A year-long exhibit of Hugo Pratt’s art is currently on display at the Musée des Confluences, in Lyon, France. Curated by Patrizia Zanotti and Cong SA, in cooperation with the national libraries of France, the exhibit – and catalogue – features a brief piece by Dean Mullaney discussing Milton Caniff’s influence on Pratt.
For our English-speaking readers, here’s the English text alongside the illustrated French version. (Corto Maltese and all Hugo Pratt art © 2018 Cong SA.) Fans of both artists’ work will appreciate the mature Pratt’s homages to Caniff, known as the Rembrandt of the Comic Strip.
“While still a boy, Hugo Pratt discovered the early American adventure comic strips and was so enamored with Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates that he decided to become a cartoonist. He wasn’t alone. Caniff’s bold, chiaroscuro graphic approach and flair for exotic dramatic storylines influenced virtually every aspiring adventure cartoonist of the era. It wasn’t merely the ink-laden, expressionistic brushwork that Caniff and his studio partner Noel Sickles created. As artist Howard Chaykin has noted, “They virtually invented the visual and textual language that defines the very vocabulary of all adventure and character based comic art.” That influence extended beyond cartoonists. Orson Welles, who had requested a piece of original art from Caniff, acknowledged that Caniff’s composition and “camera” angles in Terry were an influence on Citizen Kane.
“Pratt absorbed the rudiments of that language. His early comics clearly reflect Caniff’s artistic influence. He also absorbed Caniff’s penchant for exhaustively researching every story detail that—coupled with a stark, expressive B&W graphic style—contributed to the verisimilitude for which they each strove in their comics. Over time, Pratt’s life’s experiences and creative inspirations took him in new, singular directions. He developed a dynamic style of his own. By the 1960s, Caniff in Steve Canyon featured a military hero who struggled to maintain the status quo and centered his stories on American hegemony and the Cold War with the Soviets. Pratt’s stories, on the other hand, provided a healthy skepticism toward nationalistic, ideological, and religious dogmas, as well as sympathy for the underdog. Context aside, the two cartoonists continued to admire each other talents. In a 1978 interview Caniff said, “I love Hugo’s work. He’s done the same sort of thing in his own way, with great skill and attention to detail.”
“Over time, the student became master and it was Pratt to whom some young artists learned, with Caniff recognized as his antecedent: “I was studying Corto Maltese…strictly for the brush work,” recalled Frank Miller in 2016. “[It] greatly informed how I did Sin City. The brevity of it goes all the way back to Milton Caniff. But Pratt had his own edge that I found fascinating and like nothing else I’d ever seen. I wanted to learn from it and integrate it.”
“Milton Caniff wrote and illustrated Terry and the Pirates from 1934 to 1946, and Steve Canyon from 1947 until his death in 1988.”
—Dean Mullaney, editor of The Complete Terry and the Pirates