Navigating the Dangerous Waters in Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Sea

Note: This review was originally written back in 2012 for Newsarama for an inferior edition of Hugo Pratt’s first Corto Maltese book, The Ballad of the Salty Sea. It was my first real experience with Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese, outside of the reference in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

IDW’s new edition is out this week, a far superior reprinting of this great book. The art looks crisp and fresh, sadly the exact opposite of the 2012 version which looked like it was reproduced from 3rd generation copies of Pratt’s work. And even with that lousy edition, I was still amazed by Pratt’s work. I’ve loved the IDW editions and look forward to a summer just rereading this incredible series of stories.

I think this review has been lost to the ages on Newsarama because I can’t find it through any search engine so here it is, mildly updated just to correct a couple of typos and one bit of editorializing from a 2020 perspective.

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Sea
Written by Hugo Pratt
Art by Hugo Pratt and Patritzia Zanotti
Published by Universe (published by IDW in 2020)
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

I’m always amazed at watching artists draw sketches at a convention. The ones I really enjoy watching are those who are quick and draw all over the board, a mark here and a line there. They don’t fret and worry over every single line, looking for some elusive perfection out of every mark. Instead, they pull the image out of the page as if instead of putting ink down on the page, they’re removing the white from the paper and revealing an image. It’s amazing to watch these artists at work as the image takes shape. I imagine that even as he was creating comics Hugo Pratt was one of those types of artists.

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Sea is Pratt’s original 1967 serial that introduced devilish rogue Corto Maltese to Italian readers. Maltese, a pirate captain without a ship to call his own thanks to an unseen mutiny, is pulled into kidnapping and power struggles in a loose network of pirates who all report to the Monk, their robe-wearing leader whose identity is unknown. Pratt’s story works because he builds a fascinating and diverse cast, all of whom have some kind of hidden motivations. At the center is Maltese, a pirate with the heart and soul of a hero. He’s a rapscallion like Han Solo was before he found religion or the rebellion or whatever it was that Han Solo found. He’s a scruffy nerfherder who’s out for himself foremost but that doesn’t mean that he won’t also protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Around Maltese Pratt includes two kids, Cain and Pandora, who constantly run the risk of being those kinds of cutesy/annoying kids who hang around in The Rock (or Dwayne Johnson as he goes by in 2020) movies who he’s trying to save but are really there to teach him valuable life lessons. Pratt mostly manages to avoid being sentimental about the kids as he focuses on the dangers for these two kidnapped children, lost in a world of pirates and villains. The Ballad of the Salty Sea ends up becoming their story as much as, if not more than, Maltese’s. The main threat in the book revolves around the safety of these children and their attempts to escape their kidnappers. Between them and Maltese, Pratt constructs a harrowing and classic adventure tale that reads like something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson story.

Pratt’s rugged and tough artwork endows the story with a vigorous spirit. Pratt has an art style that shouldn’t work. It’s quick, rough and unrefined by today’s eyes. A lot of panels look like they were done as quickly as possible so that Pratt could get onto the next panel. And then that next panel looks quickly sketched out so that Pratt could get to whatever was next. But in each line on every page, there’s a mystique behind Pratt’s pen. His individual marks on the page shouldn’t work but when you see them in relation to others marks, like those magical con drawings that come together, the resulting image is a magical and exotic piece of the grand story.

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Sea is a perfect exhibit that showcases Pratt’s rugged artwork. There are artists with names like Toth, Caniff, Moebius, and Pratt who pull you into stories by the simple marks they make on a piece of paper. These marks contain no singular value in themselves but as the marks build into an image, an image builds into a page and a page builds into a story, those simple marks contain the unique DNA of the artists that opens up these unique worlds for the readers. Pratt builds his characters, his settings and his plot through these images on a page that creates a unique world that’s defined one exquisite mark on a page at a time.