Corto Maltese is the kind of comics character that most boys who read comics want to grow up to be (and a lot of middle-aged comics writers wish they already were). He’s like a Hemingway protagonist, or Han Solo playing Indiana Jones—a tough, cynical, dashing, free-thinking, roguish sailor/adventurer/scoundrel who’s hated by his rivals and desired by women and who usually couldn’t care less either way.
So the recent English-language publication of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea (Universe) should have been a moment of triumph for European comics in America. Pratt’s series of early 20th-century high-seas intrigue and action featuring the iconic title character, originally published in Italian between 1967 and 1989, is widely acknowledged as one of the great sustained achievements in adventure comics—both Frank Miller and Umberto Eco provided blurbs for this new edition. But Pratt and Corto Maltese remain shadowy figures in the United States, thanks to a rather shabby history of translations and reprints, not to mention the exorbitant Web auction prices that long out-of-print editions demand.
But the immediate response to The Ballad of the Salt Sea when it appeared in March wasn’t a sweeping hurrah from the nerd ranks. A blog post at the Big Planet Comics website titled “How to Destroy a Comics Classic” quickly became the standard text for disappointed fans. The problem, typical of English translations of European comics, is that the publisher reformatted the original artwork from album size (approximately eight inches wide and 12 inches tall) to the smaller U.S. comics size (about six and a half inches by 10 inches). That might seem like a minor adjustment, but the smaller size wreaks havoc on Pratt’s narrative; the subtle storytelling rhythm of the album format is obliterated as pages and panels are stretched and squeezed to fit into a format they weren’t designed for. Moments of suspense and drama originally intended for the final panel of a right-hand page—the pauses just before the reader turns to find out what will happen next—are lost or upended in this new edition. (“How to Destroy a Comics Classic” compares several pages from a 1996 European-size English-language edition with the new version, to devastating effect.)
Universe has a defense: The publisher says the reformatting was approved by Pratt before his death in 1995. Besides that, there’s just the brute economics of comics publishing. The smaller format is cheaper, and American readers don’t buy album-sized comics anyway. If Pratt’s masterwork is going to appear here in an affordable edition that stays in print, this is probably the only way it’s ever going to happen. And, as a reader who has waited years for an introduction to Corto Maltese, I’ll take it. It may not be ideal, but at least it’s something. Longtime fans who have earlier editions or who read the original Italian won’t need to bother with the new version—and, in fact, will probably hate it—but I’m not complaining too much.
Because, even in this new bastardized edition, The Ballad of the Salt Sea is as good as I’d always heard. It’s the first Corto Maltese story, set between 1913 and 1915 and originally serialized between 1967 and 1969. Maltese himself is introduced just a few pages in, floating in the South Seas, tied to a wooden raft after a mutiny. He’s rescued by his colleague and rival, the dastardly privateer Captain Rasputin, and the two soon set out with a plot to commandeer a Dutch ship and sell its coal to the German navy. (There’s a subplot about a pair of Australian castaways held for ransom.) The cast includes Maltese, Rasputin, a crew of Pacific islanders, brass-balled naval officers, and the mad criminal mastermind the Monk. There’s scheming and cross-scheming, buried treasure, naval warfare, melodrama, and even an extended fight with an octopus, the book’s action highlight.
Pratt gets the tone just right—the poetic, dreamlike exoticism of the South Pacific setting is grounded by the characters’ political maneuvering and layers of self-interest and treachery—and his artwork is often breathtaking. His delicate but scrappy brushwork, in the minimalist style of Joe Kubert, is both lyrical and realistic. It’s classic high adventure in the tradition of Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad. It’s a shame the new version offers such a diluted sense of Pratt’s original, but even a refracted view of his work is better than none.