I’ll try to keep this brief; the book is 45 years old, after all!
Recently, Universe Publishing released a new translation of Hugo Pratt’s seminal comic, Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea, with plans, it seems, to have new editions of every story starring the incorrigible sailor.
This comic was published in 1967 and remains Pratt’s most enduring creation, although he had a long and rich career. This new edition costs $25, which isn’t bad. It’s a nice looking book with a good spine, and it uses good, thick paper stock.
The story introduces us to Corto Maltese, as we first see him when he’s strapped to a ramshackle raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he’s picked up by an old comrade of his, Captain Rasputin. The book begins in November 1913 and involves several nations that would soon be at war with one another, most notably the Germans and the English (the book ends in early 1915, even though it doesn’t feel like over a year has passed; it’s a minor concern, but it is somewhat weird, as the action is seriously telescoped). Rasputin has also picked up two teenages, Pandora and Cain Groovesnore, cousins from a notable shipping family. He’s taking them back to his (and Corto’s) boss, the Monk, a mysterious figure who wears a hood that obscures his face, employs pirates, and does business with everyone in the area, regardless of nationality. Rasputin believes they can ransom the kids for a lot of money, so they’re taking them back to the Monk’s secret island, from which he runs his operations.
The book is an old-fashioned, pot-boiling melodrama, with all sorts of double-crossing, shifting alliances, daring escapes, gun battles, damsels in distress (although Pandora takes care of herself pretty well, to be honest), and shocking revelations. Corto Maltese is a decent enough fellow, and he realizes soon that he needs to protect the kids from Rasputin, who’s a bit of a scumbag. They, of course, don’t trust him initially because he runs with Rasputin, but they soon understand that he’s looking out for them. They escape from Rasputin, get washed up on a deserted beach, run from the natives, get recaptured by Rasputin, who’s now hanging out with the Germans, and end up on the Monk’s island, where everything comes to a head. Pratt writes Corto Maltese as a charming rogue, willing to do some dirty work but also willing to stand up for the oppressed when he sees oppression. Most of the fun of reading this book is following the plot, because it’s intricate and wide-ranging – the war is ever-present, so alliances in Europe affect events occurring in New Guinea and the surrounding islands (much of the book takes place around the Bismarck Archipelago).
The Monk and his minions are working with the Germans, but Corto Maltese has no problem working with the English when they show up toward the end. What does he care? He just wants to make sure that Pandora and Cain are safe and that he can live to see another day.
Pratt does a nice job creating a lot of different kinds of characters, too. Corto Maltese is the star, but each character has an interesting personality that drives the book forward. Pandora appears to be a weak female stereotype, but soon enough she reveals a depth of cleverness and guile that helps her maneuver between all these alpha males. Cain is wildly headstrong, leading him to make crazy choices but also making him bold. Rasputin is a small man with grand but ultimately petty ambitions, unable to see beyond his own desires. Cranio, one of the natives, is far wiser than anyone gives him credit for, and fiercely loyal to the Monk and Corto. Tarao, the Maori, is brave and smart, willing to do what it takes to save Pandora and eager to put Rasputin in his place. Lieutenant Slutter, the German sailor who acts as a liaison to the rest of the Imperial Navy, has a measured temperament and is coolly fatalistic about the war that erupts during the course of the book. Pratt reveals these characters through the plot machinations, so there’s not a lot of time to relax when you’re reading, as you just has to go along and see them in action.
I mentioned that I’ve never been impressed with Pratt’s writing, and I figured that if anything would make me change my mind, it’s Corto Maltese. But then we get into translations, and that’s where this becomes tricky. When I bought this book, one commenter mentioned that the translation is very awkward and the art has been cropped to fit the format. Jack Feerick linked to his review of the book, which goes into the translation problems a bit more. The book is translated by Hall Powell, and the best thing I can say about it is that it’s utilitarian. According to Feerick’s review, Pratt’s writing is far more lyrical than the translation indicates, and that’s the worst thing about the book – the characters often sound as if they’re simply reciting plot points. The writing gets the point across, but someone reading this for the first time (like me) can see that Corto Maltese is supposed to be more rogueish, but he’s not, and Tarao is supposed to be more cheeky, but he’s not, and Pandora is supposed to be a bit more caustic, but she’s not.
The lettering is bad, too, as you can see from the scans. It’s inelegant and ponderous, making the clunky translation even more difficult to read. As for the artwork, Pratt appears to work in the traditions of some of the 1960s minimalists – Joe Kubert is probably the most accomplished of these. I’m not as familiar with 1960s artists as I should be, obviously, but I get kind of a rougher Frank Robbins vibe from Pratt’s work on this book. Some of his nature shots are absolutely gorgeous, and overall, the artwork is suffused with a beautiful tropical coloring and gives us a wonderful sense of the South Pacific. Patritzia Zanotti colored this, and the paler hues she uses helps create an odd sense of lassitude in the book, which, when juxtaposed against the rather frantic proceedings, provides an interesting feel to the comic. I don’t know if the cropped art suffers from the original – I looked at some of Pratt’s work on-line, and it does seem that he smoothed out his line a bit and experimented with some different kinds of washes, but that might be later work and doesn’t reflect what’s going on here. [Edit: In the comments, Tuomas has a link that doesn’t work, but here it is (sorry, Tuomas – I don’t know why your link goes back to my review!). It’s a tremendous look at how butchered this edition is, and now I’m even more impressed that I enjoyed this comic as much as I did even though I didn’t know how it had been altered.]
I remain ambivalent about Hugo Pratt after reading this book, mainly because of things beyond his control. It’s frustrating reading comics originally done in different formats and in languages you don’t understand, because so much relies on a translator being able to bring across both the literal content and the spirit of that content, while a different format might mean that the artwork is not seen as it was originally intended. As much as I think the coloring is good, I wonder if seeing this in black and white (if that was how it was originally done) might change my opinion. The Ballad of the Salt Sea is an entertaining comic, to be sure, but it also feels like there’s something missing from it. I am curious to read another Universe edition of Corto Maltese’s adventures, though, because there’s a lot in this book to like, even with the problems. I wouldn’t call this a great comic, but I will Mildly Recommend it, especially if you’re interested in comic book history. There’s no denying its importance, but I hope that the next story will prove its greatness.