Reading the 17th volume of comic strip reprints, Modesty Blaise: Death in Slow Motion (Titan Books), I recalled a moment from Pulp Fiction where we see John Travolta’s hitman reading a hardbound copy of one of Peter O’Donnell’s Blaise novels. “What would Tarantino do with a Modesty Blaise flick?” I wondered. The lady certainly could’ve kicked Vincent Vega’s ass.
Death collects three strips from 1983, twenty years from the series’ debut, and by now author O’Donnell pretty much had his groove set: pitting the reformed dangerous dame in crisp conflict against terrorists, vengeful villainesses and vicious hard drug runners. (Even when she was running her own criminal network, we’re reminded more than once, Modesty stayed away from drugs. “I’m just against slow mass murder in cold blood,” she bluntly explains to a boyfriend.) All three offerings prove to be strong entries in the series, though to these eyes, the most entertaining is the opener, “The Balloonatics.”
In it, our heroine is persuaded into participating in a balloon race with a smarmy Italian journalist named Guido Biganzoli. While they’re airborne, the two happen upon a terrorist convention at a palazzo pretending to house the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Customs. The owner of the estate, Anglo-Italian Count Orlando Smythe, proves to be an obsessive madman in the grand tradition. He’s managed to turn his passion for 17th century Europe into a cover to bring in terrorists from Bader-Meinhoff, Red Brigade, IRA, and elsewhere — all pretending to be creative anachronism types interested in dressing up in period costume. From the air, Modesty and Guido witness the sword slaying of an Italian undercover agent, an act our heroine can’t ignore.
As usual, Modesty is aided by her knife-wielding right-hand man Willie Garvin, who has been following the balloon by car with rat-faced Guido’s improbably gorgeous girlfriend Aniela. (Artist Neville Colvin gives us more than one panel of her leaning over in the car with her shapely rump prominently featured.) The relationship between Modesty and Willie remains one of the series’ more fascinating linchpins. Though characters are shown with short-term partners — in the Bahamas set “The Alternative Man,” both of them hook up with figures who have an interest in the area’s drug running — it’s clear that theirs is the enduring partnership. “You never seem ... upset by her boyfriends,” a friend in British intelligence says to Willie at one point in the story. “Because they’re only temporary — what I mean to the Princess is permanent,” Willie replies. Good thing in this case, since our heroine’s latest fling proves to be a full-blown nutcase.