Corto Maltese – graphic novels on a higher plane

The faithful translation of Hugo Pratt’s graphic novels introduces his hero to the wider audience he deserves

Artillery Row

Graphic novels have had an official designation in bookstores for nearly two decades. The term was first coined in 1964 by U.S. comics historian Richard Kyle to establish a separate category for books that contained comic strip art and stories, but were far different and meatier than comic books or comic strips.

Three books, all released in 1976, continue to lay claim as being the first-ever graphic novel: Richard Cobden’s Bloodstar, Jim Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide and George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again. The 1978 release of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God increased the genre’s appeal and collectability. Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel (1982), followed by Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1987), turned graphic novels into the phenomenon that still exists today.

Yet the original concept of long-form “drawn literature,” which evolved into the graphic novel, has existed for more than a century.

Swiss cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois (1837), released in the United States in 1849 as The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, is the first recognized example. Others including J.A.D. and D.F. Read’s Journey to the Gold Diggins, by Jeremiah Saddlebags (1849), a collection of Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid published in 1897, and popular modern series like Georges “Hergé” Remi’s The Adventures of Tintin and René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s The Adventures of Asterix.

One of Europe’s most talented long-form cartoonists was Hugo Pratt. Born in Rimini, Italy in 1927, he showed an early aptitude for comic strip art and storytelling. In 1945, he worked on the comic book Albo Uragano and created the popular character Asso di Picche (Ace of Spades), which ultimately became the publication’s name. His first solo comic book, Anna della jungla (Ann of the Jungle), was published in Argentina. He worked on war comics for Britain’s Fleetway Publications, and later returned to Italy in 1962 to work for a children’s comics magazine, Corriere dei Piccoli.

Pratt’s defining career moment occurred when he co-created (with Florenzo Ivaldi) a comics magazine, Il Sergente Kirk, in 1967. The introductory issue contained a story he illustrated and wrote, Una ballata del mare salato (A Ballad of the Salt Sea). It was the first appearance of his most beloved character, Corto Maltese.

He would go on to publish twelve graphic novels containing twenty-nine stories of the swashbuckling sailor who was a “rogue with a heart of gold.” The books have been available in Italian for decades, and the series was reprinted into French by Belgian comics publisher Casterman. Several English language translations of Corto Maltese have been produced, but none remained true to Pratt’s unique vision.

Until a few years ago, that is.

Dean Mullaney’s Eurocomics, an imprint of IDW Publishing, set out in 2014 to produce a proper set of English language editions. Working hand-in-hand with Simone Castaldi, an associate professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Hofstra University, each volume has been translated with painstaking precision and accuracy. He told The Comics Journal in a February 2015 interview that Castaldi “grew up in Italy and grew up reading Corto, so he really knows the material and he knows the language …We also pay attention to Pratt’s humour. He’s got a lot of wry humour throughout the series and we want to keep that and keep the rhythm of his language. My job is to make it read like Hugo Pratt wrote it in English.” Pratt’s incredible art has been perfectly preserved, and Mullaney, who also established another IDW imprint, the Library of American Comics, introduced original cover art, detailed maps and small summaries.

Corto was born in 1887 in Valletta, Malta, the son of a British sailor and Spanish gypsy. In the book Beyond the Windy Isles, he briefly alluded to his mother being “a famous sorceress with a profound knowledge of demons,” and that his father was “the nephew of an old sorcerer from Tintagel, where Merlin the Wizard lived.” His name is apparently derived from Andalusian argot and means “quick hands.”

When Corto’s father disappeared, his mother took him to the Jewish quarter of Córdoba, Spain, where he became a pupil of her ex-lover, Rabbi Ezra Toledano. He was bright, quizzical and, as he got older, more philosophical in nature. As mentioned in The Early Years, he went to have his palm read one day – and was surprised to find out he had no fate line. He would run back home, grab his father’s old razor and cut a line on his right hand’s palm so that he could be the master of his own fate.

Corto was fascinated by ships, water and travel, but he resembled a classic nineteenth century everyman rather a grizzled sea dog. “I’m not a hero,” he said in The Ethiopian. “I am like everyone else … and I have the right to make mistakes like everyone else … without having to do any soul searching every time.” Indeed, he was a consistent champion of the underdog, treated everyone with equal respect, resisted the use of flowery language, liked the occasional stiff drink and good smoke, and had no issue in engaging in hand-to-hand combat or using weapons.

His sea-faring journeys could also be described as great historical adventures.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, a young reporter and author-to-be, Jack London, accompanied him in Manchuria. In Tango, he meets an old acquaintance, the outlaw Butch Cassidy. He came across an armoured train covered with gold in the graphic novel In Siberia that was once owned by the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II. He met author Ernest Hemingway in Celtic Tales, and was in the trenches when Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron,” was shot down in the First World War (in that same book, Corto would briefly see the plane of another flying ace, Hermann Göring).

Ergo, Corto played the role of a comic strip observer and participant in real-life history. The technique wasn’t revolutionary for the time. U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt had showed up in the tenth issue of Marvel Mystery Comics back in 1940, while Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower both got kidnapped in separate stories while serving in the White House. But Pratt’s uncanny ability to consistently and effectively blur the lines between reality and fantasy made his stories all the more enjoyable.

To date, Eurocomics has released ten of the twelve original volumes (the first, The Ballad of the Salty Sea, and last, Mü: The Lost Continent, are still to come). Some contain several shorter stories, like Celtic Tales and Under the Sign of Capricorn, while Fable of Venice and The Secret Rose are extended graphic novels. The common thread is obviously Corto, although many of the friends and allies he makes along the way, including Czech academic Jeremiah Steiner, voodoo princess Gold Mouth, and the mysterious Russian Rasputin (no relation to the historical character), return in story after story.

Pratt’s uncanny ability to consistently and effectively blur the lines between reality and fantasy made his stories all the more enjoyable

Each volume is fascinating, engaging and, quite often, intellectually stimulating. Pratt’s artistic and writing talents are always on fully display, and his ability to weave together extensive plot and character development in a relatively short amount of space is rather extraordinary.

Under the Sign of Capricorn, for instance, takes place in the Caribbean islands and Amazon forests. The first meeting between Corto and Steiner is one of the highlights. The sailor would save his soon-to-be friend from getting beaten up by a much larger man. When asked why he did it, he told the academic, “Maybe I’m the King of the Idiots, the last representative of an extinct dynasty that believed in generosity! … In heroism!”

In The Golden House of Samarkand, he adventured on the Caspian Sea, walked the Silk Road and breathed in Persian culture. There’s also an appearance by Corto’s doppelgänger Timut Chevket, a Turkish general who even fooled Rasputin. When Chevket asked if they looked the same, the Russian noticed his lack of a pierced ear and said “that guy is so noble it borders on stupidity. He’s not a son of a bitch like us … no!”

Meanwhile, The Secret Rose is a brilliant, masterful tale of illusion and the human psyche. It’s based on a extended dream sequence where the Holy Grail, Sandman and Death appear. As Corto attempts to figure out his surroundings, he exclaimed, “I have to find the way out of this nightmare … yet it doesn’t feel like … I’m dreaming. But everything that happens has … an incredible, yet false quality to it!”

Mullaney, Castaldi and Eurocomics have created the perfect entry point for English-speaking Europeans and North Americans to finally discover the incredible world of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese. At long last, he can now take his rightful place as the crown prince of Europe’s drawn literature/graphic novel legacy.

Michael Taube is a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor. He was a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

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