How to Destroy a Comics Classic

There are many difficulties in making a comic book reproduction great: proper paper type, coloring choice, lettering style, translation clarity and facility, faithful art reproduction, and more. Sometimes a publisher gets nearly everything wrong.

Hugo Pratt was an Italian comic writer and artist who created award-winning gorgeous, ethereal and interesting comics for 50 years, and is an influence on people from Frank Miller to Moebius to Paul Pope. Perhaps his best known creation is Corto Maltese, a roguish adventurer in the mold of Han Solo, who crossed the world in a series of adventures set in the 1910s and 1920s. Writer Umberto Eco famously said, “When I want to relax, I read an essay by Engels. When I want something more serious to read, I read Corto Maltese.” Unfortunately, neither Pratt nor Corto are well known in the English speaking world, with the last edition of Corto Maltese in English being released in the mid-1990s, and almost all his work now being out of print in English.

With that background, the announcement of a new edition of the first Corto Maltese story, Ballad of the Salt Sea, was exciting. Published by Universe, a division of Italian publishing house Rizzoli, this was fantastic news. Unfortunately, their new edition is a monstrously shameful abomination that ruins the excellence of Corto Maltese.

A necessity of the publishing world is economy and viability of format. This is a particular burden on European comics brought to America, as most European comics are in the French “album” format, typically drawn for and published at A4 paper size (8.3 x 11.7), larger and at a different ratio than the current US comic book size (6.625 x 10.25). Some American customers will turn down the “unwieldly” European size, or the cost at printing at the original size is prohibitive. Therefore, many European imports are shrunk to American standard size, despite the loss of clarity in the art and lettering, and sometimes strange gaps of white space in the borders to fit the new paper dimensions. This is the first step taken by the Universe edition, an understandable reduction in size to 6.75 x 9.5.

However, the wordy dialogue in Corto Maltese might be difficult to read at this size. Corto Maltese is generally drawn with each page having 4 rows of panels, with 1 to 3 panels per row. To avoid making the text in the new edition so small it was illegible, the layout of the panels on each page was reformatted by moving about 1/3 of each page onto the next page. Here’s an example of the first page in the large European size layout, published in English by The Harvill Press in 1996. (Note: these comparisons will be lacking in the regard that the new edition is in color, and all previous English editions are in black and white.)

A ship sails the Pacific, and approaches survivors of a shipwreck. The ship is cast against the wide sea, filling the panel, and the crew rushes to tell their captain what they have found. And who is their captain? We are left to wonder as we watch over his shoulder as he reclines in a wicker chair, reading in a room filled with tribal art. Quick, turn the page to find out!

(These are the first two pages of the new edition.)

So here we have our first problem in the newer, smaller format edition. Since only about 2/3 of each original page’s panels will fit on a page, the extra panels are moved onto the next. Now in the first panel, the text fills the panel instead of the ship. Instead of ending with a suspenseful query as to the mysterious captain, we end page one of the new edition with a question answered about the shipwreck survivors, and the mysterious captain is revealed in the middle of page 2 to be the conniving Captain Rasputin. Most cartoonists can make barely noticeable use of the natural pause or beat at the end of each page of comics, especially when you are about to turn the page. A final panel can be about to reveal the secret identity of a villain, or the page turn can reveal a sudden splash page of wonder. In the case of a master like Hugo Pratt, each page (in the original) would end with a moment that almost makes each page work as a single experience, separated from the continuing flow of the story. This is the first thing that’s lost by rearranging the panels to fit fewer per page.

Here’s another example from later in the story. Rasputin and Corto have spent enough time together to finally come to blows, and in a scene reminiscent of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, their fight literally brings the house down. From the first panel setting the scene, the tremors within the hut begin to grow and grow, and the swaying is matched by the shifting size of the panels from side to side, until finally the house collapses. End of page. Pause. Beat.

Notice! Each panel is not identical in size.

(These are the two pages of the new edition, the art alignment isn’t as haphazard from page to page in the book as this picture)

In the new edition, the fight starts on the left page, and continues onto the top of the right. Now, instead of the natural end to the fight at the bottom of the page, the fight seems to continue too long, dragging onto the next page. The final two panels seem a waste of page space and reading time. We get it! They fought. Move on already!

But let’s return to the introduction of Rasputin. As you have noticed by now, Hugo Pratt uses between one and three panels per row, speeding up the flow of time and information with several panels in a row, or allowing a languid look at the Pacific with one wide panel. But there is no consistency to the size of the panels, although they are uniformly rectangular. Unfortunately, with the changed format of the new edition, once you start moving some panels from one row to the next, you will soon end up with a panel that simply doesn’t fit. What to do?

Cut cut cut! Here is that same panel from the original. Rather than the wide space of the panel implying the ease of Rasputin in his chair, and the fantastic detail in the wickerwork drawn by Hugo Pratt, the panel must be sized to fit the new page layout. So everything to the right of the red line has been removed!

If that wasn’t already making you feel the artistic loss of the reformatted edition, what could possibly be worse? How about altering the art? Let’s look at another panel where Corto is facing down Rasputin. In the original, we have a tight over the shoulder shot, Corto filling the frame with the presence.

But in the new format, the original panel is too narrow! Best if you expand it out a little bit to make sure it fits. Unfortunately, no one told the colorist, so Corto seems to have suffered a sudden amputation of his left arm. Plus the readjusted panel border has removed the lines that slipped out of the frame on the right in the original, making a tighter border, but also removing some more of the vitality of Hugo Pratt’s art. Other panels have literally additional lines filling out the edge of panel, adding to the art. Approved by Pratt? Drawn by some tired editor? Who knows?

Now let’s see what happens when a moved panel is too big for the new format. Here we have a tense scene as a German patrol boat approaches, but the two rescued shipwreck survivors are being held against their will on the catamaran towed by the bigger ship. If the Germans discover them, they could be rescued! Or a fight could start. Events are happening quickly and near instantaneously, the survivors noticing the approaching possibility of rescue, the crew making quick plans to deal with approaching Germans, even as the German boat surges across the still water of the rest of the scene.

How about cutting the panel into two! Cropping off an edge like Rasputin’s poor chair won’t do, there’s simply too much happening in this panel. So move the right side down to the next row, and we still have the same events of the original panel, but with much less urgency, the panel break seeming to imply that moments are passing between.

All of this would almost be forgivable, like some superb director’s cut being reformatted in the editing room into a popular short movie, if only the quality of the print job matched the original. Let’s look at the most egregious example.

Things are getting complicated for Corto, events are coming to a head, untrustworthy allies are beginning to turn on each other, people are dying. As he contemplates his future, he leans over the edge of a porch, to stare into the sun setting over the Pacific. You would also get to contemplate this complicated moment with Corto, if the setting sun panel was at the end of the page, like in the original, but instead keep reading! But the problem here is the thick heavy lines showing the rays of sunlight. This is the worst example in the entire new edition, but the whole book suffers this problem to lesser degrees from page to page and reformatted panel to reformatted panel.

The art was simply not scanned or printed at a high enough quality to reproduce what Hugo Pratt’s original art looked like. A close examination can show chunky pixelization of each thin line that makes the art begin to look like a bad photocopy. For sad proof, look at this, the same sunset panel from the original:

We will leave you here, contemplating a low moment of life with Corto, staring into a gorgeous setting sun, hoping tomorrow will be better, perhaps bringing new editions of Hugo Pratt’s work that do his masterpieces justice.