I am late in posting about the last expo that I saw back two weeks ago. And, bad me, I didn’t post yesterday – I was flying to Montreal and mentally drained when I got here. Anyway, after long ado, I have a few things to say about “Le voyage imaginaire d’Hugo Pratt” at the Pinacotèque de Paris.
When I discovered Corto Maltese back about 10 years ago, I was hopelessly ignorant of the prevalence of comics industry in Europe. In the US, comics are primarily superheros (DC and Marvel…) or imported mangas from Japan. In Europe, there is a massive production of large format comic books aimed not only at kids and teenagers but also at adults. Yes, there are overtly sexual ones (the Manara series in particular) but there are literally 1000’s of others that go from fantasy to science fiction to comedy to political satire…all over the map. I have a relatively small collection compared to my friend’s here of about 150 comics of all kinds of genres. I think the major reason that they remain unknown outside of primarily France and Belgium (although you also find them in Italy, Spain and Switzerland and to a lesser extent Germany) is that they have never really be translated into English. I have never seen some of the classics (La Quête de l’oiseau du temps by Loisel, Nestor Burma by Tardi, Blake and Mortimer by Jacobs, Les Cités Obscures by François Schuiten, and 100’s of others) in anything other than Dutch or French. There is a massive cult in Europe around Hergé’s Tintin which anglophones are going to become aware of this summer due to the new Spielberg film – perhaps that will motivate Dupuis and Dargaux to have some others translated into English? Hey, if you are reading this you comic publishers and you need a translator, I’m your guy :)
One of the more mysterious and difficult heros in this genre is Corto Maltese created by Hugo Pratt in the 1967. Pratt was Italian but with French origins on his father’s side. He grew up in Venice (a favorite destination of his hero Corto) and he spent part of his adolescence at a military garrison in Ethiopia. The exposition shows lots of his sketches of military uniforms which were incredibly varied depending on the comic he was working on. He traveled extensively and wrote several series including Fort Wheeling about the settlement of West Virginia for which he was made an honorary citizen of that town. More to the point of this blog post, he named his most famous hero Corto according to the interview shown during the exhibit based on the word “corto” which could apparently be interpreted by “quick draw” and by the association with the knights Order of Malta which defer a sort of chevalresque and mediterranean feel to the character. His uniform itself is that of the merchant marine – not overtly military and yet attractive to the many ladies that he meets on his travels (women and uniforms as the saying goes). The expo shows (fantastic!) the entire draft of the first Corto adventure Una ballata del mare salato (La Balade sur la Mer Salée ou The Salt Sea Ballad). All of the Corto series is drawn in a thick black calligraphic style in black and white which bestows mystery and a spareness mirrored in the text as well. It is almost impossible to describe the plot of a Corto story. In fact, when I asked folks around me if they wanted to join me to see the expo, no one said they really understood or appreciated Corto although they all knew the series and appreciated the drawing style. What I like in the series is precisely the dreamlike quality of his adventures, the skillful skill (sorry I couldn’t help it due to my Lorax obsession at this point in time) at the pen work, and the beautiful women that Corto encounters during each story. The period is ambiguously around or just before the first world war so there are lots of hand-to-hand combats, spars between various colonial powers and the wonderfully evil Rasputin character – kind of Corto’s evil twin. I’ll have to cross my fingers that sometime Casterman (the publisher of Pratt in France) will ask me to translate them to English to give them more of a deserved larger audience :)
Pratt was also incredibly talented with aquarelles and the expo features some incredibly beautiful ones such as Occident shown here to the right.
The expo runs until late August and has two catalogs: a smallish one for 20€ and a huge one with 100’s of fantastic aquarelles by Pratt for 60€. You can guess which one I bought!