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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.
(Merlin:) Yes, but he's dreaming with his eyes open, and those that dream with their eyes open are dangerous, for they do not know when their dreams come to an end.

(from The Celts, 1971-72)

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 Trigo.

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, and published several prose novels as well as a book of memoirs. 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.

Pratt's famous aphoristic hero, Corto Maltese, is a sea captain, a classical romantic hero but not a sentimental Byronic wretch. He could be the father of Tintin or his more mature version. 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. 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.

In Pratt's strips fictional characters intermingle with real historical persons, among them the indestructible 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. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) was portrayed in Les Ethiopiques (1972-1973). In 1973 Pratt visited Harar where Rimbaud had lived and where his father was buried. Rasputin is Corto's dark Doppelganger and 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 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. 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: 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)

Selected works:

  • El Sargento Kirk, 1953 (with Héctor Oesterheld) [Sgt. Kirk]
    - Kersantti Kirk: luopio (suom. Kirsi Väkiparta, 1986)
  • Ann y Dan, 1959 (in Supertotem) [Anne of the Jungle]
    - Anna ja Dan viidakossa (suom. Heikka Kaukoranta, 2001)
  • Fort Wheeling, 1962
    - Fort Wheeling (suom. Soile Kaukoranta, 1985)
  • Una Ballata del Mare Salato, 1967-69 (in Kirk)
    - Ballad of The Salt Sea (tr. 1996)
    - Corto Maltese Etelämerellä (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1991)
  • Gli scorpioni del deserto, 1969 [The Scorpions of the Desert]
    - Aavikon skorpionit (suom. Jukka Heiskanen, 1994)
  • Sous le signe du Capricorne, 1970-73 (in Pif)
    - The Brazilian Eagle (tr. 1986); Banana Conga (tr. 1986)
    - Kauriin merkin alla (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1996)
  • Les Celtiques, 1971-72 (in Pif)
    - The Celts (tr. 1996); Corto Maltese: A Mid Winter Morning Dream (tr. 1987)
    - Kelttiläistarinoita (Heikki Kaukoranta, 1998)
  • Le Ettopiche / Les Ethiopiques, 1972-73 (in Pif)
    - Corto Maltese in Africa (tr. 1987) / Corto Maltese: Vol. 5: In Africa (contains In the Name of Allah the Merciful, The Coup de Grace, More Romeos, More Juliets, The Leopard-Men of the Rufiji, 1987)
    - Corto Maltese Etiopiassa (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1986) / Etiopialainen romanssi (suom. Heikka Kaukoranta, 1999)
  • Corte sconta detta Arcana, 1974-75 (in Linus)
    - Corto Maltese in Siberia (tr. 1989)
    - Corto Maltese Siperiassa (tekstaus Kalervo Palsa, suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1984)
    - animated film (2002): Corto Maltese: La course secrète des arcanes, dir. by Pascal Morelli, starring Richard Berry, Patrick Bouchitey, Marie Trintignant, Barbara Schulz
  • L'homme des Caraïbes, 1976
  • Favola di Venezia (sirat al bunduqiyyah), 1977 (in Europeo)
    - Fable of Venice (tr. 1990)
    - Corto Maltese Venetsiassa (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1992) / Kertomus Venetsiasta (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1997)
  • La macumba du Gringo, 1978
  • À l'Ouest de l'Éden, 1979
  • Chroniques de guerre I, 1979 (with Hector Oesterheld)
  • Junglemen, 1979 (with Paolo Ongaro)
  • Corto toujours un peu plus loin, 1979
    - Corto Maltese: The Lagoon of Beautiful Dreams (tr. 1972) / Corto Maltese: Vol. 2: Banana Conga (contains So Much for Gentlemen of Fortune, The Seagull's Fault, Mushroom Heads, Banana Congo, partly tr., 1986); Corto Maltese: Vol. 3: Voodoo for the President (contains Voodoo for the President, Sweet Dream Lagoon, A Tale Of Two Grandfathers, The Angel in the Window to the Orient, introductuon by Frank Miller, 1986)
    - Banaani-conga ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1997)
  • La casa dorata di Samarcanda, 1980 (in Lime and A Suivre) [The Golden House of Samarkand]
    - Corto Maltese Samarkandissa (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1998)
  • Chroniques de guerre 2, 1980 (with Hector Oesterheld)
  • Les jouets du général, 1980 (with Alberto Ungaro)
  • L'île au trésor, 1980 (based on R.L. Stevenson's novel)
  • Jésuite Joe / L'uomo del grande nord, 1980
    - Suuren pohjolan mies (suom. 2012)
  • Billy James, 1980
  • Capitaine Cormorant, 1980 (with Stelio Fenzo)
  • Chroniques de guerre 3, 1980 (with Hector Oesterheld)
  • Fanfulla, 1981 (with Selva)
  • Fort Wheeling 2, 1981
  • La Giovinezza / La Jeunesse 1904-1905, 1981-82 (in Le Martin de Paris)
    - Corto Maltese: The Early Years (tr. 1988) / Corto Maltese: Vol. 6: The Early Years (tr. 1988)
    - Corto Maltese: nuoruus 1904-1905 (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1988) / Corto Maltese: nuoruus (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 2003)
  • L'as de pique, 1982
  • Recits de guerre: du sable, rien que du sable, 1983
  • Tutto ricominciò con un'estate indiana, 1983 (illust. Milo Manara)
    - Indian Summer (2nd Print edition 1994)
    - Intiaanikesä (suom. Soile Kaukoranta, 1990)
  • Les Scorpions du Desert 3, 1984
  • Cato Zulu, 1984-88
  • Sergent Kirk 2, 1984
  • Sergent Kirk 3, 1985
  • Sergent Kirk 4, 1985
  • Tango...y todo a media luz, 1985 (in Corto Maltese)
    - Corto Maltese Argentiinassa (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1990) / Corto Maltese: tango (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1998)
  • Sergent Kirk 5, 1987
  • Evetiche, 1987 (in Corto Maltese)
    - Corto Maltese Sveitsissä (suom. Soile ja Heikki Kaukoranta, 2007)
  • Mû, 1988-89 (in Corto Maltese)
    - Mu: kadonnut manner (suom. Soile Kaukoranta, 1994)
  • Cato Zoulou, 1990
  • El Gaucho, 1991 (illust. by Milo Manara)
    - The Gaucho (tr. 1996)
    - Etäisten maiden tuuli (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 2000)
  • Koinsky raconte... deux ou trois choses que je sais d'eux, 1993
  • Les Scorpions du Desert 3, 1994
  • Saint-Exupéry: le dernier vol, 1995
    - Saint-Exupéry: viimeinen lento (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 1996)
  • Dans un ciel lointain, 1996
  • Morgan, 1999
    - Morgan (suom. Heikki Kaukoranta, 2000)
  • L'Ombre, 2004 (with Alberto Ongaro)
  • Carnet de la cambuse, 2007

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