Corto Maltese might have been a sensation in Europe for decades, but he’s largely slipped through the cracks in America. If Rizzoli USA's new edition of his first adventure has anything to do with it, Corto will finally join Tintin, Asterix, and the Moomins in capturing the American imagination.
The creation of Italian cartoonist Hugo Pratt, wandering adventurer Corto Maltese is featured in the graphic novel The Ballad of the Salt Sea, now available in the United States for the first time in over 20 years.
Claiming fans like Tim Burton, Frank Miller, and Umberto Eco, Pratt’s book series—there are 29 volumes in total—follow the globe-spanning adventures of an early 20th Century privateer, all with a very progressive political view. Think “Terry and the Pirates” with a global concern.
Pratt—who died in 1995—was renowned for his attention to historical detail, and ability to address complex geo-political issues in the context of a swashbuckling adventure. His work was the subject of a major art show at the Pinacotheque in Paris, which saw 215,000 visitors during its run last year. In 2005, he was inducted into the Eisner Awards Hall of Fame.
Rizzoli’s edition marks the first direct-from-Italian translation in English in the book’s history. The translator for this version is Hall Powell, a filmmaker and screenwriter for television shows like Law and Order.
“It’s a kind of a Biblical source,” Powell said. “It was so important to all of my French and Italian friends that it was a serious undertaking.”
Powell had lived in Italy when he was younger—he was Roman Polanski’s assistant for a period—and continued to visit throughout his life. One evening, he found himself in the same place as Patrizia Zanotti, Pratt’s longtime assistant and owner of the rights to all his work, when the conversation turned to a release of Corto Maltese for the American market and her quest for a translator.
“I told her why don’t I take a look at this and see how I feel about translating it,” Powell said. “I sat with it for a week or so and ended up translating 20 or 25 pages, and about 48 hours later, she and Rizzoli had approved me. I was off and running.”
Powell did the translation using Final Draft, which formatted it just like a movie script and allowed him to easily take into account the visuals that would shape the words.
“It probably went through five major pass-throughs thinking about how the language would fit in this country,” he said. “As I began to see the comic panels and it began to get finalized, the translation changed because I began to look at the way he’d drawn things and it changed the meaning in certain places. It was fascinating, and all organic and all good.”
Powell portrays the importance of Pratt’s creation as similar to that of spaghetti westerns, which were being produced at the same time. Those took the western narrative and genre conventions and used them to portray a moral ambiguity in direct conflict to the traditional black and white morality plays of the American versions.
“You see exactly that in Corto throughout the series. It’s a wonderful, philosophical underpinning that emerges again and again, and I think this, philosophically, takes us in an activist direction,” he said.
“It’s taking us in a way that’s congruent with what’s happening around the world with protests, and people waking up and saying, ‘Hey, wait a second, we’re all connected around the world’ and anything you do is part of a global movement. You’re either for the other or the outsider, or you’re for the inside and you’re going to profit off the demise of the outside. And Corto was clearly on the side of the other.”
Powell thinks that politically, there is no better time in history for Corto Maltese to come to America.
“It’s a real futuristic spirit. When you look at Occupy Wall Street now, and this general aspiration for real meaningful interaction and change for the disenfranchised, this guy embodied it. Corto lived it, he breathed it,” he continues.
“I think initially my feeling was, wow, there’s no foundation for this here and it might be perceived as too old fashioned, but in a way everything he does translates to the choices people have today about bucking the system and standing up to it and transcending and running around it and confronting it.”
Powell points to Corto’s destiny as being ingrained in the character right down to his name. Though traditionally thought to reflect the Italian word for short, “corto” is actually Buenos Aires slang—Pratt spent a lot of time in Argentina—for clever or shrewd.
Just before Pratt was devising his character, Malta had become independent of Britain and stood as a Mediterranean symbol of freedom. The character of Corto was born in the capitol of Malta, La Valletta, and functions as a walking extension of that symbolism.
“People were throwing off the colonial yoke around the world,” Powell said. “Corto’s favorite book is Thomas More’s Utopia. I think the really important thing about this, which I find hilarious and right and so funny, is that he never finished it. That, to me, is the definition of a truly pragmatic Utopian.”
As the Corto Maltese series continued, Pratt gave attention to areas of geography that few others were thinking about at the time of their creation—Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Middle Asia—in an attempt to investigate the wider expanse of “the other” in the world, and bridging the gaps created by colonialism. Whether American audiences will get to watch that unfold is currently unknown.
“Obviously it isn’t up to me,” said Powell. “I’d love to see this series embraced because I think it’s so important. As a comic, graphic novel hero, he’s a real hero and he’s a real anti-hero, and couldn’t be more appropriate for the times. If people take to it and it sells, they’re going to want to do more. If people don’t notice it and it doesn’t catch on, then there probably won’t be anymore.”
“This is powerful stuff, especially today. Pratt was certainly ahead of his time—and still is.”