The latest volume of “Modesty Blaise” strip reprints from Titan Books, The Double Agent opens with plenty of plaudits for creator Peter O’Donnell, the man who guided the adventuress/agent through nearly 40 years of prose and newspaper comics adventures. Many of the comics lights that you’d expect to see in a tribute to the man show up — Neal Gaiman, Greg Rucka, Walt Simonson — but to lovers of this incomparable pulp heroine, all the reader need ask is, “How does this collection stack up against earlier Blaise books?”
So let’s just note that old pro O’Donnell, writing these strips in the mid-eighties, hadn’t started flagging yet. The three adventures collected in Agent show both the writer and his heroine continuing to play to their strengths: Modesty is as sexy-tough as ever; loyal comrade Willie Garvin remains his canny blade-wielding self, and the villains in the strip continue to be some of the believably thuggish in all of newspaper comics.
Two of the stories in this outing hinge on plots against intelligence higher-ups — French “cloak and dagger chap” René Vaubois and British intelligence head Sir Gerald Tarrant — with former international criminal Blaise being the only one capable of foiling the dastardly plots against ‘em. We wouldn’t expect anything less of her.
Of the three tales included herein, I’d give the edge to the title piece, which involves a plot by a vengeful Russian agent to frame our heroine for Sir Gerald’s murder, using a Russian-trained body double, a circus bear and a sinister clown. When Willie sees the faux Modesty for the first time, he immediately recognizes her for a fraud. “She had the wrong aura, wrong essense, wrong vibes,” he explains to his sometime girlfriend Maude Tiller. Definitely an of-its-era explanation.
The remaining entries — Blaise and Garvin’s battles against a Corsican bandit and a revived Thuggee cult — also have their genre pleasures: straight-ahead action yarns set in exotic locales and told without a hint of ironic self-consciousness. As a storyteller, O’Donnell had too much respect for his series lead to undermine her, though he wasn’t averse to tossing in a comic secondary character for back-up. In this volume, it’s twittish good Samaritan Doctor Giles Pennyfeather.
All three strips in Agent represent the last “Blaise” work done by artist Neville Colvin, who was on the job for six years. A skilled pen-and-ink man who we’re told initially was somewhat nervous about drawing an action heroine, Colvin quickly warmed to the task — as beautifully demonstrated by the final fight scene ‘tween Modesty and her drug-enhanced doppelganger. One panel showing the twosome flying around each other proves particularly memorable. Also worth noting: a showdown in an earlier tale between a wounded Modesty and a brutish gangster known as the Wild Boar. As captured by Colvin, the mismatch reads as physically challenging as James Bond’s battle against the hulking Odd Job.
Bond, we should probably note, at the time of these strips was appearing in his last ragged Roger Moore flick — alongside a title heroine who seemed more than a little inspired by our Modesty. Still, the former crime leader, described by one French inspector as a “better class of criminal” than the “men without souls” currently overseeing the criminal world, has it all over Bond’s Octopussy. Ten years after her last original strip, Modesty Blaise remains Willie Garvin’s “princess” — and ours, too.