I started in on volume 4 of Fantagraphics' new Prince Valiant reprint series yesterday. Best long-running serial action comic of all time? You better come with something Kirby if you want to convince me otherwise. Prince Valiant might just be the comic that held the "greatest of all time" title in the popular opinion for the longest period of time, and while I can't really make the argument for that, it still does what it did just as well as when it was first published, and what it did is what action comics (including pretty much everything superhero) have tried to do since -- a time period that covers the entire history of the comic book format. As far as beautifully drawn escapist entertainment goes, I literally can't think of anything better.
Hal Foster's comics also have more of a basis in high realist portraiture than just about anything that came after. Prince Valiant builds impressively fleshed-out characters for an action comic, and a lot of the heavy lifting is accomplished by Foster's breathtakingly observed close-up shots, which basically paste personality traits onto the faces they depict. In itself that isn't so special -- it's one of the things cartooning's designed to do, after all -- but it's a much more difficult task to accomplish given the level of realism Foster worked at. In a Foster comic every face is a construction of active muscles beneath layers of skin and (often) facial hair, themselves covered over by all manner of ornamental hats and helmets and headdresses... but the distinct features, as well as the characteristics they're meant to communicate, shine through regardless.
Given the globetrotting-adventure aspect of Prince Valiant, it's inevitable that representatives of many nations and races are given the full-panel portrait treatment, which means another impressive if sometimes slightly problematic aspect of Foster's artistry ends up in the spotlight. The way he constructed those faces varied depending on the heritage of the individual he was drawing; not so remarkable when oe character's European and another Asian, but a fascinating and refreshing testament to the consideration the artist put into his strip when the differences between a German face and a Swedish one make it onto the page. The downside of this is that Foster did a good amount of tiptoeing along the edge of racial caricature, but his emphasis on realistic physical construction kept him a great deal more reigned in than most of his contemporaries. (Except when Prince Valiant went to Africa, oh boy.) Anyway, I've been having a great time looking at how well Foster nails the physical differences between his pan-European cast -- differences too subtle for most cartoonists' styles to do much more than barely hint at. And honestly, there's lessons to be had from the way he mixes caricature into realism for his less savory pictures of non-European characters too. So with that said, below is a gallery of Foster faces and their corresponding nationalities. Check it out.
English (this was the English-Canadian Foster's default facial type for "noble" Europeans of indeterminate background)
West African (double ahem, though I suppose Foster deserves credit for keeping his caricatured Africans in the background. This image, printed at about the size of the head on a dime, is the biggest size he drew one at in Prince Valiant. Which is a problem in and of itself, but one preferable to the kind of racist grotesquerie cartoonists reguarly indulged in in the 1940s...)
Finnish (I know, weird right?)
Mongolian (considering the "Yellow Menace"-styled caricatures of Asian faces that were de rigeur in comics during the World War II years, this is a marvel of restraint.)
So there you go. Hal Foster kill them all.