ADDENDUM (March 20th, 2012): One issue that's come up in some reviews is that the panel layouts have been modified from the original, serialized version of Ballad. These panel layouts were not modified by Universe for this reprint, but by Hugo Pratt and Patrizia Zanotti in 1994. Patrizia Zanotti, having worked with Pratt extensively during his career, is the executor of Pratt's estate and has presided over numerous Corto Maltese reprints from RCM MediaGroup's other publishing arms. She was the co-curator of a Hugo Pratt exhibit in Paris just last year--and she's behind this particular reprint. Zanotti has a tremendous amount of respect for Hugo Pratt and would not put her name on something that would disrespect his work.
Originally published in Italy, Corto Maltese has enjoyed an immense amount of popularity in Europe--particularly France--for over 40 years. The series has remained relatively unknown in English countries despite Hugo Pratt's induction into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005 and a handful of releases in English by NBM and Harvill Press in the 80s and 90s. In the case of Ballad of the Salt Sea, Ian Monk's English translation for the mid-90s Harvill/NBM releases is currently out of print and going for extremely high prices on Amazon and elsewhere. Based on Ballad's lack of availability alone, this new translation by Hall Powell/new release by Universe is very, very, welcome. Of course, there are many more reasons to buy this book:
With regard to the physical qualities of the book: it is very nicely bound. It's a softcover that folds into inside flaps when opened, and the binding is such that the panels don't get lost in the gutters while reading. The pages are extremely thick and glossy--the book's subject matter lends itself to more pulpy stock, but the quality of the inking would certainly be diminished by worse-quality paper, so it's a net gain. The cover is quaint, it has these striking reds, light blues and sandy yellows that evoke a maritime quality. That red "Corto Maltese" flag is reflective and smoother than the rest of the cover; Corto's head and Hugo Pratt's signature on the spine are of the same texture. There's praise by Frank Miller and Umberto Eco on the back--they're presented as speech balloons coming out of Pratt's characters, nothing obtrusive. The UPC is over a mostly solid black/red region and is unobtrusive in the sense that it's not covering a significant portion of Pratt's art.
In terms of lettering: the book uses the military lettering of the cover for titles, translator, colorist and publishing credits. The rest of the text is in a font that almost evokes bamboo sticks tied together. It's entirely capitalized, stout, sans-serif, with little flourishes--the horizontal lines on the Es extending past the letter's spine, for example--that fit the setting of the story. It's not the hand-lettered NBM version, but it is just a little more charming due to these qualities.
For people acquainted with the NBM version, recall that every page had a border on the top, a composite image of certain characters and background elements of the book. Its purpose was to have the book fit on typical comic-book-sized pages without upscaling the art to fit the page. This comic just sticks to a smaller size without the obtrusive border.
Ian Monk's translation was very good, very true to the original text, but it exhibited a certain sort of stiffness at points that didn't really detract from the quality of Ballad as a whole, but was still noticeable. Hall Powell's translation is also very true to the original text and exhibits less moments of stiffness--the natives, for example, don't weave in and out of perfect grammar and syntax as they did in the Ian Monk translation--but there are several points in the story where he does not play with the text to effect the charm of the original work. Page 98 of the Hall Powell translation, Corto's remark to another character: "Pretty girl, huh? Too bad the both of us are a bit old to be in the running, don't you think?" The equivalent dialogue in the Ian Monk translation: "Pretty, isn't she? It's a shame we're a bit too long in the tooth to be taken seriously, don't you think?" Both lines say the same thing, but there is a world of difference between them, and a reader comparing the two translations is going to notice a handful of points where the Hall Powell translation lacks invention.
Patrizia Zanotti is responsible for the colors--she's an editor who's worked closely with Hugo Pratt in the past and colored some of the Corto Maltese oeuvre. Admittedly, I was a little off-put by the coloring at first, because the more coarser aspects of the art--inconsistent faces, for example--are brought into high relief by the coloring early on. Solid colors are used, for the most part, for characters and foreground details--they're not intense and they have a somewhat muted quality that never detracts from the story and fits the setting. The background colors utilize gradients and have a subtle, more organic quality to them--as if they were painted with watercolors.
With regard to the work itself: the art is fantastic on the whole. Hugo Pratt uses a lot of negative space contrast and very bold lines to render his work--it gives off a rough sort of quality that fits the raffish charm of the title character, and the events of the story. Hugo Pratt's draftsmanship is also very impressive in the sense of his technical skill and artistic finesse. In the case of the former, there is a lot of attention given to details, such as uniforms, weaponry, ships, native headwear, et cetera--the accuracy of these details really enhances the story, set in a clearly defined time period (1913-1914). In the case of his artistic finesse: the paneling consists, generally, of variations on six panels (three rows, two columns) per page, with few, if any, splashes. Pratt, however, infuses a lot of depth into these panels--background details and even the placement of characters in a panel are both very important to consider when interpreting the work. For example, a wordless panel on the bottom of page 97 has a girl running into the middle of the background while the faces of Corto and another character are on opposite ends in the foreground; the girl almost splits the panel in half to highlight the very opposite personalities of the two characters in the foreground. There are entire pages where not a single word bubble is used, Pratt instead preferring to encode what he's trying to convey in his art. Action scenes typically use few words, and Pratt's panel progression makes them exude a sort of frantic feeling.
This is very clearly an early Corto Maltese work and an early Hugo Pratt work, and there's a noticeable difference in quality between the first twenty pages of Ballad and the last twenty pages of Ballad. Because Ballad was first serialized in an Italian magazine, this difference makes sense: Pratt was probably in the process of refining himself as an artist and his designs as he wrote Ballad. That's not to say that the earlier parts of Ballad are particularly bad--Pratt's draftsmanship is still excellent. The difference in quality mainly arises out of character designs; it isn't until about 60 or 70 pages into Ballad that the title character has a concrete design to the extent where you can visualize him clearly in your mind's eye--but this assumes that one ignores his fully-realized design on the cover. On the other hand, certain characters such as Rasputin are fully-realized and consistent from beginning to end. The change in quality through the course of Ballad is very gradual, and despite the fact that there is a difference between the beginning of Ballad and the end of Ballad, it's not an extremely jarring one and the work remains uniform.
The story is fantastic. It is set on the eve of, and then during World War I, in the Pacific Ocean. The story opens with Rasputin, a coarse privateer, coming across two shipwreck survivors--Pandora and Cain, members of a rich family--and immediately plotting to hold them for ransom. Corto Maltese is introduced shortly after as a man tied to a raft by his former crew, he is picked up by Rasputin, and the story goes into a more complicated plot of the movements of a group of pirates and thieves operating in the Pacific. The plot is entwined with the politics of the period--with the tensions between Britain and Germany in the months before World War I. The politics of the story are never the primary focus, they are elements of the setting that drive the events of Ballad and the motivations of the characters--this is very much a high adventure story.
Ballad really shines in its characterizations: most characters are introduced such that they can be distilled into particular archetypes. There's the wavering girl; the arrogant boy; the pirate with no regard for other people; the charming, almost-detached drifter; the officer bound to his duty above all else--all of these characters become real through the course of the story, and their motivations, intentions and relationships to one another become very complex. The ending of Ballad is extremely satisfying because a number of the cast reach the end of their development cycle at the same time--and not in a contrived, overbearing way. The ending is worth noting because it's the culmination of having become invested into a lot of these characters, and it makes the optimistic ending--one typical of adventure stories--taste especially sweet.
The charming, almost-detached drifter is, of course, Corto Maltese, who becomes less detached and more charming as the story goes on. Save for maybe Rasputin, he is the most complex character in Ballad. He has an air of aloofness at many points in the story, and he is initially depicted as a secondary character in favor of Pandora and Cain. As a secondary character, he's more an observer or commentator, not really driving the plot forward--but he is gradually brought to the forefront as an active character when he becomes sympathetic towards the characters he accompanies. This is a gradual change that feels organic, and not the result of Hugo Pratt trying to refine or get a sense of Corto's characterization--Corto is almost entirely realized as a character from his introduction.
To reiterate an earlier point, the art and story engage each other extremely well--Ballad is really enhanced by Pratt's synthesis of the two. The comic book aficionado and the non-comic book reader will both appreciate Ballad as a piece of literature--an unpretentious adventure story that is dense and rich. It certainly has the quality of being a good story when read once, but casting a critical eye on the work during further rereads reveals the extent of Hugo Pratt's skill as a writer and artist. Ballad is a great argument--when addressing the detractors--for comic books as art.
At the very least, Universe and Hall Powell have made Corto Maltese accessible for English readers in 2012, but both deserve far more credit for putting together a very good book that does not detract from Hugo Pratt's original work in any significant way. I look forward to more Corto Maltese stories from this publisher and translator.