Corto Maltese: Ballad of the Salt Sea is a rare gem! A great example of graphic novels at their best. Brought to you by one of Italy’s greatest modern authors, Hugo Pratt.
Corto Maltese follows the swashbuckling, globe-trotting adventures of a charming privateer, mercenary, & smuggler. The suave & tough Corto Maltese 🏴☠️.
This graphic novel is a definite must read!
The Ballad of the Salt Sea begins on the eve of World War One in the Pacific Ocean. In the wild blue waters of Melanesia -i.e. the region that includes Papua New Guinea in the west up to Fiji in the east.
High sea hijinks, check! Damsels in distress, check! ‘Not-So-Savage’ natives and games of thrones between colonial powers, check!
If you like good old-fashioned, raw and charming adventure then this graphic novel is for you!
An Italian Gem: Pirates, Rouges and Shipwrecks in the South Pacific
Hugo Pratt is one of Italy’s most famous authors.
His Corto Maltese series is very popular in Europe. A few graphic novels were actually translated into English in the 70s.
But hardly anybody in the US knows about Pratt’s stories. His work doesn’t feature on the usual lists of great graphic novels. He is one of graphic fictions best-kept secret.
Back to the story…
Corto Maltese: Ballad of the Salt Sea (Spoiler Free Summary)
Russia Pirate/Privateer Rasputin and his crew of cutthroats are on a special mission. They are hijacking a Dutch cargo ship laden with coal.
The Germans need coal and friendly bases in order to fight the war in the Pacific. They are willing to pay for these services in gold.
But Rasputin is just a middle-man… the real power lies with a mysterious pirate lord known as “The Monk”.
On their way to the freighter, the pirates run across two shipwrecked teens. On the off chance that their parents might be wealthy, the Australian teens are held for ransom.
After the youngster are brought aboard, another shipwrecked survivor is discovered. It’s Corto Maltese.
Looks like his crew mutinied and tied him to a raft. Rasputin is tempted to use this opportunity to get rid of Croto for good. But Cranio warns him that the ‘Monk’ wouldn’t approve. That gives Rasputin pause and he has Corto pulled out of the water.
Rasputin and Corto both seem to be working for the mysterious Monk.
But any other revelations are cut short by the appearance of the Dutch freighter.
(Time Out: Wanna read Corto Maltese Ballad of the Salt Sea? This classic bit of European graphic novel history will cost you. It’s an investment in a truly collectible bit of graphic literature. Read on to find out why or click on the link to get your copy now. )
Cutthroats Priests and Colonial Games of Throne
Rasputin, with Corto’s help, hoists a British flag and has the crew put on British uniforms. The Dutch think that the pirates are a British patrol and allow them to board their ship.
Once the freighter is captured, Rasputin has its captain shot and crew shot –much to Cortos horror.
Afterwards, they sail towards Kaiserine. The German headquarters in the region and home of fleet admiral Von Speeke. Corto agrees to help Rasputin hide the Ozzy hostages from Von Speeke. All for a share of the ransom of course!
What starts of as a simple heist and lucrative side job turns into an epic game of cat and mouse. A game that could determine the fate of World War One in the Pacific.
The secretive Monk rules over the Melanesian pirates with an iron fist. He’s promised Von Speeke coal and way stations for his fight in the Pacific.
The Germans plan to leave behind a small detachment to lead a guerrilla war in the Pacific Ocean. A guerrilla war that will depend on the Monk and his gang of pirates.
The fate of the war in the Pacific rests on Corto’s shoulders… but he has problems of his own. Somebody is trying to kill him. Is Rasputin finally making good on his threat to end our Italian hero?
Who is the Monk?
Will Corto survive? Trapped between a megalomaniac, the mad pirate Rasputin and the chaos of World War One?
You’ll have to read Corto Maltese Ballad of the Salt Sea to find out!
The Art and Writing of Corto Maltese Ballad of the Salt Sea
Corto Maltese is awesome!
Pratt renders his story in beautiful black and white. His backgrounds are simple but feel solid… even tangible.
If you love beautiful sequential stories, Ballad of the Salt Sea is worth it for its amazing artwork alone! Pratt is a true master of negative and positive spaces.
In fact, American graphic novel legend Frank Miller says Pratt inspires his own art –and it shows!
But what I love the most about Ballad is the story.
It’s very different from your normal pirate stories.
First of all, it plays in a part of the world we don’t often get to see, the South Pacific.
Our hero is Italian and brings a very different worldview to the table.
And the indigenous people we meet aren’t just ethnic caricatures and stereotypes. Ballad of the Salt Sea actually showcases the cultural diversity of Oceania.
Pratt also brings a fresh view to the politics and power plays of the First World War.
The Germans we meet are not the archetypical Nazi monsters or cruel bullies (thank you Hugo!). In fact, one of the naval officers Slütter will play a pivotal role in this story!
Is there anything I didn’t like about this graphic novel?
Yes, there were times in reading this novel that the dialog made me pause. It flows, it isn’t bad but sometimes the sheer amount of text overwhelmed me. This is true graphic literature, not pulp fiction.
Be Warned: All the original English translations of Ballad of the Salt Sea are out of print.
Getting your own copy of Ballad of the Salt Sea will cost you!
IDW’s Euro Comics imprint is reissuing the Corto Maltese novels in English. Many for the first time –but they haven’t gotten around to Ballad yet.
(Updated 2019: IDW still hasn’t gotten around to Ballad. Sorry 🤷)
There was an attempt by Universe to reissue this graphic novel in English in 2012. And it was a disaster. Avoid the Universe edition at all costs!
Its translation is not as good as the Harvil/NBM one that Ian Monk did in the 70s. Also, they shrunk Ballad down into the classic American comic book format. This kills the flow and pace of the story. So until IDW’s Euro Comics reissues this graphic novel, I won’t recommend any other version
So while the Universe version is in full color, the shrunken format kills the original flow of the story.
Enjoy Corto Maltese in the original, bands dessine format, from Harvil/NBM. It will cost you but it’s worth it and a true graphic novel collector’s item!
If you like swashbuckling adventure with old world charm. Or plain good old-fashioned action this is the book for you!
The Verdict: 👍 👍 👍 (Must Read!)
PS: If you want to get Corto Maltese Ballad of the Salt Sea, I suggest getting the Harvil Paperback. It’s an investment in a true collector’s item, but so worth it!
BTW Hugo Pratt, the author of Corto Maltese is a fascinating fella. Check out his biography, it provides an awesome background to Corto’s adventures.