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Hugo Pratt is one of those names that you can use to separate the knowledgeable from the unlearned when it comes to European comics. Those that know recognize the name immediately; not knowing him is like not knowing Kirby.
A bronze statue of Corto Maltese in front of the Angouleme Comics Museum
His most famous creation is Corto Maltese, a name that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Dark Knight Returns – it’s used as the name of the small island nation where Superman is forced to intervene. Frank Miller is an avid Hugo Pratt devotee and provided the introduction for the English translation of Book 3 in the series that NBM published in the mid-80s. Pratt’s extreme use of solid blacks and whites in high contrast for effect had a direct impact on Frank Miller, especially in Sin City.
In fact, many feel that Pratt’s linework is of more interest than the character he created, which is understandable. It’s obvious that Pratt put an enormous effort into creating believable tableaux, drawing from his life experience as a world-traveler to add a layer of verisimilitude to his creations. However, his best work is not the buildings and costumes that he creates, but those occasions where he finds it necessary to step back and provide a more impressionistic view of things – usually during action sequences.
The confident use of rough blacks, shadow effects and precise linework in concert is really what makes Hugo Pratt such an interesting artist. It’s nearly impossible to flip through his books without wanting to stop and examine the linework. From there, it’s a short lack of impulse control away from figuring out where the story starts and finding out what’s going on in the story at hand.
NBM released eight books in translation, but the whole run has been out of print for decades. Mostly because of the quality of the art, the books are very difficult to find and are an occasion for rejoicing when they turn up.
When I was at HeroesCon in 2010, I ran across a vendor who had a pair of the NBM books on his shelf. These books are very rare and can fetch quite a bit of money on eBay from sellers who know exactly what they have on their hands. The fact that I paid as little for these books as I did makes me want to go back to that reseller. In fact, I had my eye on his collected Terry and the Pirates reprints as well…
To me, the appeal of the Corto Maltese stories has always been the rich history of the character and the way that creator Hugo Pratt integrated him into the events of the day. From his (chronologically) first appearances in the Russo-Japanese war, where he meets the war correspondent Jack London and his long-time adversary Rasputin, the Maltese stories show him wandering the globe for over twenty years, visiting most of the continents and just generally being “a gentleman of fortune.”
Each NBM book collects a series of four or five 20 page stories that were originally printed in the Pif gadget comics magazine – which is how Francophone comics were usually serialized. I picked up Books 2 & 3 (Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President) in Charlotte and I already owned Book 4 (A Midwinter Morning’s Dream). Read in order, the stories tie together in a loose but coherent fashion. One leads into another into another and the books are structured about right for the themes presented.
Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President are largely focused on Corto’s adventures in South America and the Caribbean, getting involved in political situations that he has no stake in, searching for treasure, encountering unusual characters and eventually running off to Venice to find part of a long-lost treasure map. The next book in the series is entirely set in Europe and the remains of World War I, although it does have a great interlude in Dublin.
One of the best stories in these books is about a group of soldiers from various armies who have banded together to liberate a cache of hidden gold in a small town that keeps changing hands with the vicissitudes of war. The story makes the point that only a neutral pirate like Corto Maltese could have possible organized all of these various parties together to make the plan work. It starts with an observation balloon going off-mission, but it turns into a fantastic caper.
There are several dream sequences throughout the stories, some of which are centered on Maltese and some of which aren’t. It takes a strong character to not be the center of his own stories, which Maltese frequently isn’t. In the Russo-Japanese war story, he doesn’t show up until almost two-thirds of the way through the narrative! (Mind you, that story was written well after the character was established, in an attempt to give some more backstory to an already colorful individual.)
At one point, Maltese loses his memory. In the very next story, his traveling companion decides that the best way to give Maltese his memory back is to feed him magic mushrooms obtained from a tribe in the central Amazon rain forest. Predictably, this leads to yet another dream sequence.
As a treasure-seeker, rogue and anti-hero, Corto Maltese is much more world-weary than Han Solo or Indiana Jones and should really be placed in their company as a default go-to character archetype for comics readers. The wikipedia page about the character points out that Maltese frequently shows up in various other European comics – not always by name, but usually recognizable by appearance alone.
The French publisher Casterman has re-released the entire Corto Maltese library in chronological order of occurrence (which is not the same as the publication order). These handsome, hardback books also contain a little essay at the front, talking about Pratt’s artistic influences and the time period of the story – or so I imagine; I haven’t actually gotten around to translating that bit of French yet. The Casterman books are also notable for being in color, which is unusual because the originals (and NBM translations) were printed in black and white.
The colors do not actively detract from the impact of the linework, but the black and white pages really show off Pratt’s compositional abilities at a macro level to much better effect. I will say, however, that the page just before Corto’s introduction in La Jeunesse (which I picked up in Brussels) is almost an abstract comic. The individual panels are really just snapshots of action, flashes of color that capture our attention.
When I originally started reading La Jeunesse, I was using the one-word-at-a-time method with a dictionary and only got about halfway through the story. After reading Books 2 & 3, though, I went back and realized that Pratt’s storytelling style was not all that complicated. With a little bit of squinting, I was able to get through the rest of the book using only my casual understanding of French. I should have known to do that from the fact that I was able to read the introductory page from La Jeunesse without any translation assistance at all.
Reading the book in French, however, did highlight the fact that the letters of the alphabet have evolved from pictographs and are, essentially, nothing more than standardized drawings. When those letters form patterns that are recognizable as words that I understand, I see them as text. When they form words that I do not immediately recognize, their evolutionary past is much more obvious and they become just another kind of organized pattern of marks on the page.
There are occasional rumors that one company or another is going to publish the Corto Maltese books in English, but nothing ever comes of them. For that reason, those readers who are serious about Hugo Pratt and his most famous character will probably have to deal with the language barrier and read the series in French. Considering the volume of additional material that comes with French, I’d say that it’s not a bad way to go.
However, if you happen to find a copy of any of the NBM albums when you’re poking around in dusty bookstores, pick it up immediately. If you pay less than $30 for it, you got a bargain. If you find a copy of The Ballad of the Salt Sea, let me know.
Posted 5 years, 10 months ago at 6:15 am. 1 comment
One of the BD I picked up in Belgium was Le Reflet (the Reflection) by Marc-Renier and Yvan Hasse. One of the things I was specifically looking for as I browsed the European comic markets was metafictional works. I picked it up because Le Reflet is one such work – obviously so.
My French is not very good. It got marginally better over the summer, when I took my first French class in 22 years. However, I took the class after I read Le Reflet – which involved a painful, word-by-word flip through the French/English dictionary. There were several passages that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, but I’m fairly sure that I got the gist of the whole story, if not the specifics.
Having said that, the whole piece has sat heavy on my mind for the past several months and I decided to take the opportunity that has been granted (the wife is on a girl’s weekend in Brooklyn) to unravel my thoughts on the work.
The book itself is very short. It’s not as wide as a standard BD album and it’s a brisk 30 pages long. The art is a Herge-influenced ligne clair style with a color scheme that is slightly more pastel than you would expect for a story with such dark themes. This makes sense, as Marc-Renier got his start working for Tintin magazine at about the same time. The two best things about the art are the numerous callouts to classic European BD (the story is set in a BD shop) and the tails on the word balloons, which have a beautifully art deco flip to them. The book was published in 1983, but the clothing on the characters suggests an earlier era – 1950s or 60s, maybe.
Spot the references.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Marc owns a shop that specializes in classic BD, which he declares to be genius (“Genial,” above). He’s found an artist to illustrate a BD that he wrote – something of his own that he can place next to the canon on the shelf. The comic shop is named “Au Miroir Malefique” which translates into “In the Evil Mirror.” The reason for the name is an ominous mirror (that you can see below) that came with the shop when he first rented it. He took it as an omen. No, really. Accordingly, the BD is called Le Reflet (the Reflection) – an obvious nod to the name of the shop, which is appropriate because it’s about the history of the shop.
Close up of the detail on the balloons and the mirror.
All of that gets established in the first dozen pages. In the next two pages, the book arrives. Unsurprisingly for those that have been paying attention, it is the book that the reader is currently reading. The title is the same, the cover is the same. In a broad hint about this eventuality, Marc is seen on page two holding an inked page for his yet-to-be published BD that is the same as the previous page.
Mise en abyme
Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinee calls this Mise en abyme, where “art is transposed ‘to the level of the characters.’” Her book gives a more obvious example from Mathieu’s L’Origine, whose main character begins receiving pages of BD art in the mail – each one depicting a scene that has already occurred. Mathieu takes the conceit to an existential conclusion (to great effect), but it was published in 1991, seven years after Le Reflet was published.
It’s details like these that made me pick up Le Reflet in the first place. They don’t happen enough in Anglo-Saxon comics, but they seem to appear in the BD created in the land of French language theorists with startling regularity. What I found most interesting about this particular narrative artifact was what the creators did with it.
The final two-thirds of the book start with Marc receiving his books from the printer and then goes rapidly downhill as he finds himself completely unable to sell any copies of his books. The situation spirals out of control – he yells at customers and friends and grows despondent as boxes of books are returned and begin to accumulate.
Eventually, he shuts up the shop and hides with his BD. Unshaven and distraught, he talks to himself (literally – a clean-cut reflection that appears in the evil mirror and is his sole voice of encouragement) and eventually dies. His publisher friend finds his dead body and is astonished to flip to the back of Le Reflet to find a page that looks exactly like that scene; even moreso because it was not there the first time he read the book.
Breaking and entering.
There’s a bit of a Twilight Zone ending to the story, but it’s a necessary twist. Without it, the whole construct begs to be given the third degree. To wit: did Marc knowingly write a story about his own downfall and death but pretended to be surprised when it came true? The implication comes with the conceit – the album published in the story is intended to be read as the actual album and vice versa. What happens in one will happen in the other. Fate happens to everyone eventually.
But if the content of the story changed after the fact, then Marc is not a self-destructive creator, merely a run-of-the-mill self-delusional one. And that’s a much easier position to understand; who hasn’t gone to those histrionic extremes in this day and age of self-publication? In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the original story Marc published was all about how wonderful he was and how successful this book was going to make him.
There’s more than a basic parable about believing your own hype here – I still haven’t unpacked the symbolism of the mirror. Obviously, calling the shop “In the Evil Mirror” is a broad hint at the nature of the mirror itself. But it also points at the nature of the relationship between the shop (and the universe it sits within) and the mirror; the shop is in the mirror, and is the evil reflection of some other, idealized world.
I doubt very much that Marc really thought too much about these implications. After all, “In the Evil Mirror” is a pretty awesome name for a local comic shop; it’s almost on par with “Forbidden Planet” without having to contend with all of the pop cultural baggage.
But one hopes that he thought about this stuff when he named his book Le Reflet; placed in the context, the BD becomes the reflection that is in the evil mirror. I don’t think he parsed the relational themes as presented. If he had, he might have figured out that the outcome he was experiencing was a result of being on the wrong side of the mirror.
Which is the reflection?
The book ends with both reflections of Marc on the inside of the mirror, looking out at the mess that was created. In the end, it’s where Marc was probably meant to be.
One ironic footnote to the album. I found my copy in the bargain section of a used-BD store in Belgium. The price tag shows 2.50 euros and it’s obviously seen better days. Exactly where you’d expect to find a book that presents itself as a sales failure. I honestly wonder what happened to les Editions du Miroir (no kidding!) – as far as I can tell, they only put out a handful of books; two of which were written by Yvan Hasse. His entire bibliography.
Posted 5 years, 10 months ago at 8:46 am. Add a comment
I love David Macaulay. When I was about 11 or 12, I received a pile of David Macaulay books for Christmas from my parents. They were Pyramid, Cathedral, Underground and Castle – all about how the edifice or structure at hand was built. My adult self is able to identify each as an album-sized, perfect bound 80-page book. My younger self just knew them as awesome.
I pored over each of them at length, absorbing pertinent details and memorizing facts. I read all of them multiple times, but I think Castle was my favorite, for two reasons. First, it’s one of the books that has survived multiple moves, meaning that some instinct has made me hold on to it. Second, it was about castles, which featured prominently in the AD&D-soaked imagination that held my brain in a fog during those years.
The interesting thing about my fascination with AD&D at the time was the sourcebooks – the articles about imaginary places. Castle was exactly like those articles and sourcebooks – with better pictures and a narrative that fitted with my interests. (In case it’s not clear, I really do feel that I was the ideal audience for these books.)
The great part about the books (all of them shared certain characteristics, so it’s fair to point out that they all used them well) was the use of cross-sections.
Observant readers might note Macaulay’s art style. To my eye, it’s very similar to the comic book creators of the day (1977), which adds an extra dose of familiarity. I also like the way that the people are static, but give the impression of movement. Because of this cartoony + action style, I count David Macaulay as a sequential artist that has influenced me.
In addition to feeding my love of planning and process and cross-sections, these books showed a different way of presenting sequential art – something that I’ve always found worthy of replication. The three panels below show the art from pages 33, 47 and 65. Note how the size of the town grows and and how the text is presented next to the images, as extended captions.
The other Macaulay book that is worth picking up is Motel of the Mysteries – a story about an archaeologist who discovers a motel that was buried in a mudslide and mistakes it for a necropolis.
In the course of looking up the links for the books, I discovered that Macaulay has a new set of books out – Ship, Mill, Mosque, City (Roman), and Unbuilding (which is the story of the unbuilding of the Empire State Building). Of course, I am enough of a fan to spend ten minutes reading about each book and figuring out how much it would cost to buy them all.
Needless to say, Macaulay comes highly recommended.
Posted 7 years, 4 months ago at 5:33 pm. Add a comment
I picked up The Dreamer by Will Eisner in Midtown Comics in New York City on Sunday (that would be the 3rd of May for those that want to be precise about such things).
I’ve been working my way through the Will Eisner library for a number of years now and I’m always interested to run across something new that is more off the beaten path. The Dreamer is very far off the beaten path. It’s basically a story of how Will Eisner “broke into” comics in the late 1930s – just before the outbreak of World War II. In only 48 pages, he manages to squeeze in the creation of Eisner & Iger, Superman, Batman, Wonderman and The Spirit and all of the personalities and artists that were involved in their origin stories. For people who like these kinds of fictionalized glimpses into the history of a subject that they are devoted to, this book is solid gold.
Mind you, it was published in 1986, ~50 years after the events depicted in the book. This means that two things are present in abundance – a foreknowledge that everything will work out for the main character and the fact that Eisner’s trademark layout style is very well established, making this look like every other Eisner book – creative layouts made with a genuine effort to make individual pages look distinctive.
In fact, one of the interesting things about the book is that each page is more or less self-contained. The conversation on the page advances the story in some way, but still manages to present a complete thought (usually a joke). Another great thing about this book is that the story explains exactly why Eisner is able to produce such a cogent history of the pre-war comics industry in New York City – because he did a of high-volume of work on deadline, and practice makes perfect.
Will Eisner wrote a lot of books on a lot of subjects and most of them are reviewed elsewhere. The thing I’m trying to learn from him as a creator is how to pace each page to keep the story flowing. His layouts also make great inspiration for how to make a static page look interesting.
Posted 7 years, 4 months ago at 6:05 pm. Add a comment
I found this book when I was working at the Barbarian Book Store in Wheaton in 1992. I picked it up because I was a full-on Sandman devotee and would pick up just about anything with Neil Gaiman’s name on it. In the Spring of 1993, Gaiman signed my copy. I have since misplaced this signed copy.
Since that time, I have come to realize that Dave McKean’s fingerprints are more obvious in the work than Gaiman’s, which is interesting because it shows much more about my shifts in taste and perspective over the years than it does about the work itself. Last year I was browsing in Big Monkey Comics in DC when I ran across the reissued anniversary edition, which I picked up. As I mentioned, I still don’t know where my original copy is and I really wanted to read the story again – and look at the art.
My perceptions aside, there are some notable differences between the editions. There is new material in the newer edition, for example – a handful of two-page stories at the beginning of the book and a coda at the end of the book that was written in 2000. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story is fairly straightforward: the main character is a renowned film director who has just found out that he is dying of cancer. Instead of seeking treatment, he throws himself into writing his last film – a film that he knows he will not be alive to see filmed. The film is about the apocalypse that didn’t happen in 999 and the act of writing it becomes a means for him to deal with his impending death.
The story was originally serialized in The Face – a British fashion magazine – and in between chapters, McKean added two page inserts that sampled text from the original script of the story. These chapters add an element of noise to the story, enhancing the thematic power of the whole book. The subject of noise comes up periodically throughout the story as well, most notably in this page (which I still see as a masterwork of layout and design).
You may have noted that the page is done entirely with overlapping photographs – well spotted. A majority of the story is made using McKean’s now-trademark mixed media process. With this work, though, he used a lot of photoreferenced material, as well as a good amount of straight photography.
A friend of mine read this book and told me that she could see exactly where I got my inspiration from. And she’s exactly right. These days, I wear the fact that I am heavily influenced by Dave McKean on my sleeve, but that does not change the impact that the book had on me when I was taking my first, tentative steps into graphic design in college.
Below is another page from the end of the book, showing how the panel breaks are often subtle. It’s an approach that I’ve drawn from more than once, to varied effect.
Overall, you should find a copy of this book and give it read. If you are a Neil Gaiman fan and you do not own this book, you are doing yourself a disservice. This is doubly true if you are a Dave McKean fan.
Posted 7 years, 5 months ago at 3:32 pm. Add a comment
I picked up this book on Sunday at Big Planet Comics in Georgetown in a big stack of other books. I knew Joann Sfar from his work with Lewis Trondheim on the Dungeon series and I was absolutely willing to take a chance on this book entirely due to that content. To be honest, this was one of the last things I threw on the pile, but I’m very happy at the impulse buy.
As you would guess from the title, the entire book is about a rabbi and his cat. What is less obvious is that the entire book is told from the point of view of the cat, who does many cat-type things through the course of the book. He also gains the ability to talk, which is far less cat-like (in my experience).
The book is told with six panels to a page without exception and most of those panels contain a caption at the top edge and some occasional dialog. The art is fairly straightforward line art, beautifully colored. Sfar does a fantastic job of knowing what level to draw the various scenes at. Most are rough thumbnails, although he does occasionally knuckle down and produce some amazing panels like the one below. Other times, he pulls back and produces a more impressionistic style – whatever is most appropriate for the panel at hand.
The story itself is set in the 1930s in French Algeria, where Arabs and Jews are living together under the oppression of the French. There are some very nice set pieces describing the casual bigotry of the French and the relative lack of enmity between the Arabs and the Jews (even pointing out that they often share the same last names). The majority of the story, though, is about the rabbi and his students, friends and family.
This story takes the rabbi and his daughter to Paris, where the rabbi (and his cat) learn about how Algerian Jews fit into the larger, more cosmopolitan culture. Above it all, however, is a very simple understanding that life can be very good if you let it be. Sometimes all it takes is music to make the characters happy. Sometimes it just takes food. But for a deceptively simple conceit, the book produces some seriously profound ideas that are both entertaining and endearing.
If you like stories about family, cats or just want to read something that will make you smile repeatedly, I would highly recommend this book. But don’t take my word for it – the back cover tells me that it won the Jury Prize at the Angouleme. There’s even a sequel – which I’ll probably get around to buying one of these days.
Posted 7 years, 5 months ago at 4:59 pm. Add a comment
I swear that I picked up The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad at Gosh Comics in 2002, but the book has an American pricetag on it. It was an odd find, but I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever stumbled upon.
According to the introduction, these were originally released in the Independent on Sunday, a London newspaper. I find this odd because – although Leviathan is a “gag-a-day” strip – it doesn’t feel like a comic that one finds in the newspaper. By that, I mean that Leviathan is more clever than funny, which makes calling it a “gag-a-day” strip seem like a serious misnomer. Here, try one of the strips and see what I mean.
The majority of the strips in the book are just like that. With only a few rare exceptions, they each stand on their own – defendant only the reader’s ability to know that the baby in green is Leviathan. There are obvious comparisons to Walt Kelly, Gary Larson, Berke Breathed, Garry Trudeau and Bill Waterson to be made, but the Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes are probably the closest in tone. The pages are filled with play of all kinds – wordplay, playing with the format of the page, playing with the reader’s expectations. There is a kind of delight that comes from turning the page and not knowing what’s next.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, the book itself is very nice. The pages have a nice red on the edges and the design is very tactile and immediate. If you are the kind of person who doesn’t understand the question “why would you buy a hardback book,” then you might enjoy the Book of Leviathan. Readers who enjoy something fun and clever as a mental snack would absolutely enjoy this. Unless you don’t.
Posted 7 years, 6 months ago at 4:51 pm. Add a comment
I want to say that I found my copy of Migelanxo Prado’s Tangents in a second hand shop somewhere, but it is equally likely that I purchased it from a vendor at a club or directly from the NBM table at Small Press Expo. Either way, I do know that my copy came with a tear in the front cover, which is why I got it for a reduced price. I’ve seen Prado’s work around (most notably in A Streak of Chalk), but this was new to me so I picked it up.
Prado is a Spanish artist who you may know from the Dream story in Endless Nights. Tangents was originally written in Spanish and the translated edition that I have was published by NBM, who had a nice line of translated European comics a few years ago. If you are dilligent, you can find their stuff in better comic shops.
Tangents is an anthology of eight short stories and each was drawn with crayons, chalk and ink – but the use of each varies from story to story and they are visually distinct. His use of color is fantastic throughout. I like the autumnal, sunset look of this story.
The common thread linking all of these stories is that they depict a scene in the sex lives of the characters. In most cases, this scene is a turning point in those lives, giving the story a degree of depth and meaning. In some cases, though, the writing is not the best; I’m not sure if this is due to the translation or if the artist just wasn’t good at writing dialogue. Also, there is a distinct lack of word balloons under the dialogue itself to provide contrast, which makes reading the words more cumbersome than it needs to be.
That doesn’t matter all that much, though. The art does a very good job of telling the story through body language and the like. There is enough information gleaned from the the captions and dialogue to provide context to the sad faces and dejected people. This is helped by the fact that entire pages of each story are done entirely without captions or dialogue. And Prado is very good at facial expressions.
One of the interesting things about the book is the nudity. This is to be expected due to the subject matter, but it should be noted that this is not a book for children. All manner of secondary and primary sexual characteristics are depicted, without modesty – which suits the tone of stories told about two people at their most intimate.
What I found most interesting was the fact that Prado chose to depict foreplay right up to the point of intercourse and then suddenly gets shy at the last minute and flash to a panel of discarded clothes. If intercourse is shown, it is usually from a distance. Maybe there is something to be said for the last minute shift in context to provide juxtaposition.
This is not an uplifting book by any stretch of the imagination, but the art is fantastic and it’s a perfect example of how to do sequential art about normal people. Stories about sad naked people work really well in comics form. Go figure.
Posted 7 years, 6 months ago at 4:27 pm. Add a comment
Kier over at Durosia.com gave Oceanus Procellarum a very nice review.
Posted 7 years, 8 months ago at 3:37 pm. Add a comment