Horrible production may have doomed Corto Maltese in the US yet again

When word got out last year that Rizzoli US was planning a new edition of CORTO MALTESE, hearts of Eurocomix fans soared. The signature work of comic grand master Hugo Pratt,. the CORTO books are a colorful, romantic, languidly nostalgic series of grand adventures told with some of the greatest chiaroscuro art in comics. Although the CORTO MALTESE books have been sporadically available here in the US (in the past from both NBM and Harvill Press), the usual translation from the French was thought to be pretty poor, and the rights to put out a new edition seemed to be in total limbo.

Thus the news of a new edition from a respected art dealer with a new translation by a respected writer sounded like a dream come true.

But, instead, it’s been another huge mistake that just adds to the curse of CORTO in English.

Although the new edition uses the color of the original Casterman edition…it also uses the redesigned page format of the Casterman editions, and the files are at a very low res, resulting in ugly scratchy-looking art.
corto_maltese_interior_final_1 00004.jpg
The Beat’s heart was thrilled when we heard of this but when we eagerly flipped open the pages of the edition when it arrived, we were..underwhelmed.

Quite frankly, the rugged beauty of Pratt’s line has been made ugly, rough and amateurish by this awful low-res version.

Designer Chris McDonnell explains what happened on the Meathaus blog:

• The lettering is a custom font created directly from scans of Pratt’s own lettering in the original Italian edition. The letter forms are blocky and idiosyncratic but connect to the artist’s original work as well as being compact and functional for the purpose of fitting in the often small word balloons. I have previously relettered an entire comic book translation for Universe, but this was the decision reached based on the limitations of this particular project.
• The artwork is reformatted from the original large page size to a smaller format page with altered page layouts, however this was done previously for the french language Casterman edition (or before that possibly). The art in this edition is from the same artwork files that are printed in the Casterman edition and were provided to Universe. The artwork and coloring were not altered for the Universe edition. For various reasons, the original sized pages were not an option nor were there higher quality files of this version available.
• The cover is a design that I created using my own scans of the black and white original Italian edition of the book.


In a comment on the post he elaborates on why better files could not be used:

I asked for the original format pages and better quality line art files but the files that we ultimately used were the only option for files provided by the licensor or the estate (I don’t know who) for this project

Universe may have also preferred the smaller size and colorized pages for marketing and/or budget reasons (as opposed to a b/w original size book which is larger than normal these days). Sure the original b/w art could be reproduced from an earlier edition but I’m not sure a U.S. publisher would be as likely to have taken a risk on that version over a smaller sized, colored one that is already produced, printed elsewhere already and ready to go.

The line art is not ideal. But when we saw that we could print the art slightly larger than the French and Italian editions without a discernible difference in the not-idealness, we went with that so the work could be larger on the page. As a whole we worked to make an attractive package for the work. Perhaps this book will find some success and be a gateway to future editions of even better reproduced Pratt books in English in the future.


So there you have it.

When over the years, we asked why there was not a good English version of CORTO we were always told that it was because the licensor couldn’t come to an agreement with the US. That made it sounds like quality concerns were the issue. But instead, it seems that somehow Casterman and Rizzoli have produced an awful-looking, budget version of the story—and those of us who love Corto have no choice but to buy it to hope that better editions come out.

We already have the larger-sized B&W edition from Casterman published in the 80s…and the art looks lovely, like it should. In the future we’ll just look at the pictures again, with the new translation in mind.

We’re not the only ones who noticed: Retailers from Big Planet Comics have written an open letter to Rizzoli protesting the matter:

Subject: Complaints about your edition of Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea‏

To Whom It May Concern,

This is an open letter we are writing to express our extreme displeasure with the terrible edition of Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea you have just released. We are the co-owners of Big Planet Comics, a group of comic book stores in the Washington, DC area. Hugo Pratt is one of our favorite artists and we have read, collected and sold numerous works by him, including earlier editions of The Ballad of the Salt Sea.

corto_maltese_interior_final_1 00069.jpg

The art has been scanned at a low resolution, leading to pixelization that obscures or erases the smoothness of the fine and precise art of Hugo Pratt. In some cases, it seems to have been printed at an even worse quality, the most egregious example being the middle panel on page 136, where the thin lines denoting the rays of light look like they were drawn with a skittering giant marker.

The reformatting of the panels of each page so that only about two-thirds of each original page is on each page of your edition jumbles the intention of Hugo Pratt, so that the flow of story from panel to panel is interrupted or changed, and the natural break point, or pause, at the end of each original page is now mixed haphazardly through your layout.

Most offensively, the original panels of Hugo Pratt’s art have been resized, cut, and cropped to fit this amateurish new layout scheme, in some cases removing over a third of each panel, or splitting a panel into two new panels. Some panels appear to have been zoomed in, resulting in further loss of quality and removing more of Hugo Pratt’s art.

These terrible mutilations of Hugo Pratt’s art are insulting enough, but there are numerous panels where someone has taken upon themselves the hubris to fill out the gaping holes in the modified panels by adding to the art itself.

Also, your description of the book on your webpage at http://www.rizzoliusa.com/book.php?isbn=9780789324986 incorrectly claims this is the first time Ballad of the Salt Sea has been available in English. In fact, it has been released in English at least twice: once by The Harvill Press in 1996, and once by NBM Publishing in 1997.

This book is the first encounter we have had with any division of your publishing house. Your edition cannot claim in honesty to represent an unadulterated replication of Hugo Pratt’s work. Whoever approved such a hatchet job on this classic piece of art should be ashamed of themselves. We would appreciate an apology and explanation.

We, and many of the employees at our stores, were very excited to sell Corto Maltese to our customers. We are disappointed we will not be able to recommend that any customer buy your edition.

Disappointedly,

Jared Smith
Peter Casazza
Greg Bennett
Joel Pollack


We’re on the road or we’d be at the scanner doing side-by-side comparisons of the pages above with the B&W, but here’s a page from the internet that shows how much better the line looks in the B&W larger version:

201203191442.jpg
Whoever made the decision, it looks like an accessible US version of an adventure comics classic has been Eff’d over yet again.

Comments

  1. Aw, crap.

    I was really looking forward to a good translation of CORTO MALTESE, at long last.

    But even the lettering looks bad, here.

    kdb

  2. Todd Allen says:

    !#@%$!@#$!!!

    I had been planning to get this. Sounded like an upgrade over my NBM set. Not so sure now…

  3. jacob lyon goddard says:

    Is it better or worse than those horrid NBM editions?

  4. I have my comic history students read one of the NBM books on class reserve, and as wonderful as it is, they don’t get it. The pacing throws them, and they’re not used to the art. I can’t see these volumes improving their reception of the work. Worse, if they don’t sell because of their mediocre execution, it will hamper further efforts at reprints.

  5. Reuben says:

    I’m glad it’s not just me, I was horrified when I received my copy in the post last month. Glad I own a copy of the b&w version released here in the UK in the mid’90s.
    This version could have done with a proof reader too.

  6. Sarah Velez says:

    It’s strange that something whose entire market is probably people to whom the quality of the end product would very much matter, would fail in this way. I mean if you can’t please the people who love Hugo Pratt’s work, how are you going to win over people who have no idea?

    Just seems like a complete clusterfuck.

  7. Jonathan La Mantia says:

    Very disappointing news. I had been looking forward to finally reading this- but looks like I’ll have to keep on waiting until I can find the 90s versions or someone prints a decent English language version (I already tried learning French.. it did not go well).

  8. “Most offensively, the original panels of Hugo Pratt’s art have been resized, cut, and cropped to fit this amateurish new layout scheme, in some cases removing over a third of each panel, or splitting a panel into two new panels.”

    In the nineties Hugo Pratt approved this mess!

    In the ’90 Lizard (now part of Rizzoli RCS, which is also the owner of the French publisher Casterman) published in Italy two versions of the Ballad:
    - the hardcover, which was not cut and resized but had awful colours;
    - the softcover, which was in b/w but had cut and poorly scanned pages.
    The hc had a nearly 180 pages story and the sc had a nearly 250 pages story.
    Lizard did the same with the short stories of Corto Maltese.
    Pratt was still alive and happy (?) when Lizard published these crap books.

    In the last few years Rizzoli Lizard published also:
    - a 50 euros hc, which has pages well scanned, not cut, and in b/w. It’s the only good edition of the Ballad published in Italy in the last 30 years;
    - a cheap book sold with the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

    I’ve seen and red the ’90′s hc and sc and I’ve seen the 50 euros hc.
    I haven’t seen the cheap book. I suspect that this book is coloured and cut, as the one published in USA.

    It is strange that Rizzoli provided the US publisher with the worst version of the book. Well, not so strange, regarding the mess they did with the Ballad and other Pratt’s comics in the last 20 years.

    I hope you’ve understood my poor english.

  9. I’ve been shopping at Big Planet Comics for over 20 years, and one of the things I’ve always appreciated about the owners and employees is that if a book is bad (not just not to their tastes but genuinely bad) they’ll warn you.

    The idea of finally getting Corto graphic novels in English (having sadly missed on the earlier editions) had me excited for a long time, but if they’re actively warning people away rather than to take my (and other customer’s) money, I’ll take their advice. *sigh*

  10. Al™ says:

    What a shame. Low res, and chopped up. I must say, it sounds like someone was being cheap.

  11. i’m reading it right now and i’m able to look through bad reproductions(i missed it initially) but the lettering here is too blocky, where the characters blur together and force me to move in closer than usual to read it. too much white space in the lettering. i’m trying to enjoy it, but it makes me wonder is learning Italian a better option it than reading this.

  12. Cam Chesney says:

    Mine arrived in the mail a few days ago, and I was completely aghast. Very disappointing.

  13. I’ve just finished an article on our website showing some examples of the problems we mentioned in our open letter.

    http://www.bigplanetcomics.com/how-to-destroy-a-comics-classic

  14. I’m not even a huge fan of this series, but thank heavens that I own one of the full-size b&w versions from the 80s. Think I’ll go give it a read and see if it appeals more to me now than it did (hey, I was just a college kid when I got that copy… my tastes have definitely matured with time).

  15. This makes me sad. I’ve taken lumps for working on flopped manga, but I always felt that I was doing the best I can to get the art seen by new fans.

    I’m wondering how many compromises were made in working on this edition of Corto Maltese before it was realized that it’s probably not going to make for an ideal reading experience.

    The font makes me all kinds of sad too.

  16. Matthew Southworth says:

    @Jared Smith–thank you for writing such an informative and non-hyperbolic article. It was very useful and reasonable, and I hope it will dissuade many folks from buying this crappy edition.

    Here’s hoping a higher quality version makes it out at some point. That did happen with Buz Sawyer–some pretty cruddy-looking collections came out but now Fantagraphics is releasing some very nice collections of that great stuff.

  17. The first volume of the new Danish edition of Corto (Not “Salty Sea”, they started with another volume) had pixilated art. But it was fixed for the rest of the books. Apparently it CAN be done if you REALLY beg the publisher for decent files. Or something.

  18. … also, they’ve just gotten round to “Salty Sea”. In black and white, and apparently no pixilation, according to reviews.

  19. filippod says:

    Slightly off-topic but I’m puzzled.

    I’m pleasantly surprised to see that people care about quality comic reproduction – I certainly do – but I wonder why the same isn’t required from digital.

    To quote Matthew Southworth from a post about digital comics: “Let’s not forget that for 50-some-odd years comics were printed on the shittiest paper with the shittiest printing with color provided by EXTREMELY low-resolution dots. Artwork bleeding through the back of the paper, newsprint going brown, colors off-register. We read those just fine, too.”

    So why do we need a quality version of Corto Maltese? It’s pretty obvious why, what I’m really asking is why we shouldn’t expect the same from digital. Especially since it’s actually technically very feasible.

    ComiXology’s quality on tablets so far has been underwhelming at best, where even minimal zooming causes blurring and where the guided view is a panel crop-fest. And that’s not a technical limitation of the tablets, rather ComiXology’s choice of resolution / compression (which was clearly born on smartphones and never improved).

    Now they are apparently going HD, so things are bound to improve finally.

    It just puzzles me how so far very few people seemed to care about poor digital comics reproduction (in whichever forum I posted about it nobody seemed to care) which was/is a choice, not a technical limitation – as good CBR scans or some Graphicly comics easily prove.

  20. No offense but I believe the difference is that Hugo Pratt is good and the average comic that you are reading on the Comixology is not.

    Therefore, it matters more if the production values on a new Pratt book are not up to par.

  21. filippod says:

    @Darryl Ayo: do you really think that starting a comment with “No offense” makes it less offensive?

  22. filippod says:

    @Darryl Ayo [2]: just to add some context: I am Italian and I own quite a few Corto Maltese books.

  23. Torsten Adair says:

    For those who are interested:

    Harvill edition, available via 52 libraries:
    http://www.worldcat.org/title/ballad-of-the-salt-sea/oclc/38139501&referer=brief_results

    NBM published seven issues of “Salt Sea”, as well as eight volumes of albums:
    http://www.comics.org/series/5870/
    http://www.comics.org/series/3316/
    (Salt Sea was not collected, so therefore, no EAN.)

  24. Thanks to everyone for these comments! I’ve cancelled my library’s order for the new Salt Sea, and found a second-hand Harvill to buy instead.

  25. No offense, but your comment is pointless and adds nothing but undue hostility to this subject.

    I said “no offense,” because it’s a mean (yet truthful and succinct) answer to a question. The question was “why do people care about the production values in Corto Maltese and not in the average Comixology comic?” The answer is: because Pratt is actually good and woth preserving and honestly, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the production values in a day-to-day digital comic from “The Avengers # 793″ on Comixology is. It seriously does not matter. Nobody cares. Because people read those comics to keep up with the soap opera. People read comics like those of Pratt because they’re GOOD COMICS.

  26. filippod says:

    There are a lot of good comics on ComiXology. Maybe few – or even none – on Corto Maltese level but still GOOD COMICS. And even some Avengers #gazillion comics sport art good enough that’s is worthy of better treatment. Even further: even crappy art, if cropped, loses on a storytelling level. Additionally: the pulp of yesteryear is getting archival and artist editions today. Maybe somebody values them worthy of such treatment. Some of it is available digitally as well. Finally: the question was NOT “why do people care about the production values in Corto Maltese and not in the average Comixology comic?”. “Average” is you addition.

  27. Torsten Adair says:

    RE: digital resolution.

    http://xkcd.com/841/

    People are happy to listen to MP3 files via their crappy cellphone speaker (or earbuds).

    They are content to read a digital comic on a small screen, knowing the limitations of the device.

    High resolution scans are not feasible for downloadable digital comics, as there is a limitation on how much data can be transmitted and stored on the device.

    If an item is archival, then I expect higher resolution, usually 4-8X enlargement. (Even though I have never used a magnifying glass when reading a graphic novel.)

    As for Corto Maltese, a reprint of the black-and-white art (if the negatives are available) with new lettering and color would not be too pricey. One could conceivably import the color layers from the new file and then correct any inconsistencies. Probably do the same with the lettering.

  28. filippod says:

    RE: digital resolution.

    I don’t expect digital to have the same resolution as quality paper but I demand a better product. Panel cropping, for example, has nothing to do with resolution. And even regarding the latter: higher resolution is possible, proof is that the iPad3 is forcing ComiXology to sell “HD” comics. They could have provided better resolution one year ago. Back to your MP3 analogy: would you buy 96Kbps MP3s? I only demand that comics are the “equivalent” of 192kbps or more MP3s.

  29. Digital is inherently perceived as lower quality in most things, aside from giant TVs. It’s the only reason why I can run a website full of typos that would never fly in a magazine.

    Doesn’t mean digital IS esser quality just that there is more of it and it’s free.

  30. Matthew Southworth says:

    @Flippod–I certainly didn’t intend my post about digital comics to reflect a lack of concern for quality reproduction. I scan my work at a high resolution for just that reason.

    My point, clumsy though it may have been, was to say that complaints that the iPad2 is unacceptable as a method for reading comics because of resolution seem rather prejudicial. To me the primary quality consideration is in the scans of the work itself (or the digital resolution of the files themselves); tablets and laptops and televisions and so on are quite adequate and only getting better, in my opinion.

  31. Shame unfortch. I was eyeing this mightly at Bergen Street Saturday night.

  32. Wow — the cutting apart of the page layouts alone are enough to make me pass on this book — the crappy reproduction and horrible lettering are just the rancid icing on the cake.

  33. Matthew Southworth says:

    Rob S–me too. The screwing with the artwork and storytelling just makes it unacceptable to me; I could possibly deal with lame reproduction if that’s the only way I could get it, but those examples in Jared’s are unacceptable to me.

  34. Bahamut says:

    I already bought this (had it preordered for a while actually), but still haven’t had a chance to sit down and read it, so I’m quite disappointed to hear this. That example with the collapsing house is just painful. That said…I’m still gonna read it and enjoy it. I’ve never read any Pratt before, so as much as it sucks, I don’t reall have any other options aside from tracking down an expensive used copy or possibly reading it online somewhere(which I dislike on several levels). But I’m definitely gonna email them or something and let them know how much it sucks. We all should. Raise a stink. Don’t just rely on the blogs to make noise about it. Contact them yourselves too. However, from the comments of the guy who worked on it, it seems like it was partially out of their hands. I dunno. Torn about this. I rather have the work left untoched…but I’ve also wanted to experience Corto Maltese for a long time. If nothing else, I hope they’ve learned their lesson for the next volumes.

  35. Jim Higgins says:

    This is truly a horrible mess. Much thanks to Jared and those at Big Planet Comics for pointing this out in a public way to the world and for starting a campaign to shame the art-destroying barbarians who put this book out.

    I’d also like to add my voice to filippod’s and say that the constant use of terrible and low res scans is ruining comic art and the publishing business in general. When I was more active in publishing in the late ’90s and we first started getting digital scans of art, we tried to get high res versions of the files. Back then, people would sometimes complain the the files were very large and unwieldy. But 12 years of faster processors and massive increases in the average amount of storage space on computers has made this argument just silly.

    There is NO reason for poor quality images except for lack of care or knowledge on the part of those doing pre-production. If you do that for a publisher, getting it right is the most *basic* requirement for your job, yet I see poor quality line art from comics publishers every week. Go look at a Fantagraphics or a Drawn and Quarterly book if you think good production quality can’t be done regularly and consistently.

    Let’s hope all the attention makes Rizzoli make a change with future books. Ugh.

  36. Matthew Southworth says:

    @Darryl Ayo’s comment saying “anything you’re reading on Comixology is not worth preserving properly”–what a stupid thing to say.

    I’m not arguing that Corto Maltese isn’t superior to most, if not all of what’s coming out monthly–but keep in mind BATMAN: YEAR ONE was issues #404-407 of the monthly book.

    Plenty of good material does come out on a periodical basis and is worth preserving. Sometimes it’s difficult to assess value in the moment and only over time can we see its importance or artistic achievement. Most ongoing superhero soap-opera is to me pretty unappealing, but own up to it: you tried to make a shitty comment, and then someone called you on it. If you want to try to defend the comment, you need a little more than just “ah, everything sucks, and we’re talking about CORTO MALTESE!” to make your point salient.

  37. Dude, that was the content of the original comment. And I was sticking up for YOU, ya lousy jerk.

    9_9

    Now can we please talk about Pratt and not how much of a jerk I am? I already know.

  38. Matthew Southworth says:

    Well, I didn’t mean to insult you, just thought it was a silly comment. So I apologize if I was a dick about it.

    Perhaps this is one of those situations where cold text didn’t convey the tone properly, or it’s also entirely possible I’m tone deaf.

    In any case, I agree, let’s talk Pratt and try to figure out how we’re all going to find this stuff in an acceptable format.

  39. Andrei Buters says:

    I bought it before I heard about the problems with the reprint. I read it all, enjoyed it, and am happy with my purchase.

    Yes, there are three glaring issues with the new reprint that should have been addressed in publication but come on! It’s Hugo fricking Pratt! Even with these issues, it’s still an awesome story with awesome characters and a fine example of the potential of the adventure comic.

    I think people here are using the word ‘mess’ too liberally. I also think it’d be a massive shame if readers decided they didn’t want to get into Corto Maltese because of purists wringing their hands.

  40. Vik Gill says:

    Well put Andrei–there’s been a ton of unwarranted vitriol over this book, and it sets my stomach a-flutter when I read posts blasting the book on its formatting/inking when Hugo Pratt himself presided over the modified layout and Patrizia Zanotti’s colors. Direct that knock towards the work itself, not the publisher.

    This won’t appeal to purists, but it’s a decent and affordable way for new readers to get their hand on a classic Corto Maltese story. The changes don’t largely impact the work as a whole, I think, one can still appreciate Pratt’s skill as a writer and artist despite the (overstated?) shortcomings.

    I think a foreword should be included in further reprints explaining what exactly was changed, so people know exactly what to blame the publisher for next time ’round. :)

  41. Martin says:

    I was about to pick up the new Casterman books and then stumbled upon this thread and got really worried. Luckily for the Dutch market Casterman kept the lay-out of the previously released b&w books for the newly released coloured reprints. They’re gorgeous! I don’t understand why Casterman would provide inferior quality digital files to this US publisher. I would only think there is a huge english speaking market to conquer with euro comics… why all the crappy releases? I mean how hard can it be? The only that needs to be changed are the words in the word balloons…

  42. patrick ford says:

    The publisher requested the revised format to reach a specific audience. It’s nice Pratt was involved but that is not the same thing as thinking Pratt felt the revised format was the best version. That would be like thinking a ’60s era paperback reprint of MAD or PEANUTS is the optimal presentation.

  43. Xavier says:

    WOW What Rizzoli did to Corto Maktese is appalling… Do you guys know where to buy the French versions in the US?

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