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Prince Valiant: Far From Camelot
posted October 30, 2008

imageCreators: Gary Gianni, Mark Schultz
Publishing Information: Andrews McMeel, softcover, 192 pages, 2008, $19.95
Ordering Numbers: 9780740777370 (ISBN13), 0740777378 (ISBN10)

The last several months I've been re-reading a lot of Prince Valiant, a strip I greatly enjoy and I think value more than a lot of comics readers and creators of my acquaintance. During that time period it never occurred me to read the current strip, by writer Mark Schultz and artist Gary Gianni. That even most fans of Hal Foster's odd blend of nature drawing, domestic comedy and boys adventure don't read the modern version is I think one of the reasons King Features was eager to see this work collected.

It's a solid strip, better than I thought it would be, and I think both creators have a grasp on the best way to approach the feature now: as a kind of tribute to itself, where the idea of lushly illustrated comic strip is its own value as opposed to a sterling example of a widespread illustration style making it to the comics page. In other words, there are no comic strips even vaguely close to doing what Prince Valiant does anymore, although the sumptuousness of the imagery may be more widespread in more lurid ways than a little boy in Hal Foster's heyday could have dreamed. Schultz takes Valiant away from a Camelot regency and into a long adventure based on little more than the character is ill-suited to do much of anything else, which isn't a bad way to approach a character that's been around as long as he has and a nice nod that they'll be working in a certain tradition -- his Valiant all but reads a bunch of yellowing newspapers before taking off on horseback.

It's Gary Gianni that chafes a bit under the requirement of weekly newspaper production. His ability to provide illustrative moments -- the cityscapes, the monsters, the combative tableaux -- is better than I would have thought even being a Gianni fan going in, at least as seen here in a format were it can be shown off a bit more (I'm not quite certain how these layouts compare to the newspapers, but I have to imagine these full trade pages are the more attractive showcase). Gianni's work has an easygoing authority that lets him shift from medium-range establishing shots to far-off vistas to close-ups in a way that makes the pages a bit more exciting as comics than my memory of John Cullen Murphy's work on the feature. Where Gianni seems less sure of himself is with Foster's sometimes odd figure designs. Part of that is style, as he prefers a feathery approach to Foster's lucid line. While there are moments where the characters seem dead-on reminiscent of Foster, and others where they seem like attractively stylized versions of those characters, other times the characters seem unsettlled and off-model. Aleta and Gawain suffer from this the most, the former shifting between body types two or three times in ways that are jarring.

The ambivalence I'm feeling about Prince Valiant: Far From Camelot won't be new to longtime strip or comic book fans. The fact that it continues makes some sense financially. With 300 clients, it isn't one of those many strips holding on with some sort of two-digit client base and isn't yet treated as some sort of freakish embarrassment the way fans look at other features whose creators are long gone. I'd prefer that Schultz and Gianni have their own strip on the comics page, while at the same time I realize that Valiant's time-tested formulae may help them find more readers as much due to how it guides their creative choices as from a certain kind of branding. It's not fair to compare them to Foster, and it's not fair to compare them to the spectre of how the strip might look in less creative hands. In the end I enjoyed their book, and think much of two creators placed into a tricky situation, but I don't think I'll ever be compelled to pull it off the shelf and re-read it.