Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn (1970/2014) Hugo Pratt (IDW EuroComics)
Trade paperback, 138 pages
Italian comics legend Hugo Pratt preferred the term “drawn literature” over “comics” and it doesn’t take reading many pages of Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn to understand why. It’s not that Pratt’s work is pretentious or stuffy compared to other comics, it’s that he’s choosing to tell his stories in a different way from most other creators of his time – and ours.
Under the Sign of Capricorn is the first of a planned 12-volume series from IDW, who has previously given readers a series of spectacular books under their Library of American Comics imprint. The Pratt books, however, are being released under a new IDW imprint called EuroComics. Beyond the Pratt books, we don’t yet know what other titles might be in the works, but the mere fact that series editor Dean Mulvaney has championed a platform for European comics translated into English is something worth celebrating.
Although these are not the first Corto Maltese stories (Under the Sign of Capricorn is actually the third volume in publication order), they are a good introduction to the character – a handsome, brash captain of his own vessel who more or less does as he pleases, sailing at will during the first quarter or so of the 20th century, seeking adventure. (The stories in this volume take place during 1916-1917.) The collection begins with “The Secret of Tristan Bantam,” where we find Corto Maltese relaxing at an inn in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana. A young English boy approaches Corto with a series of maps and letters left to him by his father, documents which may lead to a substantial treasure. In no time at all, a would-be assassin breaks in, but Corto isn’t sure who was the intended target: himself or the boy.
Thus begins an adventure involving exotic locales, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Tristan’s mysterious half-sister, and the supernatural. Corto is a man of action, but he’s also an astute observer of people and isn’t afraid to share his opinion. When young Tristan finds it odd that his half-sister (whom he’s never met) lives in the midst of what he considers a crude, superstitious society, Corto responds, “maybe you’re forgetting that she grew up here in this part of the world that’s so different from your conservative, tidy, insipid England – a country epitomized by cups of tea and raised eyebrows.”
The Tristan Bantam tale takes up about half of the volume, with other shorter, somewhat connected stories rounding out the collection. These stories are certainly adventure stories, in many ways similar to a strip like Terry and the Pirates, but in other ways quite different. Under the Sign of Capricorn isn’t exactly what I’d called filled with adventure, but again, these are European comics that have a different pace and tone than most American comics. Pratt wants us to absorb the atmosphere, the characters, and ways of thinking going on here. In some ways, the stories here unfold in manner similar to westerns, especially Italian westerns that seem almost leisurely-paced when compared to American westerns.
A different style also manifests itself in the artwork. After several establishing images of where we are – an inn filled with rattan chairs, Corto’s boat, or a tree-lined seacoast – Pratt provides us with either thinly-sketched backgrounds or none at all, giving us just enough of a base description to allow our imaginations to fill in the rest. In the hands of another creator, this might be misconstrued as lazy writing/drawing, but Pratt is instead giving the reader credit for using their own actively-engaged imaginations.
Corto Maltese is an extraordinarily interesting character whether he’s in action or just lounging around an inn and this is a series I plan to keep buying. If you’d like to know more, be sure to listen to Derek and Andy K.’s recent review of the title at The Comics Alternative and check out the Corto Maltese website. Although the best way to experience the book is simply to read it yourself.
(Under the Sign of Capricorn is printed in its original black-and-white format with large [11.5” x 9.25”] thick pages. I also love that the cover wraps include French flaps that fold out into maps.)
(Photos: Comics Alliance)