Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese, Part 1

About two-thirds of the way into Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese in Siberia is a picture of the protagonist racing across the top of a speeding train, hopping from one gun-mounted turret to another, arms out for balance, pistol in one hand and scarf straining in the wind … all the while his white sailor’s cap handsomely affixed. And the first time I saw it, about 10 years ago in a store in Paris, thumbing through one of those lovely, tall bande dessinées, I thought, this is pretty cool.

The story concerns the attempts of Corto, the gentleman-of-fortune captain without a ship, and his occasional ally Rasputin to capture an armored train carrying 160 tons of the Czar’s gold across Asia in 1919. Corto is working on behalf of an all-female Chinese secret society called the Red Lantern; Rasputin, as always, is working for himself. Along the way they must do battle with assorted villains including real-life crazy Baron von Ungern-Sternberg and a dead-ringer for Marlene Dietrich — this, in part, is Pratt’s version of the movie Shanghai Express. (Whether Rasputin is supposed to be the real Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic who captivated Tsar Nicholas II and his family, is not clear; the character himself is never cozy with the truth.)

The exciting, intelligent tale is filled with dreams — as many of Pratt’s stories are — smart-aleck humor, poetry, philosophy and much derring-do, including a battle at sea and a train hijacking, an airplane crash, lots of gun fights and exotic locales, betrayals and heroics, and even Santa Claus and his reindeer.

And then there is the art itself — moody and stylish, in a Milton Caniff-infleunced chiaroscuro vein, with dashing characters determined to change destiny to suit their overwhelming desires.

Corto Maltese in Siberia is probably my favorite of the dozen Corto adventures (there’s also an animated movie, Corto Maltese: La Cour Secrete des Arcanes, but I’ve only found the DVD in French), but I love all of Hugo Pratt’s books. They certainly improved my French comprehension as I read all the Corto Maltese bande dessinées I could find.

The good news is English-language copies be found at reasonable prices if you haunt the used bookstores. Track them down and take a look. Pratt’s stories are unequalled.

English language version: Corto Maltese in Siberia (Corto Maltese)

(More on Pratt, Corto, their separate adventures and Pratt’s art in future posts.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Started With Scorchy

When Hugo Pratt set about to design the logo for his mythic adventure hero Corto Maltese, he consciously imitated Milton Caniff’s famous Terry and the Pirates lettering — dynamic and fun, bold and spunky.

Except that Caniff didn’t draw that famous logo. It was created by his longtime friend, drinking buddy and fellow cartoonist, Noel Sickles. If you want to really know about sequential art, you need to look at Sickles.

As pointed out in Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, when Sickles inherited the adventure strip of airplane ace Scorchy in 1933, he tried to copy the dodgy art work of his predecessor. But, it seems, he just couldn’t do it for long. Sickles was too good. The transformation was like Dorothy opening that door after her house crash-landed in Oz.

This is a giant book, which is good as it contains every Scorchy Smith strip Sickles wrote and drew, three years worth, plus a few before he took it over and a few after he left to pursue magazine illustration (and there are plenty of samples of that, too, along with his biography). Sickles’s comic strip illustrations are, in a word, splendid. His colorful heroes bristle and his femme fatales slink as well as anyone’s — including his pal Caniff’s.

Even better, the detail Sickles managed to squeeze into those tiny daily panels — of air battles and of trains run amok, of cowboy ranches and jungle villages, sun-baked seaports and snow-covered hideouts, of open fields and the coming dusk — are enough to cause any cartoonist tears of envy. As Sickles himself boasted, he could draw anything.

And, by golly, he really could.

(You can read more about the work of Sickles and Caniff, together and separately, in Ron Goulart’s 1975 book, The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips in the Thirties. I hope to devote a post to that book soon.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Charm of ‘Strangers’

When I first glanced at Strangers in Paradise, I thought Terry Moore’s comic books were somewhat derivative of Jaime Hernandez’s wonderful long-running Maggie and Hopey stories in Love & Rockets.

Now that I’ve spent more time with Moore’s Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book 1, I’ve concluded the series, featuring Katchoo and Francine, really is excellent in its own right. However, similarities remain apparent: two young women stumble through their challenges with life, love, their own sexual identities and each other. One of Moore’s protagonists even has issues with her weight, just like Maggie.

Also just as with Love & Rockets, Strangers in Paradise starts about one thing but drifts into other territory. The difference is it took awhile before L&R became less about rocket ships and more about romance. Strangers in Paradise’s back-and-forth story and tone transitions, however, from coping with disloyal men or a visiting drunken relative to fleeing the Mafia, are sometimes jarring.

And I have some nits to pick: The poetry/song lyrics can become repetitive in the collected edition (they were written in, I assume, as a thread to bind the individual comic books’ narrative). And while the drawing on the whole is detailed, atmospheric and beyond reproach, there was one point in the story where I thought that was Katchoo viciously attacking a down-at-heels private eye who’s been tailing her, only later to be told, no, that was some whole other angry, blond character …. (Gosh, it sure looks like Katchoo.)

But the tales of Katchoo and Francine have their own charm and deserve the Eisner and Reuben awards they’ve won. The characters’ confused, on-the-shirtsleeves emotions make them real and credible … even while the battling-the-bad-guys parts might not.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Alita Returns in October

The 12th installment of what’s being called in the United States Battle Angel Alita: Last Order will be out in October. If you’ve not been following Yukito Kishiro’s decades-long story of Gally (renamed, by some marketing person, no doubt, as Alita for English editions), which started in the Gunnm series, you’re missing one of the most breath-taking stories ever — in sequential art, in graphic novels, in all story-telling.

Gunnm (pronounced “gun-moo,” Japanese for “little gun”) concerns Gally/Alita, a female cyborg found in a trash heap and brought back to life by Doc Ido. As Gally grows up, and slowly discovers more about her super powers, her own questionable past as well as her purpose, she meets, loves and fights all manner of good and evil. But no enemy is truly all bad, and no ally is completely trustworthy.

The drawing is exquisite — the men are handsome and comic-looking, the women can be gorgeous and grotesque; tableaus are beautiful in their peace, shocking in their violence. Oh, have no doubt: Kishiro’s future world is filled with carnage, both in its sports, in which Gally ultimately becomes a participant, and its squalid everyday affairs. Lots of characters die, and almost always messily. Shot, blown up, chopped into pieces, crushed, smooshed against walls, dropped from tall buildings. Life here isn’t ever safe for anyone.

And yet the stories can be funny and at other times so touching as to break your heart. In Angel’s Ascension, arch nemesis Professor Desty (note: not “Destiny,” but close) Nova tricks Gally by entering her dreams, where he weaves a long fiction in which the two are devoted friends. He succeeds in fooling the young girl into being unaware of her own powers, but in one scene we realize he has trapped himself, as well: The two are sitting on a rooftop, watching the skyline and blowing soap bubbles, when Gally casually asks if he’s ever been in love. Nova thinks about it. “If one can truly believe in happiness, one can only have this prayer,” he ultimately replies, putting a protective arm across her shoulder. “Let this moment last forever.” Wonderful stuff.

Kishiro finished the Gunnm/Battle Angel Alita stories in the 1990s and had moved on to other ideas. But he was pulled back to Gally and, instead of picking up the tale where he’d left off, he started a new storyline, branching off the main Gunnm story just shy of its (I think) marvelous conclusion. With the Last Order series, he is creating a new ending for Gally and her friends and enemies, as well as a new destiny — not just for her but for all humankind.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tardi Classic to be Released in English

In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Jacques Tardi and Jean-Claude Forest’s Ici Même in English for the first time, under the title You Are There.

For the past 34 years, Tardi’s illustrations have brought to vivid life several existing written works, some for the wonderful but now defunct a suivre magazine or for Casterman publishing in France. (And a number of them are available in English, to be found at second-hand shops or through American Book Exchange.) Among my favorite series to which Tardi has turned his hand:

• Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma, who prowls the arrondissements of occupied and, later, post-WW II Paris, smoking his pipe and often getting caught up in much more than he bargained for. When he’s not stopping off for a drink or three somewhere, that is.

• The artist’s own Adele Blanc-Sec, journalist and generally cranky amateur sleuth, whose sometimes-hallucinatory adventures have involved demons in the Eiffel Tower, rampaging mummies, and multi-tentacled monsters rising out of the Seine to snatch infants from their strollers. Occasionally our heroine even gets around to writing about her escapades to pay the rent. (Did I mention her crankiness? “Blanc-sec” means “dry white.” Get it?)

• But Tardi’s masterpiece, for me, is the four-volume Le Cri du Peuple (The Cry of the People), based on Jean Vautrin’s novel about the 1871 Commune uprising — heart-breaking, human and cruel, with credible people in horrific times.

What’s so great about Tardi? Yes, the heavy-lined characters are cartoony-looking, and silly things often happen to them — in You Are There, Arthur Même loses his estate, retaining ownership of the surrounding walls, so he dashes about opening the gates for the new owners and charging a fee by lowering down a bucket; Adele Blanc-Sec gets put into a coma by a mad scientist, missing all of WW I, and she awakens to find her apartment deluged with unopened mail; a drunk Nestor Burma puts on bright-red clown’s nose, and wears it through much of one of his violent investigations.

But, oh, their expressions. Watch as Burma’s face slips from smug to baffled in the space of a single panel. And who can deny the joy turned to outrage of the Commune members, arms raised and caps and stovepipe hats askew, as they face down the overwhelmingly fortified army troops — “Vive la Commune.”

Tardi’s characters are funny-sad people living dangerous-absurd lives.

Tardi’s work has been significantly influential in Europe, and I for one eagerly await You Are There to these shores. Vive Tardi.