Thursday, February 16, 2017

Corto Maltese: Celtic Tales by Hugo Pratt

I'm never sure how typical I am. I've been hearing about Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese stories for at least twenty years, but never read any of them. Oh, yeah -- the great European adventure series, intermittently translated into English and never published very well over here. I had a vague sense of it, but never read any of Pratt's stories. And I feel like that's pretty common: that a lot of people like me who read comics know who Pratt is, and have that vague sense that they might like his work, but haven't actually gotten to any of it. But I could be wrong.

Anyway, IDW's EuroComics imprint has been bringing out the Corto Maltese stories, in what I hear are both appropriately-sized books and good new translations -- both things that have not been as true in the past. (Again, this is second-hand info: I'm no expert.) And that gave me an opportunity to finally read Pratt's work.

The book I found was Celtic Tales, smack dab in the middle of the series -- according to the list in the end of the book, it's fifth in a series of twelve, though I'm not sure if internal chronology is the same as publication chronology, or which one is standardized in that list -- a collection of six stories set in Europe originally published in book form in 1972 (and, individually, sometime before that, though the book is silent on those details).

Corto Maltese is the main character, who I gather is an Italian sailor. The stories don't give him any background: he's just there, at or near the center of the action, and we take him as he is. He's not a talkative man -- adventure heroes often aren't -- and the wordy narration focuses more on scene-setting and explaining the geopolitical situation behind each story than on telling us about Corto and what he's trying to do. He's not in his very first youth, I guess, but young and vigorous enough, probably in that eternal thirties of other adventure-hero characters like Batman. And, at least in these stories, he's quite detached from the life and schemes around him: the few women (all dangerous and wily femmes fatale) don't stir him at all, and even the lure of riches seems only a minor drive. He's not quite enigmatic, but it's not clear at all what motivates him, or what he cares about.

That puts some distance from the reader -- at least this reader -- and these six stories, making them more historical and less personal than they could have been. Corto is wandering around the edges of the flailing dying struggles of The Great War, during 1917 and 1918, as he incidentally foils a spy plot in Venice, masterminds (mostly off-page) a big heist on the front near the Adriatic coast, falls in with Irish revolutionaries and then with characters of A Midsummer Night's Dream (the latter stopping a German invasion of England), passes near the battle of the Somme in time to see the fall of the Red Baron, and finally foils another, and very quirky, spy plot in northern France.

In these stories, at least, Corto only rarely breaks a sweat. He's usually on top of the situation, or not really part of it to begin with. I have no idea if that detachment is characteristic of the series as a whole, but it felt odd here, as if the main character was saving his energy for something more interesting or important that Pratt might tell us later, if we're lucky.

Pratt's art is strongly illustrative, almost impressionistic at places, full of blacks and messy lines to show the messiness of war. And his visual storytelling is fine and unobtrusive, keeping the action clear while also supporting quieter scenes.

All in all, though, I'm not sure what the excitement is about. I think I'll try again, but I'm reacting to Corto Maltese a lot like I reacted to Terry and the Pirates: thinking it's nice and all, without really feeling what the big deal was.

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