Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why do I write about Vikings? Prince Valiant in the Golden Age of Comics

I was trained as a Classicist, my two previous novels are set in ancient Rome, I love the Mediterranean, I hate ice and snow and suffer through Boston winters with gritted teeth. How then do I happen to be writing about Viking Age Iceland in my latest novel, Odin's Child?

        It all goes back to Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, that wonderful comic strip written and drawn by Hal Foster from 1937 until the mid-1970’s.

       On any Sunday morning of my youth you would have found me lying on the living room rug with the comic section of the New York Journal American spread open before me. It must have been a dozen pages thick, or so it seems to me now. Those of you too young to remember the golden age of comics have no idea what you’re missing. Let me just recite the names. Flash Gordon, Tarzan, The Phantom, Terry and the Pirates, Blondie, Lil’ Abner, Dick Tracy, Joe Palooka, Barney Google, Smokey Stover…and I could go on, but a tear is coming to my eye. What a loss that we don’t have these anymore, or anything to compare with them!

Above them all, though, was Prince Valiant. He had a page boy haircut, smooth cheeks, an ageless face; he lived in Ultima Thule with his blond wife, Queen Aleta, and a whole cast of Vikings and Arthurian knights. He fought barbarians, and occasionally dragons (though these appeared less often as the strip aged). Yes, it was all silly—but the art work! Foster was an amazing draftsman. No one could render castles or misty vistas or storms at sea or swirling battle scenes the way he could in those big panel illustrations. You could (and I did) spend long minutes studying every small detail of them, drawn into the world he created.

I never met him but my father once did and got from him an autographed drawing, which I reproduce here. I’ve had it for sixty-some years and it now hangs on the wall above my computer monitor. I look at it often as I create my own Vikings, my own Ultima Thule.

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