the future king of Thule. Hand-colored by Foster himself and given as a gift, it gives us a brief glimpse of those far-off days when comic strips were so much greater than their current postage stamp size.
Fantagraphics has been universally applauded for its effort in bringing Prince Valiant to a new generation. Each of the five preceding volumes has been a delight but this may just be the best one of them all. It would be worth every penny at the full price and with Amazon's discount it is an absolute bargain.