There’s a mixed blessing to being a pop-culture maven based in the United States. The same vibrancy and volume we celebrate in our homegrown product make the American market extraordinarily resistant to penetration by foreign properties. It’s a little embarrassing that American films can rule the overseas box office from Milan to Yucatán, but that Doctor Who is only now—50 years after its debut—starting to garner some brand recognition in the States.

Read the last Popdose on 'Tales From Development Hell.'

For every Pokémon or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that pushes through to a U.S. audience, there are a half-dozen iconic franchises that never make the jump. Asterix. Modesty Blaise. Diabolik. Zatoichi. Lieutenant Blueberry. Dylan Dog. Even the muscle of a U.S. media conglomerate may not be enough to break a property here; despite the participation of Hollywood’s best-loved and most marketable director, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin did disappointing business in the States—although it was (perhaps predictably) a huge hit just about everywhere else. 

Now the U.S. publisher Universe is taking a crack at bringing a classic character of European comics to Anglophone audiences with a new translation of Ballad of the Salt Sea, the first adventure of Corto Maltese, the seafaring rogue created by Italian cartoonist Hugo Pratt (1927-1995)—and it’s kind of a big deal. 

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Corto Maltese, sometimes described as “Tintin for grown-ups,” has always had an enthusiastic fan base among the intelligentsia. Umberto Eco even provides a blurb. But the adventures—originally published between 1967 and 1988—fall squarely into PG-13 territory, so there’s a huge YA crossover market. The previous English edition of Ballad has been out print for 15 years, and most of the Corto Maltese books have never been translated at all. With its slick, heavy paperstock and gorgeous packaging, the Universe book is built to last; the publisher is obviously hoping that Pratt’s daring sailor-man has some (sea-) legs. But will Corto Maltese find smooth sailing in the U.S. market? 

Pratt’s bold, slashing brushwork will feel familiar to fans of old-school adventure artists like Joe Kubert and Frank Springer, spotted with chiaroscuro blacks recalling Al Williamson. Ballad of the Salt Sea is set among the islands of the South Pacific in the opening days of the first World War. When we meet our hero, he has been tied to a raft and set adrift to die by his mutinous crew. For Corto Maltese, it’s another day at the office. It’s a great introductory gambit, establishing the outrageous contours of Corto’s adventurous life, his rotten luck and his inexplicable tendency to rub some people the wrong way.

Corto is rescued by a ruthless Russian privateer called Rasputin and is soon enlisted in a scheme to ransom two young American castaways of wealthy family. From this sordid setup comes a series of reversals, pitched battles and double-crosses, with Corto constantly playing both ends against the middle—whether those ends be rival criminal factions, warring nations, or cousins playing out a family spat—ever seeking his own advantage.

Amid the broken promises and broken bones, there’s some rather wonderful character work. The World War I setting frames the contrast between the modern situational ethics of Corto’s pirate friends and the outmoded Victorian notions of honor that dominates the military. The nonwestern characters are, refreshingly, well-drawn individuals: pragmatic Cranio, biding his time in service to white pirates but hoping to advance his people’s independence; Sbrinigar, wily and playful, a court jester with ambitions to be a king; and most of all, Tatao—the valiant young Maori who becomes Corto’s friend and navigator.

Sadly, Tatao makes manifest this edition’s greatest flaw. There’s a long set piece in which he relates the Maori creation myth to his companion. Hall Powell’s translation is functional, but there’s nothing in it to match the lyricism of the artwork. Translation, of course, is a notoriously tricky business of reconciling the opposed interests of accuracy and color. But Corto Maltese demands more color than Powell provides. Pratt’s people love to tell each other stories. They joke and banter, and sing the ancient songs of their people. Powell’s translation lacks any sense of the joy of language, any flourish, any poetry.

No, literally, there’s no poetry, even where there should be. In one scene, a character spends half a page reading aloud from a book that is pointedly identified, on-panel, as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; but rather than quote Coleridge’s poem directly, Powell instead paraphrases the translation that Pratt used—so that what ends up on the page is English poetry translation into Italian verse and retranslated into flat English prose. Whether this is done out of colossal ignorance (the Coleridge poem being one that the proverbial Every Schoolboy knows) or some misguided determination to remain “faithful” to Pratt’s original, it’s a howler—so bad that it threw me right out of the story.

In fairness, Powell’s efforts are further undercut by an often-overlooked aspect of comics art—the lettering. Good comics lettering never calls attention to itself, while bad lettering always does—and the blocky, flat-bottomed letterforms here stand out like a smashed thumb. Undifferentiated masses of all-caps text sit awkwardly in Pratt’s word balloons, without bolding or italics to indicate the word stresses that give sentences their rhythm, or to highlight the frequent interpolation of native languages or the names of the various ships. These are flaws that, one hopes, will be addressed in future volumes of the Corto Maltese library. Universe has done an outstanding job in making sure that Ballad of the Salt Sea is beautiful to look at. It’s a shame that they’ve also made it so godawful hard to read.

Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose.