Modesty Blaise: Live Bait (Titan Books)

Cases of mistaken identity? Latin American snuff film shoots? A Venician kid held for ransom? Just another day in the life of Modesty Blaise, the comics page’s greatest globe-trotting crimefighter.


104 pgs., B&W; $19.95
(W: Peter O’Donnell; A: Enric Badia Romero)
I’m always up for a good Modesty Blaise adventure, and on that score I’m doubly fortunate: Peter O’Donnell wrote a lot of them (with the assistance of several able artists) and Titan Books is bringing them out in a series of large-format volumes, each containing three adventures. Each adventure is a marvel of storytelling, with lots of action, a great sense of place, and characters that are sufficiently complex to be interesting. And did I mention that there’s a kick-ass heroine at the center of it all, and that she’s a real babe as well? Who could ask for anything more?
Well, you get something more in this volume—moral and philosophical dilemmas that could prompt a serious discussion of ethics, as well as a mini-Modesty who plays a key role in the first adventure. That would be "Samantha and the Cherub," and Samantha is the prize student in a martial arts class that Modesty’s platonic best friend Willie teaches in London’s East End. Sam, as she prefers to be known, has a doltish older brother rather improbably nicknamed "the Cherub" who’s in a motorcycle gang that has hired out to do a political kidnapping (very Cold War—the strips in this volume were originally published in 1988 and 1989). Of course, the gang made a bad mistake by kidnapping a friend of Modesty and Willie, and Sam gets in on the act as well ("they won’t suspect a kid" she says blithely as she approaches a house full of thugs).
The story of "Milord" is also ripped from the headlines, or more precisely the urban rumor mill. The central character, Milord, makes porno and snuff films in Latin America, using Indian girls whose parents believe they are going to the U.S. (escorted by a priest, no less) to work for rich families. The location and specificity about the type of film made recalls the 1976 film Slaughter, later retitled Snuff, which purported to show a real, on-camera murder of an actress. This piece of cinematic art was advertised with the tagline "The film that could only be made in South America…where life is CHEAP!" and, despite being a fake, established the term "snuff film" in our vocabulary. "Milord" also features an Italian journalist of a most stereotypical sort, but if you can get over that hurdle (and ethnic stereotypes are not a rarity in Modesty Blaise, so you should already be prepared) it’s an enjoyably cheesy story. The moral dilemma in this story is how much responsibility cooler heads have to prevent those who have been grievously wronged from taking revenge when the opportunity presents itself.
"Live Bait" is set in Venice, during Carnival, and it’s a real feast for the eyes as well as a ripping good story. The daughter of one of Modesty’s former employees at the Network is kidnapped and held for ransom, and Modesty and Willie have to get her back. There’s another unfortunate ethnic stereotype in this adventure, but that says more about the times, and perhaps the audience for these strips, than anything (if I refused to read any comic with an unfortunate female stereotype in it, I wouldn’t have much to read). The moral dilemma is really the centerpiece of this story—is it better to pay a ransom, assuming you can, to increase the probability of getting the kidnap victim back alive, or does that merely encourage thugs to engage in more kidnapping? Modesty comes down on one side of the issue, the girl’s father on the other, and it’s not the kind of issue on which you can agree to disagree.
In case you’ve never seen a Modesty Blaise comic, each adventures is composed of a series of three-panel comic strips that originally ran in the Evening Standard. The strip was written from start to finish by Peter O’Donnell, and the strips in this volume were drawn by Enric Badia Romero, who is a perfect match for O’Donnell’s stories. It’s amazing how much detail he works into every frame, and how much care he takes to place the characters in each specific location—it’s like getting a little travelogue along with your story. This volume also includes an essay by Lawrence Blackmore about circus settings in Modesty Blaise strips, and an introduction to each adventure written by Blackmore. You can read more about Modesty Blaise, and see some samples of the art used throughout the strip’s history, on this web site: | Sarah Boslaugh

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