Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Comics Review: Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot, Gary Gianni & Mark Schultz

This review was originally published in The Comics Journal #299.

This dull rehash of adventure clichés is blandly skillful, but its two creators have done far better work elsewhere.

This collection of contemporary Prince Valiant newspaper strips demonstrates just how boring craftsmanship for its own sake can be. Granted, the tedium is partly due to the continued use of creator Hal Foster’s stodgy storytelling style. The strip feels more like illustrated prose than comics, and the rhythms are static. The bigger problem, though, is that artist Gary Gianni and scriptwriter Mark Schultz abandon what has made their previous work interesting. They go through the motions, but they don’t provide the idiosyncratic touches that might give the strip some spark.

The story begins with Prince Valiant and his wife ruling a peaceful Camelot in King Arthur’s absence. The prince is restless, which leads him to wander the countryside as a knight-errant. Adventure soon comes in the form of lake monsters, pirates, a haunted treasure and a glorious lost city. The tone is dead earnest; there’s nothing making the material more than an unimaginative retread of adventure fiction á la Sir Walter Scott, H. Rider Haggard, and Howard Pyle.

Mark Schultz is better than this. His Xenozoic Tales is firmly rooted in the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but it’s a solid adventure-comics allegory of environmental debates. It also shows a canny understanding of politics and intrigue. There’s none of that here. The narrative is little more than the prince drifting from challenge to challenge, and beyond the occasional twist of an ally becoming an enemy and vice versa, the characters never develop beyond one’s first view of them.

Gary Gianni often seems like a fish out of water. His best work has been in the expressionist mode of Joseph Clement Coll: intense blacks, loose pen-hatching and near-hallucinatory compositions. Hal Foster’s romantic photorealism fits him like a straitjacket. He abandons the heavy blacks here, which occasionally highlights his weaknesses as a draftsman and makes his linework seem spastic. The shift in styles also makes his compositions monotonous and his figure drawing stiff. An adventure strip has never looked more uptight.

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