A specter is hunting Corto Maltese. Be it the recurring image of his lookalike, the mysterious Chevket who seems to be anywhere, or the tumultuous nationalist spirits that awaken in cetral Asia of the early 20th century it seems Corto is not going to get a moment’s rest. This is definitely the busiest of the “Corto Maltese” albums, a tale of epic sweep with a large cast and seemingly national stakes, but thanks to the humanity of the characters and the storytelling it might also be the best.
Written, illustrated and Colored by Hugo Pratt
Translated by Dean Mullaney and Simone Castaldi
English Lettering by Frank Engli
Set in the years 1921-22, the action leaps from Turkey, to Azerbaijan, and to the Caspian Sea, tracing the path of the legendary Silk Road, as Corto hunts for the fabled treasure of Alexander the Great.
A parade of interesting characters ensues, including the Whirling Dervishes, Joseph Stalin (with whom Corto is on a first-name basis), the Hashinin sect of assassins, the Turkish general Enver Pasha, and the return of Venexiana Stevenson and the witch-tongued Rasputin (who has just escaped from the dreaded prison known as “The Golden House of Samarkand.”)
Pratt further explores the theme of dual personality, as Corto tries to evade his doppelganger, the Turkish revolutionary Timur Chevket, always mindful of his mother’s warning that coming face to face with his look-alike would mean disaster.
I am never quite sure what to make of the “Corto Maltese” series. On the one hand this series offers well-researched historical fiction, attempting to chart the dangerous waters of early 20th century struggles for and against colonialism by various peoples, whose loyalty to details can make it impenetrable without a handy chart by the reader’s side, in this volume alone we have Turks, Russians, Armenians, French, English and some other groups struggling for regional domination, and this without mentioning inner-faction rivalries which play a major role as Corto Maltese and his companions move across boarders and loyalties.
On the other hand, the seriest has this semi-romantic magical-realist tone in which certain things “happen:” in this volume Corto is hounded by a seminal doppelganger who bares not only his exact likeness but also seems to appear in the exact same trouble spots where he appears to be. As the book comes to a close a possible meeting between one man and other seems almost to take an almost a mythical tone: thesis and anti-thesis crashing into one another, a cosmological clash. Perhaps this the point of it all: the clash between the brutal nature of human history as a whole and the magical nature of the individual.
It’s a hard sort balance to maintain and while the series is always magnificent in terms of craft and presentation (more on that later) some volumes work better than others: The anti-colonial tale “The Ethiopian” maintains this balance wonderfully, anchoring the grand political machinations in a strong humanistic cast, while something like “In Siberia” feels over-busy – drowning the reader in details.
In many ways “Golden House of Samarkand” is the least reader-friendly of these albums: building on previous plots and characters, while older books felt more stand-alone in nature, and extremely dense in terms of plotting and world exploration (in some cases the plot will stop for a wall of text as characters’ monologue about the current socio-political situation), but it is also a beautiful story even if one doesn’t fully grasp all the details of the historical setting. It certainly helps to have a someone like Corto in the center of it, a beautifully realized human being who is content with experiencing the world rather being in the center of it.
The charm of the series and its various settings is that Corto never tries to overtake the other characters: the various people in this volume (and in other tales as well) never feel exoticised. Every character here has its own goals and desires and even if these often clash with Corto’s own they never feel like they are there simple to fulfill a plot function. Almost every person in this book feels like he could be a star of his own book, with corto playing a bit part. First and foremost is the mercurial Rasputin, a type that should be laughable in its presentation but under the pen of Pratt he seems to occupy a deeper dimension; like the bandit Tuco in “The good, the Bad and the Ugly” you think he is one thing but discover that he is many. It’s part of the humanistic bent that makes this series so unique in the world of adventure fiction.Continued below
Since I’ve spoken about the pen of Hugo Pratt I should mention how the art also puts the individual in the center: backgrounds in this series are often scarce to non-existent unless they are necessary for the plot or to establish location. This might be distracting at first but as one becomes used to the relaxed rhythms of Hugo Pratt, the 12 panel structure across these huge pages allow the artists to take his time with small moments, one finds new joy in this: characters simply rest, or speak or break into spontaneous dance and this is as fascinating as any grand moment of battle in any other book you chose to mention. At a certain point Corto and a young companion try to sneak into an enemy outpost and they stop in the middle of the action to gaze at the clouds – this moment is followed by lovely silent panel as the story begins to cut from various characters to the world around them. From body movement to facial expression – “Corto Maltese” is a celebration of being.
All of this is helped immensely by the high production values, thanks to the Euro Comics division of IDW: the pages are not only large, presenting the art in a near magazine size with proper room so nothing is ever swallowed by the fold, but also heavy and strong. This books feels like a labor of love. My one complaint is that this series in particular feels like something that could be improved by an afterword giving some historical background on the particular events inspiring each volume – but I get the desire to let the story speak for itself.
“The Golden House of Samarkand” probably shouldn’t be your entry point to the world of “Corto Maltese” but it is certainly another good reason to continue engaging with it.