This is a piece I have been ruminating for a while. It is not in any way academical and it does not even try to be exhaustive. But Bill Ziegler, last night, mentioned his curiosity for Corto Maltese, that he did not know. As a fanboy, I had never contemplated the hypothesis. But now I imagine that many don’t know the character, and so here it is – an introduction, with personal annotations.
This, really, is the sort of post I created Karavansara for. Who knows, maybe we’ll talk again about Corto Maltese again in the future1.
I was born in 1967 – just like Corto Maltese.
The first story in the Corto Maltese series was Una Ballata del Mare Salato (A Ballad of the Salt Sea), serialized between June 1967 and February 1969.
Set in the Pacific, and in Papua New Guinea in particular, between 1913 and 1915, introduces us to Corto Maltese, an adventurer possibly of Italian origins, and his alter ego/nemesis Rasputin, as they both serve as members of the crew of a corsair ship commanded by the mysterious hooded Monk, and nominally on the side of the Germans in the Great War. The story marries the classical tropes of adventure fiction with a subtle narration of human passions, betrayal and corruption, while sketching rapidly but accurately an often overlooked chapter of the Great War. Corto Maltese is not even the main character, or the true protagonist – this is an ensemble story, with a multitude of characters.
The lot, in 250 pages.
A Ballad of the Salt Sea was the work of Hugo Pratt, a 40-years old with distant British ancestors. His father had been a career officer, serving in North Africa. The whole family had been interned in a French concentration camp in 1941, where Hugo’s father died in ‘42. Hugo himself served on the Fascist side in Italy in ‘43, then risked being executed by the SS, and finally enlisted as translator and interpreter with the Allies.
Pratt had grown up with the works of Zane Grey and Oliver Curwood, and with the comics of Will Eisner and Milton Caniff. He founded a comic magazine in 1945. Pratt and his co-workers were highly appreciated especially on the South-American market, and therefore moved there in 1947. In Argentina he worked with Hector Oesterheld and created the character of Sgt. Kirk for a series of Western adventures…
This, to give you an idea of the author: Pratt is one of those authors whose life is as adventurous and eventful as the life of his characters, and it shows.
In 1962, Pratt came back home to Italy – where he produced a series of adaptations of works by Louis Stevenson, including Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and some adaptations of Salgari’s Sandokan. Then in 1967, Corto.
A Ballad of the Salt Sea made a splash. Well before the idea of graphic novel, Pratt was writing a literary comic, with a complex plot, complex characters, a wealth of cultural references and historical details2, and supported by a graphic style that was unique, and lyrical. The historical elements, the tone and the themes of the story, together with Pratt’s political background, caused much debate at a time in which narrative and politics were perceived as tightly intertwined.
One thing was for certain – Corto Maltese was an adult read, with adult themes.
It must be noted that, as it was often the case at the time, the Corto Maltese comics were printed both in black and white and color editions. Both styles have their estimators and their detractors.
Following the 250 pages of Ballad, Pratt wrote 21 short stories for a French magazine.
These 36-pages stories cover the years between 1916 and 1918, and see Corto Maltese in action between war-torn Europe, South America, the Middle and the Far East, the Pacific. A pirate, a smuggler and an adventurer, his motives often nebulous, Corto is often just a witness to events that are beyond human control. He meets a number of real life characters, including young Hemingway.
Recurring character Jeremiah Steiner, perpetually searching for Lost Mu, introduces an element of fantasy, that is reinforced in some of the stories – in which dream and reality overlap. The Arthurian legends – including Merlin and Morgaine, make an appearance.
The short stories introduce Bocca Dorata, a mysterious Brazilian woman, a shrewd entrepreneur and a mystic, that will sometimes act as chorus or as gateway to the unusual.
These are the stories I read as a kid when they were printed in Italy in the early 1980s by a magazine dedicated to Corto Maltese himself. This is where I met the character. In particular, I have a powerful memory of Côtes de Nuit et roses de Picardie, a story about a drunken British sniper that kills the Red Baron. In typical Corto Maltese fashion, accurate history and fiction click perfectly.
Back in Italy, between 1974 and 1977, Pratt wrote and illustrated Corte Sconta detta Arcana a 176 pages story set in the East, and featuring the Mad Baron Roman von Hungers Sternberg, an armored train loaded with gold, and endless intrigue. Rasputin makes a comeback (he was in only one of the short stories), and is fully developed as the anti-Corto: a man living a similar life, but animated by an opposing philosophy.
And yes, Corte was there at the back of my mind when I wrote The Ministry of Thunder. Because if you have to steal, you have to steal from the best.
Three more long stories follow: Favola di Venezia (Venetian Fable), set in Venice in 1921, and featuring Masonic elements; La Casa Dorata di Samarcanda (The Gilded House of Samarkand) a treasure hunt set along the Silk Road in 1921-1922; and Tango, set in Argentina in 1923, with Butch Cassidy as a guest star. Between these, we meet a young Corto Maltese, together with Rasputin and Jack London, in Manchuria in 1905 in the 69-pages story The Youth, and finally find him away from the sea, in Switzerland in 1924 pr the 69-pages story Rosa Alchemica(The Alchemist’s Rose) – the old regular Jeremiah Steiner is joined by Hermann Hesse and Tamara de Lempicka as supporting cast.
Corto finally appears in Mu, set in 1925, in which all the loose ends are tied, or simply dissolve in a mirror game between reality and dreams.
Hugo Pratt died in Lousanne in 1995.
Trying to list the main elements of the Corto Maltese, these are
- Exotic locations
- Classic adventure elements
- Historical and literary references
- An underlying melancholia (that clashes with the adventure themes)
- An interest for human ethics and politics, and for the interplay of reality and imagination
Both Ballad and Court were also turned into novels, and the adventures of Corto have been adapted to the stage, usually underscoring the more existentialist elements.
In 2002 a TV series was produced in France, 26 animated episodes adapting the original stories. These can be found online on Youtube in Italian and French, with English subtitles (just search for Corto Maltese). This was a high-profile international prestige production, and should have been more successful. It was certainly penalized by its slow rhythm, and its adult themes.
Here’s the beginning of Ballad…
In the end, it can be said that Corto Maltese is the longest, most complex, literate and deep work of Italian imaginative fiction of the 20th century. Fifty years on, it has survived fashions and social change, it has shrugged off the attempts from both Left and Right to co-opt it for political propaganda, and still shines for its freshness, its intelligence, its mysteries and its stunning art.