Over the weekend, one of the cable movie channels was running a marathon of James Bond flicks. The classic Sean Connery outings were broadcast, and, as much as I love 'em, I have to admit that all they suffer from a certain over-familiarity. Still, seeing that they were on put me in the mood for some spicy international intrigue. So where does one go for a fresh fix of Russian spies, exotic action locales and dangerous dames in bikinis? One possible answer: Modesty Blaise.
Forget the thudding Joseph Losey cinematic campfest from 1966 starring a too-blond Monica Vitti as the title lead. The Modesty Blaise to follow is the heroine of a long-running (1963 – 2001) British comic strip and series of novels by Peter O'Donnell. The strip is currently being reprinted by Titan Books, the most recent volume entitled Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers.
I devoured this rascal in less time than it takes for James Bond to get from Switzerland to Fort Knox. Featuring three crime and spy stories from 1980, the collection showcases the first offerings by artist Neville Colvin, who worked on the strip until '86. While not as smoothly chic as Jim Holdaway, the man who established the glamorous Miz Blaise's look and stayed on the strip until his untimely death in 1970, Colvin is suited to the series' tough no-nonsense heroine.
For those unfamiliar with O'Donnell's creation, Modesty is an ageless (at least she never got any older in 30-plus years of newspaper comics) adventuress. Onetime head of a criminal organization known as The Network, she has retired on her amassed wealth to provide occasional service for British Intelligence and help out friends in need. Self-possessed and fashionable, she's balanced by her Man Friday, Willie Garvin, a rough-hewn former soldier who speaks in an unpolished manner and is particularly skilled with throwing knives. He's fiercely loyal to Modesty, who he calls "Princess."
Though clearly connected to each other and active sexually, the duo do not share a physical relationship: in the stories featured in Lady Killers, for instance, we see Modesty involved with a former C.I.A. agent named Steve Taylor, while another story features Willie's perennially frustrated girlfriend Maude Tiller. (O'Donnell made a running joke out of the fact that Willie and Maude are regularly interrupted before they're able to do anything.) Still, Modesty and her second have an enduring companionability. At the end of the title story, for instance, they're shown resting together post-adventure while Modesty reads about the death of the story's baddie. "Never mind the light stuff, Princess," Willie says. "What's 'appening to Rupert Bear today?"
The book's three adventures are prime Blaise: pulpish action/adventure yarns with our self-possessed heroine taking on a variety of enjoyably nasty miscreants. In the first, a group of mercenaries attempt to steal the research Modesty's boyfriend is conducting on a trio of dolphins in the Gulf Coast; in the title tale, our heroine rescues a young girl kidnapped for ransom by a vicious conman and a group of North African female revolutionaries called the Daughters of Freedom. This leads to a string of women's lib cracks that probably read more dated back in 1980 than they do today where the events play as if they're happening in some timeless Cold War Era.
If the first two tales are hard-nailed exercises — Modesty taking on vicious Mexican mercenaries who think nothing of shooting a dolphin to get what they want, Modesty and Willie sneaking into an abandoned Foreign Legion compound to take on an army of Amazonian terrorists — the third entry, "Garvin's Travels," is a little more willfully outrageous in the manner of the old Avengers teleseries ("The House That Jack Built," for instance). In it, Willie and his secret agent paramour Maude are captured by Russian scientists to be subjects in a brainwashing experiment. This involves drugging the couple and seemingly shrinking them down to Lilliputian size. Unsure about the nature of their consensual hallucination, they struggle to make their way across an outsized kitchen, threatened by the sight of giant spiders and a ravenous rat. It's all outlandish but not winkingly so. O'Donnell and Colvin tackle this material with the same straight-faced commitment that director Jack Arnold brought to The Incredible Shrinking Man.
As a writer, O'Donnell was economical and suitably twisty. "Lady Killers," for instance, starts out as a whole different adventure — our protagonist helps an old friend oust a gangster running a protection racket in Tangiers only to learn that said gangster was the intermediary in the delivery of a kidnapping ransom — before turning into a rescue plot. Once our heroine gets to the young girl held by the faux extremist Zahki, the kidnap victim resists her saviors; the charming conman has won over the young girl even as we know he intends to have the little dupe killed once he gets his money.
"Modesty Blaise" had a limited run in American newspapers, though the strip perpetually ran afoul of the censors in the States. O'Donnell and his artists weren't averse to tossing in occasional nudity — one of our gal's regular tactics (which she called "The Nailer") used to distract henchmen was to flash her breasts and take advantage of their understandable bedazzlement. Modesty doesn't utilize the Nailer in this volume, but the equally shapely Maude does, and we do get a sequence where Miz Blaise goes undercover as a topless waitress. As more than one joking reference to the enduring British kiddie comic strip makes clear, this was definitely not "Rupert Bear."
We wouldn't have it any other way.