Lettering Prince Valiant

Images © King Features.

As you may know, the comic strip “Prince Valiant” began in 1937, created by Hal Foster, who wrote and drew it until 1971, an amazingly long run. Above is a panel from early in the strip, in 1938, showing the original lettering style.


Here’s a closer look. The lettering is hand-drawn, but very uniform, also by Foster as far as I know. I suspect the round shapes were inked using a circle template, and the straight and angled strokes were done using a small straight-edge or triangle. The letters that don’t fit into those categories, like the S and R show the most variation, and are probably just drawn freehand. I can’t say what kind of pen Foster might have been using in 1938, but a technical drawing pen, the kind used for drafting lettering, is the likely choice. I’ve always admired this style, and have imitated it a few times, noteably on a page or two about the magician Zatara in THE BOOKS OF MAGIC mini-series written by Neil Gaiman for DC Comics. I found it very time-consuming, and not something I’d want to do often, but it’s kind of fun occasionally.


After Foster, the artist (and eventual writer) on Val was John Cullen Murphy. When he retired in 2004, the strip art went to Gary Gianni, who I’ve known and worked with for a while. Gary showed me some of the strips at the San Diego Comicon, and pointed out that the lettering was being done by someone at King Features using fonts created from Foster’s original lettering. Printouts of that lettering had been (lightly) pasted to the pages by Gary.

It looked fine, but Gary said, “I sometimes sell these to people who don’t like the pasted-on lettering. Would you be willing to replace it with hand-lettering on the art if a buyer wants to pay your fee for that?” I thought it was a great idea, as long as there wasn’t a huge amount of them, and Gary assured me it would probably only be a few a year. We settled on a fee, and I’ve been doing  them occasionally ever since. I have three pages now that I’m working on. The one above still has the type pasted on.


Here another that I’m working on now. I remove the pasted lettering, put it on my light box, and then using it as a guide, pencil in all the text on the art. The bottom panel has been inked, the rest is still pencils.


Here’s a closer look. Note that most of the lettering is in Foster’s original style, while the first and last lines of the page are in Old English, something that he began a bit later than the 1938 example I showed above. That’s actually the most fun part for me because it has so much variety.


Here’s a closer look at that pencilled caption, showing the first step in inking: using a circle template on the round letters: C, D, G and O. When that’s done I begin inking the straight lines with a small triangle, which I’ve just begun here. This was done with a technical drawing pen, a Faber-Castell TG1 size 2.


Here are all the straight vertical and angled strokes finished. Next I’ll go through and ink all the remaining letters and parts freehand.


And here’s the finished caption, only needing to have the pencil lines erased, which will happen when everything is inked. When the pages are all lettered, I’ll send them back to Gary. I like to think I’m doing this the same way Hal Foster did it, though I’ll never know for sure. Some of the letterforms are a little different from the 1938 example, probably taken from a later period, but it’s essentially the same. I’d call the text lettering Art Deco in style, the latest thing when the strip was new, while the Old English taglines and logo are perfect for the period depicted.

I think Gary’s doing a great job with Prince Valiant. His style is not an imitation of Foster, but it has many of the same qualities. Wish my local paper carried the strip, but at least there’s a great collection available, as well as the Flesk Publications book about the making of the Valiant pages. Both highly recommended, and linked below. And it’s nice to have a tiny share of the work on this historic icon of comics history, even if only a few people will ever see it.

8 thoughts on “Lettering Prince Valiant

  1. Carlos

    Hi, Todd. I’m from Mexico, and I studied a while with a teacher who worked with Foster. He used to color the pages, he even owns a couple of originals. Next time I seen him (I hope it’s soon) I’ll ask him to see if he knows something about how the lettering was made. Regards.

  2. Nate

    Fascinating. Can’t imagine doing more than a page at a time like that — pretty labor intensive. Results are crisp and very art-deco, though.


  3. Pingback: Todd’s Blog » Blog Archive » What I’m Working On

  4. diego

    Hi, Todd,

    Interesting thoughts, however Foster didn’t letter the strip himself, he had a series of different letterers throughout the years, each of them with varying different styles. There’s one who lettered up to page 558, another one that lettered from there on up to page 1189, then a third from there on up to page 1385, and at least a final one up to the end of Foster’s run. There could have even been another one between the second and third letterers, too.

    Until 1950 all the lettering was done directly on the original boards. Somewhere in the early 50’s, the lettering was done on pieces of paper that were then pasted on the boards. The only pages that seem to have been lettered by Foster himself were numbers 107-111, 113, 115 and 116, as they look pretty lousy compared to the lettering on other pages. But it isn’t certain it was done by Foster himself either. It could’ve been done by a different letterer Foster was trying out.

    Also, if you’ve ever seen an original Prince Valiant board first hand, you’ll notice that all the letters were done by hand, and not with any rulers or templates with round shapes (I stress the words “seen an original board”, as a scan can distort things). The ‘O’ s were never as round as you make them, other times they were slightly oval, and, as I’ve said before, there were many variations on the whole lettering throughout the years. Don’t forget that when the characters speak, it was written in italics. Try getting round ‘O’s there…

    The way you explain it would drive anyone crazy (lol!), even someone as peculiar as Foster. Not to take away the amazing job you did, but the lettering looks too mechanical and stiff. Remember also that Foster was running against time. He had to turn in a finished page every week. By following your method, he’d turn in a page every month (I’m just kidding, but it must’ve taken you quite a while to finish a page).

  5. Todd Post author

    After writing this article I did, finally, have a chance to see and study some original Prince Valiant pages from the 1940s, and I agree, it was not done with templates and straight edge as I do, but lettered very well by hand. My method allows me to get very close to that look, closer than I could get without the tools. Yes, it does take longer, but it gives me the result I’m after, and I’ve only lettered a small number of pages over the years, nothing like one a week.

  6. Meg Nash

    Todd. My Father, John Cullen Murphy, did the lettering also until 1991 when I took over. My dad did not write the story as you mention, my brother Cullen did that. I also did the painting of the strip.

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