By this stage in his career, Dean Mullaney needs little introduction. The editor, publisher and designer co-founded Eclipse Comics in 1977, which championed creators rights and the graphic novel form. In 2007, Mullaney launched The Library of American Comics at IDW Publications, which has won multiple Eisner for its publication of classic comic strips including Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Bloom County.
Early this year Mullaney is overseeing two new projects. One is “Secret Agent X-9” which collects the original run of comic strip launched by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond in 1934. It’s a very different kind of comic for Raymond, and a very different strip from those who know it as a more Bond-influenced secret agent tale during the Archie Goodwin-Al Williamson run in the sixties and seventies. In these early strips, the character has much more in common with Hammett’s Continental Op.
The other project is the launch of a new imprint, EuroComics, which launches with “Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn.” Mullaney is overseeing publishing the entirety of Pratt’s Corto Maltese run over the next three years and is in talks to publish a number of other European comics. He spoke recently about the two books, the history of the adventure strip, how X-9 fits in with Alex Raymond’s body of work, and publishing George Evans’ run on X-9 this year.
Dean, you’ve published a lot of Alex Raymond’s work through the Library of American Comics, where does X-9 fit in?
1934 was the breakout year for Raymond. Before that he was working at King Features on staff, he was assisting Chic Young on Blondie and assisting Chic’s brother Lyman Young on Tim Tyler’s Luck, but nobody knew who he was. None of his work was signed because he was assisting other people. January ’34–he’s got Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and X-9. It was the beginning of his career and his fame.
And he clearly put in an insane amount of work when you look at these strips.
You look at the work he was putting into these strips and how beautiful they were and how detailed and the painstaking inking he was doing, you wonder how the hell could he do one strip–let alone three. Most cartoonists have enough trouble meeting deadlines on a single strip and he was doing three of them. It’s just fantastic.
Early in ’34 he was still learning his chops and was swiping and was really influenced by Matt Clark, but he’s not tracing lines, he’s drawing the stuff. By mid-1934, the detail in Flash Gordon is just absolutely incredible.
It was interesting to read X-9, because it is really dated.
Today it’s a period piece, but at the time, it was current. 1931 was when The Public Enemy with James Cagney was released, there was a Maltese Falcon movie. It was the beginning of that fascination in early talking pictures with crime–especially at Warner Brothers. Dick Tracy started in ’31. Dan Dunn, which was a ripoff of Tracy, started shortly thereafter. Crime stories and detective stories were big in the early thirties.
Did the strip start with the syndicate and then they recruited Hammett?
William Randolph Hearst at King Features saw how successful Dick Tracy had become in just a couple of years and he wanted something similar for King Features. Just like Tarzan and Buck Rogers were popular for other syndicates, he wanted something similar for King Features and so he published Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. It was initiated by Heart and then Joe Connolly, the editor at King. With X-9, Hearst specifically wanted Dashiell Hammett. Also at the time, King Features was syndicating The Thin Man in newspapers so they already had a relationship with Hammett.
Hammett wasn’t on the strip for long and neither was Raymond.
Raymond was on for about a year and ten months, and Hammett much less than that.
So what exactly is in the book?
It collects all of the Hammett and all of the Raymond. When Hammett left they brought in Leslie Charteris, who created Simon Templar, The Saint. He wrote it for a short while and then got a great deal in Hollywood so he left too. Shortly thereafter Raymond had to give it up because he just couldn’t do Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and X-9. X-9 was apparently more of a headache and he enjoyed working on the other strips, so he had to give something up. The syndicate found Charles Flanders, who did a really great job of mimicking the look and the finish of Raymond. He didn’t get the substance and the structural work and composition that Raymond had, but he improved very quickly. At the beginning he was trying to be a clone, but they probably asked him to make it look like Raymond.
Did Don Moore, who worked with Raymond on a number of projects over the years, write any of X-9?
Nobody knows for sure. There’s so much speculation as far as who did what and as Bruce Canwell points out in his introduction to the X-9 book, at this point we’re never going to know. There’s no definitive information or proof one way or the other. I think there’s a good chance that Moore helped out after Charteris left–or maybe even after Hammett left and before Charteris came on board–but there’s no way we’re ever going to know, short of somebody’s diary popping up out of nowhere.
While reading X-9, I kept thinking about Rip Kirby, which LOAC reprinted.
Yes, it’s much different. What made Rip Kirby so successful and so fascinating–even today–is that Raymond created a postwar detective that was completely different from the pre-war hardboiled detective. He was sophisticated. His approach was different. Everything about it. There’s that old routine—if you don’t know what to do, have a guy walk in the door with a gun. [laughs] Rip Kirby has a totally different feel.
I read Rip Kirby when you published it and read it as a reaction to those tropes, but after reading X-9, it’s clear that Raymond was reacting to his past work and trying to do something different.
Exactly. You’re absolutely right.
You already put out collections of the Archie Goodwin-Al Williamson run of X-9 and even though the strip went on afterwards, these two runs do bookend the adventure strip period in newspapers.
It does. Though in late 2015 we will be releasing a collection the strips George Evans did right after Archie and Al left the strip.
Turning from X-9 to your other big book, Corto Maltese: Under the Sign of Capricorn, which is another major adventure comic and part of this tradition.
One thing about Pratt that I find so interesting is that he wrote and drew from experience. Not that he was a pirate or an adventurer of that sort, but he lived in many different countries and was exposed to many different cultures starting from when he was a teenager. He was able to take those experiences and translate them into an adventure narrative. It’s a shame that so many people in America can’t speak other languages because there are some phenomenal comics–world class comics–that we just don’t see because we can’t read the language. Hugo Pratt is among the top cartoonists to ever work in the medium.
You’re starting with third volume in the series, which is the second one that Pratt created.
We’re doing the third book because Rizzoli did an edition of the Ballad of the Salty Sea which was the first Corto book that Pratt published but the second book in the series. He later did a book called The Early Years. The Rizzoli edition was poorly received; it was reformatted to a smaller size and colored. I’m not going to argue the merits or not of that book, but I decided to start with the third book because the Rizzoli book is still in print. Also the short stories that Pratt did the early seventies, which is where we’re starting, really establish the characters and the themes. This is the book that really took off and made Corto Maltese famous.
Under the Sign of Capricorn captures this character Corto Maltese who has this long colorful past which is filled with these stories which won’t ever get told. We’re meeting this character after he’s already established.
Pratt left many hints about Corto Maltese’s adventures that he never got around to writing and drawing himself. There’s going to be a continuation by Blacksad author Juan Diaz Canales and artist Ruben Pellejero, whose best known for the Dieter Lumpen series. Pratt left plenty of hints for people to take his basic idea and fill in the rest. When he wrote Corto, Pratt had a very detailed history above and beyond what’s actually in the stories.
The thing about Ballad of the Salty Sea—it wasn’t intended to be a Corto Maltese story. Corto was one of the characters in there. It wasn’t until the short stories that were collected as Under the Sign of Capricorn that Corto became the protagonist.
How have you approached the book?
The translation is by Simone Castaldi, who is an associate professor at Hofstra. He grew up in Italy and grew up reading Corto, so he really knows the material and he knows the language. He provides me with a literal translation. Anytime there’s a question about idiomatic usage–that as a non-Italian speaker I might not get–he’ll make notes and suggestions for me. We also pay attention to Pratt’s humor. He’s got a lot of wry humor throughout the series and we want to keep that and keep the rhythm of his language. My job is to make it read like Hugo Pratt wrote it in English.
I want to get the entire series out as quickly as we feasibly can. I just decided this yesterday. In 2015 we’ll try to release three books. In 2016 and 2017 we’ll release them quarterly so by the end of 2017, the entire Hugo Pratt Corto Maltese will be in print.
In Under the Sign of Capricorn, with very few exceptions, Pratt is using a four-tier grid for the pages. How does his style and approach change over time?
He’s very much like Alex Toth in that the older he got, the better he got. There’s a similarity between both artists. They only met in person once, but they had a similar approach which was to simplify, simplify, simplify. They used the bare minimum needed to tell the story. They were both masters at it. Pratt’s style doesn’t get looser, it gets tighter. Even though there’s less detail, the composition and his use of blacks get tighter along the way.
Pratt is interesting because he’s a great artist, but he’s an even better writer. It’s the stories and character that really carry these. Look at Ballad of the Salty Sea, which came out in 1967. What was going on in American comics at the time? Even the best of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and the like were creating material aimed at a juvenile audience. Pratt was writing as an adult writing for adults and for a sophisticated audience. There’s a lot of nuanced politics, comments on religion, nationalism and colonialism, the rights of indigenous people. It’s really amazing material.
The late sixties and early seventies was an incredible period for comics in Europe. There was an explosion of work from cartoonists plus you had a number of avant garde figures who did some work in comics.
Yes and as Simone–my co-translator–pointed out to me, Pratt was older than most of those people. In that post-1968 era, Pratt really belonged to an earlier generation. He did his first comics in 1945-6. It just so happened that the things he was writing about really struck a chord with that post-1968 generation. Age-wise he certainly wasn’t one of them, but spiritually I think he was.
The only Pratt work I’d read other than Corto Maltese was his collaborations with Milo Manara. Is there a chance we’ll see some other Pratt books in the near future?
I love the Ernie Pike material and The Scorpions of the Desert, but first things first! Right now we need to introduce Pratt to an American audience. What I’ve found talking to people over the past year since we first signed the deal was that comic book writers and artists know Pratt and love Pratt’s work, but the average fan is really unaware of him. We’ve got some educational work to do. Luckily there’s a lot of writers and artists who are excited to tell their fans about Hugo Pratt. Once we get Corto established, then I would love to do more of his work. He has a long career of exceptional work.
You were talking earlier about how Pratt plotting things out to a great degree and the last Corto Maltese book is called Mu, which is a plot point in this book.
There’s an elliptical narrative to his stories, and he interweaves all sorts of mysticism and existentialism. He comes back to it in the last book. In that last book almost all of the major characters return, even if they hadn’t been seen in several years. He knew this was going to be the last book that he did. Some characters make brief cameos and some more, but they all make it for the final goodbye, if you will. Mu is the lost continent that he references in Under the Sign of Capricorn.
What else are you publishing in 2015?
There’s more Dick Tracy, more Little Orphan Annie. We’re publishing the Stan Lee-John Romita Spider-Man strips from the seventies in color. I think fans will appreciate seeing those. We’ll be starting the Donald Duck dailies and Sundays in color by Al Taliaferro. Donald got his own strip in 1938 and we’re getting scans of syndicate proofs from the Disney archives. There’s more Superman, more Batman. More Li’l Abner. More Steve Canyon. More Skippy. Everything we’ve started already will continue.
One of my favorites is the LOAC Essentials line. Next one up is going to be the very first Tarzan dailies which is the very first comics work by Hal Foster. We’re going to do a Krazy Kat volume. Then we’re going to start the George Evans X-9. Overall we’re going to continue at about the same pace as we’ve been doing the past few years which is a book or two every month.
And towards the end of the year we’re doing a big coffee table book for the hundredth anniversary of King Features.
Is the plan for the George Evans X-9 book to reprint his early work on the strip?
It’ll pickup right when Goodwin and Williamson ended. They ended on a Saturday and Evans picks up on a Monday.
I’ll be honest, but I didn’t know Evans at all until Aces High, the Fantagraphics book which reprints his EC work that came out last year. It was incredible.
My introduction to Evans was when I was a teenager was finding some old ratty EC Comics at a convention. I was completely blown away by this guy’s work.
If the book does well, is there a chance we’ll get a collection of his entire run? Similar to how you picked up Rip Kirby publishing the John Prentice run on the series?
Time will tell.