What Made Hugo Pratt’s ‘Corto Maltese’ A Great Gift to Comics?
On this day in 1927, Hugo Pratt was born. This was a boon to a great many people.
The people who knew and loved him, of course. Those who benefited from his contributions to his community, the economy, and so forth. But notably, too, a more diffuse population: those who love to look. Those who love to look at skillful, clever linework. Those who love visual storytelling and adventure. Those specifically who love to look at comic books. And those who like to look at men. Hugo Pratt scribed and sired Corto Maltese, and Corto Maltese…
Corto Maltese is for looking at.
Hugo Pratt was an Italian, growing up in Venice before moving to Ethiopia — Pratt’s young life was informed by the southern-European politics of the Second World War. His official biography contains the line “forced by his father to join the colonial police.” Dangerous times for a man’s mind in its formative years, but it seems to have had two results: a respect for the disciplined lines of uniform fabric, and a notion that the more people you come to meet, the more interesting life is. Troops from here, troops from there, and the people who were already present and going about their lives when all those troops arrived. All worth talking to, all worth seeing, all something to think about and work from later, maybe.
Pratt moved back to Venice, an adult now, and a cartoonist. He stayed for a while, did some fine work, and collaborated many times with Héctor Germán Oesterheld. Oesterheld, like Pratt, was a celebrated master in the field of graphic fiction, and like Pratt he was swept up in world events. In 1977, in Argentina, Oesterheld was "disappeared," along with his daughters and their husbands.
Pratt’s Maltese was a lover of travel, and one must assume that Pratt cartooned what he knew. He does not seem to have lived anywhere for more than fifteen years at a time. Wandering, paying attention, and learning: these were the basic scaffold of the life of Hugo Pratt. More accurately; wandering, paying attention, learning — and comics.
It’s no surprise that Corto’s travels are rich and nuanced. Geographically, of course, and psychologically too. They are whole-package books, with a whole-package hero. Corto Maltese is available for his reader; Hugo Pratt was aware that portraiture (illustrative, narrative; the observation of a hero) was mixed up with the strong attraction humans have to drinking in the view. Look at how many times we see him, so still, on the first page of Under the Sign of Capricorn:
Pratt’s art has the look of a swift, sure hand, but the finished product never looks hurried. Detail is drawn back so everything seems to be seen from a little way off, with the sun in your eyes. You’re not quite close enough to see the pores because you’ve just come back from adventures of your own. It’s dreadfully atmospheric to read, and quite frankly as good as a holiday.
Corto Maltese is remarkable in his anime magnetism: Corto Maltese had his own line of clothing before Captain Marvel ever loved fine, or Hot Topic took it for granted that visual dressers will wear visual narratives. American comics market successes have ensured that everybody and their dad has a Superman t-shirt in the back of their drawer, but Europe's scene is different, cherie. Or perhaps it’s just specific to the man? Corto Maltese, you see, warrants a six-hundred euro coat from Collette, and a fragrance contract with Dior.
Teaching in Brazil. Founding magazines in Italy. Editing in Argentina, and working the world over with a gallery of top-level talent — Hugo Pratt gave us plenty to remember!
Some people call his comics literature. But what does that matter? The fact is, they’re good.