Artist and writer Keith Page shines a light on the work and impact of Corto Maltese creator Hugo Pratt, on his own work and that of others…
Hugo Pratt (1927 – 1995) was a most unusual comics creator by British and American standards and little of his work is available in an English translation. His stories are definitely not the usual adventure or SF offerings , and his drawing style is, on the face of it, crude in the extreme by most standards. However, he spent a lifetime refining his work down to the bare graphic bones.
He once said of his style that he was aiming at “portraying all that is to be understood in a single line.”
There are no showy effects in Pratt’s work, no extravagant layouts, no fine rendering. However, most of the modern Casterman reprints of his work feature a cover design which is simply a massive enlargement from a single frame. That this works is a sign of the quality of the apparently rough drawings.
In many ways, the ultimate Hugo Pratt comic work is the series of drawings done under the title J’avais un rendez-vous in 1994. All feature his Corio Maltese character in a five to six frame episodes, sometimes with speech bubbles. They are executed as simple pencil drawings with Pratt’s bold strokes of watercolour.
Yes, they look like they were produced very rapidly but they somehow capture all the atmosphere of remote areas like Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands.
I must admit that when I first saw some of Hugo Pratt’s work, on Ballad of the Salt Sea, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Brought up on the likes of Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy, Pratt’s work looked hopelessly crude and unfinished. However, after closer study and seeing much more of his work, it grew on me, particularly when he appeared to have little in the way of the usual commercial restraints. I like the air of serenity in a lot of his stories.
I certainly wouldn’t say that Pratt was always a good action artist, although the cover of Les scorpions du désert (Scorpions of the Desert) shows great vigour.
The accusation of an unfinished look is intensified by the modern sensibilities of computer colouring and line work. With Pratt’s originals, you can really see how it was done, and it was done deftly and rapidly.
Take a look at the famous film clip of Picasso drawing with a brush on a sheet of glass and you’ll get an idea of how Pratt worked.
And here’s Pratt at work himself.
I sometimes use my own version of the his approach in my Commando stories, although it isn’t appropriate for all types of story.
The only artist who springs to mind with something of the same technique is Mike Mignola, on Hellboy. The developed style of Hugo Pratt probably just wouldn’t be acceptable to mainstream UK and US publishers .He was very much a one-off.
Pratt was of mixed ancestry (he had Venetian parents but was related to William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff). His father was an army officer and the family lived for some time in Abyssinia which inspired the young Hugo’s interest in other cultures. Post war, he worked on US inspired Italian comics, before moving on to a brief spell working on British publisher Fleetway’s War Picture Library titles.
His lifelong interest in militaria proved particularly useful here and current reprint volumes show many of his detailed sketches of uniforms.
The wandering sailor character, Corte Maltese, is perhaps Pratt’s best-known creation probably inspired, in part, by the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western characters. His stories, of varying length, feature a bewildering, and unlikely variety of characters. One short story, “A Mid-Winter Morning’s Dream”, in the collection Les Celtiques (Celtic Tales), manages to feature Oberon, Puck and a World War One German submarine.
“A Fable of Venice” shows Corto hunting through the city following various occult clues whilst dealing with real-life characters such as Gabriel d’Annunzio and the blackshirts. “Tango” sets Corte against Argentinian gangsters, helped along the way by the retired Butch Cassidy. “The Swiss” is a tale of medieval mysticism including the likes of the Devil and Joan of Arc.
Corto is somehow well known, wherever he travels, and is able to telephone Stalin with the message “Joe – it’s me”.
Pratt’s Scorpions of the Desert (Les Scorpions du desert) was a popular series, too, which featured a section of the World War Two Long Range Desert Group led by Lieutenant Koinsky, a Polish Jew. Casterman has recently republished the series in colour, as well as a black and white edition.
Another, even more unusual ‘hero” was “Jesuit Joe” – a wandering, unhinged murderer of the early 1900’s in a stolen RCMP uniform.
Hugo Pratt’s influences and inspirations were many. In particular, he was keen on drama in exotic settings from the likes of Joseph Conrad, James Fenimore Cooper and Jack London. The Conrad influence often comes out in the Corto Maltese stories although without the same grim realism. Cooper’s ” Last of the Mohicans” seems to have inspired “Fort Wheeling” set in 18th century colonial America.
One of Pratt’s final works was Saint-Exupery: The Final Flight (Saint-Exupéry: Le dernier vol) and the children’s book, The Little Prince.
Saint-Exupery went missing whilst piloting a P38 Lightning in 1994. Pratt’s version of the story is impressionistic in the extreme with the barest indications of what some of the frames represent. It does work, however.
As far as technique goes, a striking example of Pratt’s style is a page from Wheeling – The Last Friendship, where soldiers and Native Americans confront each other. It is literally a few pen lines and many heavy brush strokes of black ink.
You can, though. see exactly what is being represented. There is no or little attempt at feathering, hatching or crosshatching in Pratt’s work. The rule is quick flowing pen strokes and surprisingly crude brushwork of ink. Sometimes a figure is highlighted by a completely black background. There is little ” creasing” in clothing – Corto’s trousers, for example may often be shown as merely a single downswept per line on one side and a single downward brush stroke on the other to indicate a shadow. The effect is completely effortless, somewhat like a Japanese brush drawing.
Interestingly, a comparison with Pratt’s earlier, more conventional work shows it to be too fussy and much less effective.
Hopefully, more of Hugo Pratt’s work will appear in English language versions. Recently, Jesuit Joe has appeared as The Man from the Great North, published by IDW, who also publish his Corto Maltese series.
The adventures of Corto Maltese are currently being continued by a artist who closely imitates Pratt’s style; of course, it just isn’t the same.
• 2000AD publisher Rebellion launched a series of collections of Hugo Pratt’s British comic strips as part of its Treasury of British Comics imprint. The first, Battle Stations, written by Donne Avenell, was released in February 2020 and is available here on AmazonUK | Read John Freeman’s review here
• Les Scorpions du desert – Casterman (in French)
• The Wheeling series are now available in a new English translation as eBooks on iTunes – more details here on the Hugo Pratt Art Properties web site
• Hugo Pratt works available on AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Unleash Hell: War Picture Library Collection includes “The Iron Fist” first published in War Picture Library Issue 25, published in September 1959, drawn by Hugo Pratt
His work for the Picture Libraries is noted as follows, over on a profile of his career on “Dan Dare Info”
War Picture Library
War Picture Library 25 – The Iron Fist
War Picture Library 40 – Pathfinder
War Picture Library 50 – The Crimson Sea
War Picture Library 58 – Up the Marines!
War Picture Library 62 – Strongpoint
War Picture Library 91 – The Bayonet Jungle
War Picture Library 92 – Dark Judgment
War Picture Library 133 – The Big Arena
Battle Picture Library
Battle Picture Library 62 – Night of the Devil
War at Sea Picture Library
War at Sea Picture Library 34 – Battle Stations
Thrilller Picture Library
Thriller Picture Library 297 – Battler Britton and the Wagons of Gold
Pratt is also attributed with the story Battler Britton and the Rockets of Revenge which is published (or reprinted) in the second hardback Battler Britton collection, published in 1961
About Keith Page
Inspired by the great British comics artists of the past such as Frank Hampson, Don Lawrence and Joe Colquhoun, Keith Page has worked full-time in comics and illustration for some 17 years. Subjects have ranged from television-related material such as Thunderbirds, science fiction, and his current war stories of all periods for Commando.
Along with many Charlotte Corday-related projects, recent works include The Casebook of Bryant May: The Soho Devil written by Christopher Fowler.
All art © Hugo Pratt or respective publisher – War Picture Library © Rebellion Publishing Ltd