Masterful reprint of a comic masterpiece

What is the appeal of Prince Valiant? It seems so uncool, so dorky, with its stories of noble knights and that weird narration-under-the-art that I doubt we’ll ever see it rebooted as its contemporaries, such as Batman (premiered two years after Prince Valiant) and Star Trek, which saw two series and two movies before Foster handed off to John Cullen Murphy.

Prince Valiant
And yet, here it is. Twenty years after Fantagraphics reprinted the entire series, the company’s gone back to the well to launch another reprinting, starting with Prince Valiant, Vol. 1: 1937-1938.

So it’s natural to ask: is it worth it?

It would be no surprise to say that it is. For Prince Valiant’s fans, even those who managed to buy all 50 volumes the first time around, it would be worth acquiring them again (you can always sell the old books off on eBay and use them to fund this reprinting).

There are several reasons.

First is that Fantagraphics has reprinted two years in each book, which means this will probably come out to 17 hardcover volumes which will look absolutely bitching on the shelves compared to the 40 soft covers that need to be propped up.

Second, the production values are fabulous. Sturdy hard covers, a few essays to sweeten the mix (not essential, except to note that Foster, like many geniuses, was neither not interested nor able to articulate his working processes), so those of us who enjoy well-made books will be overjoyed to have this edition.

But most of all, all but 17 pages were reshot from Foster’s pristine color engraver’s proof sheets housed at Syracuse University. The European edition that Fantagraphics used had been recolored, but this time, we get Foster’s choices, printed correctly.

The differences are not just impressive, but shocking (if you don’t believe me, Fantagraphics offers a 10-page sample, and this afterward to the book gives details about the restoration process. Solid blocks of blacks fade to reveal the delicate line work underneath. A tapestry of squares and circles of orange, yellows and browns are replaced with a softer brown and a green tinted with yellow and reveal a knight on horseback. Details are revealed in night scenes impossible to see before. To support the claim that Foster was an expert draftsman with a keen eye for human expression, you need this edition.

Of course, Val’s story still retains its narrative power. This edition follows Val as he grows the exiled prince in the fens of eastern England, his learning of sword craft, his journey to Camelot and befriending by the knights, his competition for the hand of Ilene, and ends with his return to Camelot to warn the king of the Saxon invasion. It’s knights of bold, all right, but leavened with amusing minor characters and astute observations about human relations, especially between married couples.

In fact, the only complaint I have is that we’ll have to wait until spring 2010 for volume 2.