Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Comic Book Greats #3: Hal Foster

Hal Foster: Prince Valiant
Art by Dave Sim
(Glamourpuss #3, September 2008)

Shuster Hall Of Fame
Hal Foster Acceptance Speech
(April 2005)

I can safely say that I have never felt so gratified, so humbled, and so intimidated -- simultaneously -- as when author of Hal Foster: Prince Of Illustrators, Father Of The Adventure Strip, Mr. Brian M. Kane of Columbus, Ohio left me a phone message saying that the Foster family had asked that I accept this posthumously awarded Shuster Hall Of Fame plaque on their behalf.

From the time he bagan work on the Tarzan newspaper strip in 1929 to when he retrired from his beloved Sunday page landmark, Prince Valiant in 1971, Hal Foster has been universally hailed in our field as one of the tripartite deans of cartoon realism alongside Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby and Milt Caniff of Terry & The Pirates and Steve Canyon. Each generation of comic strip -- and later comic book -- artists have credited Hal Foster with being a primary influence on their own works.

In the comic book field, among the first generation of illustrators, such diverse talents as Joe Shuster, the late Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Sheldon Moldoff, and Jack Kirby; among the second generation, Frank Frazetta -- who even adapted elements of Foster's signature calligraphy as his own -- Wallace Wood, Al Williamson, Angelo Torres, and Murphy Anderson; among the third generation, Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, Michael Kaluta and Jeff Jones all owed a large -- and wholly credited -- debt to the works of Hal Foster. As a member  of the fourth generation to be influenced by him -- standing here before you today -- I feel like a Shapespearean actor imexplicably promoted -- however temporarily - from metaphorical spear-carrier to metaphysical knighthood.

I'm tempted to just read aloud the full text of Mr Kane's definitive biography published by Vanguard Press of Lebanon, New Jersey in 2001, and see how long it would take before someone cuts me off -- to read to you of Hal Foster's birth in Halifax on August 16, 1892, of how the family relocated to Winnipeg in 1905, of Foster's many adventures in the Canadian wilderness and along the Red River as a lifelong enthusiast of canoeing and hunting, of his abbreviated boxing career, of his self-education at Winnipeg's Carnegie Library and of how, in 1920, Foster secured a job with the Hudson Bay Company as a staff clerk earning $17.50 a week and where he was later hired to draw sketches of women's intimate apparel. "I put my whole soul into the work," he said later, more than slightly tongue-in-cheek. "I don't know when I'd been more interested." He worked variously in Winnipeg at commercial art studios like Beigden's Limited, the Commercial Art Company, and the Buckley Studio.

It was he threat of Depression-era starvation more than anything else that brought Hal Foster to the newspaper strip. Originally he hadn't been interested in illustrating Tarzan past the 10-week adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel, feeling that he would be prostituting his talent in doing so. He would later say, "I was a bit offended to be asked to sell my birthright for the mess of pottage. But I thought, 'wouldn't it be nice if I had a little bit of pottage right now?'" Initially, Foster had been content just to churn out the pages, but then letters started coming in. "I suddenly realised the comics page gave pleasure to millions," he said, "and changed my attitude about just scratching out the artwork." He noted that his wife, Helen, helped him control his inflated ego. So did the miserly page rates, which caused him to choose to create his own feature in 1937, a feature he would continue for thirty-four years and nearly two thousand pages, the legendary )in every sense of the term) Prince Valiant In The Days Of King Arthur.

As I wrote in my own tribute which was edited out of the manuscript of Mr Kane's book -- there were just too many high-powered names with greater-seniority -- in parodying a number of comic strip and comic book artist styles in the pages of Cerebus, I always found it easy enough to decipher and exaggerate their little drawing tricks and inking idiosyncrasies. That worked fine until I introduced a Prince Valiant parody, Lord Sliverspoon, into the storyline. I soon discovered -- as so many before me had discovered -- that there were no tricks or obscurant idiosyncrasies to the work of Hal Foster. It was all pure drawing knowledge, an encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy, dapery, light, shadow, composition line weight and texture, and the precise interaction of all those elements on the finished page. As his long-time letterer, Charles F. Armstrong wrote of Foster's determination to enter into a formal program of study when he was already a successful commercial illustrator: "It meant his giving up vacations, nights, Saturdays, and holidays to the drawing and observation of bones, muscles, and nerves. And believe me, this is work that is tedious, boring, and time-sonsuming. I know -- having studied under the same anatomy fanatic, Charles Schroeder."

Having already exceeded the universally agreed-upon limits of the duration of an acceptance speech -- an exceptional circumstance which I hope you will forgive in light of the accomplishments and wide-ranging influence of the award recipient -- I'll conclude now by reiterating how pleased and delighted, humbled, and intimidated I am to accept this award on behalf of the Prince of Illustrators, the Father of the Adventure Strip, and the greatest native-born Canadian ever to devote his life to bringing the highest and most exacting standards of illustrative realism to the comics page, Harold Rudolf Foster.

Thank you.

~ Dave Sim


Anonymous said...

Very gracious, even with the hint of self-promotion. The genuine appreciation of a worthy subject comes through.

-- Damian T. Lloyd

Tony Dunlop said...

I've been working my way through the recent, magnificent Fantagraphics hardcover editions of Prince Valiant, starting at the beginning. Amazing stuff.

CerebusTV said...

The appreciation is genuine. In the video of the presentation, Dave Sim visibly chokes up, overcome to the extent that he can't continue for some moments. I can't recall if we aired this or not yet on CerebusTV, but it is in the CerebusTV archive.