Comic Dossier

South Sea Ballad

Zeichnung von Corto Maltese; © SobohP, CC-BY-NC-SAIn 1967, the Italien comics artist Hugo Pratt published “Una ballata del mare salato” (Ballad of the Salt Sea). The adventure tale takes Pratt’s serial hero Corto Maltese into the events of the First World War south of the Equator.

The Ballad begins immediately after a severe disturbance of the balance. As the Pacific Ocean itself recounts in the comic’s very first panel, it – the ocean – has just calmed down after an outburst of rage during which it caused some major damage. The day is November 1, 1913, All Saints’ Day, and “Tarowean, the Day of Surprises.”

On Rasputin’s Ship

The now calm sea is where most of the protagonists of this panoramic graphic novel subsequently come together – but the equilibrium will not be regained quickly. The catamaran of the pirate captain Rasputin, a Russian deserter and wanted murderer, picks up the shipwrecked teenagers Cain and Pandora Groovesnore. The young cousins come from an Anglo-American shipping family, a “dynasty of the oceans,” as Corto Maltese will call it towards the end of the narrative. The next person saved by Rasputin is Corto, who had been thrown overboard by his mutinous crew. While Corto, like Rasputin, belongs to a group of modern pirates who, led by the mysterious Monk from the unknown island of Escondida, are privateering for the German Imperial Navy, Cain und Pandora are prisoners on Rasputin’s ship, held for ransom.

It may be time to pause and have this sudden storm of people and entanglements settle down. Though the story starts on an exact date, it is a “Day of Surprises.” The first surprise awaits those who seek certainty from the exact date, as they will immediately be lost in the sea of names. How come Rasputin, an itinerant preacher murdered in Petrograd in 1916, commands a pirate catamaran in the South Pacific in 1913, far from the place where he lived and worked. And how can he take aboard two mythical figures, Cain and the evil yet charming seductress Pandora? All of this happens at the behest of the Monk who controls parts of the South Sea from a hidden island. No, historical accuracy is not what this graphic novel is about. Rather the South Sea, in this South Sea ballad, is the space of a story that liberally draws on set pieces from mythology, history, and sensationalist trash to tell a new, arabesque-like adventure — far away (Salt Sea) and in a lengthy and drawn-out manner (ballad).

Leaps in Time

In his foreword to the 1991 Italian reprint of the Ballad, Umberto Eco elaborated in great detail on the protagonists’ “tangled sea routes,” which are replete with geographical imprecisions, even impossibilities. One is traveling in an “archipelago of indeterminacy” is how Eco put it. Indeterminacy is also evident at the level of time: After this fateful November 1, 1913, about one year passes before Corto and the others, together with the German Lieutenant Slütter, disembark on the island of Escondida to finally meet the Monk, who has become a legend even for the reader. In the meantime, war has broken out.

Previously, Corto, Pandora, Cain, the Melanesian pirate Cranio and the new arrival Tarao are shipwrecked and captured by cannibals, manage to escape and finally meet Rasputin again onboard Slütter’s submarine when it surfaces in front of them. These events follow so quickly upon each other, however, that the story at no point is able to convey the length of time they are supposed to fill. Rather, dates are mentioned or hinted at, thus making leaps of time a simple given. The boundaries of space and time are blurred, writes Eco. Everything is part of the world of stories and legends, even the war as a driver of the plot.

Corto the Adventurer

Is it not fair to say that the period from the turn of the century to 1918 has come to be seen as the mythical age of modernity? The figure of Corto Maltese suggests as much. The period from 1900 is a time of endings: colonialism has reached its climax, there are hardly any unknown or undiscovered places left on our planet, the space for adventurers has shrunk, and the bourgeois system is about to control the entire world all the way to the Solomon Islands. Potential adventures can be found not in the geographical but in the mythical unknown. The South Sea may be colonized, but its secrets and hidden meanings have not yet been discovered.

The longing for adventure, myth, and the arcane cannot be colonized, anyway; in fact, the realization that the world has been fully discovered only makes it all the stronger. At the same time, this longing mourns its own belatedness. This is confirmed by Corto’s melancholy features as well as by the fact that the South Sea Ballad’s images are primarily elegiac in tone; the light is mostly a late-afternoon, early-evening light. If an order collapses, as happened in the First World War, room for adventure opens up at its margins – in places that Europeans connote with a far-away lands and exoticism; in the Ballad, the bourgeois world is deceptively suspended.

It takes the turbulences of war for someone like Corto to belatedly follow in the footsteps of the heroes created by Robert Louis Stevenson or Herman Melville. Unlike those, however, he cannot deny that he is the figure of a literary dream. The protagonists are indeed a very literate bunch; even Rasputin, the murderer, quotes Rilke and reads Shelley in the original. The main emphasis, however, is on the works by Melville. Moby Dick gets mentioned several times, and editions of Melville’s early adventure novels are part of Slütter’s library onboard the submarine (which Cain, incidentally, mistakes for Moby Dick upon its emergence).


While the world of the South Sea Ballad takes its cue from literature, the drawings construct a language of their own. The light, Corto’s melancholy features, the expanse of the sea, the forlornness of the figures on it, the returning seagulls – they are all part of a solemn melody of lines and colors that define the story’s tempo and rhythm much more strongly than the chronology and the dates. Every single line contains within it the exhortation to read it. At moments, Pratt’s drawings approximate calligraphy: the pirogue on which Tarao and Pandora escape is drawn with a few black lines, against a largely unfilled sky, on a small line of sea; the Monk at first has no face at all, only a black space under his monk’s cowl. His figure thus becomes a mystery that cannot be solved even after his identity is known. Finally, when Corto leaves Escondida Island, the figures themselves turn into black letters that one would have to be able to read. As Corto Maltese embarks on further adventures, this drawing style is intensified, dissolving the mythical eclecticism into the beauty of a graphic hermeticism. It is thus only logical that the last story revolving around Corto, Mu, opens with talking hieroglyphs.

The Soldier of Fortune’s Ethics

Almost in passing, The Ballad of the Salt Sea tells a possible story of reconciliation – not at the big-scale level of war, but at the level of friendship. Cain, whose very name marks him as the eternal murderer of his brother, at one point fails to kill Corto Maltese. Instead, it is he who, at the end, decides not to flee but to stay with the injured Corto. Very gently, as a sketch, this heralds an ethical revision of the human condition. This can only happen in the form of the adventure tale, with its license to turn the stuff of history into a stage for one’s own moment of glory.

The beauty of the figure of Corto, this sentimental adventurer, triumphs over history with its very real abysses, because he knows how it works and how to accommodate to it. It is only fitting, then, that he asks Pandora to stay with him, because he brings good luck. When she asks how he can be sure of that, he tells her that, as a child, he had noticed that the luck line was missing from his palm. So, without further thought, he took his father’s razor and drew it himself.

Lorenz Wesemann
studied literature and history. He lives and works as a freelance writer in Offenbach am Main.

Translated by Manuela Thurner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V.
December 2014

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    Hugo Pratt

    was born in Rimini in 1927 and died in Lausanne in 1995. He is seen as an important formal innovator of the comics genre, creating one of the most famous comics series of all times with his Corto Maltese books. After spending his youth in Italian-occupied Ethiopia and studying art in Venice, Pratt lived for several years in Buenos Aires where he started his career as a comics artist. In his life story, as in his works, it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.