8 Things You Might Not Know About Prince Valiant

King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

While you may think some daytime soaps are the longest-running, continuous stories in media, nothing holds a candle to Prince Valiant. The Sunday-only action-adventure comic strip about a 5th century Scandinavian prince who finds refuge in King Arthur’s England was created by Hal Foster and has been published without interruption since 1937. If you’ve only glanced at the comic, prepare thyself for some facts about its origins, its anachronisms, and why it isn’t exactly a comic strip.

1. WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST PERSONALLY REQUESTED IT.

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst—the inspiration for Orson Welles’s myopic character in Citizen Kane—isn’t usually thought of as a comics fan, but he was the one who insisted that cartoonist Hal Foster move away from his comic adaptation of Tarzan to mount a new strip exclusively for Hearst’s newspapers. When Foster delivered a Medieval epic titled Derek, Son of Thane, Hearst was overjoyed—except he hated the name. Retitled Prince Valiant, it debuted in newspapers on February 13, 1937 and has been running ever since.

2. THE PRINCE WAS JUST A KID.

The early weeks of Foster’s strip were lacking in the muscular, galloping prince with the pageboy haircut that readers typically associate with the strip. The artist decided to begin with “Val” at age five, with the boy and his parents in exile after their land had been ravaged by enemies. Val’s mother dies shortly thereafter, and the prince joins the court of King Arthur in his late teens, battling oppressors like the Huns, Goths, and Saxons.

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A FANTASY EPIC.

Prince Valiant is far from a historical account of Medieval times, but Foster’s original intention was to inject more fantastical elements into the series. “I wanted to show magicians, ogres, dragons, and knights,” he once said. “However, after Prince Valiant began, the characters in the strip became too real to do much fantasy.”

4. THE STRIP WAS SURPRISINGLY CONTEMPORARY.

Though Prince Valiant never adopted a more current hairstyle, his creator did factor in the state of the world. In the 1940s, Val fought off the “Huns,” a warlike race that threatened the Roman Empire that was also used as a derogatory term for Germans in both world wars. (Val’s activity got him canned in German newspapers.) When soldiers were returning home, preceding the coming baby boom of the 1950s, Val and his wife, Aleta, had a son. 

5. HAL FOSTER WAS A STICKLER FOR DETAIL.

When he wasn’t drawing, Foster was touring armories and soliciting information about early-century weaponry to make sure Prince Valiant was as period-accurate as it could be. Valiant’s heavy sword, for example, was used for cutting motions, rarely dueling, since Foster learned such a sword was impractical to wield with any agility. Foster would also dismiss armor that his characters might not have been able to afford.

6. IT ISN’T EXACTLY A COMIC STRIP.

Whether they’re single-panel gag strips or four-panel serial stories, comic strips typically offer insight into their characters' behavior by inserting speech and thought balloons into the art. Foster’s approach—and one continued by his successors after he stepped away from the strip in 1971—was to blend captions with his illustrations, leading one Valiant historian, author Brian Kane, to declare it a “massive illustrated novel presented in a comic art-like style.”

7. IT HAS SPAWNED SEVERAL MOVIES.

Comic strips-turned-films like Dick Tracy were hits, but none of the attempts to port Prince Valiant into live-action received a lot of attention. A feature starring 24-year-old Robert Wagner playing the title character was released by 20th Century Fox in 1954. In recalling the film, Wagner wrote in his 2008 autobiography that the hair gave him pause. "If I'd been paying a little more attention," he wrote, "I would have known something was wrong. Mainly it was the wig. One day Dean Martin visited the set and spent 10 minutes talking to me before he realized I wasn't [actress] Jane Wyman.”

A 1997 version with Katherine Heigl and Stephen Moyer as Valiant was no more successful, disappearing to video shelves without much fanfare.

8. SOME CHARACTERS WERE MODELED AFTER REAL PEOPLE.

After Foster passed art duties on to cartoonist John “Jack” Cullen in 1971, Cullen used a succession of people from his own life as the basis for various characters in the strip. Most notably, his future wife Joan was the model for Valiant’s wife, Aleta. Cullen’s gas utility employee also made it into the pages, as well as a banker and the local butcher. Cullen would snap Polaroids of them and call upon their features when sketching the strip. Following tradition in the comic strip industry, Cullen drew under Foster’s name for five years until Foster told him to begin using his own.

This App Lets You Download Free E-Books, Magazines, Comic Books, and Audiobooks From Your Library

boggy22, iStock via Getty Images
boggy22, iStock via Getty Images

Even if your local library is closed during the novel coronavirus outbreak, you can still use your library card in quarantine. As Thrillist reports, Libby is an app that works with local libraries to give you free access to audiobooks, e-books, comic books, and magazines wherever you are.

Libby, an app from the digital reading company Overdrive, is connected to 90 percent of public libraries in North America. To use the app, just enter the information from your library card and start browsing digital titles available through your local branches. If you don't have a library card yet, some participating libraries will allow you to sign up for a digital card in the app. That way, you don't have to leave home to start reading.

As more people are looking for e-books and audiobooks to pass the time at home, Overdrive has made it possible for multiple users to check out the same title at once. That means as more libraries shift to a 100 percent online loan system for the time being, it will be easier to meet their patrons' needs.

No matter what your current literary mood may be, you should have no trouble finding something to read on Libby. Downloadable titles from the New York Public Library currently available through the app include the e-book of Becoming by Michelle Obama, the e-book of Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, and the audiobook of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. After you download a book, you can send it to your Kindle device, and all items are automatically returned on their due date. Download the free app today to start browsing.

[h/t Thrillist]

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

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