Prince Valiant #1 - cover by Charles VessPrince Valiant

(1994-1995 - four issues, deluxe format, Marvel Comics)

Writers: Elaine Lee (script), Charles Vess (plot). Art: John Ridgway.

The highly regarded comic strip Prince Valiant began in 1937 and continues to this day, at first chronicling the adventures of a young, Northern prince who came to join the court of King Arthur's Camelot, then gradually expanding (as the character aged over the years) to include his son, Arn. Marvel Comics' mini-series is a decidedly reverential treatment of the character, with artist John Ridgway evoking Valiant creator Hal Foster with a similar lush style, while being perhaps more brooding and atmospheric. The story is told with the dialogue and text in captions, like a picture book...and like the long running strip itself.

An out of continuity tale (so I'm assuming), or a kind of "what if?" story, the mini-series begins with the death of King Arthur on the plains of Salisbury (Arthur is still alive in the weekly newspaper strip). Traditional Arthurian canon has it that on Arthur's death, the sword Excalibur is taken and returned to the Lady of the Lake. Here, the sword is waylaid en route by the evil Queen Morgause. Morgause also kidnaps Arthur's declared heir, the toddler Ingrid, who is Arn's daughter, and Valiant's granddaughter. Her plan is to unite all of Britain under her rule using Excalibur and Arthur's rightful heir as her credentials. Valiant and Arn (at first separately) set out to stop her, each acquiring companions as they go.

As noted above, this seems to be a surprisingly respectful, faithful attempt at doing Valiant, rather than some radical "reimagining" as is so often the case. However, since I've only read a limited number of Prince Valiant strips, I'm limited in what I can compare it to. Despite the faithfulness, though, this series goes for a more brooding ambience than the weekly strip. Set after the fall of Camelot, it's a melancholy tale, set against grey skies and storm swept seas. I'm also willing to guess it's a tad darker and grittier in spots than the weekly strip, as well as dealing with more franker ideas (like characters going to bed with each other -- though nothing explicit). All of of which lends a (slightly) grown up feel to a style -- picture books -- that is generally associated with kids even more than is the comicbook medium itself.

What gradually emerges is an absorbing, atmospheric saga that does have an epic quest feel to it, as if you've just finished a work of literature -- not surprising as it clocks in at almosst 200 pages. But then, I've read similar lengthy comicbook sagas that don't generate the same sense of sweep to them. There are machinations, and shifting alliances; the characters find themselves taking detours in their quest, but detours that add to the overall story, not that seem like extraneous sidebars. This makes for a work that doesn't just trod along in a predictable fashion.

The use of captions is a mixed bag, often lacking the immediacy, the intimacy, that a novel, or a comic book, can create by itself. But as you get used to it, it helps create its own atmosphere, allowing this medieval world to truly seem different from your conventional comics. It creates an added sense of escapism, of losing yourself in this period landscape. I don't recommend that it replace more conventional word and thought balloons, but here, at least, it gradually weaves its own spell, aided by the art and the exquisitely moody colours by Curtis Woodbridge.

There were some early concerns, like Valiant setting off to recover Excalibur in book one, ignorant that his granddaughter had been kidnapped, then seeming to have that information in book two, as if writers Vess and Lee were just kind of slapping the thing together half-heartedly. But such lapses turn out to be few. There are ideological qualms, as well, with Valiant championing the values of Camelot, yet he and Arn variously join up with viking pirates and other raiders (so much for the rule of law and chivalry). The characterization is also uneven, hindered (as noted earlier) by the lack of intimacy of the captions, and perhaps a kind of bluntness to the established characters themselves. Ironically, the most intriguing figure to emerge is one created solely for this story, a Scottish knight named Rory MacMor who oscillates between being villain and hero, making for a complex characterization. The chapter headings ("The Sword in the Stone", "The Ill-Made Knight") are lifted from T.H. White's classic re-telling of the Arthur legend, in The Once and Future King -- but why is unclear, except that comics have traditionally "borrowed" pre-existing titles.

Published at forty-eight pages each issue, with no ads, and on expensive paper, normally you would assume it would be released in a square spined, graphic novel format (ie: prestige format). Instead, it's a conventional, folded-and-stapled comic book format -- which actually means you get all the perks of a graphic novel, but you can open it out flat to better appreciate the vistas (while also being slightly cheaper, to boot). That's another way that the series diverges from the comic strip that inspired it: its indulgence in big panels -- full page spreads, or pages that only have three or four panels per page.

Moody and atmospheric, well plotted, drawn, and written, it should please established fans...and make new ones.