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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: FABLE OF VENICE (1977)



It's long been observed that American genre-comics tend to travel a more straightforward, plot-determined path to get to their destinations, while similar works in Europe tend to wander about in peripatetic fashion. I don't make this observation for the reasons of elitist critics-- to tout the innate superiority of the European approach-- but to apply the distinction to this week's mythcomic.

Milton Caniff's comic strip TERRY AND THE PIRATES cast a long shadow over the world of comics long after Caniff departed the strip in 1946. The Italian Hugo Pratt was one of many artists who to some extent emulated Caniff's bag of visual tricks. For a comics-critic confined to the English language, it's difficult to assess Pratt's overall work. Almost the only works translated are Pratt's stories of Corto Maltese, and these stories caught the attention of American fans largely thanks to Frank Miller talked up Pratt's work during the height of Miller's popularity.  

The titular hero bears a loose resemblance to the tough adventurer Pat Ryan of Caniff's TERRY, but Pratt's Corto Maltese is much more laid-back and eccentric, and where Ryan is confined mostly to China, Corto wanders many parts of the world during the early 20th century. His creator knew some of these locals from personal experience. According to a preface in NBM's 1990 translation of FABLE OF VENICE, Pratt based this 1977 album-novel on his own experiences growing up in Venice. 

Given the protagonist's name, I find it logical that a particular influence on FABLE must have been Dashiell's Hammett's 1929 novel THE MALTESE FALCON and/or its film-adaptations. The novel is named for a fabulously valuable statue of a falcon, over which the novel's hero and his antagonists contend. The novel, much like Caniff's strip, is usually concerned purely with worldly concerns of profit.

But Pratt, who claims to have experienced uncanny phenomena in his encounters with the variegated cultures of Venice, takes the same idea of a character seeking a fabulous treasure but uses the idea to illustrate the arcane traditions of the Mediterranean cultures. FABLE starts with Corto falling through the ceiling of a room in which a group of Venetian Masons are convening. But where this might lead to some wild brawl in a Caniff storyline, the Masons simply escort the unfortunate sailor out of their sanctum. But the scene gives Pratt a chance to establish Corto's philosophical status with the reader. He shows that he knows something about the esoteric tradition, and yet tells the Masonic leader that "I'm just a free sailor-- at least, I  hope I am!" 

From then on, Corto wanders the streets of Venice, encountering both old acquaintances from past visits and new people, most of whom are directly or indirectly associated with esoteric matters. He has a few dust-ups with the authorities, just like Caniff's hero:




But on the whole, the wandering plot is mostly about the mysteries of Venice, where Corto observes that anything can happen. The treasure he seeks is a supposedly magical emerald, but he quests after this prize not for personal gain, but because a late associate, Baron Corvo, challenged the sailor to find the emerald. The emerald has a storied history like that of the Maltese Falcon, but the gem goes much further back, supposedly passing through the hands of myth-figures like Cain and Lilith and into the slightly more historical-seeming figures of Simon Peter and Simon Magus.

While trying to track down the elusive jewel, Corto meets various people associated with occultism, particularly Hipazia, who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Hypatia, the renowned Neoplatonic scholar who lived in Egypt during the 4th century A.D.  Hypazia projects the sense of being almost other-worldly, though Corto tells a friend "that girl can only love what she can't have."


FABLE puts forth a cornucopia of arcane references from the Greco-Roman world, the Bible, Islam, and even Nordic mythology. I don't think any of them add up to much individually, but these references, like the characters I discussed in this essay, "take on mythic status through their association." No literal magic is seen, so the novel registers an uncanny phenomenality through the trope of "weird societies." In addition, Corto has a bizarre dream in which he has a long conversation with a genie who looks like one of his old adversaries. And though he awakens from this dream, after the treasure-hunt (and murder-mystery) is solved, it turns out that the novel itself is something of a dream. FABLE ends with Corto bringing all of the characters "on stage"-- even those who have died-- to take their bows, and then leaves to appear in his next story. In my experience, this is one of the few times that a "delirious dream" took place WITHIN the context of a "fallacious figment."

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