I wrote a pretty in-depth analysis of this (amazing) Hugo Pratt Page over at Robot 6 the other day. You can read it here.
I've been reading a lot of Pratt lately, mostly as a strict craft study in how to ink more effectively with a brush, but like all good comics do, it's surprised me with how much more there is to be had from it than just that. I think a good point of comparison for Pratt is Moebius, and not just because they've both been on my mind lately. Both of them are European cartoonists who parlayed a rock-solid grounding in classical comics art into unique, highly stylized work that had a massive influence on comics around the globe. If anything, though, Pratt's been even more unavailable to English-speaking readers over the past few decades than the legendarily elusive Moebius has -- while you could always scrounge a ten-buck copy of some Moebius book or other if you actually cared, with Pratt there was just nothing. A reputation and a void. (There's a tangent to be gone into here about how Moebius's greater notoriety is due to his influence on both movies and the larger science fiction genre, while Pratt's impact stayed pretty squarely inside comics... but I don't care a ton about movies and I certainly don't care at all about science fiction, so nahhh.)
This week, at long last, Pratt's magnum opus, the early 20th-century seafaring adventure serial Corto Maltese, is being put back into print, though in a form that I know is severely compromised without even having seen the books in person yet. Here's an informal list of things I think are awesome about Pratt, some of which you'll find in the new colorized editions of his work by Universe Rizzoli, some of which has been sadly erased.
- Graphic Arts. Perhaps above all else, Pratt's comics are a master class in how to make black and white comics as visually engaging as color. You don't even have to unpack the figurative content of his drawings to marvel over their graphic strength. Every Pratt panel balances black and white space with meticulous precision, creating a back and forth, pulsating effect that's even pleasant to look at with your eyes completely unfocused. (Seriously, give it a try! Like right now!) That large amount of black space on the page, even in scenes with the brightest light sources, gives Pratt's figures a tangible sense of weight that makes his scenes of motion that much more impactful and flowing, but also somehow does work to flesh out the actual characters. You can't just write them off as one-dimensional cartoon icons when they stay bathed in shadow, parts of them always unseen. The chiaroscuro approach Pratt uses also works beautifully to integrate his figures with his backgrounds, a constant problem for action comics. When the same area of black space -- sometimes even the same mark -- indicates part of a figure and part of an environment at the same time, though, it makes the trouble most artists have at creating unified fields within their panels just seem silly.
- Tiers Over Grids. More and more lately, I've been thinking that if you want to create a story in comics that people will actually read, you need some kind of anchoring motif in your layouts that repeats on every page. Otherwise, people who are there for the story will have to take an instant (consciously felt or not) to reorient themselves to the new layout between pages, and craft heads like myself will take themselves out of the story entirely to examine what the new layout's achieving that the old one wasn't before going back into it. All this being said, though, comics where every page uses the same exact grid with the same exact size and shape of panels throughout feel like a slog a lot of the time, and often run into pacing problems because every moment, no matter how important or unimportant, takes up the same amount of space on the page. What's the solution? Myself, I like a tiered approach, where every page is split up into equally sized horizontal sections which themselves can be divided any different number of ways. Pratt sticks to a four-tier page, which is pretty standard for European comics. Herge used a four-tier too. (American comics are printed at a smaller size, which explains the higher incidence of three-tier pages over here.) Pratt's four-tier gives him just enough space to compose pictures that satisfy on an individual level -- detailed full figures and iconic close-ups -- but also allow him to get in full plot beats on a single page. And the long, low panel shapes the tiers produce are perfect for Pratt's full-speed, physical approach to action.
- Pamphleteering. I'm not sure what form the Corto stories were originally published in in Europe, but the complete stories almost always take up 20 pages, beginning to end. That, of course, is the same length as the classic American comic book pamphlet. It's a fantastic format to tell comics stories in, allowing novelistic plots to unspool without forgiving any wasted space. It's interesting to see how Pratt's use of his 20-page chunks corresponds to the way great American cartoonists -- Kirby, Miller, Ditko -- used it. Pratt's pamphlet-length stories, like his drawings, are impressionistic and bold. He'll spend a few whole pages establishing tone in a particularly evocative landscape or use an entire tier on a trivial point simply because he can get a great drawing out of it, and then rush into a fight scene or a plot reversal without any setup. An occasional sequence of dense exposition is the price Pratt has to pay for this approach, but by and large Corto Maltese is a more thrilling, absorbing blueprint for the 20-page comic than its measured, carefully paced American cousins were able to manage.
- Mark Making. There's not much I can say here, honestly. Pratt's marks speak in a voice stronger and more persuasive than the written word. As far as expresssions of strength and surety on the comic book page go, Pratt's bold, slashed stripes of ink are second to none, blotting out massive areas of space whose contents are still communicated more eloquently than any amount of fussier detailed drawing could do. It's a testament to Pratt's compositional skill that such markmaking works at all: his drawings are carefully balanced to accommodate those pounding gestural explosions. Every one of them has a counterbalance in the sparse pen rendering Pratt pairs them with. The result is imagery that works both as figurative content and almost Abstract Expressionist hymns to the glory of medium on surface.
- Elegant/Absurd. Pratt's action sequences are highly unusual, drawn with a more or less unique acme that simply never caught on anywhere else. Where just about every action comic will look toward capturing the fluidity and erratic wildness of the human body in motion, Pratt goes stiff and posed, formalized. Even in the most desperate, chaotic brawls, Pratt's characters always seem to be fighting within the Japanese samurai tradition, following pre-learned "forms". The poses are expressive, but also always somehow constructed by the characters for the audience's benefit; always shot in full figure from beginning to end, like pictures of statues fighting. It sells the bone-juddering impact of landed blows more than the motions that drive them, the fact that none of the characters involved in a fight can do anything but hit each other until a conclusion has been reached. The closest comparison is perhaps Kirby, whose posing could reach a similar state of stiffened demonstrativity, but really Pratt is alone in his approach, which somehow worked beautifully despite violating most of the standard rules of action comics.
Like I said, a lot of this is literally covered up by the color in the new editions, but what remains is Pratt's fantastic drafting ability and his way with a gripping yarn. These are comics worth reading in any form, so if you don't care enough to track down the real stuff in the old black and white NBM books, you're better off with the new reprints than just about anything else you could pull off the comic shop shelves. Happy hunting...