King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

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.

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Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.
When Superman Fought Xenophobia in a 1949 Comic
Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.
Comic: Hake's. Background: iStock.

A vintage comic book-style illustration that shows Superman lecturing a group of students on the values of tolerance has circulated widely on social media. “And remember, boys and girls, your school—like our country—is made up of Americans of many different races, religions and national origins,” Superman says with a wag of his finger, “So… If YOU hear anybody talk against a schoolmate or anyone else because of his religion, race or national origin—don’t wait: tell him THAT KIND OF TALK IS UN-AMERICAN. Help keep your school All American!”

The illustration is authentic. It was drawn by Superman comic book artist Wayne Boring around 1949, and it was stamped on a protective schoolbook cover (one of which recently sold at auction for $805) and a poster. But the comic is more than a quaint piece of Americana; it’s a relic from a largely forgotten nationwide tolerance movement that swept the country for more than a decade. Powerful people in government also suspected Superman’s brand of patriotism was ... anti-American propaganda.

THE TOLERANCE MOVEMENT

During the 1940s, America basically underwent a nationwide sensitivity training program. Zoe Burkholder, a historian of education, writes in the Harvard Educational Review that a “forced tolerance” movement had begun frothing a decade earlier as educators feared that scientific racism—the pseudoscientific “Master Race” theories brewing in Germany—could waft overseas.

Educators deliberated how, and if, they should teach students to accept racial, cultural, and religious differences. After all, the ethnic makeup of America was quickly changing. The first wave of the Great Migration saw nearly 2 million African Americans move north and west to cities. While most classrooms remained segregated, even the whitest schools were increasingly mixed with the children of different immigrant groups.

In 1938, the New York City Board of Education began requiring students to learn about how multiple groups contributed to American history. When World War II erupted one year later, the demand for tolerance education spiked. The New York Times reported in 1939 that "Instances were cited of teachers in New York City and elsewhere being 'ridiculed, harassed and otherwise impeded' by pupils under the influence of, and stimulated by, Nazi doctrine." To nip foreign propaganda in the bud, schools across the country joined the tolerance movement. Military leaders encouraged it, too. They knew that American troops, many of them fresh out of school, would fight their best if they learned to set aside their differences.

Countless non-profit groups, many of them interreligious, led the charge. Burkholder writes that “Religious leaders, educators, and politicians stressed tolerance as a central tenet of democracy." They provided prejudice-fighting materials to schools, from teachers’ manuals to comic books to textbooks.

Outside of school, short pro-tolerance films played at the beginning of movies. People held tolerance rallies. The National Conference of Christians and Jews distributed 10 million “Badge of Tolerance” buttons. Groups such as the Council Against Intolerance in America distributed maps showing the breadth of diversity in America’s cultural landscape. Even Superboy stepped in, telling a bunch of his schoolmates that “No single land, race or nationality can claim this country as its own.” At the end, Superboy and his pals celebrate by eating Swedish meatballs.

The Superman comic that went viral was the handiwork of one tolerance organization: the Institute for American Democracy. Led by an Episcopalian priest, the Institute’s lineup of leaders resembled a walk-into-the-bar joke: Among its officers were a Catholic bishop, a rabbi presiding over the Synagogue Council of America, and labor movement honchos. The Institute’s goal was to “blanket the nation with poster, billboard, cartoon, and blotter advertising—expertly planned to ‘sell’ the American public a greater appreciation of the American Creed.”

And it did. Al Segal, a columnist for the Indiana-based Jewish Post, wrote in 1947 that the Institute was “hitting anti-Semitism and allied hates between the eyes in street cars, buses and newspapers all around the country.” In 1953, The New York Times called the Institute’s work “Do-Good advertising” that proved “mass media advertising can sell an idea, just as it can sell soap or chewing gum.”

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

ADL/Institute for American Democracy

Messages we can all agree on, right? Nope. This was the McCarthy era. Even the most pro-American advertisements couldn’t help being called un-American.

AN INTOLERABLE CONSPIRACY?

In 1948, California's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities—a group of lawmakers charged with investigating disloyal and subversive citizens and groups—listed the Institute for American Democracy as a potential communist front. It claimed that the Institute had “numerous known Communists” on its governing body.

The committee complained that a truly American organization would speak explicitly against communism. Since the Institute didn’t scold communists, it was complicit with them. The committee further argued that the Institute, and other pro-tolerance organizations like it, had exaggerated America’s discrimination problems: “There is an attempt to spread the idea that forces of fascism are everywhere entrenched,” it stated.

A bigger problem was that the Institute was mostly subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, or ADL. The House Un-American Activities Committee was not a fan of the ADL.

The Anti-Defamation League formed in 1913 to combat prejudice against Jewish people. Between 1880 and World War I, approximately 2 million Jews had emigrated to America. By the early 20th century, restaurants, hotels, and clubs regularly barred Jews from entering their premises. Medical schools at Cornell and Yale placed limits on the number of Jewish students they would accept. (Yale’s medical school dean, Milton Winternitz—who was Jewish—reportedly told the school’s admissions officers, “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.”) Even the U.S. military's medical advisory board casually stated that “the foreign born, especially the Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born.”

By World War II, the ADL had joined the tolerance movement. It helped found and fund [PDF] organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education and the Institute for American Democracy, soaking citizens in calls for brotherhood. The groups aired radio shows telling the stories of famous Americans, such as George Washington Carver, and played them on more than 700 radio stations. It even lobbied the producers of the Superman radio show to insert democratic themes into its broadcasts. The group reached 63,000 schools, veterans groups, and private businesses.

Some legislators, especially State Senator Jack B. Tenney, chairman of California’s Un-American Activities Committee, believed this was a nefarious facade. Tenney, who was once nominated as a candidate for Vice President of the Christian Nationalist Party (which advocated racial segregation) and who equated [PDF] McCarthyism with “Americanism,” had once visited an ADL office and returned convinced their anti-prejudice campaigns were a Trojan Horse designed to brainwash Americans with Zionist propaganda. He believed the ADL was a gestapo-like cabal with communist sympathies.

LIFE magazine minced no words when it called Tenney a “notorious anti-Semite.” But his paranoia didn’t stop there. He didn’t trust Shintoism and used similar “Trojan Horse” arguments to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans. He wasn’t keen on Italians either. During World War II, the Tenney committee’s misgivings would help force 10,000 Italian immigrants in California to relocate.

As for the Institute for American Democracy, their ties to the ADL convinced Tenney that their loyalties existed outside of the United States. For that reason alone, an organization with the sole mission of touting American values was suspected of ... lacking American values. 

Thankfully, that attitude didn’t last for long. In 1949, Tenney was on his way out of the fact-finding committee, which soon gave the Institute for American Democracy a clean bill of health, offering this mea culpa:

The committee’s 1948 report, under its general designation of Communist-front organizations, listed the Institute for American Democracy and the Institute for Democratic Education. The continuing investigation of these organizations reveals that both are sponsored by responsible individuals and groups of unquestioned loyalty. The programs … are in full keeping with the best American traditions and ideals and it is the design of the sponsoring individuals and groups to inculcate and preserve in the hearts and consciences of the American people love and loyalty for and to our country and the great principles of American liberty and democracy.

When you consider this historical context, the Superman comic becomes far more badass. The illustration appeared in 1949, one year after the Tenney Committee suggested the Institute for American Democracy was a communist front. Superman’s response? He steals the committee’s favorite accusation and slings it back in their direction: “That kind of talk is Un-American.”

As for Tenney, he’d later run for Senate in Los Angeles under the slogan “The Jews won’t take Jack Tenney,” a prediction that applied to Jewish people and, apparently, everybody else. Despite a plot to confuse voters by putting a mental patient who shared the same last name as his opponent on the ballot, Tenney still lost the Republican primary to 33-year-old Mildred Younger, a political activist who had never before held government office.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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iStock
20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield
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iStock

Everyone’s favorite lazy, lasagna-loving cat made his debut 40 years ago, but Garfield is still just as popular today. The comic strip spawned a TV show plus a number of video games, feature films, books, and, of course, holiday specials—not to mention one very memorable car window craze. We sat down with Garfield creator Jim Davis to nail down a solid list of 20 things you might not know about the wisecracking feline.

1. JIM DAVIS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO FOCUS THE STRIP ON JON.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I ran some early ideas at a local paper,” Jim Davis tells Mental Floss, “to see how I felt about it and I called the strip Jon. It was about him, but he had this wise cat who, every time, came back zinging him. He always had the great payoff. At the time, I worked for T.K. Ryan—the cartoonist for Tumbleweeds—and I showed it to him and told him how every time I got to the punch line the cat zings him. And T.K. said, 'Well, what does that tell you, Jim?'" he laughs. “The strip must be about the cat. Go with it.”

2. JON WAS A CARTOONIST IN THE VERY FIRST COMIC STRIP, BUT IT WAS NEVER REALLY MENTIONED AGAIN.

“I didn’t want to tread on the fact that Jon’s a cartoonist because my biggest fear was getting a little too inside," Davis says. "That it would be a little too easy for me to write. I didn’t want to lose the readers just for my own enjoyment, or for a handful of peers. Also, I purposely gave him a job right off the top for the reason that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never explained what Ozzie did for a living. Nobody ever knew because he was always in the house with Harriet and Ricky and David. Just hanging around. So I thought I would give Jon a job right off the top to avoid being asked what he does for a living in interviews.”

3. GARFIELD WAS NAMED AFTER DAVIS'S GRANDFATHER, JAMES A. GARFIELD DAVIS ...

... who was named after President James A. Garfield. That’s quite a connection. Now just imagine a fat, wisecracking, lasagna-eating cat as the President of the United States of America. (Sounds like a dead-ringer for William Howard Taft!)

4. GARFIELD IS SET IN DAVIS'S HOMETOWN OF MUNCIE, INDIANA, BUT THAT'S ALSO MOSTLY LEFT UNSAID.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I would like for readers in Sydney, Australia to think that Garfield lives next door,” Davis says. “Dealing with eating and sleeping, being a cat, Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old. It gives me a lot more latitude for the humor for the situations.” The farm that Davis grew up on reportedly had 25 cats, several of which he based the Garfield character on.

5. DAVIS MAINTAINS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER GARFIELD'S FINAL PRODUCT, BUT HE NO LONGER DRAWS THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.

“I’m sitting here working on the writing right now,” he says. “I see gags and I work with assistants on the strip and stuff like that. We do roughs and it all filters through me so that it has one voice. We all get together occasionally in the same room and draw and work on shapes of fingers and gestures and expressions and things like that so that if any one of us draws it, you can’t tell which one did it.”

6. HE REGRETS AT LEAST ONE LICENSED GARFIELD ITEM.

According to Slate, Garfield merchandise brings in $750 million to $1 billion annually. Davis’s creation has been adapted and licensed more times than anyone could probably count, and of all of those items, there's one that Davis isn't thrilled with. “A few years ago there was a Zombie Garfield,” he says. “It was really gnarly and I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun.' So I did it and it sold okay. It was really interesting. But then I looked at it later and I go, ‘It did nothing for the character’s advancement.’ I figured I just did it because it was cool and everybody was doing it at the time. I just didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling after doing it. But those T-shirts go away," he laughs.

7. GARFIELD HOLDS THE GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR BEING THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY SYNDICATED COMIC STRIP.

Garfield is syndicated in more than 2500 newspapers and journals. The cat also has more than 16 million fans on Facebook. That’s one seriously popular feline.

8. GARFIELD'S CHARACTER DESIGN HAS CHANGED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS.

There's one constant, though: The fat cat has always been—and will always be—fat. “If he lost weight, that would effectively end Garfield as we know it,” Davis says. “Garfield sends a healthy message in that he’s not perfect. He knows that and he’s cool with that. He’s happy with himself. If everybody were, there would probably be fewer disorders of all natures. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s the imperfection in all of us underneath. I think that makes him probably easier to identify with than a slim, athletic character in the comics.”

9. DAVIS REALLY ENJOYED SCARING KIDS WITH GARFIELD'S HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE.

"It was such a challenge to try to think of something that could be scary, but fortunately we got to work with animation—we could marry scary sounds with scary music and scary images, and set the stage for a scary experience," Davis says. "Even down to the use of the actor’s voice. C. Lindsay Workman [who voices the old man that tells Garfield and Odie about the vengeful ghost pirates] was just a great character actor. I think we took our time to build to a scary scene where the ghost pirates invaded the house to look for the buried treasure. We tried to throw as many elements together as possible to create a situation where, at least for a few minutes, it could create a scary situation for the young viewers."

10. CREATING THE GHOST PIRATES IN THE HALLOWEEN TV SPECIAL WAS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

“We did it in our own art department (here at Paws, Inc.) because we wanted to make it just right,” the Garfield creator told us. “It was done with a white, chalky pencil on a rough texture so that everything would be really grainy. Back then, we animated on real film, so in order to get that glow we did what’s called a double burn. We exposed the film twice to overexpose the ghosts, and that gave it that eerie glow. We were totally in control of the process and the results turned out very well.”

11. IN 2011, A FULL-LENGTH STAGE MUSICAL CALLED GARFIELD LIVE WAS STAGED IN MUNCIE.

The musical was supposed to start touring the United States in September 2010, but was delayed until January 2011, when it premiered in Muncie. Davis wrote Garfield Live, while Michael Dansicker and Bill Meade handled the music and lyrics.

12. DAVIS LOVED THE CASTING OF BILL MURRAY AS THE VOICE OF GARFIELD IN 2004'S GARFIELD: THE MOVIE.


Muncie Magazine

“It was because of Bill Murray’s attitude [that he was cast],” Davis tells us. “It wasn’t really so much his voice. It was the fact that he embodies the attitude that Garfield has always displayed in the strip. Lorenzo [Music] obviously wasn’t a choice since he passed away years ago, and when the producers said, ‘Bill Murray would like to do the voice,’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool.’ My biggest concern about doing a CGI Garfield with live action was that people wouldn’t buy into the fact that this was our Garfield—the Garfield we’d known all these years. But I thought that as soon as they heard Bill Murray’s voice they’d get it. There will be that emotional tag going with his voice. That will establish the fact that, ‘Yes, this character has attitude.’”

13. THERE'S A GREAT LINK BETWEEN GARFIELD VOICE ACTOR LORENZO MUSIC AND BILL MURRAY.

Lorenzo Music provided the voice of Garfield in all of the cat’s TV specials from 1982 to 1991, as well as during the 1988 to 1994 run of Garfield and Friends. Music also provided the voice of Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters. Murray, of course, played Venkman in the Ghostbusters films and would, in 2004, provide the voice of Garfield in Garfield: The Movie. “I didn’t know about the relationship with Ghostbusters until years later."

14. THE MACY'S PARADE ONCE CITED SHAMU THE WHALE AS THE PARADE'S LARGEST BALLOON, BUT DAVIS SAYS GARFIELD WAS LARGER.

“In the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they had published that their biggest balloon ever, by volume of gas, was Shamu the Whale with over 18,000 cubic feet," Davis says. "The fact is that the Garfield balloon was filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium. So we just confirmed that the Garfield balloon, in fact, was the largest one by volume of gas.”

15. THERE ARE ONLY THREE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD WHERE GARFIELD IS NOT NAMED GARFIELD.

“In Sweden, Garfield is known as Gustav,” the Garfield creator says. “There are only three countries in the whole world where he’s not Garfield and they’re all in the Nordics.” The other two are Norway and Finland.

16. THE STUCK ON YOU GARFIELD PLUSH WITH SUCTION CUPS WAS THE RESULT OF A MISUNDERSTANDING.


Amazon

In the 1990s, it wasn't unusual to see a number of cars with little Garfield plushes stuck to the windows with suction cups. But that wasn't the original design—or the intended use. “I designed the first Stuck on You doll with Velcro on the paws, thinking that people would stick it on curtains,” Davis says. “It came back as a mistake with suction cups. They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars.”

17. THE GARFIELD COMIC STRIP BOOKS HAVE BEEN HUGE HITS.

“The 11 Garfield comic strip books have all been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List,” Davis says. “At one time there were seven on the list simultaneously. At that point, they changed the way the list was done because other publishing houses were complaining that their authors couldn’t get on the list because of Garfield. Garfield at Large (1980) was number one for two solid years. Over 100 weeks.” The title of every compilation book is a reference to either food or Garfield’s weight.

18. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND STEPHEN KING ARE AMONG THE MANY CELEBRITIES WHO OWN ORIGINAL GARFIELD STRIPS.

They both contacted Davis personally for the strips; the cartoonist happily obliged.

19. DESPITE GARFIELD BEING INSANELY POPULAR FOR DECADES, DAVIS IS STILL MOSTLY ANONYMOUS.


Muncie Magazine

“Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity,” he says. “You take a half-dozen of the biggest cartoonists and walk them down any street, nobody would notice them. They only know their characters. So I just hide behind Garfield. The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies. It’s not a big deal. I’m sitting here in the countryside of East Central Indiana, so it’s pretty quiet.”

20. DAVIS'S FATHER'S FAVORITE COMIC STRIP WASN'T GARFIELD.

Davis's father and namesake, who passed away in 2016, liked Garfield but preferred another comic strip: Beetle Bailey. “Nobody else knew that until today,” Davis tells us.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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