Friday, August 16, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Derek, Son of Thane –
Hal’s Foster Son

by Rick Marschall

You probably do not know Derek, as a character or as a strip title.

But that was the name of the eponymous King Features proposal that the world knows today as Prince Valiant.

Overhead view of Foster at the drawing board in his Redding CT studio, reference at his side, drawing his Prince Valiant page typically from the bottom up. Most pages took him a full week to produce.
Creator Hal Foster was born this week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1892. My “mind” raced back in time to several stops along the way with the elegant, distinguished master Harold Rudolf Foster. He once told me that he learned to draw fast in those northern climes because the frigid air obliged him to slip mittens on every few minutes. Good anecdote, especially from a usually reserved man.

In 1921 Hal rode a bicycle to Chicago, where he studied art and drew (and painted) for advertising agencies. It was in Kansas, I think, about a decade later, that Hal was offered  the job of illustrating Tarzan, not for books or magazine, but for serialized newspaper installments. He was less than enthused, but the Depression’s grip was colder than Canada’s wintry blasts; and – paraphrasing the Bible’s account of Esau selling his birthright in Genesis 25 – he said he sold his soul for a mess of pottage. “But pottage tasted pretty good at that moment.”

Advertising painting by Harold R Foster, 1931.
Hal was not the first cartoonist to tackle the strip, which was a substantial hit especially when his Sunday pages attracted attention. Eventually he wrote his own jungle (and non-jungle, for instance Egypt) tales. I once owned – in fact I technically still own – a multi-page typescript account How I Came to Create the Tarzan Stories not by Foster but by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The founder of ERBdom and a keeper of the Burroughs flame, Camille Cazdessus, agreed to trade a Sunday Foster Tarzan for that manuscript. I sent it to him but, for decades, he has not honored the trade nor returned the manuscript. Tracked down in Illinois, no longer Louisiana, he admitted to still having it; and asked that I provide the postage for its return – an infantile and perhaps desperate condition, I thought. But I agreed… and still have not received either element of the transaction. A Crowded Life of Rogues, unavoidable.

Foster put the strip, and himself, on the map along the way. King Features, that vacuum-cleaner of talent, lured Hal with the promise to own his own creation (he received only a salary, no percentage or royalties, from Tarzan) and editorial freedom. Proud of his heritage and a student of history – and an admirer of the storytelling illustrator Howard Pyle – he staked a claim for a Medieval epic.

Its original title was Derek, Son of Thane, as attested here in this King Features promotion from 1936 (long buried in my archives). Myself, I will not attest to the fact that King ever published the strip under that title (although I have seen a reprint page, not a contemporary tearsheet with a Derek title-bar) nor that Foster’s second choice was Prince Arn.

A paragraph from an inside page of the “King Pins” brochure, announcing the new strip by the pride of Topeka.
The full-page Sunday (first a tabloid page) commanded attention, and had immediate impact, a prestige feature for American newspapers. In its early years Hal infused fantastic elements – Merlin was a regular character – and was exacting with visual references like furniture, castles, weapons, and clothing. He bent or condensed history, however, over approximately 600 years.

All that really mattered to readers, about a timeline, was every next Sunday.

The first fan letter that ever produced a response when I was young was Hal Foster’s polite, elegant explanation to me that he could not respond with an original Sunday page. I was making a scrapbook of Val Sundays (with my own running captions beside his!), and told him so. In later years we were Connecticut neighbors – he in Redding; I in Bethel – and was surprised to learn that Wayne Boring, whose work on Superman I considered stiff and klunky, did backgrounds on Val.

A letter from Hal Foster to a 12-year-old fan, 1961…
Around 1971, age and arthritis caught up with Hal and his lovely wife Helen, and they moved to Florida. I still have letters and Christmas cards from them, a long run. My wife and I visited them in their retirement in Spring Hill FL. On one of those visits I asked Hal what he thought – how he would assess – the work of his successor on Tarzan. In probably the most critical but diplomatic statement this gentleman could make, he thought and said, “It always interested me how Hogarth managed to draw all the muscles on top of the skin.”

In my old Nemo magazine I recruited two old European friends to address Hal Foster. Fred Schreiber dusted off an old interview with Hal; and Prof Giulio Cesare Cuccolini analyzed the influence of Howard Pyle. For the German publisher Carlsen I helped produce (with my friend the historian and publisher Andreas Knigge) The Big Hal Foster Book (never yet appearing in the US).

The cover of the book treatment of Foster’s career and Prince Valiant’s place in history. With Andreas Knigge; Carlsen Verlag, Hamburg, Germany.
Hal passed off the production of Prince Valiant to his Fairfield County neighbor John Cullen Murphy. Jack was predisposed – culturally, racially, politically – to be the simultaneous heir to Foster and the good Prince himself. Other artists auditioned, but there was no real competition. At first Foster provided the scripts and penciled layouts; and he finally surrendered all aspects. Murphy, and eventually other family members including his writer son Cullen, valiantly sustained the epic. In recent years other hands have continued.

When Foster died, my friend Bill Crouch proved that he was more than a Pogo fanatic. He and his brother Miller, when younger – I am not sure how much younger; but that might be another column. Or not – used to dress in licensed Prince Valiant pajamas and have mock sword fights. He felt a proprietary interest in Val, and somehow got Helen to share Hal’s King Features’ contract when she was a fresh widow. It turns out that Foster still owned the strip – and its rights and royalties – a rare situation that the syndicate somehow neglected to reference in their Good-byes; and that Helen actually did not realize. How long thereafter she received the surprising royalty checks, or what settlement was reached, I have forgotten.

A detail from “King Pins,” a King Features Syndicate mailer, in 1936. Hal Foster is #9.
Movies (including a 1950s epic with Robert Wagner in pageboy coiff), many reprint books, board games, costumes and, um, pajamas, flourished through the years. At times the strip was more popular overseas, for instance in Germany, than in the US. For me, I remember the first reply from a cartoonist; a warm friendship and visits; a few projects together; and material for a book of my own, the memories of a Crowded Life in Comics.

Also, Prince Valiant is where I first read and learned the meaning of the word Synopsis. 


1 comment:

  1. Prince Valiant, along with The Phantom, are my favorite adventure comic strips. I always read those last.