Harold Robert Foster, born in 1892, became a name synonymous with realistic illustration in contrast with the exaggeration common to most comic strip styles. Raised in frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba, the artist, who would go on to draw humid jungles scenes as an adult, once joked that the chilly Manitoba winters helped him develop drawing speed because his fingers would quickly freeze without gloves in the outdoors.
At age 18 Foster began picking up his first professional jobs by doing advertising art for the catalogues of local merchants in his area. Eleven years later Foster had married and, due to hard economic times in Canada, had decided to move to the United States in order to pursue a career in art. It wasn't an easy move; in 1921 the 29-year-old artist actually bicycled his way to Chicago, a journey of over a thousand miles. Soon the young artist was studying art at not only Chicago's Art Institute, but at the National Academy of Design and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts as well.
It must've paid off; within a few years Foster had established himself as one of the Midwest's most sought-after illustrators, working on painted covers for Popular Mechanics and advertising art for Chicago's many agencies.
The artist was well satisfied with his career as an advertising illustrator until 1928, when an ad associate, Joseph H. Neebe, approached him with a proposition for an entirely new kind of assignment: drawing a comic strip, Tarzan of the Apes. Neebe had secured the rights to run Tarzan as a comic strip. Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation had achieved widespread popularity since his birth in novel form in 1912, and had already starred on the silver screen, first in the silents and then in the talkies. It was only natural, Neebe correctly assumed, that the Ape-Man would go over well with the public in panel format.
Fortunately for Foster's future career (and for the rest of us!) Allen St. John, the Tarzan book illustrator, and Neebe's first choice, had turned down the job. Foster, feeling threatened by the lean times of the Depression, agreed. On January 7, 1929 Tarzan hit print on the same day that another strip made its debut, the Philip Nowland/Dick Calkins classic, Buck Rogers.
The strips, two of the earliest action adventure strips up until then, could not have been further apart, both in subject matter and approach. Calkins' crude art-deco style had a certain quaint charm but was left miles behind in the dust by Foster's mastery of technique, realism, and dynamic anatomy.
In view of the quality of work in Tarzan, it's odd to realize that Foster never warmed to ERB's Jungle Lord. The artist didn't like the character, thought the story was silly, and disliked Neebe's scripts, seeing the first serializations as just another job. As soon as another artist (Rex Maxon) was found, Foster dropped work on the daily and resumed his advertising assignments. The Depression may have changed his mind. By 1931 Foster was persuaded to return to do the Sunday full-page Tarzan.
Like the later Prince Valiant strips, the Tarzan story was told through a combination of text and art, with lines of narration at the top or bottom of each panel, unlike the word balloon device used by all the other cartoonists. Foster's art, good to begin with, continued to improve, but the artist's tepid feelings towards Lord Greystroke did not.
Fortunately the ever-acquisitive William Randolph Hearst came to Foster with an unusual offer he couldn't refuse; the rare opportunity not only to create his own strip but to own it as well!
Freed from the tropics of Africa, Foster sought inspiration in a more northerly clime, drawing on the Arthurian legends. Foster reasoned that exotic times and locales, like the future worlds in Buck Rogers or the South Sea settings of Roy Crane's Captain Easy, were attractions to readers. Prince Valiant premiered on February 13, 1937.
The first few months of the strip were used to establish Val's origin story in one long flashback, telling of his family's escape from their native land, Thule (now Norway), to the coast of Britain. Battling the primitive blue-dyed locals, the adolescent prince grows into young manhood, learning survival skills while his father, King Aguar, plots revenge against the traitors who exiled him.
Although Foster invested a great deal of time to research and detail, historically speaking Prince Valiant was not an accurate depiction of life in Britain in the 5th century. The costumes, castles, and armor were all authentic enough, but for another time --hundreds of years ahead in British history! Foster was well aware of that, but inasmuch as the Arthurian legend was a Norman invention, he preferred to depict Norman backgrounds rather than crumbling Roman garrisons and centurion armor.
The early adventures of Prince Valiant had a stronger mix of fantasy than in later years. At first tales of sorceresses and ogres were fairly common. As the strip matured the fantasy elements diminished, reduced to occasional appearances. Foster began to concern himself more with character development. One of the appeals of the strip is Val himself, a likable, all too human hero capable of blunders and domestic mishaps. Foster fleshed out the character, shaping a fully rounded human being readers could care about.
And then, of course, there's the magnificent artwork; vast panoramas of nature, castles, battle scenes, as well as subtle closeups of people and the mood setting use of thick black shadows. Foster's virtuosity gained him many fans. The creator often reciprocated by mailing readers full-page originals at their request.
Foster's creation, inspired by illustrator Howard Pyle, achieved its well-earned reputation because of his illustrative skills and his use of understated narrative captions. The question of whether Prince Valiant was a true comic strip or illustrated text is irrelevant. The text format was appropriate for the era that Foster depicted, a style of storytelling that was too subtle for the intrusive use of word balloons.
In 1944-45 Foster briefly worked on another strip, The Medieval Castle, and he continued to take on other illustration work, but the bulk of his attention was spent on Prince Valiant, spending as much as fifty hours a week on each Sunday page.
By 1971 the years began taking their toll on Foster, and, after a track record of 1,789 pages, he turned over the drawing chores to another talented artist, John Cullen Murphy (creator of Big Ben Bolt), while continuing to supply pencil layouts until 1980. He also continued to write the story lines until the mid seventies, maintaining interest in the strip until his death in Florida in 1982.
Although Murphy was forced to drop Big
Ben Bolt in 1977, the National Cartoonists Society award winner continues
working on Prince Valiant with a high level of visual sophistication.
Unfortunately, the glory days of the full page Sunday comic strip is, like
King Arthur, a thing of the past.