The Russo-Japanese war was a complicated affair. So complicated, in fact, that the Wikipedia entry on the subject is longer on political background than on the actual war.
In a nutshell: Japan was eager to flex some muscles and define its role as a modern imperial power in the East. Russia was eager to get a year-round port on the Pacific, and maybe acquire a large chunk of China. Russia was an enormous nation, which messed up logistics. Japan had better commanding officers.
The war lasted between 1904 and 1905, and was the first big conflict of the 20th century.
And Corto Maltese was in it, and so was his perpetual friend/adversary, Rasputin.
Because this is Corto Maltese, the Youth.
Pratt created this 67-pages story in the second half of 1981, for a French newspaper. The story was thus developed as daily black and white strips, with Corto making his big entry in a full-page, full-color Sunday special. But there were problems, and Corto’s appearance got pushed forward week after week.
As a result, The Youth is really the story of Rasputin and of Jack London, set in Manchuria at the end of the Russo-Japanese war.
The story follows Rasputin – young but already a dangerous sociopath – as he deserts the Russian army after killing an officer. His path intersects Jack London’s.
London finds himself caught up in a confused matter of honor with a Japanese officer, Captain Sakai. As London’s duel approaches, the American helps Rasputin get in touch with Corto Maltese, a young adventurer on his way to Africa to look for King Solomon’s mines. As a thank you gift to London, Rasputin kills Sakai, and the situation precipitates.
And this is more or less it.
It is a recurring theme in the Corto Maltese story that history is merciless and no good action goes unpunished, and this story represents the mood perfectly. The historical research behind the story is also evident in the detail, and contributes to the overall quality of Youth.
The story is good, the characters are engaging, but we do not get much insight on Corto’s actual youth. Indeed, if anything the exact role of Corto Maltese, his full background gets more obscure because of this story.
We can glean much more information from the extra material that the hardback edition bundles with the story, including some stunning watercolor impressions of Corto’s early years. We also learn about his mother (a beautiful Andalusian gypsy) and get a passing mention of his father (a British naval officer from Cornwall).
We do catch a glimpse of Corto in Africa in a short, unpublished piece, in which the adventurer meets a Louise Brooks-lookalike, and talks about his early experiences in Africa. Could this have been the start of a flash-back story, with Corto on the tracks of King Solomon’s Mine? Was Pratt planning on a follow-up, with Corto and Rasputin in Africa? Maybe with some H. Rider Haggard references?
This is uncertain. For sure, the French daily strips experience was not much for the Italian artist.
Rider Hagard’s books, by the way, are mentioned in Youth, as Jack London debates what is the best work of the British writer.
As I mentioned before, the edition I am using for this re-read plays fast and loose with the timeline: it opens with the first Corto story, written in ‘67, then goes on with a story written in 1981, then starts following the chronology again, with stories published in the ‘70s.
As a consequence, the contrast between the artwork and page structure of Ballad and of Youth is dramatic. In the fourteen years between the two stories not only Pratt’s art evolved, but also his storytelling style changed.
The effect can be shocking on first impact.