Corto Maltese is a graphic novel series created by Hugo Pratt in 1967, and one of the most famous examples of the French-Belgian comics school at its best (even though the author was actually Italian). The best-known adventure, Una Ballata Del Mare Salato (The Ballad of the Salt Sea) made Le Monde's "100 Books of the Century" list.
The title character is a fictional adventurer active during the years before, during and after WW1. Born of a sailor from Cornwall and a fortune-teller from Gibraltar, Corto Maltese has a lifelong case of wanderlust and travels across the world as a gentleman of fortune, treasure seeker and occasional pirate. His recurring sidekick is a psychopathic Russian named Rasputin (who coincidentally does look like the historical Rasputin).
An Animated Adaptation was released in 2002, Corto Maltese et la Cour Secrète des Arcanes, and Canal+ adapted six of the shorter stories into the 30-minute episode format too.
If you've never read the comics but the name sounds familiar, it's because Frank Miller used the character's name as that of a fictional country in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which was in itself given a Shout-Out in the '89 Batman film as well as the Arrow series.
New Corto Maltese adventures, by Blacksad author Juan Diaz Canales and Ruben Pellejero, were released in 2015 and '17 - Under The Midnight Sun and Equatoria, a celebration of the series' fiftieth anniversary. The series can be purchased in the Anglosphere via IDW Publishing: Under The Sign of Capricorn, Beyond The Windy Isles, and Celtic Tales.
- Alas, Poor Villain: Several villains get strangely dignified deaths, like the Countess in The Movie.
- All Myths Are True: Corto gets to meet mythical creatures from plenty of different folklores.
- Anti-Hero: Corto is an early example of this.
- Armies Are Evil: Corto meets his share of power-hungry warlords and unsavory military officers.
- Art Evolution: As the book progress, Pratt's art becomes increasingly less detailed and more stylised and cartoonish.
- Artistic License History: In Corto Maltese in Siberia, Hugo Pratt gives warlord Grigori Semenov Asian features, complete with Fu-Manchu moustache. Also, he dies fighting Corto, unlike the Real Life Semenov who was executed by the Soviets in 1946.
- Badass Longcoat: Corto.
- Badass Normal: Corto acquits himself admirably in every dangerous situation, realistic or fantastic, although he is far from being infallible; sometimes, when the focus shifts to secondary characters, he is a little more than a bystander.
- Belated Happy Ending: A letter in the final page of "The Ballad of the Salty Sea" reveals that in his old age, Corto (and Tarao) returned to live with Pandora Groovesnore and became beloved uncles to her children. This is the only mention of what happened after he disappeared in Spain, and is not even included in all reprints of the "Ballad".
- The Casanova: Corto, with a hint of Chivalrous Pervert.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Rasputin.
- The Dead Can Dance: And in "The Helvetics", Corto dances with them.
- Doppelgänger: In "The Golden House of Samarkand", the Turkish officer Timur Chevket is a dead ringer for Corto. Not to mention, of course, Rasputin's resemblance with his more famous namesake.
- The Drifter: Corto never stays in any one place too long.
- Expanded Universe: Two characters from two of Pratt's other works, "Lord HawHaw" from Ann of the Jungle and Cush from The Scorpions of the Desert appear in "Corto Maltese in Africa" ("Les Ethiopiques" in France), the second as a close friend of Corto, making those three universes linked together in the same verse.
- Foil: Rasputin is a dark version of Corto.
- Fortune Teller: Corto's mother was one, and so is his friend Golden Mouth.
- Fully Absorbed Finale: Combined with No Ending. In The Scorpions of the Desert, a character mentions that Corto Maltese has not been heard from since the "last great romantic adventure" - the Spanish Civil War. An addendum to the "Ballad" claims he eventually had a quiet retirement with Pandora and Tarao. But besides those two snippets, nothing is known of his life after 1925.
- Heartbroken Bad Ass: Corto never quite got over his love for Pandora Groovesnore in "The Ballad of the Salty Sea".
- Historical Domain Character: Many, including some Young Future Famous People, like a young revolutionary named "Joe" Dzhugashvili.
- Identity Amnesia: Happens to Corto in "Because of a Gull".
- Immune to Fate: As a kid a palmreader told him he lacked a "fate line" in his palm. So he decided to create one on his own and carved one into his hand with a straight razor, declaring that he would choose his own fate.
- Magical Realism: Real locations and historical events coexist with magic elements and pure fantasy.
- Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Played with in the case of the unfulfilled attraction between Corto and Shanghai Li. She was already married and more or less happy with her husband, whom she basically describes as a Nice Guy. Corto aknowledges it and wishes her well.
- Mildly Military: Corto's default outfit is a navy uniform of no particular nationality (he once claimed to belong to the Venetian navy, but that was a lie he made up on the spot).
- Needle in a Stack of Needles: In "Burlesque entre Zuydcoote et Bray-Dunes", the last story in "The Celtics", a killer disguised as a wooden puppet hides in a room full of similar wooden puppets.
- Neutrality Backlash: invoked in The Golden House of Samarkanda, when Corto tries to shrug off a Turkish soldier's warning against going into an area torn by inter-ethnic conflict:Corto: But I'm neither a Turk, nor a Kurd, nor a Russian.Soldier: Which means that no one will mourn your death.
- Pirate: When first encountered in "The Ballad of the Salty Sea", Corto and Rasputin are pirate captains in the Indonesian archipelago.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Corto is often joined by characters so weird that they make even him and Rasputin look balanced by comparison.
- Rasputinian Death: Corto comments that his friend Ras is indestructible when somebody says he'd dead. Note that the latter insists he and the Trope Namer are entirely different people.
- Red Baron: Corto meets the original one.
- Red-plica Baron: In one of his stories about the WWI, he witnesses the defeat of the Red Baron.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: The series is curiously impossible to classify, oscillating between a dream-like, nostalgic, elegiac tone on one hand and bitter, realistic cynism on the other. Corto himself can sound both like the Man with No Name and a hopeless romantic.
- Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness: a poignant, dramatic scene can be followed by a light-hearted one, often involving Rasputin. Strangely enough, it works.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Some characters are liable to die pointlessly.
- Shout-Out: Lots of them. To A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hearts of Darkness, Shanghai Express and more.
- Smoking Is Cool: Corto smokes cigarillos.
- Sociopathic Hero: Rasputin.
- Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Corto's good looks leave few women indifferent.
- Warrior Poet: Corto is a fine example of this trope. Literally, in fact: during a gunfight, he recites a poem by Rimbaud to himself as bullets fly all around.
- WW1: A few of Corto's adventures take place on the Western front.