October 23, 2008


Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot. By Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

The Potpourrific Great Big Bag of Get Fuzzy. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Here are two oversize “Treasury” volumes of comics that serve very different purposes. Prince Valiant has had a continuing story line for an astonishing 71 years, since its first appearance on February 13, 1937. Hal Foster (1892-1982) created the strip – whose full title is Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur – and drew it until 1971. From then until 1980, Foster wrote the strip and John Cullen Murphy drew it. Several transitions later, the strip has since 2004 been written by Mark Schultz and drawn by Gary Gianni (with Scott Roberts handling coloring). In its original incarnation, when it was largely mythological in content, the strip was magnificent, and Foster’s art attained a pinnacle never reached by his successors. Over time, Foster turned the strip somewhat more realistic, downplaying magical elements and monsters and setting the strip largely in the 5th century, although with quite a few intrusions of much-later elements (Viking warriors, Renaissance armor and weapons, etc.). It is patently unfair (although probably inevitable) to compare the workmanlike Gianni/Schultz strip with the brilliant Foster original, with which most potential buyers of the new Andrews McMeel book will probably be unacquainted. Foster’s strip was above all a work of visual beauty, with extremely well-done use of perspective and huge panels that were often works of art (an early Mad parody called Prince Violent played on Foster’s approach to hilarious effect). Many Foster strips were designed to take up a full newspaper page – an impossibility nowadays (and indeed for many years); the new strips take half a page and run in Sunday papers. The Gianni/Schultz strips are more plot-driven than were Foster’s, although the family connections at the heart of Prince Valiant are still present and still help drive the narrative. The new strips have some irritating continuity errors, both visual and narrative: a character who has lost an eye has that eye shown as solid white, except that once in a while it looks like an ordinary, seeing eye; in one strip, we are told of a boy’s half-year absence from Camelot – which becomes a year’s absence in the next strip; the Biblical name Saba is repeatedly used, except that at one point it inconsistently becomes Sheba. This new “Treasury” collection includes strips that date to Schultz’s November 2004 start as the Prince Valiant writer, and continue until May 2008. In the course of this collection, Val and his youngest son, Nathan, travel widely, encounter treacherous humans and frightening sea monsters, come to a haunted tower, and – for much of the book – have an extended adventure involving lost Biblical treasure and a journey to Africa. The pace of the strips, although faster than in the early days of Prince Valiant, is still slow by modern comic-strip standards, and it can certainly be argued that Prince Valiant is now an anachronism – especially since its art is no longer close to the level to which Foster brought it. Still, the strip is largely art-driven – a real rarity nowadays – and is more effective in book form than in its usual glacial Sunday-to-Sunday pacing. A very unusual kind of comic, Prince Valiant is for readers seeking something quite different from the manically paced strips created more recently.

     One of those manic strips is Get Fuzzy, which has been steadily improving over the years and became really first-rate in the collections I’m Ready for My Movie Contract and Take Our Cat, Please! Those collections have now been…well…collected in The Potpourrific Great Big Bag of Get Fuzzy, which offers little to attract readers who already own the earlier books (the “Treasury” has color Sunday strips, but the color does not add much here) but which will be great fun for anyone who has not already bought those smaller-size collections. Bucky Katt’s scheming (against monkeys, ferrets and many other forms of life) and self-absorption remain the main attraction, although Satchel Pooch (a mixed Lab and Shar-pei) has become more interesting as he has retained his naïve charm but become less willing to put up with Bucky’s constant abuse. Rob Wilco, the human third of the group, remains the least interesting character and is drawn to appear singularly unattractive (wide eyes, no chin, lots of body hair everywhere). Many of the best strips do not include him at all: a series on “rejected story lines” that involves Bucky and Satchel with characters from other strips; suggested “alternative career opportunities” for the cat and dog (cat evangelist, dog lounge singer, etc.); and a dozen random-facts panels, half about cats and half about dogs – most of the facts actually being factual. Get Fuzzy is all over the place, with few continuing story lines beyond its overall “odd trio” approach. But many of the places it goes to are very funny – and it goes to a lot of them in this fourth “Treasury” collection.

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