Italian comic book hero comes back to life

Corto Maltese, the debonair sea captain anti-hero of a string of classic graphic novels, is to sail again in a new adventure, 20 years after his Italian creator died.

Italian comic book hero comes back to life
Photo: Mychele Daniau/Files/AFP

The new book – published later this month – picks up from the end of “The Ballad of the Salt Sea”, the story which launched Hugo Pratt's celebrated series in 1967 with its laconic hero returning from run-ins with pirates in the Pacific during World War I, to hook up again with the American novelist Jack London in the vast wilderness of Alaska.

London was just one of a host of real-life historical characters whom the fictional Corto Maltese encounters in the stories, including the outlaw Butch Cassidy, writers James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, and the Russian mystic Rapustin. In one story, he is even saved from a firing squad by a phone call to Stalin.

Having crossed paths with some of the early 20th century's most famous figures, Maltese – the son of a Cornish sailor and an Andalusian gypsy – mysteriously disappears during the Spanish Civil War.

So it is fitting that he is being brought back to life by a Spanish duo, artist Ruben Pellejero and writer Juan Diaz Canales, who have turned the clock back to 1915 for “Under the Midnight Sun”.

“We always said that we wanted to be the authors of the story, not just copying Pratt,” said Pellejero. The pair have created a black-and-white as a well as a colour version of the 88-page story, which is published across much of Europe on September 30th.

Another attempt to revive the series — which has inspired films and video games — by the celebrated French graphic novelists Christophe Blain and Joann Sfar came to nothing.

Despite his ever-so-English sounding name, the original author Hugo Pratt was Venetian and every bit the globe-trotter as his erudite, eternally curious hero, building up a cult following in France, Italy and Argentina – where he began his career as an illustrator – as well as in South Korea.

That restless, adventurous spirit is the key to Corto Maltese's appeal, Pellejero said: “He invites you to voyage and dream with him.”   

The character's mixed ancestry and psychological complexity is also part of the draw, the authors insist, with his message that tolerance and sympathy are never more needed than in troubled times.

“One or two generations have passed who know the character (of Corto) but who have never read the books,” Madrid-based Canales told AFP. “If our book brings people back to the series that is even better,” he said.

A second new Corto Maltese book is planned for two years' time, with an English version of “Under the Midnight Sun” also due to be published in the US, its French publisher Casterman said.

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‘Being bilingual has made me a more creative writer’

Formerly a California banker, Marie Ohanesian Nardin moved to Italy 31 years ago after a short trip to Venice turned into something permanent. Now she has written a book based on her experiences, and tells The Local how the lagoon city has changed her own outlook on life, and how learning Italian has made her a better writer.

'Being bilingual has made me a more creative writer'
Marie Ohanesian Nardin has just published her debut novel, set in Venice. Photo: Private

“In writing you’re always told to show and not tell, and I found I could do that because I arrived in Venice unfamiliar with the language and the culture, so I had to watch!” Nardin tells The Local. “That experience forces you to be very very observant; everything was completely new, completely different from everything I knew.”

Her novel, Beneath the Lion's Wings, is told through the eyes of Victoria, an American who makes the move to Venice. While the book follows Victoria's romance, Nardin says her number one goal in writing the book was to get across her own love and respect for the city she now calls home.

Nardin first set foot in the lagoon city during her first ever holiday, a trip around Europe with a friend back in 1985. They had scheduled only a couple of days in Venice on the way to Florence, but minutes into the trip, something happened that would tie Nardin to the city permanently.

“My friend and I were in a water taxi going to our hotel, and it was all so beautiful, and we passed a gondolier. I took a photo and said to her ‘I think I’m going to like Venice!’. That gondolier is now my husband.”

After catching that first glimpse of her husband, Nardin says she never expected to see him again, being used to the enormity of Los Angeles, where she lived and worked and never ran into anyone twice. But the next day, she and her friend were in St Mark's Square when her husband spotted her in the crowd and invited them for drinks.

They've now been married for nearly 31 years, so this is a story she has told time and time again. Almost every time she does, someone tells her it sounds like something out of a book or a movie. “So eventually, I just started writing,” she says.

While her novel is semi-autobiographical, Nardin has made some changes, including accelerating through her own two-year long distance relationship, during which she and her husband relied on long distance phone calls and writing letters.

“We really wanted to be together. He was open to coming to the US, but I was also open to moving to Italy, and you can’t really be a gondolier in California!” she explains. “So I left a promising career, my family and friends and came to Venice.”

Adapting as completely as possible to the new culture, even without the language skills to begin with, was key for Nardin. “I never tried to make Italy America. You can’t move somewhere thinking that the way you’re used to is the ‘better’ way,” she says. 
Learning and understanding how the city and country work is essential not only for would-be expats but also for tourists, the writer explains, commenting on Venice's ongoing struggle with mass tourism. “I urge people to explore Venice, not just come for a day to see the Grand Canal and put a tick on your list. And there are ways to do this on a budget, even though it’s an expensive city.”
The novel is her way of sharing 'her' Venice, including an insight into the city's gondolier tradition, which she learned a lot about through her husband, the third generation of his family to work in the iconic boats.
“I wanted to provide an inside look at this, because it has traditionally been very closed off but I’ve been able to observe it very closely. My first question when I got here was why there weren’t any women gondoliers. Now, there are a few, but it’s been a difficult road for them. I remember that when I would approach the gondola station, my husband’s uncles would stop me from going inside. That mentality has since changed, I think, but I wanted to cover it,” she tells The Local.

Now the writer says she can't imagine living anywhere else, praising the healthcare system, the fact you can find centuries of culture around every street corner, and the Italian outlook on life. One of the key differences she describes is the attitude to work.

“In Los Angeles, there’s this perception that you are what you do, and I would say that in Veneto people work really hard, but it’s never just about work; they find time to do other things too. I find that asking what someone does for a living isn’t necessarily the first question people ask at parties any more,” she says.

That didn't change the fact that there were fewer career opportunities in Italy, particularly in the field she had been working in and without Italian skills. Nardin worked in several jobs including at a Venetian glass shop, teaching English, and working on political campaigns within the American community in Italy. The writing came later, and the book has been a project almost a decade in the making.
It's now been through several incarnations and taken so much time and care she refers to it as “almost like a third child!” Her choice to self-publish the novel means she has been responsible for the marketing alongside the writing, and is promoting it on a book tour in the USA this spring.

Now fluent in Italian, Nardin says that being bilingual has helped a lot with her writing. Being able to speak and read in another language gives you a different perception of words, she says.

“I think writing comes out more creatively because you can develop a story with both languages. The words are also easily readable because you’re highly aware of what it is like to carefully listen to words as you learn a new language.”

Despite having lived half her life there, Nardin says some locals still see her as 'la straniera' (the foreign one), but she doesn't mind. People who know her see her as half-Italian, and besides, in a city with as long a history as Venice's, even after three decades in the area she is still, relatively speaking, new.

“Venice always reminds me that we as individuals don’t have a permanence, just like this city which is aging, but it’s also been a survivor,” she tells The Local. “It's undergone all these changes over the centuries, from having extreme wealth and being a global power… now it's completely transformed.”

READ ALSO: Becoming a gondolier: the long road to riding Venice's waterways