“When I want to relax I read an essay by Engels, if I want to commit myself I read ‘Corto Maltese’” – Umberto Eco
That widely-reported Eco quote might be apocryphal, and it’s certainly a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s no overselling Hugo Pratt’s comics about the travels of Corto, a curt sailor “without a ship” – or nation – or discernible allegiances.
When it comes to global-minded adventures, Pratt is the graphical successor to Emilio Salgari in Italy: Italian boys of a certain era dreamed of being Corto Maltese, the way their parents and grandparents dreamed of being Sandokan or the Black Corsair. ( As a matter of fact, Pratt wrote some Sandokan comics that were only published posthumously. Fans wondered why Pratt kept them a secret for so many years: they’re not juvenilia. One logical explanation was that sometimes magicians don’t want to advertise who they’re getting their tricks from.)
Corto Maltese’s influence goes beyond Italian schoolyards of the 70s and 80s: Pratt’s cynical hero, the complex story-lines, the historically-correct allusiveness, and the bold designs are manifest in Moebius, Frank Miller, Jorge Zentner, Paul Pope and Milo Manara (Manara was a friend, pupil, and frequent collaborator.)
Like Salgari’s, Pratt’s ethnic sketches feel a little crude; even when their sympathies were clearly with those on the losing side of imperialism, neither could help but add to the exotic atmosphere by making the non-Westerners look not so much like they’re from other countries or other races, but from other planets and other species.
I’m also putting his wordiness on the minus side: too much information is textual, hints of a frustrated novelist’s impetus, with the words overwhelming the drawings and pushing them into corners.
Still, that’s nit-picking. “Corto Maltese” is synonymous with adventure, and the stories are transporting: from deserts to jungles, from Brazil to Ethiopia, from oceanic expanses to lost continents, Pratt takes you everywhere.
POST-SCRIPT: When looking for copies of “Corto Maltese,” be careful! Here’s a brilliant take-down on what happens when comics are badly translated- and not just language-wise.
In 2002, the RAI made effective animated adaptations of some of the Corto Maltese albums. They’re reminiscent of “Batman: The Animated Series” in tone and style, but be warned: the graphic novels are wordy, and the cartoons are comparably talky. This is for mature viewers, not because of any nudity (there’s none) or violence (there’s some), but because it’s too slow-paced for the young and frantic.