When we first meet Corto Maltese World War I is raging, and he’s tied to a raft in the middle of the Pacific, set adrift by a mutinous crew. To those unfamiliar with the character, this tells us all we need to know about him: he’s not well liked and he’ hard to kill; he’s a bastard adventurer, more like Han Solo than Indiana Jones. Corto Maltese’s adventures predate both those characters, though, his first appearance coming in Italy in 1967. Though popular in Europe, the character has remained a cult figure in the US, likely due to the limited availability of translations.
This book marks the first time The Ballad of the Salt Sea, the first Corto Maltese story, is translated from the original Italian. It arrives in the midst of a golden age of comics reprints, a time when visiting your local comic book shop is the next best thing to taking a time machine back to the ’50s, just to see what’s on the spinner rack at the corner drug store. Maltese’s arrival on US shores is good news for fans of swashbuckling adventures and solid storytelling.
After his rescue from the ocean, Maltese is brought on board the ship of Rasputin, a nasty fellow pirate who strongly resembles the famed Russian “Mad Monk”. Once onboard, Maltese learns Rasputin has taken prisoner a young man and woman, Pandora and Cain, wealthy heirs he plans to hold for ransom. The ship is bound for a rendezvous with German soldiers-turned privateers and then back on its way to Escondida, the island hideout of criminal mastermind and the “king of the sea”, the Monk.
The story is filled with the kind of double crossing and bravado found in any adventure story, all of which is tempered with Corto Maltese’s cynical world view. He steps in time and again to protect Pandora, all the while making it clear he doesn’t care if she lives or dies, and mocks her thoughts of romance while making sexual advances toward her.
The first hundred pages of the story feature almost all the characters speaking of Monk in tones both reverential and fearful. The build up to his appearance pays off in an almost wordless page in which a robed figure, his face an empty black space beneath a hood, sits in a high-backed chair flanked by two Escondida island natives in ceremonial dress. It’s mystical and weird, a hypnotic episode that seems more appropriate to Savage Sword of Conan than here. The plain black space where the Monk’s face should be is most menacing when he looks straight out at the reader, drawing you in, inviting you to fill the space with whatever gruesome visage we can conjure.
There is a gorgeous messiness to artist Hugo Pratt’s work; panels are filled with seemingly random blobs of black shadow which come together to create texture and movement. This technique is most striking when a ship makes a nighttime trek through the storm-tossed sea and, of course, in the folds of the Monk’s robe. At times the story feels as if the translation is off, like watching a live broadcast with the closed captioning turned on. The reader has to do some catching up, but this minor complaint may only be the result of lingering too long on any of Pratt’s gorgeous panels.