Modesty Blaise. Artist: Enrique Romero.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Appearing in: The London Evening Standard
First Appeared: 1963
Creator: Peter O'Donnell
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Modesty Blaise was the star of a comic strip that was read by millions for almost four decades. Tho her adventures were written in English, they've been translated all over the world. She's been the star of …

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… over a dozen suspense novels and short story collections, and even a couple of movies. And yet, outside a small coterie of comics aficionados, she's virtually unknown in the U.S. Since the 1970s, only one American paper (The Detroit Free Press) has carried the strip.

And this, despite the fact that it's not just the darling of critics, garnering more acclaim than any other adventure comic strip of recent decades — it's also an overwhelming favorite among readers.

Modesty was created by British comics writer Peter O'Donnell, who, after scripting he-man adventure stories for the male audience and tender romance stories for women, decided he could make a go of adventure stories about a strong, resourceful woman. The first artist tried was Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, one of the longest running science fiction series in British comics history. Hampson had done several weeks' worth before O'Donnell decided he'd completely misunderstood the character, and sought another artist. He decided on Jim Holdaway, whom he'd earlier worked with on a strip about a bumbling detective named Romeo Brown. Modesty Blaise, by O'Donnell and Holdaway, debuted as a daily strip in The London Evening Standard on May 13, 1963.

The character's earliest memory was when she was approximately 12 years old, living on her own, scavenging and always on the run, in the Middle East. Given her apparent age when she first said it, that would be the late 1940s — tho of course, the date tends to slide as the years go by and adventure heroes don't age. She hooked up with a man named Lob, a former college professor but now, like her, a homeless refugee, who named her Modesty. She added the last name herself, after the magician who taught Merlin.

As an adult, accommodated to civilization but by attitude still somewhat feral, she ran an international crime syndicate called The Network. When she'd made enough money, she retired to a penthouse in London. Modesty's partner (in adventure only — not domestic or sexual) was Willie Garvin, streetwise and tough, whom she'd met during the Network days. At the start of the series, both were in their middle to late 20s. Complicating her retirement was her friend, Sir Gerald Tarrant, an elderly civil servant who had his fingers in quite a few international pies. His function was to cajole, bamboozle, or otherwise motivate Modesty and Willie into taking on various jobs for him.

Modesty and Willie were an immediate success. O'Donnell's first novel about her, titled simply Modesty Blaise, came out in 1965; and the first movie, also titled Modesty Blaise, on August 10 of the following year. Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp starred as Modesty and Willie, with Harry Andrews as Sir Gerald. There was talk of a TV series in the early 1970s, but it was never produced. More books followed, the last being Cobra Trap, which came out in 1996. She was done as a movie again in 1982, this time with Ann Turkel, Lewis van Bergen and Keene Curtis as Modesty, Willie and Sir Gerald.

Holdaway died in 1970, only 43 years of age. He was succeeded by Enrique Romero, who drew the strip until 1978, when he left to devote his attention to a new strip, Axa, which he did in collatoration with writer Donne Avenell (The Phantom). Romero returned eight years later and continued with Modesty until the strip ended. It was drawn by several artists during his absence. O'Donnell wrote the entire series himself, as well as all the novels and short stories, and screenplays for the movies (tho the latter were heavily rewritten). O'Donnell also wrote an occasional comic book version of the character, including a graphic novel published by DC Comics in 1994, which was illustrated by Dick Giordano (best known for his editorial work at DC and Charlton) and Dan Spiegle (Crossfire, Blackhawk). In fact, it was O'Donnell's retirement that brought on the strip's end — the last episode was published April 11, 2001, O'Donnell's 81st birthday.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the strip lost most of its circulation in the early 1970s. Reportedly, this was because O'Donnell insisted on writing stories that ran about four months, whereas most American editors insisted on shorter ones. However, it's also been suggested that American papers balked at the occasional nude scene, permissible on one side of the Atlantic (q.v. Jane) but not the other, as despite her name, Modesty was not shy about displaying her ample charms. In fact, one of her recurring fighting maneuvers was what she called "The Nailer", which consisted of her ripping off her shirt, and Willie (whose talents included infallible marksmanship) downing their foe with a rock while he was momentarily stunned. The Free Press got around this and other excuses to get her clothes off, by liberal use of ink — leading to some strange effects, such as shower scenes in which the water was black.

Whatever the reason, for decades, most U.S. readers had to get their Modesty Blaise adventures from other sources — most notably, in reprint volumes published by Titan Books (Judge Dredd, Charley's War) and Ken Pierce Books (Lady Luck, Tailspin Tommy). Outside of Detroit, the only American source for current stories was Comics Revue, which ran the strip (uncensored) from 1986 until the end. Manuscript Press, Comics Revue's publisher, even put her in her own comic, for the purpose of reprinting all the stories not done by other publishers. That project was completed in 1999.

Tho the Modesty Blaise series has now passed into history, fan interest remains high. Many reprints are still in print; and Manuscript Press has launched a book series of its own. Comics Revue now reprints the early stories, alongside its reprints of Buz Sawyer, Alley Oop and the rest — Modesty had been its last new strip before going to all reprints. A third movie, titled My Name Is Modesty, starring Alexandra Staden, was released to home video in the U.S, on September 28, 2004.

One thing there is not, however, is new stories, since Peter O'Donnell wrote them all and he's now firmly retired.


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Text ©2002-11 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Peter O'Donnell.