Corto Maltese: The History Of The Suicide Squad's Island In DC Comics

Corto Maltese in The Suicide Squad

Of the many things that I personally believe The Suicide Squad does better than its 2016 predecessor, one of my favorites is how the film chooses to put its characters in a more distinct setting than an unidentified, evacuated city at night. This time, writer and director James Gunn puts the titular crew of villains-turned-reluctant-heroes on a mission that sends them to the island nation of Corto Maltese, which is a detail that may have gone over the heads of some more casual fans of the DC movies, but to die-hard comic book readers, it was a pleasant surprise.

To understand why, let’s take a look the history of this fictional country as it has existed in DC Comics and beyond, starting with its very first introduction into the zeitgeist.

Corto Maltese in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Corto Maltese Is A War Torn South American Nation That Exists In DC Comics

Created by the legendary comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, Corto Maltese made its first appearance in an issue of a DC Comics title in 1986, which was when Miller’s iconic, four-part graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was released. The small island nation, which can be found just off the coast of Earth-31’s version of South America, initially has a brief role in the story as a United States ally that is undergoing a revolution involving a rebellious uprising against its own government. Because the Soviet Union supports this civil war in the Cold War-era story, the president (clearly modeled after Ronald Reagan) sends Superman to help deal with the situation.

In the fourth and final issue of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (subtitled “The Dark Knight Falls”), the USSR is alerted to Superman’s presence in Corto Maltese, and, in retaliation, they launch a nuclear warhead that is nicknamed the Coldbringer due to it being designed to eradicate all electronic devices and means of communication, as well blot out the sun with large masses of dust and debris.

Without clear access to solar rays, Superman temporarily loses his powers and nearly dies - one of the many famous scenes from the comic that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice paid homage to. For a while, giving Frank Miller a reason to give Superman a hard time was essentially Corto Maltese’s main purpose before it slowly started receiving a more prominent role in the comics.

Time Masters

Corto Maltese Became DC Comics Canon In 1990

As I mentioned before, the setting of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is in Earth-31 of the DC Multiverse, meaning that the nation of Corto Maltese had never originally existed in the main Earth-1 continuity of DC Comics. That was, however, until May 1990 when the country made an appearance in Issue #4 of the eight-part limited series, Time Masters.

Just four years later, Corto Maltese was given a shout out in Issue #31 of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, and in the somewhat meta Superman one-shot, Under a Yellow Sun, which was released the same year. Many years later, the nation had a recurring role in The Flash Vol. 5 in 2017 during the Rebirth era of DC Comics, and was most recently featured in the Damian Wayne-led Robin title in an issue released on July 27, 2021. That is about as far as Corto Maltese’s history in print goes, but it arguably has a more outstanding life in other forms of media.

Corto Maltese in Batman

Corto Maltese Has Popped Up In DC Movies And TV Shows Before

At the moment, The Suicide Squad holds the record for being the one DC Comics adaptation that gives Corto Maltese the most screen time, considering that the majority of the film does actually take place on the island. However, James Gunn’s recent film does not mark the first time it was ever mentioned in any superhero movies. That would actually be Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989 - just three years after Batman: The Dark Knight Returns first introduced the country and one year before it became Earth-1 canon in the comics.

In 2007, Corto Maltese was mentioned in an episode of an animated web comic called Smallville Legends (based off of the hit Superman prequel TV show of the same name) called “Justice & Doom, Part I.” The country’s origins as a Frank Miller creation were revisited in 2013 with the release of the second part of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - one of the best animated DC movies, in my opinion. We also have confirmation that Corto Maltese exists in the Arrowverse because it has also been featured in a few Arrow episodes and in some comic book issues directly spun-off from the long-running CW series, as well.

Corto Maltese

(Image credit: Hugo Pratt/Cong Sa)

Corto Maltese Shares Its Name With A Non-DC Adventure Comic Character

I must say, though, that I find it interesting how, in all the years that the island of Corto Maltese has existed in the comics and all the DC-related media it has appeared in, DC has never run into any copyright lawsuits from using it. The reason this piques my curiosity is because the name “Corto Maltese” is not an original name to fiction, nor is it even unique to the comic book medium.

Created by Italian writer and illustrator Hugo Pratt, the character Corto Maltese was introduced in July 1967 in an early 20th Century-set adventure serial called Ballad of the Salt Sea. The heroic sailor, whose name translates from Andalusian to mean “quick hands,” would go on to lead several other serialized and novels and eventually be adapted into a few French-language animated movies. I suppose when Frank Miller gave the island the same name as a tribute to Pratt’s work, he never expected it to become as prominently used.

I wonder if Corto Maltese’s involvement in The Suicide Squad will lead to even more appearances in either more DC movies, more DC TV shows, or more issues of DC Comics. I also wonder if its new and improved notoriety could lead to a greater awareness of the original Corto Maltese character in the American mainstream. Who knows? Maybe the adventurer could star in a DC crossover event in which he finds himself lost on the island and names it after himself, bringing the country’s comic book origins full circle.

Jason Wiese
Content Writer

Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.