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||Hugo Pratt (1927-1995)|
Italian artist, cartoonist, whose best-known character is the existentialist adventurer, captain Corto Maltese. His journeys around the world are followed from his youth to the 1930s, when Corto disappears in the turmoils of the Spanish Civil War. Pratt's own travels mark his work, in which his hero's alienation from a dull, ordinary world is underlined by the strange, remote surroundings, or as the famous American cartoonist Frank Miller wrote: "His drawings show an attention to, and familiarity with, exotic detail, far beyond what could be gleaned from a shelf full of National Geographic magazines. There is nothing stolen, or even borrowed, in Pratt's work; even his sense of humor seems to come from preposterous experience." (from Voodoo for the President, 1986)
(Morgan Le Fay:) ... there is someone... a sailor sleeping, or perchance dreaming.
Hugo Pratt was born near Rimini, the son of Rolando Pratt, a fanatic supporter of Mussolini and professional soldier, and Evelina Genero, from Venice; she was the widely traveled daughter of a pedicure and poet. Rolando Pratt was of English descent. In his childhood and youth Hugo went with his parents first to Venice, and then to Ethiopia – both locations of his later works. The family settled in Entoto and Pratt entered the high school Vittorio Emanuele III. Rolando, who had enlisted in the Italian African Police, died in a POW camp in 1942, after British forces had completed the conquest of the Italian East Africa. According to some sources he died of liver cancer. During the war, Pratt wroked some time as an interpreter for a fascist battalion. Before returning with his mother to Venice in the early 1940s, he was shipped to Austria after he had surrendered to the Allies. There are many stories about Pratt's early years, some of them true and some of them untrue, or as he once said: "I've 13 ways of telling my life story, and I don't know if even one of them is the true one, or more true than the others."
In 1945 Pratt entered the Venice Academy of Fine Arts. He created with Mario Faustinelle and Alberto Ungaro Asso di Picche, a hooded man of justice in the tradition of fumetti, Italian comics. With his friends he opened doors to the appreciation of American style comics, based on the works of Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson, which were not seen during Mussolini's reign. In 1950 Pratt moved to Argentina, where he worked for the publisher Cesare Civita, Editorial Abril in Buenos Aires and for Hector G. Oesterheld, editor of Editorial Frontera. During this period Pratt also taught at the Escuela Panamericana de Arte. In 1953 he married the Yugoslavian born Gucky Wogerer; they divorced in 1957, and Pratt married Anne Frognier, whom he used as the model for Ann of the Jungle. She was also known as the colorist of Pratt's work in the 1970s.
With Oesterheld he collaborated first on Sgt. Kirk for Misterix
magazine. Kirk is a U.S. soldier, who – after taking part in a massacre
during the Indian wars – has decided to fight on the other side, or as
he says: "There are no palefaces or Indians . . . there are just men .
. . just men." Other characters include Kirk's blood brother Maha, who
belongs to the Chattooga people, Corto Lea, a former outlaw, and Dr.
Forbes. Sgt. Kirk was also
drawn by Jorge Moliterni, Horacio Porreca, Gisela Dester, and Gustavo
For the magazine Supertotem Pratt wrote and drew Ann y Dann, which was published in 1959 and appeared in Italy between 1963 and 1966 under the title Anna nella jungla. Until then Pratt had drawn for stories written by others. He set the story in Africa in 1914, but avoiding politics he created a half-imaginary country familiar from the stories of Henry Rider Haggard and Lyman Young's Tim Tyler. The heroine, Anna, got her name from Anne Frognier, Pratt's neighbor. Anna's companion is Dan, the son of Bogardia's king. In this world of white English colonizers, rebellious black tribes, European adventurers and swindlers Pratt showed his skill in creating memorable minor characters, especially Tipperary O'Hara, a sailor, who could be considered an Irish version of Corto Maltese.
In South America Pratt created some of his most important strips, including Sgt. Kirk (1953), Ernie Pike (1956), and Anna della Jungla. From Argentina Pratt moved to London, England, working for the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Pictorial and for Fleetways Publications. After a short stay in Argentina, where he edited the magazine Mister X, Pratt settled back in Italy, working for the Corriere dei Piccolo in Milan, then in 1967 for the monthly Sgt. Kirk, created with Florenzo Ivaldi. Pratt also contributed Capitan Cormorand, a pirate story, Luck Star O'Hara, a detective strip, and Una Ballata del Mare Salato (A Ballad of the Salty Sea), where Corto Maltese made his first appearance as a subsidiary character. When Pratt disappeared for a period in the Amazon jungle in 1964, rumors began to spread that he had died. Throughout the following two decades, Pratt was always on the road in between his projects.
Pratt's best collections include Corto Maltese In Siberia, published first in an Italian magazine in 1974-1975, A Midsummer Morning's Dream, and Fable of Venice. In Tango Pratt used his knowledge of Argentinian history and culture. Corto Maltese: Voodoo for the President, a sequel to Banana Conga, which was translated into English in 1986, followed Corto's adventures in South America and in Venice. Frank Miller, who wrote the introduction to Voodoo for the President, nods to Pratt in The Black Widow: The Coldest War (written by Gerry Conway, 1990) – an island over which the Americans and the Soviets battle is called "Corto Maltese".
When Sgt. Kirk's Western adventures lost their appeal, Pratt introduced Corto Maltese into the French comic weekly Pif on April 1, 1970, and developed the character further. In 1973 he began to work for the Belgian Tintin, and created Les Scorpions du Désert, a World War II story. Corto's adventures appeared also in the Belgian magazine A Suivre.
In addition to Corto Maltese, Pratt created a number
of independent comic strip series. Most notable was Cato Zulu
(1984), a tale of the colonial wars in South Africa; West of Eden,
an adventure set in the wilds of East Africa; and Jesuit Joe
(1978-1984). He wrote scripts for two graphic novels illustrated by
Milo Manara (Tutto ricominciò con un'estate Indiana; El Gaucho), and published several prose novels as well as a book of
El Gaucho (1991), set in Argentina in 1806, was packed with half-dressed women and sex, but the story had all the elements of a typical Corto Maltese story: carefully studied historical background, a rootless young man in a strange country, a secret society, this time a Masonic group, and characters who are not totally good or bad. Manara and Pratt first met at Il Corriere dei Ragazzi. Tutto ricominciò con un'estate Indiana set in the Old West, evolved from the works of James Fenimore Cooper.
Pratt's famous aphoristic hero, Corto Maltese, is a sea captain, a classical hero but not as scientific as Captain Nemo. He could be the descendant of Odysseus or forefather of Luke Skywalker. Corto's world is a distinct world of his own: "I don't like hawking 'round other people's memories... That wasn't part of the deal... when I was born." (Corto Maltese in The Celts) Corto's father is an English sailor from Cornwall, his mother a gypsy from Gibraltar; she had a tattoo on her palm. As a rebel, he mostly sides with the oppressed, with Indians, Irish revolutionaries against the British, Russians fighting against the Czarist system. Pratt often combines fact with fiction, and sets the actions of his characters against some true historical crisis. In The Celt's, published first in Pif in 1971-1972, Corto meets Merlin the Wizard and characters from Shakespeare's play Midsummer Night's Dream, and sinks with a tugboat, named 'Excalibur,' a German submarine.
Fictional characters intermingle in Pratt's strips with real
historical persons, among them the outlaw Butch Cassidy, who lives incognito in Argentina, and Grigoriy Rasputin (d.
1916), a notorious lecher and drunkard, who gained the confidence of
the emperor Nicholas II, and who is seen in several albums. Like
Rasputin, Corto is indestructible – even when they have been shot by a
cannon (...e riparleremo dei gentiluomini di fortuna, 1970), they still keep on going.
In Celtic Tales Corto meets an American writer named Hernestway and helps Montenegro republicans. "Pratt does not illustrate the products of literature," said Umberto Eco in his preface to the 1979 edition, "like many very good colleagues of his that bring Poe and Hoffmann to the realm of comics. Pratt makes his and our own nostalgia for literature a matter of adventurous narrative.”
Pratt visited in 1973 Harar where the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) had lived and where his father was buried. Like Rimbaud and Lawrence of Arabia (1888-1935), Corto Maltese shares a similar passion for freedom. Rasputin, who is Corto's dark Doppelganger, proclaims in Corto Maltese in Siberia (74-75): "It's hopeless to live in a world without adventure, without fantasy, without joy!" In La casa dorata di Samarcanda (1980), Corto meets his look-alike, Timur Chevket, a Turkish officer, who is shot by Rasputin. The figure of the Siberian monk has also inspired the French cartoonist Benoit Sokal in his series about the pet Detective Canardo. Pascal Morelli's animation films, based on Pratt's stories, started in 2002 from Maltese in Siberia, entitled Corto Maltese, la cour secrète des arcanes. Originally Morelli planned to begin the series in 1999 with the Una Ballata del Mare Salato (1967-69, Ballad of the Salt Sea).
'A Tale of Two Grandfathers' from Voodoo for the President (1986) is in many respects a typical Corto Maltese adventure, in which the the secondary characters are treated without stereotyping and the story is rich with detail. It combines jungle magic with a battle between good and evil and a nearly metaphysical quest for Eldorado – the place is mentioned casually. Behind the story lurks Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Corto is travelling in Peru on a riverboat. He has a fight with another passenger, Mendoza, who tried to cheat him with loaded dice. His friends, Levi Columbia and Professor Steiner, think that the reason for the fight was nobler – Mendoza is a slave hunter. Levi Columbia says: "I had you come here because, as usual, I need a man I can trust and who's courageous enough to penetrate nobody's jungle... You are the perfect choice... Corto..." After first refusing to take the work, Corto goes in the jungle to look for a young boy, Doctor Stone's grandson. He is bitten by a poisonous snake and nearly dies. "An Indian, a sorcerer, whom he calls "Ditch-Jumper", helps him. "Corto... Corto Maltese... But since Indians all have secret names... you can call me The-One-Who-Never-Gets-To-Do-It-For-Himself. There, you can call me that... Good luck, Ditch-Jumper..." The feverish Corto follows the Indian who throws Mendoza from his boat to piranhas. Corto finds the boy, he is also Ditch-Jumper's grandson, and takes him to Doctor Stone. Levi Columba reveals that he was actually interested in old manuscripts about hidden cities. "Eldorado... Maybe a tale painted on human skin, the skin of a Franciscan monk, hide taken by Jivaro Indians, and which one can find hidden on an island in Venice... St. Francis of the desert. I don't know, Levi... It's a beautiful tale, and today is a beautiful day without any bugs...."
Stylistically Pratt's art was similar to that of Chester Gould (Dick Tracy) and Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), "the Rembrandt of the comic strip," who became famous for his mastery of drawing, skillful use of characterization and dialogue. Later Pratt found his own minimalist style, with dramatic use of black and white surfaces, figures posing stiffly and moving jerkily, exchanging enigmatic dialogue. The backgrounds are simple. Noteworthy, originally Corto's adventures were set in the era of black and white movies, but later Pratt produced also colored versions.
From the mid-1980s Pratt lived in Grandvaux, Switzerland. A passionate bibliophile, he built up a collection of some 30,000 books in his house. With Patrizia Zanotti, who was his close collaborator and colorist from the 1980s, Pratt traveled three years before his death in the South Pacific, the backdrop of Una Ballata del Mare Salato, which had established his international reputation. Pratt died of cancer at his home near Lausanne, Switzerland, on August 20, 1995. His last large work, Morgan, appeared first serialized and in a book form in 1999. The protagonist is a young British navy officer, Morgan, whose name refers to the famous pirate. The episodic story of his World War II adventures is set mostly on the Adriatic Sea. Morgan is enlisted by the secret service and he kills a beautiful woman – something that Corto Maltese wouldn't do by anybody's orders.
For further reading: De l'autre côté de Corto: Hugo Pratt by Dominique Petitfaux (2012); 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, ed. by Paul Gravett (2011); Leggere Hugo Pratt: l'autore di Corto Maltese tra fumetto e letteratura by Giovanni Marchese (2006); The World Encyclopedia of Comics, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999); 'Isoäitini perintö' by Hugo Pratt, in Corto Maltese: Kertomus Venetsiasta by Hugo Pratt (1997); Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book by D.Aviva Rothschild (1995); 'Hugo Pratt: Sarjakuvan suuri kertoja' by Didier Platteau, in Aavikon skorpionit by Hugo Pratt (1994); 'Introduction' by Frank Miller, in Corto Maltese: Voodoo for the President by Hugo Pratt (1986); 'Hugo Pratt ja Corto Maltesen tarina' by Heikki Kaukoranta, in Corto Maltese Siperiassa by Hugo Pratt (1984) - Television film Les treize vies de Corto Maltese by Jean-Claude Lubtchansky (1996)