My Best Picks in Comics – Two: About „Tango“ by Hugo Pratt

Tango (1987)
Writer & Graphic Artist: Hugo Pratt
52 b/w pages, German Translation from Italian, Carlsen Verlag

By accident I stumbled over this one. I am a long time admirer of the works by Italian born Hugo Pratt (1927-1995), in particular his Corto Maltese adventure series. I had not read any of Pratt’s stuff again over years until my former girl friend in 2014 asked me to join her for a musical show featuring Tango, the Argentine dance. I have to confess here: I am not too much into dancing. But I am much into comics. So, I remembered that Hugo Pratt had done a 50ish pages Corto Maltese story called ‘Tango’ and I grabbed the old copy I bought in the late 1980ies and re-read it after all these years.

In the mid 1920ies, Corto Maltese – a Global adventurer and captain without a ship, travels to Buenos Aires to investigate the whereabouts of a former love interest’s daughter. Buenos Aires in those days was an arrival point and a melting pot for immigrants from Europe trying to make a fortune from things like gold seeking, farming or cattle breeding. Buenos Aires was also a center for human trafficking, prostitution, organized crime and political corruption. A city with about three thousand brothels and a climate of murder. And in La Boca, the port of Buenos Aires, a new dance was born – the Tango. Corto Maltese digs in deep into this world of violence, the fight for big money by large estate owners, criminals and corrupt policemen. During his investigation he also meets old friends such as an American called Butch Cassidy – a presumably dead former bandit. He also dances the Tango. But despite all his investigation and efforts Corto has to realize that in the end even he will not be able to make the body of a murdered girl alive…
This comic book is a journey into the past. Detailed historical research with an element of speculation, masterful storytelling and drawing meet the desire for adventure. Traveling around the world, going to places in search for treasures. Both the real ones and the ones from a world of dreams & imagination. As a friend once explains to Corto: You have been searching for things you will not find in the end. But still, you carry on searching always a bit further and further. Until at some point further down the road you will realize that it’s actually the search itself what you have been looking for all those years.
From Hugo Pratt’s series we know quite a bit about Corto Maltese’s adventures and biography. He was born in 1887 on the island of Malta as son of a Spanish gipsy woman and a British seaman from Cornwall.  Hugo Pratt’s reports on Corto’s travels cover the time of the Japanese – Russian War (around 1905) through the late 1920ies. His adventures include the South Pacific on the brink of the First World War, where Corto is a sort of involuntary member of a major pirates organization. Later, during the war he is in Latin America, searching for all kinds of treasures. In 1918 Corto is traveling in North Africa with an odd Tuareg warrior as companion. And so on in the Middle East, Russia, South East Asia and Europe. In the late 1920ies, at a time when most unmapped areas in the world were gone, Corto Maltese’s tracks got lost. His further whereabouts are unknown. (Although Hugo Pratt during an interview once mentioned that a guy like Corto Maltese may have died in the Spanish Civil War in the mid 1930ies- while fighting on the side of the anti fascists forces).
Pratt’s drawing style is unique: I would call his style a highly poetical one. He never used any technical tools like e.g. a ruler. When a line is uneven then the line is uneven by intention. Sometimes he goes quite a lot into details; more often the panels look like hasty sketches. You might call it a reduction. But for me the funny thing is, that in combination with his storytelling Pratt’s panels by way of reduction create a level of authenticity and density which is unrivaled in the comic books industry.
By the way: Pratt’s Corto Maltese series consists of around four or five longer graphic novels and some two dozen or so short stories (or novellas). Originally the books were published in B/W. Towards the end of Pratt’s career he colorized the books by hand. The result was breathtaking…

NEXT: On dark places and a blind Superhero – Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker

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