And so I went and did it – I re-read A Ballad of the Salt Sea, the first Corto Maltese story, serialized in the magazine Sgt. Kirk starting in June 1967, little more than one month after my birth.
For this re-read project I am using the Panini Comics/L’Espresso color edition of the book that was published in 2006 – 10 volumes collecting the whole series, in chronological order1, with extra contents and articles.
So, let’s begin – how does it feel like, reading “Ballad** at fifty?
The story opens with the image of a catamaran and a short monologue by the Pacific Sea itself.
The boat is captained by a man called Rasputin.
He and his Polynesian crew save Cain and Pandora Groovesnore – two young cousins adrift in a lifeboat, the lone survivors of the sinking of the “Amsterdam Girl”.
Two kids, a boy and a girl, in their teens, he with blond hair and she with dark hair – Pratt is stealing a page or twenty from The Blue Lagoon, that closes with the two main protagonists adrift in a lifeboat. And as we saw in an earlier post, Pratt admitted the Stacpoole novel was his only introduction to the south seas.
This being obviously a pretty busy stretch of Pacific, soon Rasputin’s boat chances upon another castaway – it’s Corto Maltese, that’s been cast adrift, tied to a raft, by his mutinous crew. He will claim it was because of an old story connected with a girl he knew (but we only have his word for it).
The first pages introduce us to a wide cast of characters, and their shifting allegiances.
Both Rasputin, Corto and the second-in-command Cranio are in the service of a pirate known as The Monk, that Phantom-like lives among the natives and is said to be immortal. Rumor, we will discover, also claims that he is a former priest or monk, and that he suffered from leprosy.
The Monk is planning to work with the Germans in the war that’s about to start (this being 1914), and in particular his henchmen will have to act as corsairs harassing English ships, and at the same time supply coal for the German ships in the area.
In their activities Corto and Rasputin will be supported by German Lieutenant Slutter – that soon emerges as the only straightforward hero of this complicated story. The German officer is a man of honor among thieves.
Really, the only decent people in this story seem to be the “savages” – in one of the many subversions of the standard tropes of adventure fiction.
And Corto, actually, emerges as an opportunist and a mercenary from his first appearance – which makes for a nice change considering the standard comic book characters in the ‘60. He sides with the two Groosvenore kids, but their relationship is far from clear and plain. Is he just a smarter self-serving rogue, simply subtler than the brutal Rasputin, or is he really a gentleman of fortune?
The readers back in ‘67 probably wondered – today, we know he’s the hero of the piece, but in this first outing he is an unknown quantity.
And indeed, the relationships between characters are the central element in the story, and they are both intriguing and frustrating.
It’s been noted that Pratt, in writing Ballad over a period of two years is still finding his legs. His art is quirky but well defined (even if Corto’s features are still pretty rough), but his writing is still uncertain. Especially in the first part of the story, the characters’ actions are often contradictory.
Young Cain often emerges as a capricious whiner, and his cousin Pandora is alternatively strong and independent or conversely passive and undecided.
Rasputin, in the meanwhile, is so hell-bent on murder and mayhem, that some of his choices can be explained only by mental illness – and indeed Corto will describe him as mad. And still he will help and save the strange mad Russian. Madness also seems to plague the mysterious Monk, and justifies some contradictory choices of the mysterious mastermind.
Finally, in a few moments, the script doesn’t hold, and dialogue has to backtrack to explain some action or some missing bit. One wonders how much the author was improvising as he went along.
It could turn ugly, but in the hands of Hugo Pratt the story, despite its weaknesses, does not turn into a bloody mess, but holds up nicely. Pratt’s art is filled with “Easter eggs”, from Rasputin’s Bouganville book, to Slutter’s complete works of Herman Melville glimpsed in a few sketches. The cannibals speak in Venetian (and at the time some Venetian readers were offended) but their looks are perfectly accurate.
Most of the piracy and brutality happen off-screen, and in the end, when the British forces show up (once again, in a fashion that reminds us of the final chapters of The Blue Lagoon) and the brief adventure of the German navy in the Pacific ends in front of a firing squad, most of the loose ends are tied up neatly.
The opening of the story seems to imply that in the end Corto will join Pandora and live to a ripe and quiet old age. The events of the later stories will cast a serious doubt on such an arrangement, but for the time being, the story’s been told, and the reader can sit and wonder at how expectations were met or subverted.
Heroes die and the rogues live to pursue further adventures, and secrets are revealed and hidden again.
A Ballad of the Salt Sea is over, not unsatisfactorily.
And all things considered, I’m happy I discovered this book later in my life – and in my teens I met Corto Maltese through his more accessible further adventures. This story is too adult and too quirky for a standard comic book reading kid.
Pratt’s later short stories were more reader-friendly.
But we’ll talk about those in due time.