Corto Maltese turns fifty in an entirely different world

When Hugo Pratt’s magic pen brought Venetian sailor Corto Maltese to life in 1967, the world was on the brink of epochal upheavals. By the time the comics character had turned one, every continent seemed to be up in flames: the Paris May, the murder of Martin Luther King, the Prague Spring and its sudden end with the Soviet invasion in August 1968, the Tet Offensive that doomed the Americans in the Vietnam War. Things are perhaps calmer these days, but societies have undergone a massive change since. And half a century is a good moment to take stock of one’s life and look back on it.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica is launching a series to commemorate the famous mariner. But the baby boomers that will read Corto Maltese today will inevitably feel nostalgic, especially if they live in Venice. Back in the day, the world was still far and wide, beyond reach for most people. Air travel was the preserve of the rich, the jet set of yore. And sea voyages were still for the last of those emigrants that had decided to pack up and leave their homelands forever.

Now these flying tubes are unloading throngs of tourists that are endangering delicate habitats like Venice. Travel is one of the biggest joys in this life and it would be a tremendous injustice that it were confined to the privileged few. Yet massive tourism is placing strains on popular destinations including Corto’s home. But that also applies to Barcelona, or Paris or New York. Prices soar, forcing locals out of their homes, killing small merchants, and distorting the commercial ecosystem that makes a city run: an infinity of mediocre quality restaurants takes the place of bakeries, grocers or hardware stores. Thanks to the uberization of the economy, apartments are turning into unregulated inns, and residents are being priced out of them.

How not to become nostalgic of a sea that seemed unbridgeable. Except, that is, for adventurers like Corto Maltese, who never lost his charming demeanor in the midst of thrilling missions in places as far away as Abyssinia, Armenia, Buenos Aires or Samarkand. For most baby boomers in postwar Italy, and pretty much everywhere else (with the possible exception of the United States) those destinations seemed so impossibly out of reach. Like the end of the sea.