Monday, 24 April 2017

Hugo Pratt: A Biographical Sketch

“I know thirteen ways of telling my life,” Hugo Pratt bragged in his autobiography. Although that may be true, it is a fact that he was born in 1927, in the Italian town of Rimini, and that he spent his childhood in Venice, where Corto Maltese has one of his most magical adventures. Pratt left Venice as a boy and went on to discover Abyssinia during the war, Argentina in peacetime, and other parts of the world in his restless journeys. When he settled down in Switzerland, he met Dominique Petitfaux who interviewed him extensively for a book about his adventurous life. From this resulted the book Le désir d'être inutile, the best resource for anyone interested in the life of Italy’s greatest comic book author. What follows is a capsule biography of Pratt culled from its pages.

Like Pratt, his ancestors travelled. On his father’s side he descended from English Catholics who fled from England in 1745 due to religious persecution and settled in France. His paternal grandfather, an artist who drew military buildings for a living, somehow wound up in Venice with a teaching job. This grandfather, a lover of French poetry, named Pratt’s father Rolando after Le Chanson de Roland. According to Pratt, Rolando would later transmit his love of literature to little Hugo. If we add this to his grandfather’s skills, we have the two coordinates in his life: drawing and poetry.

On his mother’s side, besides some Turkish blood, Pratt descended from Toledo Jews who escaped from the Spanish Inquisition by adopting Venice as home and converting to Christianity. Although his mother didn’t practice Jewish customs at home, Pratt grew up listening to tales of Jewish lore from her, which piqued his life-long interest in the Kabbalah and all things esoteric.

Religiously, his household contained a mix of pagans, agnostics and heretics. Family members eschewed rituals like mass and instead gobbled up on the occult. His mother, Evelina, a sort of magician, nicknamed The Astrologer around the neighborhood, knew astrology and read people’s fates in the cards. A repository of oral culture and folklore, she excited her young son’s imagination with fantastic stories that the adult Pratt would mine for his amazing comic books. In fact he spent his childhood in a house full of women who marveled him with legends, myths and fables. “I grew up in a gynaecium,” he remarked. His love for the occult shows up everywhere in his comics, most prominently in Celtic Tales, The Ethiopian, Rosa Alchemica (wherein Corto meets Hermann Hesse), and Venice Fable.

Corto and Venice's horizon, from Venice Fable
Pratt’s multicultural background, however, cannot overshadow the fact that he grew up in tandem with the rise of nationalism. Pratt described his family as politically militant. His father had taken part in Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome’ in 1922. Pratt only remembers one family member who wasn’t a fascist – an uncle called Ruggero, a sailor. Being a traveler, nationalism made no sense to him and he politically identified himself with anarchism. Pratt claims Corto Maltese may owe something to him. His maternal grandfather, Eugenio, ironically given his Jewish roots, was one of the founders of a fascist group in Venice called Serenissima. In fact Rolando and Evelina met for the first time when he attended a fascist meeting at his future father-in-law’s house. According to Pratt, being a Jew and a fascist wasn’t incompatible at the time, since people considered themselves Venetians first and foremost; anti-Semitism only became a doctrinal point in the late ‘30s when the Italian fascists got closer to Adolf Hitler.

At school, Pratt, already showing a natural talent for drawing, received encouragement to pursue it. However, he did not ignore studying; reading and learning remained two of his constant passions, with a preference for topics like history, geography and literature. He could not have escaped literature anyway, since Eugenio was also a poet and had even known Gabriele d’Annunzio. As for Rolando, he and Pratt read together old adventure books. He recalled how the illustrations in a Jules Verne novel captivated him; and when the original illustrations in a book weren’t up to snuff, he drew his own.

Even though Pratt wrote mostly war and adventure comics, his remarkable erudition runs through his writing. Although people describe Pratt as a romantic, he had a post-modernist predilection for mixing popular literature with high culture and subverting genre expectations. I discovered Baron Corvo because Corto mentions him in Venice Fable: that mysterious name has stuck in my mind ever since. Pratt’s library in his Swish chalet had 35,000 books. “I live in a library,” he remarked in the final years of his life.

His book taste reflected the fiction a young boy would come across in the 1930s. Anglo-American authors dominate: H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard, Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London and Jules Verne. He also read poets all his life, with predilection for William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Coleridge, and the Romantics, and also Homer: the first book he remembered buying with his own money was The Odyssey. He was 8.

A Japanese officer about to save Jack London from bandits in La Giovinezza
Hugo Pratt had an interesting relationship with Fascism. As a child, he didn’t find it completely negative; it led him to his first sexual experiences. According to him, far from being conservative, Fascism encouraged the cult of the physical and intellectual health, love for life and the pursuit of pleasure, it released Italian boys and girls from the oppression of church and family, it shattered sexual and Christian taboos, and it made it OK for boys and girls to get together without cicerones or embarrassment. “I’ll always be grateful to Mussolini for having acquainted me with fascist pussy!” he told Petitfaux. All in all, he claims he was a happy child.

In 1937, at the age of 10, his Venetian idyll ended when he boarded a boat to Ethiopia, under Italy’s control since the end of Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1936. His father, a sergeant in the army, had moved there the previous year. Rolando’s first task involved overseeing indigenous workforce; later he received an assignment to patrol borders, to catch revolutionaries being backed-up by the surrounding British and French colonies.

Pratt didn’t regret leaving Venice; adventure books had left him excited about discovering Africa. There, thanks to his daily contact with Ethiopians, he began to challenge his ideas about fascism. His status as a colonist meant that he should not befriend  – or have sexual relationships – with the natives; but Pratt didn’t think that “preserving the race” made a lot of sense when he was surrounded by beautiful Ethiopian girls. He didn’t establish a hierarchy between Italians and Ethiopians but treated everyone equally. And although his own people thought the natives should learn Italian, he even learned the language of the Amharas, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

World War II caught up with the Italians living in Ethiopia, and Rolando enlisted 13-year-old Pratt in the colonial police. From 1940 to 1941 he was responsible for fighting the revolutionaries coming from the independence movement. This put him in a conflicted situation, since he had friends on both sides of the war, which meant that sometimes he had to sabotage his own people’s objectives. Then, in 1941, the conflict resolved itself when the British Army conquered the Italian colony.

The defeat signaled the Pratt family’s decline. They lost their house and money; Evalina had to sell all her jewels. She also began cheating on her husband. Rolando was arrested in 1942 for reasons his son never managed to find out, and was sent to a prison camp near Dire Dawa. Evalina moved there to be closer to him. Rolando, meanwhile, became terminally ill in prison and passed away from liver cancer in 1942.

Pratt, during these tribulations, continued to live his rebellious life, drawn to the margins. He got a job in a brothel running errands for prostitutes, acquiring luxury goods in the black market like cigarettes and cosmetics. Technically he lived with his mother in Dire Dawa, in a prison camp for civilians; Evalina was allowed to walk in and out because she was pregnant. (She later gave birth to a stillborn girl). As for Pratt, he would sometimes escape from the camp and disappear for long periods. Once he was absent for two months, travelling with Danakil camel riders who were smuggling khat – the plant Cush is always eating in The Ethiopian. His mother didn’t care and Pratt enjoyed this freedom which allowed him to mature quickly. His adventures in Ethiopia, he claimed, is what first made him aware of death. Once, crossing a graveyard, carrying a stick and a stone to protect himself from hyenas, he fell on a grave and had to spend a whole night with a corpse. 

Italy, when he returned to it in 1943, seemed like a strange place after his experiences in Africa. Compared to the freedom, especially sexual freedom, that he had enjoyed in Ethiopia, he found Italy stifling. Paradoxically, the war in Africa had taught Pratt and his compatriots there to live life to its fullest. He also sensed that Italians were entertaining a delusion. By 1943 Italy’s major urban areas had not yet witnessed war’s full-blown horrors, so it was easy to believe in victory yet. Pratt had returned from a war-torn country, he had seen Italians being defeated, and he knew what was coming. So it was foolish of him when he tried to continue his artistic schooling; instead he was sent to military school. He didn’t complain since there he had more freedom than at home. There he met many of his friends from Ethiopia and they formed a close-knit group. He was finding it harder to relate to his family, especially grandfather Eugenio, a staunch fascist still. Pratt, now 16, no longer cared much about country, flag or ideology. His personal ethos now was being loyal to his friends.

The SS nearly shot him in 1944: one day he met a German woman called Erika and in order to impress her he pretended to be a South African pilot; it turns out she belonged to the German Army and sent officers to check him out. They arrested him in spite of his protests that he was not a South African spy; in prison he met two Englishmen, who in turn suspected him of being a double agent. In the end his fascist grandfather used his connections to release him. The SS, however, forced Pratt to sign up with the German naval police. This didn’t stop Pratt, always recalcitrant, from starting to mingle with resistance fighters. Then in 1945 he deserted, crossed into enemy lines, and joined the Allied army invading Italy, becoming an interpreter for the British.

The post-war period, as told by Pratt, runs like a blurry series of episodes involving booze, music, broads, partying, and black marketeers. But it’s also when he found the tranquility to pursue a career in comics. In 1944, with Italy already occupied by American troops, he tried his luck at the Gazettino de Venezia newspaper, but the editor, a man called Barbieri, didn’t buy drawings from him. A friend of Pratt, Mario Faustinelli, then invited him to create a comic book magazine, and in December of 1945, with Alberto Ongaro, they launched Asso di Piche – Comics. The protagonist was a Batman-esque masked anti-hero who fought international criminals and wasn’t trusted by the police. It was much in line with the heroes of the American Golden Age of comics and showed artistic influences from Milton Caniff. Pratt later found out that Barbieri, who knew Faustinelli, had been told by him not to give him a job so that Pratt would focus on Asso di Piche.

The magazine garnered success and attracted many other young talents who went on to make careers in architecture, journalism, and cinema. Pratt himself, at the time, didn’t consider comics his calling and was more interested in enjoying himself, which meant making extensive trips to Austria, France, Yugoslavia and England. Meanwhile, his talent had reached beyond Europe. Cesare Civita, an Italian editor living in Buenos Aires, discovered Asso di Piche and invited the founding trio come to Argentina to work for Civita’s publisher, Editorial Abril. Pratt and Faustinelli left in 1949, with Ongaro joined them months later. Pratt’s main reason, though, had less to do with furthering his comics career than fulfilling his dream of going to America. In the past he had unsuccessfully tried to board ships going there. He believed that going from Argentina it would be easier to get there. He did finally make it to the USA, for a brief visit, but he had no idea that he’d spend the next 13 years working and living mainly in Argentina.

Corto in the streets of Buenos Aires in Tango

Aged 22, Pratt discovered Buenos Aires’ amazing comic book scene. In the 1950s Argentines were creating some of the medium’s best work. In 1952, Pratt’s editor teamed him up with H.G. Oesterheld on a western comic called Sgt. Kirk. They followed this with Ticonderoga, set in 18th century America just prior to the War of Independence, and then Ernie Pike, a war comic loosely based on the real-life war journalist Ernie Pyle. (When Pratt returned to Italy in the 1970s, he published Ernie Pike under his sole name. Argentina was under political turmoil, and Oesterheld, who was vocal in his comics against the dictatorship, was murdered by the military junta before he could sue Pratt. Modern editions nowadays credit the two as co-creators.) The two men, according to Pratt himself, didn’t like each other, although they made excellent comics together. H.G. Oesterheld is nowadays recognized as Argentina’s greatest comic book writer, famous for his groundbreaking work with the artist Alberto Breccia in Mort Cinder and El Eternauta, two horror/science-fiction/fantasy masterpieces.

Pratt and Breccia, his friend, also taught Drawing at the Pan-American Art School in 1957. Some of their students included famous modern artists like José Muñoz and Walter Fahrer. Breccia, in one interview, credits Pratt with encouraging him to change his style. At the time, Breccia was doing the artwork for Vito Nervio, an insipid detective comic book. Strolling one night with Pratt, he turned to Breccia and told him, “You’re a cheap whore because you’re doing shit when you could be doing something better.” Breccia, taking the criticism to heart, pushed himself harder and made a breakthrough in his style when he started working with Oesterheld in Sherlock Time, their first comic book together. Pratt, who had introduced Breccia to Oesterheld, later expressed awe at Breccia’s new artwork.

Outside his career as a comics innovator, Pratt continued to live his picaresque life. On a brief return to Venice in 1952, he met a Yugoslavian woman, Gucky Wogerer, who was having trouble getting a residence visa; he married her so she could obtain Italian citizenship. He returned to Argentina, but she followed him months later and they had two children together before divorcing in 1957. “Between me and Gucky there was a beautiful friendship, but without passion,” he said.

A planned 18-day stay in Argentina had grown into a new life. Faustinelli and Ongaro had returned to Italy in 1955, but Pratt enjoyed Buenos Aires, probably because he turned it into a facsimile of his post-war Italian years: going to night joints, chasing women, learning to dance the tango. “Tango, and more precisely the music of Astor Piazzolla symbolizes what Buenos Aires’ atmosphere was: a happy sadness. I keep that as a memory above all others, that happiness tinged with melancholy.” Always a neutral observer, free of political ideologies, he had friends both in the right and in the left, and from all walks of life. There he befriended Jazz singer Dizzy Gillepsie and even knew the infamous Nazi criminal Eichmann, living there under a secret identity, as well as the local Jewish group that helped capture him. A mysterious gift always put Pratt in the middle of fascinating events.

Pratt temporarily left Argentina in 1959 because his relationship with Oesterheld was deteriorating and because Argentina’s economic crisis was making life hard for comic book artists: paper was under rationing, and local comics were competing with cheaper American comics, which also had the appealing factor of being colored, disseminated in Argentina via Mexican editions. Pratt and several Argentine artists like Breccia and the great Francisco Solano Lopez received commissions from Fleetway Publications to draw British comics. Pratt’s war experience and his own love for masculine stories made him an ideal artist for the many popular war comics being made at the time: Battle Picture Library, Thriller Picture Library, War Picture Library, War at Sea Picture Library.

His travelling, however, continued. Going through Alaska, he finally visited the USA. In New York he met his friend Dizzy Gillepsie again. He also visited Wheeling, in Virginia, in 1960. This town had long fascinated him because of Fort Henry and the frontier wars between settlers and Indians in the 18th century. He later channeled this interest in American history into a comic book called Wheeling. In 1962, finally, Pratt bade farewell to Argentina and returned to Italy.

Between 1962 and 1967 he worked for the Corriere dei Piccoli newspaper; then he founded his own magazine, called Sgt. Kirt like the comic book he had created with Oesterheld. In its pages he began serializing a long comic book called The Ballad of the Salt Sea, which for the first time introduced readers to Pratt’s greatest creation: Corto Maltese, the enigmatic, philosophical sailor. Always traveling, Pratt visited Trinidad and Tobago, whose Caribbean setting would inspire future Corto Maltese stories, and Portugal and Brazil. In 1964, he was in Brazil looking for Harold Schultz, a National Geographic reporter studying Amazonian tribes. When he landed in Bahia there had just been an attempt against a general (Brazil was a military dictatorship at the time), and the police immediately suspected of this foreigner who was not only armed – Pratt had bought a gun – but had a passport issued in Buenos Aires, home of Che Guevera. The DOPS, Brazil’s secret police, arrested him, questioned him, and strangely concluded that he had to be a colleague of theirs, a secret cop too, working undercover. He protested at this vehemently, became a suspect again, and was thrown into a cell with delinquents. He was only released when a cop confirmed that he worked for the Corriere dei Piccoli. Before leaving, Pratt made a visit to the local brothel and came across the same cops who had detained him. “You’re not a colleague,” they chaffed, “you’re a tourist!” Next they bought him a drink and they all became pals, and Pratt continued his journey to the Amazon River unmolested.

Deep in the jungle he met American novelist John dos Passos, who was also writing about the Amazonian region. He also befriended the Chavantes, an Amazonian tribe, and he had a son with a woman there. During his travels in Brazil, in fact, he had several children, whom he named after American presidents, so that there is a Wilson Pratt, a Washington Pratt and a Lincoln Pratt somewhere in Brazil today. He lived amongst the Chavantes and claims to have joined the men’s secret societies. He explained to Petitfaux how the men allegedly got together to discuss magic, but in fact they just used that as a front to smoke and chat; the magic was just an excuse to get away from the women.

Launched in July 1967, Sgt. Kirk lasted until February 1969, continuing The Ballad of the Salt Sea up until its demise. Unfortunately bad distribution led to low sales and eventually cancellation. He was 42 and worried about the future.

His solution brought him international fame and made comics history: Pratt decided to introduce French readers to Corto Maltese. It made sense since France had a robust comics industry and a huge readership. Truth be said, Pratt had not waited until his own magazine had folded to break into the coveted French market. In 1968, at the Lucca comic book festival, one of the oldest festivals devoted to comics, he had met Pierre Couperie and Claude Moliterni, pioneering comic book scholars, and granted them an interview for French magazine Phénix. The following year Moliterni had introduced him to Georges Rieu, the editor-in-chief of Pif Gadget, a French comics magazine, who offered him a job there if he wanted it. In 1970, jobless, Pratt moved to France and took Corto Maltese to Pif Gadget. In The Ballad of the Salt Sea Corto had been a supporting character inside a complex storyline. Now Pratt would transform him into the protagonist of globe-trotting adventures. Publishing them during Pif Gadget’s apogee, when the magazine was selling one million copies per month, the success Corto found with the readers turned him into an international name. In 1971, the Publicness Editions published the first album versions of his comics. (It’s hard to say that Corto Maltese is an Italian comic book. Pratt started it in Italy, but then moved to France where he wrote many of the series’ stories in French, which were later retranslated into Italian, in magazines like Linus). Pratt left Pif Gadget in 1973, but then again he didn’t need it anymore; ideological reasons, however, justified his leaving it: Pif Gadget not only had strong links to the French Communist Party, it had in fact been created to catechize children. The people in charge of it weren’t pleased with Corto Maltese, an apolitical anti-hero with an old-fashioned sense of right and wrong uninterested in Marxist theory, an anarchist who had no problems making friends across the whole political spectrum. Internal pressure forced Pratt to seek a new home for his adventurer, namely the Belgian magazine Tintin. Then Casterman started releasing the Corto Maltese stories in album format. After the American influences on his style, and after working alongside the Argentine masters, Pratt began discovering Franco-Belgian comics. He even met its greatest icon, Hergé, creator of Tintin.

Famous both in France and in Italy, his regular presence in comics festivals and conventions attested his growing prestige. He attended the 1974 Angoulême Festival and received an award from it in 1976. In 1974 he also returned to the town of Wheeling, where he was made honorary citizen for the comic book Wheeling (1962). At the 1975 Lucca festival he was part of a jury that had to choose the best comic book made between 1945 and 1975. Pratt convinced the jury to award it to Dan Dare, by the forgotten Frank Hampson, who was voted Prestigioso Maestro, or Prestigious Master. Pratt also met Jack Tippit, the cartoonist of the Amy comic strip; Pratt drew a character after him in Corto Maltese: In Siberia. He went to Canada to 1976 to talk about one of his favorite topics, the 18th century frontiers wars, about which he was an expert. It was also in the 1970s that admirers began casting him in small roles in movies, not to mention that people started making documentaries about him.

Meanwhile, he continued to travel. He visited Angola, which had recently won its independence from Portugal. Pratt claimed that his character Cush was popular amongst Angolans, who saw the fearful Danakil warrior as a revolutionary freedom fighter. Oesterheld disappeared in 1977, along with his four daughters, and it is nowadays assumed that the military junta murdered them. Pratt returned to Argentina in 1979 to pay his respects to Oesterheld’s wife.

In the 1980s Jean-Claude Guilbert made several documentaries about Pratt. In 1983, on a journey to New York, he met one of his childhood idols, the silent film actress Louise Brooks. When he stepped into her library, he noticed his comic book Venice Fable and a comic book starring Valentina, an Italian erotic heroine. Brooks explained to him that an Italian comic book artist, Guido Crepax, Valentina’s creator, had written to her and sent her a comic book whose protagonist was based on her; he had also sent a comic book by one Hugo Pratt, which also contained a character based on her. (Crepax meant Louise Brookszowyc, who’s also mentioned in Tango.) It was then that her visitor explained that he was Hugo Pratt. According to him, his homage to her charmed her.

In 1984 he settled down in Switzerland. In 1986 his work was exhibited at the Grand Palais Museum in Paris. His traveling, in his final decade, took him through Mexico, South America, all the way down to Patagonia. He passed away in 1995. Dizzy Gillepsie’s music played at his funeral.

Corto in the lost continent of Mu, in Mu

In Dominique Petitfaux’s excellent book, Hugo Pratt seldom talks about comics and influences. Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and Lyman Young’s Tim Tyler’s Luck both influenced his early artwork. He enjoyed Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and respected Frank Hampson’s work on Dan Dare. It comes as no surprise that, for someone born in 1927, his main references would be comics from the Golden and Silver Ages.

In the end, though, life gave him more to work with. Whoever knows his biography and travelling can find them transposed, albeit transfigured, into comic book. His World War II experiences, on both sides, as civilian, soldier, prisoner, smuggler, deserter, and interpreter form the basis of many of his stories and characters, several of whom he named after people who really existed. Pratt created a personal world of masculinity tinged by Romantic melancholy: his characters are soldiers and soldiers of fortune, aviators and sappers, Irish terrorists and fascist deserters, poets, pirates, pimps, prostitutes, tango dancers, journalists and madmen, and even real-life figures like Jack London covering the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 in La giovinezza. It’s worth noticing, though, that Pratt also excelled at what is nowadays commonly known as “strong female characters.” His voracious reading and love for history also led him to set most of his stories in the past, during periods of social and political unrest, when cultures and ideologies clashed. His tolerance and wide travelling allowed him to write about countries and customs with precision and admiration, without succumbing to commonplaces or the picturesque. He used the adventure story as a template, but never treated his own work as low culture; instead he saw this genre as the vehicle best suited to play out eternal themes: love and friendship, greed and ambition, duty and honor, ruthlessness and heroism. In all his comics, but especially in the Corto Maltese series, Pratt gives the impression that he’s creating modern epics and sagas for a disenchanted, cynical, morally bankrupt world that thinks it’s past the need for epics and sagas of extraordinary men and women. Growing up listening to Jewish lore and then steeping in the occult, Pratt never favored realism or the mundane. Homer was his muse and Pratt gave his work a mythical dimension. He believed that comics could be an amazing art form and spent his life proving it.

Corto enters a book in Rosa Alchemica

In the United States, where my beloved superheroes have dominated the comics scene since the 1950s, Hugo Pratt has never found great favor with readers. He didn’t make comics like the ones they grew up reading. However, publishers have attempted to expose American readers to Pratt’s oeuvre. In the 1980s NBM Publishing published several Corto Maltese albums, which are now expensive rarities. In 2012, his American fans greeted with enthusiasm the news that Rizzoli, the Italian publisher that owns the Corto Maltese rights, was working with an American publisher to finally launch the legendary sailor in the United States, starting with The Ballad of the Salt Sea. It seemed that the whole series would be finally made available in English. Unfortunately bad production values marred this classic, as detailed in this article. Rizzoli didn’t venture to publish a second volume after that debacle. And so that seemed like the end.

Fortunately, in 2014 fans learned that IDW Publishing was going to publish Corto Maltese’s 12 volumes, with new translations, keeping Pratt’s beautiful original black-and-white art intact, and respecting the oversized format used in Europe. Since then, following the chronological order Pratt created them in, IDW has published: Under the Sign of Capricorn, Beyond the Windy Isles, Celtic Tales, The Ethiopian, and In Siberia.

Critical response has been overwhelming, with the albums receiving Eisner and Harvey awards. As far as I can gather, The Ethiopian has received the best accolades so far. Walter Biggins and James Romberger from The Comics Journal ranked it amongst the best comics of 2016. Rich Clabaugh loved it. It doesn’t surprise me; besides collecting four gripping war stories, its political content about waning European empires fighting against indigenous tribes in Africa resonates with our current political turmoil once again. Besides, Pratt’s talent to portray different cultures is at its best here. American comics, especially superhero comics, have in recent years come under attack for being too white and too male; attempts to rectify that have often produced pandering minority characters devoid of actual personality and characterized solely by one or two stereotypical cultural traits. Pratt should be mandatory reading for those wanting to know how to do multiculturalism well. I suspect The Ethiopian has also done well because of Cush, the Muslim warrior. Marvel and DC Comics, in recent years, have added Muslim superheroes to their vast universes in order to fight against pop culture stereotypes. In 2013, the writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona created Kamala Kahn, a Pakistani American teenager who fights crime as Ms. Marvel in her solo series, a move that many hailed as groundbreaking. It was assumed that it was time to give a Muslim character a stronger role. Well, Pratt’s Cush is a good example of how to create a complex, enthralling minority character, true to his religious beliefs – he chastises Corto for his heathenish ways – while still free enough to be contradictory and ambiguous like all humans, looking simultaneously specific and universal. Pratt's comics are what American superhero comics have struggled to become in the last 10 years and provides the tools to achieve that goal. Now if more people would read them.

Hopefully, IDW will manage to bring the whole Corto Maltese series to the USA. I hope they follow that with Pratt’s other comics. I’d start with Gli scorpioni del deserto, two volumes of war tales set in Africa during the 1940s. Plus they take place in the Maltiverse, since in the series’ best story a British soldier, a fascist deserter and Cush worker together to find a hidden treasure. Imagine The Good, The Bad And The Ugly set in World War II.

I can't recommend Corto Maltese highly enough, for its poetry, its wit, its humanity, its inventiveness, its craftsmanship. Serious comics readers will be grateful for finally having within their reach one of the medium's masterpieces.

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