When word got out last year that Rizzoli US was planning a new edition of CORTO MALTESE, hearts of Eurocomix fans soared. The signature work of comic grand master Hugo Pratt,. the CORTO books are a colorful, romantic, languidly nostalgic series of grand adventures told with some of the greatest chiaroscuro art in comics. Although the CORTO MALTESE books have been sporadically available here in the US (in the past from both NBM and Harvill Press), the usual translation from the French was thought to be pretty poor, and the rights to put out a new edition seemed to be in total limbo.
Thus the news of a new edition from a respected art dealer with a new translation by a respected writer sounded like a dream come true.
But, instead, it’s been another huge mistake that just adds to the curse of CORTO in English.
Although the new edition uses the color of the original Casterman edition…it also uses the redesigned page format of the Casterman editions, and the files are at a very low res, resulting in ugly scratchy-looking art.
The Beat’s heart was thrilled when we heard of this but when we eagerly flipped open the pages of the edition when it arrived, we were..underwhelmed.
Quite frankly, the rugged beauty of Pratt’s line has been made ugly, rough and amateurish by this awful low-res version.
Designer Chris McDonnell explains what happened on the Meathaus blog:
• The lettering is a custom font created directly from scans of Pratt’s own lettering in the original Italian edition. The letter forms are blocky and idiosyncratic but connect to the artist’s original work as well as being compact and functional for the purpose of fitting in the often small word balloons. I have previously relettered an entire comic book translation for Universe, but this was the decision reached based on the limitations of this particular project.
• The artwork is reformatted from the original large page size to a smaller format page with altered page layouts, however this was done previously for the french language Casterman edition (or before that possibly). The art in this edition is from the same artwork files that are printed in the Casterman edition and were provided to Universe. The artwork and coloring were not altered for the Universe edition. For various reasons, the original sized pages were not an option nor were there higher quality files of this version available.
• The cover is a design that I created using my own scans of the black and white original Italian edition of the book.
In a comment on the post he elaborates on why better files could not be used:
I asked for the original format pages and better quality line art files but the files that we ultimately used were the only option for files provided by the licensor or the estate (I don’t know who) for this project
Universe may have also preferred the smaller size and colorized pages for marketing and/or budget reasons (as opposed to a b/w original size book which is larger than normal these days). Sure the original b/w art could be reproduced from an earlier edition but I’m not sure a U.S. publisher would be as likely to have taken a risk on that version over a smaller sized, colored one that is already produced, printed elsewhere already and ready to go.
The line art is not ideal. But when we saw that we could print the art slightly larger than the French and Italian editions without a discernible difference in the not-idealness, we went with that so the work could be larger on the page. As a whole we worked to make an attractive package for the work. Perhaps this book will find some success and be a gateway to future editions of even better reproduced Pratt books in English in the future.
So there you have it.
When over the years, we asked why there was not a good English version of CORTO we were always told that it was because the licensor couldn’t come to an agreement with the US. That made it sounds like quality concerns were the issue. But instead, it seems that somehow Casterman and Rizzoli have produced an awful-looking, budget version of the story—and those of us who love Corto have no choice but to buy it to hope that better editions come out.
We already have the larger-sized B&W edition from Casterman published in the 80s…and the art looks lovely, like it should. In the future we’ll just look at the pictures again, with the new translation in mind.
We’re not the only ones who noticed: Retailers from Big Planet Comics have written an open letter to Rizzoli protesting the matter:
Subject: Complaints about your edition of Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea
To Whom It May Concern,
This is an open letter we are writing to express our extreme displeasure with the terrible edition of Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea you have just released. We are the co-owners of Big Planet Comics, a group of comic book stores in the Washington, DC area. Hugo Pratt is one of our favorite artists and we have read, collected and sold numerous works by him, including earlier editions of The Ballad of the Salt Sea.
The art has been scanned at a low resolution, leading to pixelization that obscures or erases the smoothness of the fine and precise art of Hugo Pratt. In some cases, it seems to have been printed at an even worse quality, the most egregious example being the middle panel on page 136, where the thin lines denoting the rays of light look like they were drawn with a skittering giant marker.
The reformatting of the panels of each page so that only about two-thirds of each original page is on each page of your edition jumbles the intention of Hugo Pratt, so that the flow of story from panel to panel is interrupted or changed, and the natural break point, or pause, at the end of each original page is now mixed haphazardly through your layout.
Most offensively, the original panels of Hugo Pratt’s art have been resized, cut, and cropped to fit this amateurish new layout scheme, in some cases removing over a third of each panel, or splitting a panel into two new panels. Some panels appear to have been zoomed in, resulting in further loss of quality and removing more of Hugo Pratt’s art.
These terrible mutilations of Hugo Pratt’s art are insulting enough, but there are numerous panels where someone has taken upon themselves the hubris to fill out the gaping holes in the modified panels by adding to the art itself.
Also, your description of the book on your webpage at http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780789324986 incorrectly claims this is the first time Ballad of the Salt Sea has been available in English. In fact, it has been released in English at least twice: once by The Harvill Press in 1996, and once by NBM Publishing in 1997.
This book is the first encounter we have had with any division of your publishing house. Your edition cannot claim in honesty to represent an unadulterated replication of Hugo Pratt’s work. Whoever approved such a hatchet job on this classic piece of art should be ashamed of themselves. We would appreciate an apology and explanation.
We, and many of the employees at our stores, were very excited to sell Corto Maltese to our customers. We are disappointed we will not be able to recommend that any customer buy your edition.
We’re on the road or we’d be at the scanner doing side-by-side comparisons of the pages above with the B&W, but here’s a page from the internet that shows how much better the line looks in the B&W larger version:
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.