Above: Detail of a panel from page 2494 (November 25, 1984) of the Prince Valiant adventure strip. Forced out of Britain by his evil half-brother Mordred, King Arthur and his household find refuge in Vikingsholm, the realm of Prince Valiant's father, King Aguar of Thule. "Long years ago you took us in when we fled a usurper's sword," says Aguar to Arthur. "Now we repay the debt. Our home is yours, and your cause is ours." (Art by John Cullen Murphy; text by Cullen Murphy)
Former Prince Valiant writer and current Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy was recently interviewed by award-winning broadcaster Terry Gross, host and executive producer of National Public Radio's Fresh Air program.
This interview is of special interest to me as I grew up with Cullen Murphy writing Prince Valiant, and his dad, John Cullen Murphy, illustrating it. Indeed, I credit Murphy, along with Winston Graham, author of the Poldark series of historical novels, for helping develop my love of writing and whatever skills I have as a writer!
Terry Gross: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. In an era when kids looked forward to the Sunday newspaper comics, my guest Cullen Murphy lived in the world where those comics were created. His father, John Cullen Murphy, drew a comic about a prizefighter called Big Ben Bolt. In 1970, he started drawing the popular [adventure] strip Prince Valiant about a Norse prince in the King Arthur era. Prince Valiant was created in 1937 by Hal Foster, who asked Cullen's father to do the illustrations after Foster's arthritis got bad. In 1980, Foster handed over the writing to Cullen. Cullen wrote Prince Valiant while his father continued to draw it for the next 24 years until his father's death. [Note: John Cullen Murphy was succeeded by artist Gary Gianni on March 28, 2004 while Cullen Murphy was succeeded by Mark Schultz on November 1, 2004. On April 1, 2012, Thomas Yeates became the fourth artist to illustrate Prince Valiant. Mark Schultz continues to write the strip.]
Cullen Murphy's new memoir Cartoon County is about his father and the surprising number of other cartoonists who lived near or in Fairfield County, Conn., where Cullen grew up in the 1950s and '60s. They included the artists and/or writers behind Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Blondie, Hagar the Horrible and Nancy. In addition to writing Prince Valiant, Cullen Murphy was the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine for 20 years and has been an editor at large at Vanity Fair since 2006.
. . . So I'm going to ask you to describe Prince Valiant, the comic strip that your father drew for decades and that you wrote for 24 years, until your father died in 2004. Describe what this strip [is] about.
Cullen Murphy: Prince Valiant was the son of a royal family of Thule in what is now Scandinavia. And when the strip began...
Terry Gross: Is Thule made up, or is that a real place?
Cullen Murphy: Well, it's a real place in the context of the comics, which for me is real enough.
Terry Gross: OK (laughter).
Cullen Murphy: But I think it's – I think it's made up. There is a place called Thule. But Hal Foster's Thule was a made-up place.
Terry Gross: OK.
Cullen Murphy: And Prince Valient's royal family was a made-up royal family. But I guess aren't they all?
Cullen Murphy: And so Val, when the strip opens, is a young kid. He's escaped from political trauma in his homeland. And he arrives in King Arthur's Britain. And through a series of adventures, he's eventually knighted. He becomes a knight of the Round Table. He marries Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. They have twins [Karen and Valeta] and a couple of sons. [Three sons, actually: Arn, Galan, and Nathan.] And the adventures take him all over the world. They take Aleta all over the world, and they take the children all over the world. I think by the time I stopped doing the strip, members of the family had been to every continent except Antarctica [and Australia!].
Above: This panel from a 1989 strip is a rare depiction of Prince Valiant and his entire family. In it, Valiant and Aleta's son Galan is being presented by King Arthur with Uther Pendragon's sword for his "exemplary service in Cathay." Pictured from left: Prince Valiant's eldest son Arn and his wife Maeve, youngest son Nathan (foreground), Aleta, Galan, twin daughters Karen and Valeta, King Arthur, and Prince Valiant.
Terry Gross: Wow, OK. And it's written in this kind of like old medieval or Dark Ages kind of language – I mean, not the language that they really would have spoken but our idea of what it might have sounded like. Can you read one of the captions for us to give us a taste of the language? And maybe you could read one that you wrote.
Cullen Murphy: Sure, I'll give you one here in a second. But your description is is right. It's kind of a modern person's idea of what older English was like, filtered through Walter Scott and then refiltered through me and my dad and Hal Foster. And here's the opening sequence of a particular episode. The picture in the background shows King Arthur's palace in ruins after a horrific battle. (Reading)Camelot. The refugees who stream from Britain tell tales of horror and woe. The city of marvel, once a golden jewel amid emerald fields, stands bent and tarnished, a forbidding fortress. The meadowlands are sear with drought. Where joust took place, gallows sprout. It has been a year since Mordred seized the throne. And the common folk of Britain have learned how long a year can be.
Terry Gross: It's kind of Shakespearean to end the first part with a rhyme, no?
Cullen Murphy: I was thinking Jesse Jackson, but I'll take Shakespeare.
Terry Gross: So one of the things your father used to do was pose for himself – taking Polaroid pictures of himself, so he could use himself as a model. And you often were the person snapping the photos. Would you describe some of the ways that he posed and some of the things he wore while he posed?
Cullen Murphy: I have thousands of these pictures. My father really never threw anything away. And something like the pictures that he took of himself, he always, I'm sure in the back of his mind, thought, oh, I can use one of these pictures again. But he never did. He just kept taking more pictures. Bear in mind that in a typical Prince Valiant strip, there might be, you know, 20 human figures on a given Sunday. And they're all doing different things. And like other cartoonists, he knew enough anatomy. He had classical training. He could draw these from scratch. But it was a lot easier, and it would help with things like shadows and drama if he could have something to work with.
So he would dress himself up in different costumes and take pictures of himself and adjust the lighting. And it would be things like – oh, he would dress himself as a monk. He would dress himself as a as a knight. He would dress himself as a woman and put a wig on and a dress. He would lie on his back with his feet and his arms in the air as if he'd just been run through with a sword or fallen off a horse during a joust. He would have these expressions of, you know, horrific anger or, you know, ridiculous, preposterous laughter. And I have a collection of these that runs really from 1950, when he was doing a different strip, all the way up until shortly before his death. And it's the most remarkable and bizarre collection of family portraits that you can imagine having – and wonderful to look at.
Terry Gross: You sometimes posed for your father. What was it like to see his rendering of you as a character in Prince Valiant?
Cullen Murphy: Well, the first thing to say is that posing for my father was not fun. Watching him pose was fun because he was a natural actor, and the camera loved him, and someone like myself is a bit of a stiffer personality when it comes to posing. Also, some of the things that he would be asking me to do were things that I wasn't really hot on doing.
I remember one sequence. It was for a strip that he did called Big Ben Bolt, which is the strip that he did for two decades before he took over Prince Valiant, and I had to be a little kid from India. And this meant, you know, taking off my shirt, putting on a pair of short pants and having the diapers from one of my siblings – I have seven siblings, and there was always someone in diapers – and having one of their diapers wrapped around my head as a turban. You know, this was not an ideal afternoon.
. . . Terry Gross: Your father took [Prince Valiant] over when [its] creator . . . was getting too old to do it himself, and then you ended up writing it as your father drew it. Why did you want to write the strip?
Cullen Murphy: Mainly because it was a chance to work with my father. I'd been a reader of the strip for years, and I thought it was terrific when my father succeeded Hal Foster as the artist. It gave him real scope to do the kind of illustration that he had done many times before and was just extremely good at. But in certain ways, I had been working with my father for a long period of time. I'd taken all of those photographs, to begin with. I had a real sense of the working pattern of his life. I would sit out in the studio for hours and hours in the afternoons doing my own drawing or doing my homework. I loved the ambience out there, the smells, the sights, the sounds. And of course, I loved my father. And I loved the way his mind worked. And I loved his personality. So the chance to work with my father on a continuing basis was tremendously appealing. You know, not that this would be the entirety of my life's work, but it would be an attachment that I would have with him that would be ongoing.
So I began sending to Hal Foster, who continued to write the script for a while – I began sending him narrative ideas for stories, and he began using them. You know, he would take the narrative, he would break it down into different Sundays and break the Sundays down into their constituent panels. And he would do the work himself.
But from those narrative stories I then, you know, graduated to trying to write them the way he wrote them with mixed success at the outset. He was a stern yet shrewd and kind taskmaster. And, you know, eventually I got to the point where I knew how to do it. And when he decided that he wanted to give up the writing of the script as well as the drawing I was selected as the person who would take it over, which was just great.
Terry Gross: You were very close with your father. And for 24 years, you wrote Prince Valiant as your father drew it. And his signature was John Cullen Murphy. You're Cullen Murphy, so you shared a name. I'm wondering if you ever experienced a need to pull away. And I ask this because you were born in 1952, so you came of age in the late '60s and early '70s at a time of basically generational warfare, you know, when kids were really – a lot of kids were really rebelling against their parents and disagreeing about the war, disagreeing often about civil rights and about gay rights and women's rights and clothing and haircuts and what a good life meant, what to eat, I mean, basically everything (laughter). So did you ever experience any of that?
Cullen Murphy: You know, I think everyone in the family went through something along those lines. But it never became too serious a problem in our family for a very specific reason, I think. One of the characteristics of cartooning families was that the cartoonist had somehow figured out how to live his life on his own terms. It wasn't following a path that somebody had laid out, you know, whether it's, you know, going to graduate school or, you know, following the footsteps into the contracting business or whatever. These people had some sort of a vision of what they wanted to do. It took a lot of ingenuity and creativity to cobble the right ingredients together. And they had all somehow managed to do it.
And this sense of your life and your lifestyle being something that you can create for yourself and that you have a right to create for yourself was a value that I saw in other families. And that certainly was a core value in my own family so that when those of us in the family wanted to pursue this, that or the other thing, the important question from my parents was, what is it that drives you? Pay attention to that. And I think that that attitude has a way of minimizing certain kinds of frictions that might otherwise be there.
Above: Cullen Murphy and his father John Cullen Murphy.
. . . Terry Gross: So I have another Prince Valiant question for you. I don't know if you watch Game of Thrones.
Cullen Murphy: I've actually read Game Of Thrones.
Terry Gross: Oh, OK. Do you think that Game of Thrones is in any way kind of satisfying some of the same needs as Prince Valiant used to but in a much more sexually – and in a much more explicit way in terms of sex and violence?
Cullen Murphy: Well it absolutely is. I remember when I first picked up the George Martin books, it was not my idea to do it. It was – my children were saying, you've got to read these. So for Christmas, I think I got the first three of them. And I started and couldn't put them down. I thought they were extremely well done. And I was captivated. I actually had to just stop because otherwise the rest of my life would have been taken over by just reading Game of Thrones.
But I think that Game of Thrones has many of the same elements that appealed to people about Prince Valiant, although in a much more aggressive and, you know, sometimes prurient way. The one thing that Prince Valiant didn't do that Game of Thrones does all the time is kill off its leading characters.
To read and listen to Terry Gross's interview with Cullen Murphy in its entirety, click here.
Before television, when most films were still black & white, the Sunday comics were an oasis of color in a Depression-era gray world. Highly popular comic strips drove newspaper sales in the early twentieth century, so it is little wonder why their creators were regarded as celebrities. The epic Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur by Harold Rudolf “Hal” Foster premiered in the color comics section on February 13, 1937 (left). Prior to Prince Valiant, Foster originated the adult protagonist adventure strip genre by adapting Tarzan as a black & white daily strip in 1928, which was followed by the Tarzan color Sunday feature from 1931-1937. Faced with imposing financial and creative constraints as a work-for-hire artist, Foster focused his considerable skills as an illustrator towards producing his own strip. The extraordinary effort resulted in international prominence for both Prince Valiant and Foster. Today, after 80 years, “Val” remains one of the few adventure strip characters still in print.
Above: Detail of the November 4, 2016 installment of Prince Valiant
by the strip's current illustrator, Thomas Yeates.
It is difficult to imagine the impact Foster’s Prince Valiant had on 1930s and 1940s popular culture. When Prince Valiant began, Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 was still over a year away. Many of the first two generations of comic book creators owe a great debt to Foster (right). Young comic book artists studied Foster’s technique, sometimes copying panels from his strips. “Swipes” of Foster’s art can be found in the origin of Batman, and comics drawn by Jack Kirby, the co-creator of many of today’s movie heroes, including Captain America, The Avengers, The X-Men and Thor. Most importantly, Val epitomized a knightly moral code, creating an ethical standard of conduct that exemplified truth, justice, and what it meant to be a hero.
Seminal works such as The Hobbit, The Sword in the Stone, and The Chronicles of Narnia were non-existent in February of 1937. By the time Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published, Prince Valiant had already spent twelve years on his own mono-mythic hero’s journey. Yet, unlike Campbell, Val’s adventures included strong, self-reliant, heroic women; attesting to Hal’s wife, Helen’s influence on the strip.
To the uninitiated, Valiant, a lowly Prince of Thule, fell in love with and eventually married Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. To Hal’s and Helen’s credit, Aleta became a role model for the millions of capable women running America during World War II; fighting off offenders with her wit, charm, intelligence, and, on occasion, a hidden dagger strapped to her thigh. Aleta was kicking butt long before Princess Leia, Katniss Everdeen, or most of the Disney princesses were even a thought.
Though set in the time of King Arthur, Foster’s Prince Valiant was surprisingly contemporary. During World War II, Val fought the Huns, resulting in the strip being canceled in German newspapers. In 1943, Val befriended a boy with a withered leg who could not “play soldier” with the other boys. Nevertheless, the boy was encouraged to hone his skills so that one day he could be “arrow-maker to King Arthur.” The story appeared a year into a polio epidemic and 16 months after Pearl Harbor, and was a call to service to all who could not go off to fight. After the war, as American troops returned home, Val and Aleta sailed to the “New World” and had a son, heralding the coming baby boom. Then, as the demographics of 1950s America changed, multi-cultural couples in Prince Valiant married and had children just as they did in the popular sitcom I Love Lucy.
Foster’s Prince Valiant is not just an adventure, or romance, or humor strip—though it is sprinkled with all those elements. Prince Valiant is a graphic novel about life where people fall in love, wars are fought, children are born and grow older, hearts are broken, friends die in battle, couples marry,and even disfigured and disabled characters young and old, male and female have a place and purpose in this brave world Foster fashioned. While some may feel Prince Valiant is archaic by today’s standards, perhaps its unabashedly inclusive “Might for Right” message is simply ahead of its time. Long live Val!
Art:Hal Foster. Source: The somewhat tattered cover of one of the Prince Valiant comic books my father collected in 1954-55 and which were published and distributed by Associated Newspaper Ltd. of 60-70 Elizabeth Street, Sydney.