Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea

by Hugo Pratt
Paperback, 254 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Universe (first published 1967)
Original title: Una ballata del mare salato
ISBN 0789324989 (ISBN13: 9780789324986)
English language edition

Let’s review a classic.

After reading some short collected stories of the famous pirate Corto Maltese, I decided that I should read one of his most famous adventures. ‘The Ballad of the Salt Sea’ is set in the Pacific Ocean in the early 20th century, and right from the start you realise that this is not a typical pirate story.

This book was released in 1967. Though many of the famous American comics of that period are still brilliant to this day, it is undeniable that they’ve dated, and that it might be hard to introduce a discerning new reader to even the best that the year had to offer. Likewise, ‘The Ballad of the Salt Sea’ does show its age at times, with some rather outdated dialogue from time to time, and a little too much reliance on coincidence and dues ex machina. But, I was really surprised at just how little this book has dated by and large. Yes, there’s quite a bit of overblown and cheesy dialogue, but nothing like the long drawn-out tedium that you’d be likely to find in your typical American superhero comic of the decade.

The plot is somewhat unclear and confusing as you never really realise where all of the machinations are leading to. Also, the mystery of the Monk character is more of an inside guessing game trying to figure out who this person really is and what his relation with the other characters is. I have to admit that the high note of this book is not the plot or the characters, but the art. Pratt’s handmade drawings give this book something different. The playfulness and the emotions are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a comic before. The humour and the depth shine through in Pratt’s art.

Something that really surprised me about this book was just how funny it was. The humour is incredibly subtle and weird. Don’t expect your typical pirate adventure at all! Pratt makes light of a lot of issues which would have been considered rather serious at the time.

The story itself is very enjoyable, though it doesn’t quite pack the knockout punch. It has light entertainment with some brilliant characterisation. However, the story falls flat in a number of areas. For instance, while Corto himself intentionally starts off as dislikeable, the other main characters (the children he rescues) pretty much stay dislikeable and annoying throughout. Their story isn’t explained properly, and everything seems to fall into place far too conveniently. But if you want a good light adventure story that you can easily pick up, this is definitely a good place to go.

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