For those who have branched out beyond the American comics market and dove into the extensive world of European comics, there’s almost no possible way to have missed the excellence and influence of master creator Hugo Pratt. Predominantly known for his work on Corto Maltese — a series he created chronicling the tales of an adventuring seaman of the same name — Pratt’s career was significantly larger and more extensive than any one character could embody. With today marking the 75th anniversary of Pratt’s first-ever publishing comic, Asso di Picche, it’s high time that the creator was granted the respect for his entire body of work that he is finally, finally due.
Long before Corto and his adventures were even a twinkle in his eye, Pratt’s life, inherent wanderlust, and intense dedication to curiosity drove him towards mystery, fighting villainy, and depicting the great wars of the world. Born in Italy in 1927 as Ugo Eugenio Prat, he was raised in Africa from the age of 10, as his father — a respected officer in the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party, the Militia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale — was stationed in Ethiopia.
Pratt was raised under the influence of colonialism, and was forced to join the colonial police by his father as an early teen, gifting him a bleak, but ultimately important, insight into the world that would one day lead him to create some of the best military stories of any generation. The mix of various influences and experiences from this upbringing are visible today in Pratt’s work, with clear nods to the cultures that followed in the colonization of Africa in the 1940s, including French, Italian, British, Senegalese, and Abyssinian cultures easily found.
It seems to fit that this was also the period of his life when Pratt would become engrossed in the magical and daring adventures of Terry and the Pirates, the seminal newspaper adventure strip created by Milton Caniff. Caniff’s work in Terry offered Pratt exactly what he was looking for at the time: stories of a young boy on adventures that took him around the world, with the boy proving daring enough to face off against foes of various backgrounds and nationalities. (Caniff’s exquisite line work was was clearly also a draw for the young Pratt; that much is obvious from the debt Pratt’s art owes to Caniff as well.)
Through these comics, Pratt became so wrapped up in the idea of adventure, political intrigue, and world travel that, upon his father’s death, he moved back to Italy where he promptly aligned himself with the Allied forces by offering his much needed Italian-to-English translation services. This act of defiance towards his father and duty to others — however off the intended path it may seem — was set Pratt off on his journey towards cartooning.
As the war began to slowly wind down years later, with Pratt seemingly bursting at the seams with ideas and lived experience, he teamed up with writer Mario Faustinelli — best known later for his comedy-adventure comic Kolosso and script writing on The Adventures of Topo Gigio film — to create Asso di Picche (literally, “The Ace of Spades,” when translated). A thrilling tale influenced by the growing popularity of American superhero comics at the time, the eponymous masked vigilante was Pratt and Faustinelli’s take on taking down outlaws and busting international crimes, and a sign that Pratt was a talent to watch, even so early in his career.
Though Asso di Picche never truly took off beyond Europe — it remains surprisingly little-known internationally today, despite Pratt’s subsequent success — it amassed a small but devoted audience throughout Italy that grasped hold of the stories as an escape from the war-torn realities of the country in the late 1940s. After the strip concluded in 1949, with so few cartoonists working after the war — and even fewer publishers with the money to fund them in the financial crash of fascism — Pratt saw an opportunity to move forward and beyond by responding to an invite from publisher Editorial Abrile to move to Argentina to make comics for that market.
Though being credited with his first writer/artist credit on Anna Della Jungla (“Ann of the Jungle”) and Capitan Cormorant was exciting enough, Pratt’s time in Argentina also saw him team with writer Hector German Osterheld to create the famous Sgt. Kirk for the magazine Salgari. This marked a whole new departure from Pratt’s previous work, shifting from the feeling of unbridled adventure to a more elegiac look back on the trials and tribulations of World War II and the freshly-ended Korean War).
The two would continue to collaborate on Ernie Pike, a series of fictionalized adventures based on the real life work of reporter Ernie Pyle, in which Osterheld and Pratt would tell, through Pike, stories focusing on the tragedy of war, eschewing big battle sequences for more intimate, personal tales of the forgotten victims of conflict. The series, originally published in Hora Celo magazine, would remain a favorite of Pratt’s, with the creator arranging reprints in other European countries and languages later in life. (Those reprints, curiously, tended to credit Pratt as sole author.)
War continued to be Pratt’s primary focus as he left Argentina and, after a brief Brazilian stay, moved to the United Kingdom in 1959, working for multiple boys comics published by Fleetway Publications, including Battle Picture Library and War at Sea Picture Library in the twelve months that he lived in the country. Illustrating stories by writers including Tom Tully, Pratt’s work on these stories again focused on the men behind the battles, and underscored once again that his focus was more on the humanity of war, rather than the inhumanity. Long-forgotten, these comics — Pratt’s first English language releases — have recently been rediscovered and are being re-released by Rebellion Publishing across the next few years.
Returning to Italy in 1962 after a couple of years back in Argentina, Pratt continued to work in comics, illustrating classic literature for Il Corriere Dei Piccoli before, in 1967, co-creating Il Sergente Kirk with Florenzo Ivaldi, a magazine centered around Sgt. Kirk, the strip he’s worked on almost a decade earlier. Rather than focus his time solely on the past, however, the first issue of Il Sergente Kirk saw the publication of ‘Una ballata del mare salato’ (‘A Ballad of the Salt Sea,’ in English), the very first Corto Maltese strip, written and drawn by Pratt solo.
Although Corto wouldn’t be Pratt’s sole focus from that point in his career onwards — he’d work on multiple other projects, including the Jesuit Joe strip for Pilote magazine about a Canadian Mountie with a particularly humanist, anti-colonial attitude, as well as writing stories for Milo Manara, including 1983’s acclaimed Tutto ricominciò con un'estate indiana (Indian summer) — it was arguably one of the two biggest constants in his life from the point of its creation, with Pratt serializing new stories in Pif gadget from 1970 through 1973 that would later be collected and translated into multiple languages around the world for decades afterwards.
The success of Corto allowed Pratt to continue to indulge in his other constant: travel. He lived in France for more than a decade starting during the era of Corto Maltese’s initial publication, and would later move to Switzerland in the mid-1980s, as the international success of the series took hold. From there, he moved through Canada, Africa, Patagonia and beyond, until his death in 1995 from bowel cancer.
In both his wanderlust and his creative work, Pratt rejected the attitudes of his upbringing, constantly seeking out new cultures and experiences, while telling stories in which forces of colonialism and oppression were evils to be pushed against and fought at every opportunity. Those ingredients can be found in Corto Maltese, of course, but throughout his entire portfolio of work, all the way back to Asso di Picche, making it an even more impressive body of work when looked at as a whole, and demanding more than ever that Pratt’s complete output be recognized as the achievement that it is, beyond simply the most well-known aspects.
Happy Birthday, Asso di Picche. Without that first step in Pratt’s career, comics would be a poorer and far less adventurous medium.