Prince Valiant from 1/15/1939, panel 1. Drawn by Hal Foster.
Hal Foster has been undergoing a bit of historical remodeling of late. In the Alex Ross era of photo-referencing, crosshatching, and computer rendering, the status he held for so many years as comics' preeminent realist illustrator has been more or less overturned. It's too early to tell how his newly renovated, GARP-era legacy will end up, but since Fantagraphics began its wonderful new Prince Valiant reprint series there have been a few notable articles repositioning Foster as the leading paragon not of illustration in comics, but a brand of illustrative cartooning that everyone from Frank Frazetta to Wally Wood to Eric Shanower took into the future.
In the context of comics Foster's illustrative talents are more immediately apparent than his facility for cartoon. Rarely before or since has the sequential page been so lushly drawn, so fully imagined, so rife with the illusion of life -- especially not as compared to the early newspaper strip's other great masters, who tended to work broad and expressive rather than meticulous and understated. Too, Foster almost always eschewed cartoon's streamlining of forms and subtraction of details, concerning himself instead with evoking the real weights and textures and subtle motion of everything he turned his brush to.
But somehow Foster never overdrew a single panel, imbuing his every frame only with an amount of detail that could be carried forward across the page without stopping the reader's eye or crowding out the story. "Lifelike" in Foster's hands is just as imaginative an achievement as George Herriman's bold abstractions -- it is no more a thing of reality than the goings-on in Krazy Kat's Coconino County, but rather the fond dream of times past and how brilliantly grand they must have looked. Just as much as any of his contemporaries or followers, Foster was engaged chiefly in creating a world to tell his stories with, and every little spotted detail or flawlessly drawn figure brings the reader deeper into it. A Prince Valiant page is a slower, more idyllic journey than a Milt Caniff or George McManus strip, for sure, but it's just as riveting, just as full, and it gets you just as far. Where most classic strips blaze trails into the beyond at full, exaggerated speed, Foster's work is the scenic route of cartooning, where the beauty of the panel performs an intricate dance with the forward motion of the story.
The panel above is Foster the cartoonist in full force. While the illustrator's disciplined detailing and perfectly realized lighting are at the fore, so too is a bold simplification of the picture's highly constructed content. The blacks and whites of the drawing are completely sublime; pure empty space on the bottom gives way to a twisting mass of boldly brushed shadow, which coalesces into line as barely as possible, putting forth only the minimum detail necessary to figure out the picture. And open shape with a few contours and bristling lines drawn in gives us a horse's head, which in turn brings the entire horse, and then a whole regiment of horses from the mass of blacks. Faces are graven as much as drawn onto the figures, the chiaroscuro play of a couple darkened eye sockets and hollowed cheekbones putting a man on every saddled back. A thicket of black lance-lines stabs the starless sky, a poetic mirror to the shadowed, stamping legs that cluster on the ground. An entire scene floats between the panel borders, grounded in space not by any drawn elements but by Foster's utterly convincing shapes and composition Only the combination of an illustrator's eye for realistic form with a cartoonist's instinct for the bold, immediate picture could produce a panel like this.
Foster was suited to the newspaper strip in more ways than one. His grand synthesis of maximalist and minimalist drawing found an equal in his gorgeous coloring, which splashed every page of linework in the perpetual glow of silky sun or sifting moonlight. Here Foster the cartoonist takes full control of the colors, evoking night far better with the blue-gray screen tone thrown from border to border than could be done with a palette full of paint. Dull, murky colors swim out of the foggy gloom in tiny scraps, perfectly spotted by the illustrator's eye -- but only the warmest shades of red and yellow, everything else sealed over by the color of the darkness. The back edges of the company of riders seem almost to blend into the grit of the color dots, losing shape and focus as it gains in the illusion of reality. Foster demonstrates a masterly control of a tool exclusive to the comics artist, the newspaper color printing process, bringing the form's cartoony artifice into contact with his tactile, organically drawn world. It's not pure on either side, to be sure: this is lovely synthesis, one thing and another, and an almost perfect grace between them.