One man's valiant work to save Hal Foster legacy ~ April 9, 2009
By J.T. Morand 
Not recognizing Hal Foster for what he did for superheroes is like not recognizing what Henry Ford did for the automobile industry or what Bill Gates did for computers, insists Sid Weiskirch.

Foster was the artist who drew the Tarzan and Prince Valiant comic strips starting in the 1930s. But, since the comics were geared toward adults, they had more of a fine art and realistic quality to them, as opposed to anthropomorphised animals lampooning humans, such as Felix the Cat.

The quality of Foster's drawings, Weiskirch said, inspired other well drawn comic strips such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, and the subsequent television cartoons and movies based on these characters and other superheroes.

"He started a trillion-dollar industry," Weiskirch said. "None of that would have happened without him."

Unfortunately, he added, not many people know how significant Foster is.

Weiskirch hopes to change that with "A Tribute to Hal Foster," on display at the Lincolnwood Village Hall through April 30. Large copies of the comics Foster created along with informational material hang just outside the council chambers on the first floor.

Weiskirch, curator of the tribute and a Skokie resident, has been taking the exhibit to public galleries, such as village halls and libraries, for the past three years to educate the public about the artist, who lived in Evanston, Wilmette and Chicago, and to push for a permanent exhibit at one of Chicago's museums.

"No one ever gave him credit for what he did. That's the point of the exhibit," Weiskirch said. "Give him a permanent place because he deserves it."

Foster, he said, even helped save the newspaper industry during the Depression.

Joseph Neebe, an advertising executive at the Campbell Ewald agency, believed newspapers could sell ads on the comic pages if there was a strip that would attract adults. In 1929, Neebe convinced Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs to feature his ape-man character in a strip, and artist Rex Maxon to do the drawings. But it wasn't until Foster took over as Tarzan artist that the strip really took off.

In 1937, Foster began drawing the Prince Valiant strip, which was hugely successful.

Today, Prince Valiant, drawn by Chicago-based artist Gary Gianni, is in 350 papers worldwide, Weiskirch said. Ironically, the strip isn't in any Chicago papers. The last time it ran in Chicago was 1974.

"There are two generations of people in Chicago who've never heard of him," he said.

But, some Lincolnwood residents are getting it.

One woman wrote on a legal pad left out for comments: "This is marvelous! I grew up reading Prince Valiant, and to know people still remember the part he played in comics history, and illustrations of all kinds, is wonderful. I hope to bring my husband, who loves Hal Foster, to see this exhibit."

Shirley Englestein, fine arts coordinator for the Lincolnwood Village Hall, said she has seen people stop by to observe the exhibit. Speaking personally, she said, she wanted to display the exhibit because Hal Foster was an important part of her childhood.

"Lincolnwood people like comics," she said. "I like the idea of going back to my youth and sharing these things with my children and grandchildren. I really loved Prince Valiant. This was the beginning of the whole movement of superheroes."

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