You will often hear the phrase “big shoes to fill” applied to the task of filling a role formerly held by someone whose accomplishments were significant and difficult to achieve.
Illustrator and comics artist Gary Gianni put on some big shoes when he stepped into the role of illustrator for Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant newspaper comic strip.
Hal Foster (who will certainly be the subject of a future lines and colors post) was one of the three or four greatest newspaper comics artists in the history of the medium; and, to my mind, should be on the list of all time best pen and ink artists.
Gianni took over the illustration chores on the strip from John Cullen Murphy, who was Foster’s assistant, and had taken the reins on the strip when Foster retired in 1970.
Gianni’s previous work included illustrations for versions of classics like Moby Dick and Kidnapped, and he created graphic novel versions of Tales of O. Henry and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He also worked for mainstream American comic book companies on titles like Indiana Jones and The Shrine Of The Sea Devil, Batman: Black and White (for which his story won an Eisner Award in 1997) and The Monstermen Mysteries, which ran as a backup feature for Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.
The book is written by Gianni, and offers an insightful look into his working process, and his collaboration with Mark Schultz, a terrific artist himself, who handles the writing on the current strip.
In the process of describing how a modern Prince Valiant page is created, including the use of models and reference, we get to see a number of pages of Gianni’s pencil drawings before they were inked. These, though not meant as finished art, have a wonderful tonal quality that is very different from the final ink drawings.
I have to admit that I didn’t have a proper appreciation for Gianni’s work prior to seeing this volume; partly because I had not seen much of his other illustration and comics work except in scattered examples, and partly because of the terrible job that modern newspapers do of presenting their comics.
One of the things that newspapers do to render their comic strips ineffectual, particularly those few remaining adventure strips, is to print them too small to allow for any real visual excitement. The original Prince Valiant pages, like those of Little Nemo in Slumberland and many other comic strips in the early 20th Century, were sized to full newspaper pages. (See my post on Winsor McCay.)
As time went on, and the role of newspaper comics as one of the major forms of home entertainment was superseded by movies and then television, newspaper editors (or more likely, owners and accountants) continually reduced the size of newspaper comics. In an age where home video screens and computer monitors keep getting bigger and bigger, this is a trend that, if continued, will eventually result in microscopic panels; which will undoubtedly help in the efforts of newspapers to remove all entertaining content as their circulation drops.
Prince Valiant is now down to 1/5th of a page at most in the newspapers, but several of the Gianni & Schultz strips are printed in the book as fold-out pages, doubling the book’s 9×12″ (23x30cm) size; nice and big, though still far short of a full newspaper page. It’s enough to let Gianni’s work shine, and make you wish for a volume of the strips at this size.
There is a collection of the Gianni & Schultz strips, Prince Valiant: Far From Camelot due in the (presumably near) future, but the Amazon pre-publication listing doesn’t include that book’s dimensions.
You can see a recent Prince Valiant strip on the King Features site, but you apparently can’t see the current one, or search the archives, without getting a membership of some kind, in an effort to… well, I don’t know why; I guess as part of the continuing effort on the part of newspapers and syndicates to discourage reader interest.
In the meanwhile, we have this beautiful volume to appreciate Gianni’s work. The Prince Valiant Page can be ordered directly from Flesk Publications in either hardback or limited edition signed, slipcase hardback. The book includes a foreword by Hellboy’s Mike Mignola and an introduction by Robert Wagner, who played the character in the 1954 Cinemascope movie.
Flesk has done their usual superb job of showcasing the art, jamming the book cover-to-cover with wonderful examples and using the highest production values. It certainly makes you wish newspapers would treat their comics with half as much respect.
Gianni and Schultz continue their work on the Prince Valiant weekly strip, trying to give us a taste of the former glory of newspaper adventure strips within the restricted confines of their 1/5th of a page.
It’s a valiant effort.