THE MEDIÆVAL CASTLE

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THE MEDIÆVAL CASTLE
HAL FOSTER’S
THE MEDIÆVAL CASTLE:
IN THE DAYS OF PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT
Foreword by Brian M. Kane
I
n his “footer” strip The Mediæval Castle which begins partway through this volume, Hal Foster invites readers into
the daily lives of Lord and Lady Harwood.
Harwood? Wait, where did that name
come from? Did Foster ever refer to the
“lord of the castle” by name in the strip?
No, he didn’t, in fact—but he did name
the family “Harwood” more than a dozen
years later in his spin-off book, The Medieval
Castle (Hastings House, 1957).
Not naming your lead character is an
interesting device in any medium, and not
much trouble to pull off in the show-don’ttell medium of comics, but more difficult to achieve in a more prose-oriented
iteration of the material; so when the story
was converted into an illustrated book, the
editors at Hastings House wanted a name.
And Foster apparently had trouble coming up with names: After all, young Arn
in The Mediæval Castle is not the same Arn
we know and love from Prince Valiant—who
would after all not be born until three
years later. (Remember, when The Mediæval
Castle premieres, Val has yet to abduct—
um, “woo”—Aleta.) Yes, it might confuse
loyal readers, but suffice it to say, Foster
really liked the name “Arn.”
The Mediæval Castle, complete with the
snazzy “ae” ligature in its title (not found
in the book’s title), begins shortly before
the First Crusade, which was launched
in 1095 C.E. This is distinctly different
from the time frame of Prince Valiant: In the
Days of King Arthur, which takes place in the
late 5th/early 6th century C.E., half a millennium earlier. Note the vast differences
in the architecture, in the clothing, in the
weaponry between the two strips. Okay:
There are none. Well, at least it’s not your
basic war-between-two-houses-add-in-alove-story plot, right? Wrong: It is, and at
only three panels a week, it is not long on
character development. So why did Foster
create it? Why did he take a full tier away
from Val’s trek through the Arab world,
dragging Aleta around by her hair like
a caveman, for such a secondary strip?
Because, at the time, America was in the
middle of World War II, and there was a
paper shortage.
The Mediæval Castle (“A New Exciting
Story”) began on April 23, 1944 (it
would run for a little over a year and a
half). At that point, the United States
had been at war for a little more than two
years. Foster’s son, Arthur, was a soldier.
Rationing was a way of life. Food, clothing, fuel, and even paper were rationed
to aid in the war effort. The first three
rationed items are easy to understand in
terms of aiding the troops, but paper?
Why paper? The answer is, the Army
needed paper because it did not have an
ample supply of cotton linters to produce
guncotton for small arms and artillery.
Have you ever watched a Civil War
movie, and heard someone mention
“guncotton?” The scientific term is nitrocellulose, and it is a highly nitrated explosive
used in the making of “smokeless pow-
der.” (Think TNT.) In 1940, before the
U.S. entered the war, the Anglo-French
Purchasing Board formed the Tennessee
Powder Company in order to produce
munitions. (Foreign countries owning a
munitions production plant on American
soil? Go figure.) With the fall of France,
Britain took over the company, and contracted DuPont to build and manage a
six-thousand-acre site north of Memphis.
Utilizing a workforce of over nine thousand black and white workers, on a roundthe-clock schedule, the plant was built in
less than a year. (King Arthur would have
loved to have that crew when he was building Camelot!) In May 1941, the U.S. government acquired the plant, and changed
the name to Chickasaw Ordnance Works.
At its height, the plant employed more
than eight thousand women. Yet even
with a good crop of cotton, and the facility running at full capacity, the supply
of linters for guncotton fell short of the
needed requirements for munitions. So
an alternative had to be found.
Actually, the use of wood fibers or “pulp
paper” as a substitute for cotton linters
predates Christian Friedrich Schönbein’s
invention of guncotton in 1846 by over a
[above] trapped in the grid: Samples #1 and #2 above (pages 122 and 140) show how, when unencumbered by grid considerations, Foster could dynamically vary the
format of his panel layouts for special sequences. Samples #3 and #4 (760 and 761), the first two pages under the new strictures, feature the same beautiful art but with far fewer
options —although the “grid” format did still allow for a big splash panel/two smaller panels as shown in sample #5, the birth of the twins (767).
decade. The problem was that it was unstable, which is not good for an explosive.
This problem was soon solved, however,
and by the fall of 1941, the Army had substituted bleached sulphite pulp for cotton linters in the manufacture of smokeless powder. It was also around this time
that the Army determined there was going
to be a paper shortage. Under Norbert
A. McKenna, Chief of the Pulp, Paper,
Printing and Publishing Section, Office
of Production Management (OPM) paper
became America’s number one critical wartime material, according to Will
Murray in his article “Black Market Comic
Books of the Golden Age!” in Comic Book
Marketplace. As reported in TIME magazine,
“Paper Policeman McKenna” estimated
that the military’s consumption of available
paper in 1942 was 30% of the available
supply, which was potentially devastating
news for publishing.
Publishers were understandably nervous. In 1943, paper allotments were frozen
at 1942 levels, but were later cut by 10%,
and then, in 1944, cut by another 25%.
To make room for new titles, book and
periodicals publishers had to cut or trim
healthy, top-selling titles, and thus in
newspaper comics sections, full-page
comics such as Prince Valiant came under
editorial scrutiny. William Randolph
Hearst had originally promised Foster a
full page but “the war was on,” and concessions had to be made. In Foster’s case the
concession was The Mediæval Castle. Besides,
who wants to be considered un-American,
especially when your own son is a soldier?
In this way Foster could keep his full page,
not lose any newspapers that needed the
space to run a single-tier comic below
it, and not have Val’s story interrupted.
(To my knowledge, no North American
paper ever cut The Mediæval Castle strip, so it
turned out to be a moot gesture.)
The dropping of the atomic bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and
9 of 1945 effectively ended World War
II. With its end also came the termination of paper rationing and the return of
the full-page Prince Valiant: In the Days of King
Arthur. Val’s broadsheet escapades would
continue unaffected until Hearst’s death
on August 14, 1951.
Less than a month after Hearst’s passing, Foster’s freedom to creatively design
pages and panels was curtailed—again, for
space-saving reasons. In order to allow
papers to reformat Prince Valiant into a twotier horizontal strip, one of the three tiers
had to be evenly divided. This also meant
that vertical three-tier action shots like
the one in which Val jumps off the castle parapet into a moat could never again
grace the Sunday page (see Vol. 1, strip
#35, 10-9-37). Thus with strip #760,
September 2, 1951, the Prince Valiant page
was forever locked into the restrictive format that continues to this day. Though it
continued to be beautifully crafted by a
master artist, from this point on the Prince
Valiant page appears less flamboyant, less
dramatic then the pages that preceded
it. Perhaps this is why many people have
a skewed perception of Foster as a storyteller, and part of the reason why today’s
audience is surprised to find Val’s early
adventures so—adventurous. (Readers who
happen to have a copy of the 17th volume of Fantagraphics’ earlier Prince Valiant
reprint series can see the change as it
occurs.) Similarly, another Hearst prop-
erty, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (which
was famous for its idiosyncratic layouts),
also suffered through a period of format
constriction.
The Mediæval Castle spawned two reprint
books. The first, The Young Knight: A Tale of
Mediæval Times, published by John Martin’s
House in 1945, was a young readers book
containing panels from the strip. The
cover for The Young Knight, a panel from
Prince Valiant page 444 (8-12-1944) depicting Val before King Alfar, actually has
nothing whatsoever to do with the text.
This 24-page story focuses only on Arn’s
time as a pageboy with Sir Gregory, and
his budding romance with Melisande. In
this story Arn is not one of Sir Gregory’s
sons, but rather the exchanged son of
another noble—as was the custom of
the day. The story ends with Arn saving
Melisande from a young lion that bounds
out of the forest and attacks them. “Fear
was in her eyes as she looked at Arn. But
young Arn was already in action. He fitted an arrow to his bow. The lion was still
a good distance away. Taking careful aim,
he let fly the arrow. It caught the animal
squarely between the eyes. The lion gave
a leap of agony and fell dead, a full fifty
yards from them.” If you believe that lions
roamed England, or that seven-year-old
Arn can hit a moving target between the
eyes at fifty yards, you will have no problem with Sir Gregory immediately knighting Arn for saving his daughter.
The story ends with Arn riding off to
“seek adventures,” but before he goes, he
promises the five-year-old Melisande that
he will return soon and “ask Sir Gregory
for her hand.” Even for Foster completists
this book is a disappointment. Finally, in
1949, just four years after The Young Knight
appeared, Wilcox & Follett Co. published
Page Boy For King Arthur by Eugenia Stone
(1879-1971). Though it cannot be claimed
that the Foster book inspired the Stone
volume, the cover of Page Boy is a reversed
swipe of Prince Valiant page 97, panel 8 (1218-1938; see Vol. 1).
The second spinoff book was The
Medieval Castle (1957). Beginning in 1951,
Hastings House partnered with King Features Syndicate to produce seven volumes
[left] borrowing from himself: Foster
would re-use the stance of the character on the right in
this panel from The Medieval Castle (Hastings
House version—note the black-and-white-withgray-tones format, and the typeset text) in an editorial
cartoon drawn years later.
[below] contrasting endings: The 1945
“Mediæval Castle” story ends on a note of sad
uncertainty; in a similar storyline in the main Prince
Valiant story six years later, the mood is that of
outright tragedy.
in their Prince Valiant reprint series. The
Prince Valiant books were novelizations of
the strip, lavishly illustrated with re-purposed, re-arranged, and sometimes redrawn panels printed in black, white, and
gray tone. The Medieval Castle was smaller, but
designed in the same fashion as the other
Hastings House volumes. This begs the
question whether or not The Medieval Castle
was written solely by Foster, or ghosted
by Max Trell (1900-1996), who adapted
volumes 1 through 5 of the Prince Valiant
books (volumes 6 and 7 were adapted by
James Flowers). Trell was a screenwriter,
a children’s story author, Shirley Temple’s
ghost-writer for her book My Life and Times
(1936), and the writer on Secret Agent X-9
after Dashiell Hammett left. The Medieval
Castle is a faithful adaptation of the strip,
but it also fleshes out a few of the missing details. For example, as mentioned
earlier, the proprietors of the castle, who
were never named in the strip, are finally
christened Lord and Lady Harwood.
Additionally, the story flows more easily
because the reader is not hindered by the
three-panel weekly format.
On November 25, 1945, The Mediæval
Castle concluded, with its 84th installment.
A few years later, Foster would reuse the
basic war-between-two-houses-add-in-alove-story plot in Prince Valiant strips #722729 (12-10-1950 through 1-28-1951).
In the Prince Valiant iteration of the plot
Foster substituted Sir Gregory with Black
Robert, Lord Harwood with Ruy Foulke,
Hubert with Adrian, and Alice with Ruy
Foulke’s daughter—whom Foster never
got around to naming (again!).
Even though you will have to wait until
our next volume to read the conclusion of
The Mediæval Castle, I must tell you about its
final panel because it is interesting, and
telling, and reflective of a country that
had just seen an end to a major war. This
should not ruin the end for you—but perhaps it will make it a bit more poignant.
As with so many women during World
War II whose loved ones went off to war,
the story concludes with Lady Harwood
dealing with not knowing what the future
will bring. (The John Martin’s House
book edition, as we saw above, skipped
this ending entirely.) By contrast, the
conclusion to the similar Black Robert/
Ruy Foulke war story from the main strip,
drawn seven years later, shows a widow
and her children grieving the loss of their
husband and father.
The ending to The Mediæval Castle was
appropriate for its time, while the ending
to the Black Robert/Ruy Foulke story may
have been more in line with what Foster
had witnessed among his friends during World War II. The first is a story of
budding romance and the honor of fighting for a cause, while the second, while
romantic in its own way, is a harsher look
at the consequences of war, and those who
have “no appreciation of poetry!” ^
acknowledgements
The author wishes to thank Will Murray, Brian
Walker, Jeff Lindenblatt, and Mark Johnson for
their help in preparing this article.
selected bibliography
Anonymous (1941). TIME. “The Press: Paper
Shortage,” New York: TIME, Monday, Oct. 13,
1941.
Frank, Ed. The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History And
Culture: Chickasaw Ordnance Works. Mississippi Valley
Collection Version 2.0. http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entry.php?rec=245 accessed March
17, 2011.
Murray, Will (2000). “Black Market Comic
Books of the Golden Age!” Comic Book Marketplace.
Walker, Brian (2004). The Comics: Before 1945.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

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