Sunday, July 8, 2012

Corto Maltese

Corto Maltese was born on the 10th of July, in 1887, the son of an English sailor from Cornwall and Andalusian gypsy who practiced sorcery and prostitution.  He went to sea and became a merchant captain and sailed the adventurous world of the early 20th Century.  His life and travels were much more interesting than our own, though this might be expected, as he is a fictitious character.

Corto Maltese was abroad in the best of times.  When the world was still full of wonders and the foreign was truly foreign.  In the long high afternoon of the imperial age, darkness and disorder were pushed back to the fringes, but order had not yet fully filled the vacuum and there were forests and jungles and desert places where the law's writ did not run.  And there was adventure to be had for those who sought it, and sometimes for those who didn't seek it.  And there were amazing characters wandering the world: heroes in their time but who today might some of them be in jail.

The golden age of travel was not some distant time when Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta trudged across the sands, but within living memory, or near so for those long of tooth.  From about the beginning of the 20th Century up to the time of the Second War  --  a window of about forty years  --  the world was open in a way it had not been before.  There were many parts of it that were far from safe: there were pirates and brigands and dangerous people with guns; there were wars and revolutions, warlords and secret societies and assassins and people in remote places who made their own law.  But the world was open and a sailor could go where he list, albeit sometimes at his peril.  And into this world the artist and graphic novelist Hugo Pratt with realistic detail placed his creation: the roguish and adventurous Corto Maltese.

Corto Maltese first appeared in 1967 in a graphic adventure series "The Ballad of the Salt Sea", set in the Pacific at the beginning of the First War, which later appeared as a graphic novel.  (These stories first appeared under Italian or French titles, but I will use their English title for convenience.)  His next full length story appeared in 1974, set in the Far East during the Russian Civil War, when Corto goes in search of the train carrying the Tsar's gold to Vladivostok.  Here we begin to meet some of the amazing historical characters that were running around in those days, much as we later do in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

In this story, "Corto Maltese in Siberia," Corto at one point falls into the hands of the White Baron, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, a minor Baltic noble who had found his way to Mongolia and raised an army to resist the Reds.  Historians agree that he was apparently quite mad, but also a general of some talent who kept the Reds at bay for a time, and is one of those amazing characters that the early 20th Century had in such abundance and in our own poor modern world we have so few.  As a young Tsarist officer with a Cossack regiment in WWI, he had been awarded the Order of St. George for valor; when at last captured by the Bolsheviks he ate the medal to keep it out of Red hands: as we might say, admirably mad.   In later adventures, Corto meets Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Butch Cassidy, Enver Pasha, Joseph Conrad and others: persons whom, regardless of the verdict of history, we are the richer for remembering.

The first published of the Corto Maltese adventures, "The Ballad of the Salt Sea," will be be offered by an American publisher this year, which I mention in warning as I think it ought be taken with a grain of salt, as the art is inferior to later, clean-line illustration and I do not find Corto as attractive a character in this story as he is in the second of the full-length adventures, "Corto Maltese in Siberia".  As it happens, both stories are available as an animated feature on You Tube with much better art and make a far better introduction to Corto Maltese and his interesting world.

The Siberian adventure begins here:

Or, for those with mild attention-deficit disorder, here:

In the end, I suspect that I like Corto's world, so finely realized in Pratt's drawings, more than I like Corto himself.  Corto's world was a real world in whose pale, lingering shadow we may imagine ourselves still to move, while Corto himself seems to carry a bit of his creator's baggage.  This may not bother some, but it does me.  There are also animated versions of his other adventures, some of which are well done and others much less so.  Though I would never suggest that anyone ought forego at least these two of Corto's excellent adventures set in that Elsewhen world where the going was very good indeed.

So Happy Birthday, Corto.  And many more.


  1. Interesting cartoon characters. I agree that the era pre-WW2 was a great one to travel. I'm amazed at how many Americans were in China and SE Asia at that time.

    1. Shanghai between the wars was a fabulous place. The movie "The White Countess" gives a feel for the era and place. My wife's uncle went there in the early '20s and stayed until he was expelled by the Japanese. Another uncle was an officer with the American fleet operating in those waters. I knew a sweet old lady at church who had lived in Peking with her missionary parents and had met Roy Chapman Andrews when he passed through on his way to Mongolia where he found the first dinosaur eggs. That China isn't there anymore, but it is wonderful to recall.