Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent (Titan Books)

Three complete tales starring the female James Bond of the daily comics page.

 

104 pgs., B&W; $19.95
(W: Peter O’Donnell; A: Neville Colvin)
 
It’s a pity Modesty Blaise never caught on in the United States because she’s the kind of heroine I would have loved to read about when I was growing up. Created in 1963 by writer Peter O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway, Modesty was the heroine of a comic strip of the same name which began appearing in the Evening Standard in 1963, ran until 2001, and is now available in reprints from Titan Books. Modesty is sort of a female James Bond (or a younger Emma Peel) but with a more mysterious past. After escaping from a displaced persons camp after World War II, she picked up her education on the fly in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe and became the head of a criminal network in Tangier before becoming a British citizen through marriage and then inheriting a fortune after the untimely death of her husband. During this time, she also acquired a platonic friend named Willie Garvin (who calls her "Princess") and began working for the British Secret Service, and from that time on has only used her abilities for good.
 
Like Bond, Modesty is endlessly resourceful and accomplished at everything, including hand-to-hand combat. She also has movie-star looks which she uses to her advantage, occasionally distracting the bad guys with her boobs before knocking their blocks off. Her choice of weapon is the yawara stick or "kongo," which looks like a little wooden dumbbell slightly longer than the base of your hand and which, in the right hands, can be deadly. Her friend Willie’s favorite weapon is a throwing knife, and that’s one of the reasons I love this series: in an American comic they would be blowing everyone away with guns, but these British heroes accomplish their goals with much simpler means.
 
Modesty Blaise was published as a series of three-panel comics (over 10,000 of them!) and in the reissued by Titan there are four strips reproduced per large-format (11.5" by 8.6") page plus a new introduction to each story by Laurie Blackmore. Each individual comic is a marvel of storytelling economy and evocative art while at the same time remaining true to the 1960s-era origin of the series (although the strips included in this collection were originally published in 1985-1986). The art, done in ink, is of the rock-em sock-em school of action but with a strong sense of place and distinctive characteristics given to each individual in the story. One big difference from many contemporary comics is that there’s no sense of irony in Modesty Blaise, nor is there any question about what is right and what is wrong. Modesty and Willie are always on the side of good, and they always win (just like Bond), so the interest is in the details of how each story plays out rather than any suspense about the overall conclusion. Modesty’s always gorgeous (among her many virtues) and Willie’s always steadfast (likewise), and isn’t that comforting in this chaotic world of ours?
 
There are three stories in this collection. The Wild Boar has Modesty and Willie venturing to Corsica to rescue the kidnapped Rene Vaubois, head of French Intelligence. Kali’s Disciples is a bit cringe-worthy, involving a murderous gang of Indian thugs (I’m willing to blame this plot thread on the interest raised by the Thuggees featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) but also pays tribute to positive aspects of Indian culture as Modesty and Willie visit their guru and carry out his last wishes. The Double Agent involves an attempt by a dastardly Russian agent to frame Modesty for a murder and involves a circus bear, a creepy clown and a Modesty lookalike (really!).
 
Another thing I like about this series (the first being the kick-ass female protagonist) is that it assumes that you, the reader, are interested in a world beyond that of your own neighborhood and even your own country. Maybe this comes naturally to European kids raised on TinTin, but I love the fact that Modesty’s adventures take her all over the world and she understands the local people and their circumstances wherever she is (the opposite of the stereotypical Ugly American who expects every place to be just like home). Case in point: in The Wild Boar Modesty tries to enlist the help of a native Corsican who fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Although aware of the criminal she’s after, and considering him not just dangerous but positively evil, he won’t join her efforts to track him down because the criminal she’s after is also a native Corsican—and she understands immediately and drops her request.
 
Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent includes 10 pages of background about and tributes to Peter O’Donnell and Neville Colvin by some of the heavy hitters of the comics world, including Neil Gaiman, Walter Simonson, and Kristy Valenti. You can see a preview of some of the art for Modesty Blaise: The Double Agent here: http://comicattack.net/2011/06/modestyblaisedoubleagent/ and read an interview with Peter O’Donnell, in which he discusses the origins of the character, here: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/features/modestyblaise.php. | Sarah Boslaugh

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