Fortune’s Unknown Soldier: The Influence of Hugo Pratt’s CORTO MALTESE
I first heard the name “Corto Maltese” when watching the original Tim Burton Batman movie as a boy. It was mentioned in passing by reporter Vicki Vale, who’d shot an article for TIME magazine about the small, fictional war torn nation. It wouldn’t be for another 16 years that I’d learn what that particular Easter egg meant, or how much of an impact it would have on my life.
The character of Corto Maltese was born out of the imagination of an Italian comic book artist/writer named Hugo Pratt, and into the pages of a magazine called Sgt Kirk in the year 1967, when the Gentleman of Fortune floated into the story tied to a raft in the middle of the Pacific. At first resembling nothing more than a supporting character, it didn’t take long for the reading public to see Corto as the star of the show. In Europe, Corto’s visage has adorned everything from t-shirts to Dior ads. Pratt himself eventually became regarded as something of a maestro, attaining levels of reverence held only for the highest echelons of European comics, yet most Americans have never heard of Corto (aside from the aforementioned movie) let alone his creator.
I first learned of Pratt through the admiration I had with my eventual friend and mentor, Paul Pope. Before he and I knew each other, I had followed his career quite closely for years and was constantly backtracking through his inspirations and teachers. Paul posted a study of one of Pratt’s watercolors called, “Combat” through his blog at one point in 2006 and it for me at that early stage of my career, was like finding a Rosetta Stone.
From what little bit of imagery I could scrape out of google image search in those early days, I immediately was able to see not only the influence Pratt had upon Paul, but other artists too. It wasn’t long after this discovery that I found myself rereading The Dark Knight Returns, and suddenly the name of that small island nation made complete sense. The island of Corto Maltese was Frank Miller’s silent “nod” to the great maestro Pratt, and it had worked its way into Tim Burton’s 1989 movie. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t enough to admire Pratt from afar. I wanted to make my own “nod” as Mr. Miller had, as well as Paul, eventually resulting in the creation of my own “Gentleman of Fortune”, Francis Carver.
At this point in the middle part of the first decade of the 21st Century, English editions of Pratt’s extensive catalog were rare and expensive. Spanish, French and Italian editions existed on ebay but the cost of shipping one book across the Atlantic was rather cost prohibitive for a young creator such as myself at the time. It would take me two years before I finally got my hands on a copy of that first story that appeared in Sgt Kirk, The Ballad of The Salt Sea. I found a small Spanish copy buried in the back of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t speak or read Spanish, I had found it. I felt like Indiana Jones in the hall of false grails from The Last Crusade, as I stood there amongst the tall shelves in what felt like the forgotten corner of the world’s largest bookstore.
Before I even bought the book, I started flipping through the pages, eventually finding myself on the floor as I poured over pages in sequence for the first time. It was almost immediate that I understood a great deal of Pratt’s mastery was his ability to tell a story visually. Despite the subtle twists and turns apparent in his stories, not least of all that language barrier, I was surprised years later when I was finally able to get my hands on those English editions. I had been able to infer a great deal of the story, including the subtleties, based on the visuals alone.
Rapidly I began to realize why Pratt was something of a bartender’s handshake in comics, especially amongst the old school creators. Once you began to pour yourself into the study of the story on all levels, it became clear to what extent Pratt exhibited a mastery over all elements of storytelling, not just as it applied to comics, or bandes dessinées as the Europeans call them, but storytelling in general. If comics are only just now starting to be accepted as literature in the United States, here was an example of eloquent, and fine storytelling from almost five decades before.
It was here that I began to understand just to what extent lineage plays a part in a career in comics. Well, let me rephrase that — I began to understand to what extent lineage would come to play in my career in comics. I took what today would be considered an unorthodox path by forgoing formal schooling.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, an individual arguably stood a better chance of breaking into comics, and growing as a creator by seeking out those better than themselves. Growth is uncomfortable typically, and going it alone is a painful process, much more painful than paying for a degree, and requires a thick skin and patience. To be fair, there are no assurances for the graduate with the bachelors, but there are at least fallbacks. There’s a great story that circulates in comics about a young Frank Miller arriving at Neal Adams’ door, asking for critique and guidance. Neal, none to impressed by the green artist, quickly sent him on his way telling him in a not so gentle manner that he had a long way to go. Frank left, but what Neal didn’t expect was for him to return. Again and again, always willing to take it in the gut, just to get that much better for the next time.
Going all-in on comics when I did meant committing myself to this kind of strange “masochism in the name of getting better,” but it worked. It worked rather rapidly to be honest, and eventually I was lucky to find a friend and mentor in Paul, who in turn had been lucky enough to learn from others in a much similar way starting out. For him, his “Neal” was Alex Toth and my greatest eviscerations eventually came at the hands of Jimmy Palmiotti and Bob Schreck, both of whom I am eternally grateful to. It’s a kind of tough love I respond to, because I am aware that I wouldn’t be getting that level of detailed critique, if they saw zero value in doing so. What this amounts to though is something of an oral tradition, one that I fear is actually dying in modern comics behind the scenes. I consider myself extremely lucky to have caught what I perceive to be the tail end of it in many ways.
Still, there remains an actual traceable path of the knowledge exchanging hands from person to person and I value that above all else. Above all else though, the unifying element in all of this- amongst the teachers, the knowledge itself and in turn the lineage, is that the name Hugo Pratt remains at the top of their lists, next to the word maestro.
Creator of CARVER: A PARIS STORY