'Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn' speaks English in new editions of first graphic novel hero

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If you’ve yet to be captivated by the graphic novel, here’s the absolute place to start. IDW Publishing has just released “Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn,” its first in a proposed 12-volume, “definitive” English-language-translation of the adventures of the ultimate soldier of fortune.

More than a decade before Will Eisner came out with “A Contract With God,” long cited as the birth of the graphic novel — adult stories told in a comic book format — readers of Hugo Pratt’s adventure tale “The Ballad of the Salty Sea” (1967) met Captain Corto Maltese.

Corto was introduced almost as a secondary character, well into an action-oriented story about two teenagers captured by modern-day pirates. Stripped to the waist, tied to a raft and set adrift by his mutinied crew, he’s found by the pirates in the middle of the sea and taken onboard.

And slowly, as the story continues, Corto develops on increasing role in the action. By the end of this story, he is the undisputed main character — even if he doesn’t win the treasure or the girl. (And he rarely does.)

My favorite Corto stories are the more rousing blood-and-thunder fables that appear later in the series.

In “In Siberia,” Corto, his occasional pal Rasputin (it’s never stated if he’s supposed to be the real-life Rasputin who advised the family of Czar Nicholas II) and a dangerous female (of course) Chinese spy derail a heavily-weaponized troop train in 1920. During “The Golden House of Samarkand,” our protagonists risk life and limb to cross several war-torn nations from 1921 to 1922 in a hunt for the hidden riches of Alexander the Great.

Throughout Corto’s quests, our hero travels with history’s notables, befriending among others Jack London, Ernst Hemingway, Herman Hesse, Josef Stalin, Butch Cassidy (not dead but hiding out in Brazil), painter Tamara de Lempicka and silent-film star Louise Brooks — or someone very much like her.

Pratt, born in Italy in 1927, traveled the globe for research, giving his adventures that perfect, knowing feel of place. Multilingual and working on several continents over his career, he created Corto while working for a French publisher.

He termed to his work as long-form “drawn literature.”

Even though Pratt died 20 years ago, images of Corto live on — in animated cartoons (watchable on DVD, if you possess a region-free player), as key fobs and on wrist watches, on subway signs beneath Paris and to promote men’s cologne in department stores. The collections are still in publication across western Europe.

But if you’re concerned these stories might too foreign for your tastes, consider that the cartoonist admitted to being inspired by Milton Caniff’s long-running “Terry and the Pirates” newspaper comic strip as well as Raymond Chandler’s private-eye hero Phil Marlowe — two American pop-culture icons. You can recognize their influences in Corto’s adventures — the exotic locales and characters as well as the dynamic, chiaroscuro art of “Terry,” and the noble loner hero of the Marlowe novels.

Moreover, Pratt had the young Clint Eastwood of “the man with no name” Westerns in mind when he first drew Corto. Just look at those cheek bones.

Is a new English translation worth the fuss? Yes. For one thing, a few of the later, somewhat melancholy Corto collections never were published before in English. Most of those that were, in the late 1980s, frankly were pretty slipshod.

And this initial IDW edition certainly returns Pratt’s intended classier turn of phrase.

Here’s an example. In a previous translation, in which Corto comes to the aid of an elderly drunk and picks a fight with a much larger opponent — by crushing out a cigar on the thug’s forehead — our hero says: “You don’t look so sharp bullying the little guy.”

In IDW’s spiffed up rendition, Corto declares: “Wouldn’t you agree that there’s no valor in abusing someone weaker than you?” Corto, while a jaunty rogue, also bears the heart of a philosopher-poet.

And wouldn’t you, if you’d been around the world and back, and lived through one tremendous, heart-pounding adventure after another?

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