Welcome, dear readers, to the first in a new on-going column – Spotlight. In these columns I hope to shine a light on some under-appreciated films, books, comics, and albums. Today’s inaugural column focuses on the stellar 1960s action/adventure comic strip Modesty Blaise, written by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated in its initial run by Jim Holdaway. Enjoy!
James Bond. Jason Bourne. Jack Bauer. The three JBs, and arguably some of the most popular action heroes in any media. These three characters are amongst the most popular in any spy thrillers, and rightly so; but due to the mostly male creative force behind the genre, and a wide array of sexism since it’s popularity spiked in the 1960s and it’s everlasting success to today, there has been a deficiency in female representation. I’d argue in fact that under the shadow of James Bond, there has not been much room for a female counterpart. James Bond’s influence and popularity has lead to many such reinterpretations of that most singular of spies.
However, during the summer of 1963, an original duo of spies thrilled the United Kingdom in an escalating series of action-packed stories of espionage. And this wasn’t done in the cinema or on the television – no, it was accomplished entirely in comic-strip form, via 3 panels of story every day.
Charged by Beaverbrook Newspapers to create a new action hero for a regular comic strip, writer Peter O’Donnell sort to buck the popular trend of male-oriented action heroes. Of course, he wanted to keep the popular trend of the 1960s jet-fuelled spy at the core, but he wanted to write something that would not only address the reader but address the post-war times too.
Reflecting a fresh trend in the altering gender roles at the cusp of the social revolution of the sixties, this character would be a strong woman. Rather than depicting a catwalk model Penelope Pistop cowering until rescued by her hulking sidekick, this would be a fully-rounded, independent and self-sufficient woman with a glamorous wardrobe and a karate kick. This would be Bond shaken, stirred, sex-changed and slugged.
Peter O’Donnell would also take inspiration from an important moment in his wartime activities. O’Donnell was an NCO in 1942, working in Persia as a lookout. He had to give warning if Germans were going to attempt grabbing the oilfields of the Middle East. Many refuges from the Balkans came and went, but sparsely; the desert was harsh and many didn’t live to find shelter.
O’Donnell was on duty, when one day a small girl arrived. She was rough round the edges and looked to have been on her own for some time, carrying an air of independence. O’Donnell was charged by his crew to bring her some of their rations, teaching her how to use a tin opener on a can of soup. Getting closer, he saw she had something strung around her neck – a piece of wood with a long rusty weapon tied to it with some string. It was a weapon. She accepted their help, but before long, was on her way. O’Donnell never saw her again.
When it came to creating a new character for Beaverbrook Newspapers, he decided to cross over the male action heroes he had been writing for newspapers with some of the romance / adventure stories he had written for some women’s magazines. In affect, he wanted a female action hero, who whilst still retaining her femininity could fight just as well as the lads. This character couldn’t have just been “trained” like some of his other male characters – she had to have lived in a world of violence since her childhood. O’Donnell thought of that small girl in Persia and the idea had come together. Her origin, inspired by this singular event, was told in the story “In the Beginning.” Writing years, later, O’Donnell summed up:
I am in debt to the child I saw that day in 1942, both for the privilege of having met her, however briefly, and for her providing the role model for a character I have written about for close on 40 years. I still wonder what became of her. If alive today, she would have just turned 70. Whatever the length of her days, I can only hope that she was granted some measure of the reward she deserved for her courage and spirit. I salute her.
Modesty and Willie
Once Modesty makes her way to Tangier in 1953, she assumes control of a criminal gang and expands it into an empire – the Network. She meets a man named Willie Garvin, seeing potential in his character, and recruits him to her criminal organization. He quickly becomes her most trusted confidante and her right-hand man. Eventually, when she has made enough money, she and Willie retire and go to live in England. However, boredom soon takes its toll. Lucky for them, Sir Gerald Tarrant of the British Secret Service requests their assistance – and from then on, Modesty and Willie work as a team, taking down threat after threat in the pursuit of justice, wealth, and perhaps a bit of excitement too.
What is perhaps most notable about the duo is that their relationship is strictly platonic. There has never been a hint of sexual charge to their relationship. This makes it occasionally difficult for their many lovers, as they often take issue that Willie is a permanent in Modesty’s life (or visa versa) whereas the lovers are always temporary.
Both Willie and Modesty will only kill when absolutely necessary. Both are extremely talented martial artists, and prefer non-lethal combat. However, they are both known to kill from time to time in the pursuit of justice.
For me, one of the most important moments in the strip that really sold their friendship comes towards the end of the third serialized story, “The Gabriel Set-Up” (1964). Willie, believing that Modesty has been killed by their arch-nemesis Gabriel, goes on a rampage of violence and death. He finds the hideout of Gabriel and his men, promptly drives into the house with a truck, and executes just about everyone (Gabriel manages to escape to live another day). It’s the first moment in the series that you truly realize how deep their friendship runs – this isn’t some surface level working friendship, but a deep, lifelong one. Willie couldn’t live without Modesty, and Modesty couldn’t live without Willie.
Peter O’Donnell remarked that he would always liked to have seen Michael Caine play Willie in his heyday. I always thought Audrey Hepburn would have made a brilliant Modesty if she toughened up a bit. That’s one of the best movies never made there.
The Comic Strip
Perhaps the best thing about Modesty Blaise is its appeal as not only a comic strip, but also a British one. In an era when the comics are dominated by American superhero stories, the only real British comic to stand up as a national piece of art is 2000 AD. However, Modesty Blaise is an underappreciated piece of British pop culture – it has all the charm of the Sean Connery Bond films, but it’s use of the comic strip form rather than film is wonderful.
The strip was a daily, so you would have gotten one new strip of three panels each day in your newspaper. This meant that at most O’Donnell could write three major beats to a strip. He had to have something important happen in each strip to keep readers invested – a sense that you had to find out what happens next. This is accomplished spectacularly. And yet, when you read the strips in order as a natural progression, the story is seamless. There is no sense of O’Donnell writing over-the-top moments into each strip. Really, it’s a brilliant exercise in swift, economic writing. It’s certainly something that most American comics writers could use – rather than giving us six issue epic storylines, why not a single issue’s worth of content? A standard Modesty Blaise storyline won’t run longer than 40-50 pages in collected form, and yet each story bites and feels like it has importance to her general adventures.
However, as much as Peter O’Donnell is a brilliant writer, it’s the artwork that stands out most in the early years of the strip. Jim Holdaway’s artwork is nothing short of an absolute revelation. His beautiful line work captures stunning realism and emotion in all of his characters, and the figure work is always brilliant. Bold black spotting also creates dynamism in his artwork – the frequently black-clothed Modesty always stands out on the page. It’s crisp, fluid, and full of movement. As great a writer Peter O’Donnell is, Jim Holdaway is an even better artist. Even in some of the lesser stories (though these are few), Holdaway’s artwork keeps you hooked. He accomplishes more with three panels than most artists do with entire comics. Examine, if you will, this following strip, which appeared in the storyline “The Red Gryphon” (1968-1969).
First notice the brilliantly squared floor – it gives a great impression of movement, space, and perspective. Second, notice in the first panel the brilliant use of light and dark – We are drawn to Modesty’s black shirt against the white background, and likewise her white trousers against the dark suit her attacker wears. Also notice that in the first and third panel, Holdaway has limited the background details in an effort to add impact and ferocity to the battle in the strip’s most action-packed and dynamic panels. In the second panel, we can see Holdaway’s use of background detail. Throughout the strips he would work on, Holdaway would never skimp on background in an effort to make a quicker strip – such detail really sets the world in which Modesty exists, one which is vibrant and colourful, just like herself. Finally, notice once more across all three panels – there is movement, there is action. You can feel these character’s trading hits (or, more appropriately, Modesty dishing them out). But also notice how completely unexaggerated the figure work is – even in scenes of intense action, Holdaway somehow managed to make the fights exciting whilst also realistic in every sense. Compare it to the superhero illustrations of the same area across the pond, and you’ll find no such realism. Holdaway is truly one of the finest comics artists not only of his era, but of the medium.
Jim Holdaway died in 1970 of a heart attack half way through illustrating the Modesty Blaise storyline “The Warlords of Phoenix” (1970). He was 43 years old. Later artists would include John Burns and Pat Wright, with extended runs from Neville Colvin and Enrique Romero (who would serve longest as artist on the strip) before the strip’s end in 2001. Whilst they are all good to great artists, none of them would capture the dynamism and flair and realism of Holdaway’s work on the strip.
Ultimately, Modesty Blaise remains a beloved comic strip in the United Kingdom, but it’s success elsewhere is lacking. The strip did not circulate consistently in the United States due to the occasional nudity, a bit more accepted in newspapers in the United Kingdom than in the United States. As such it has a loyal but small following in the States. But it remains that most people haven’t really heard of Modesty Blaise, not in the way that they have with The Phantom or Dick Tracy. Yet Modesty could easily stand up to both those comic strip characters and hold her own. She’s a truly unique character, and deserves to be more widely read. Among her fans are Neil Gaiman (who has written a script treatment for a feature film), who wrote:
I fell in love with Peter O’Donnell’s astonishing heroine, Modesty Blaise, when I was twelve. She was the smartest, wisest, most beautiful and most dangerous woman I had ever encountered.
And Chris Claremont:
In my time, I’ve been privileged to see some special and unmatchable collaborations between writer, artist and creation – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on Batman. That same distinction holds for Mr. O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway.
Quentin Tarantino is also a big fan, going far enough to have Vincent Vega hold a copy of the first Modesty Blaise novel before he is shot to death in the film Pulp Fiction. Two films have also been made of Modesty Blaise’s adventures; one in 1966, and another in 2004. I am told neither are very good.
Simply put, Modesty Blaise is deserving of a higher readership. Excellent, economic writing and standout art on the earlier stories by Jim Holdaway make it a must buy. It’s a classic adventure comic strip and has a unique flavour you won’t find anywhere else. Titan Books have been reprinting the series in a new collection of graphic novels. Unfortunately a few of the earlier Jim Holdaway collections are out of print (there are only six) and are quite expensive second-hand; perhaps some reprints will come in the future. However you can, search out this series. You won’t be disappointed.
 Paterson, Mike. Blaise of Glory – The Modesty Blaise Phenomenon. Modesty Blaise – The Gabriel Set-Up. By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway. London: Titan Books, 2004. Print.
 O’Donnell, Peter. Girl Walking – Modesty Blaise creator Peter O’Donnell on the real Modesty Blaise. Modesty Blaise – The Gabriel Set-Up. By Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway. London: Titan Books, 2004. Print.