I've been s l o w l y making my way through the latest volume of Fantagraphics' collected Prince Valiant over the past month or so. Hal Foster's opus-in-comics is one of only three or four newspaper strips that I think actually still stands up to being read in little chunks, closer to the page-a-week format it was originally serialized in. Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, Frank King's Gasoline Alley? Overdose me, man, those comics are perfect for the thick as a brick compendiums they've ended up as. But Prince Valiant is so lush, so rich on a panel by panel basis that I often find a nine-grid of it is just enough for the day, something that unfolds and unfolds in your head long after you've set it aside. Foster makes a world with his artwork, layering in meticulous details that are never arbitrary or belabored, always enhancing the impact of the pictures' content.
In the decades since Prince Valiant's high point, it's become fashionable in comics circles to bash that level of detail, the very thing that makes Foster's work so enticing and unique unto itself. "That's not comics, that's illustration," the argument goes. "He's not cartooning, the pages have no flow." Leaving aside the dubious semantics of these knocks, I'd just gone around thinking this Dan Nadel article had hit it with the passe sticker a couple years ago. Sadly, I guess that was wishful thinking; when I did that Foster writeup on CBR a few weeks back the same tired old contentions as to Foster's lack of facility with "comics" crawled up out of the woodwork. I don't really think the work Foster did needs me as a defender -- this post isn't that -- but then I was struck by the sequence I read today, a crack version of the old "haunted castle is more than it seems" plot. Anyone who doubts Foster's way with dynamic movement, expressionistic drawing, impactful panels... you know, cartooning... should check out the Prince Valiants from July 5th to 19th, 1942. Here's the highlights:
That's a shockingly kinetic pose, worthy of any Ditko or Quitely you care to name. What really sells it is exactly what people like to get on Foster for, its total realism. It's one thing to see a blocky action-comics muscleman drawn in a pose like that, quite another to see a perfectly proportioned human figure so fully committed to moving in one direction as fast as it possibly can. The white detailing against the dark background is a great touch, tracking the full length of the figure from outstertched hands to feet while emphasizing the motion from one place to another, out of shadow into light.
Pure exaggerated caricature. Foster's usual textured rendering all but drops out on the face here, restricting itself to a few token hatches around the spotted blacks. It makes for a nice contrast with the supremely realistic marks on the cloak and hat, really popping the fright mask of the face out at you.
That's Kirby's foreshortening, folks. Compare.
This is an interesting one; Foster did these kind of '30s film style close-ups a lot, pretty much whenever a new character was introduced or a comedic punchline hit. He didn't typically use them in action sequences a whole lot though, opting instead for full-figure panels that framed cause and effect in the same picture. This panel goes deep inside the action, capturing the highest pitch of intensity possible. It's portraiture first and foremost, but the effect is pure cartoon, placing the subject of the portrait completely at the mercy of its story environment. That blazing red background, the intense shadows playing across the face, and the hair being blown straight up combine to create a context for the picture that isn't actually seen. The art of suggestion, one of comics' most valuable tools, is fully at play here.
So that's those, and I think they're really interesting, but showing some of Foster's "cartoonier" art doesn't really speak to his particular genius. The man could draw "comicky" when he wanted to, but he didn't most of the time. Why? I think it's because Foster understood that cartoon drawing doesn't get at anything more inherent to the comics form than his own brand of realist draftsmanship. Comics is an immersive experience, something that tricks its readers into seeing motion where there is none, pulling feeling out of lines on paper. Most comics accomplish that by making the art into simplified ideograms that the reader can whip through without thinking about it, an alphabet in pictures. Foster takes a different road, a kind of labor-intensive scenic route that immerses the reader in the panels by creating something so pictorially lush and feasible that the reader can't help but feel they are there. We can just see everything so clearly.
Lovingly detailed backgrounds like the one above may not add anything to the direct action of the stories they appear in, but they're so important to the overall effect Foster creates, that of being transported to a real world different from our own, a vanished past that never really existed in the first place. That's the real goal of these comics, much more than presenting sweeping romance or deeds of derring-do is. Creating something beautiful and beautiful alone, shorn of the fast pace and amplified dynamism most comics take as a given. Foster presents real people in real places doing real things, and he makes it look so lovely.
I'm not the only comics critic who holds up "pure cartoon" in the Schulz/Hernandez/Herge mode as an ideal to be striven for; but without wanting to say anything negative about cartoon art, that's just because most artists have some hope of mastering or at least gaining proficiency in that idiom. The highly detailed, uncentered look of most modern action comics strikes me as an attempt, informed or not, to accomplish the same things Foster did. When an artist pares down the detail and focuses on the broad strokes, especially in action comics, the work typically gets stronger. That's not because the realist Foster approach is bad or wrong; it's just because there hasn't been anyone since the man himself who's had the combination of pure drawing ability, visual imagination, and intuitive feel for how not to overdevelop a picture necessary to make it work. Nobody else has ever made comics like Hal Foster did, and looking back through his pages seven decades later, they still hit like a slap in the face because of how uniquely successful they are in an approach that's failed time after time after time in the intervening years.
Hal Foster kill them all.