Archive for May 21st, 2012

So who knew Modesty Blaise was one of the first fictional women action heroes? I mean the kind that’s human and doesn’t have superpowers but can still kick ass while looking sexy. A kind of earlier, earthier, criminal version of Nikita or Sydney in Alias, except that she’s her own boss and no one owns her.

When I was growing up I was vaguely aware of the name Modesty Blaise but never seemed to see her anywhere.  I knew that a bad movie about her had been made, and luckily I never saw it.

It turns out that Modesty first appeared in 1962 in what would be a long-running comic strip that ran mostly in Europe.  Maybe because it was just a strip and James Bond had already been around for a decade, she didn’t get as much attention as she probably deserved.  She was invented by the London-based writer Peter O’Donnell, a man who wrote macho action guy newspaper comic strips on the one hand and on the other romantic serials for women’s magazines.  As he later said, “I had been intrigued by the idea of bringing these two genres together by creating a woman who, though fully feminine, would be as good in combat and action as any male, if not better.”

This may not sound original today, but back then this combo was a real breakthrough for women action figures.

What I really like is the back story O’Donnell gives his character.  He considered but abandoned the idea that as a sophisticated teen Modesty was subjected to intense training in all the usual action skills.  Instead he based her on someone he had seen in Persia (now called Iran) where he was stationed as a soldier in WWII.

The year was 1942 and he and his fellow Brits sometimes saw refugees from the Balkans and Caucuses who were escaping the oncoming Germans.  One day a lone little girl appeared.  “On her head she carried a small bundle wrapped in a piece of blanket” and around her neck hung a hand-made weapon.  The soldiers tried to approach her to help, but she was as skittish as a feral cat.  The best they could do was keep their distance and leave some food for her, and a while later tinned food that she could take with her.  As O’Donnell writes, “To this day I can see… that upright little figure walking like a princess as she moved away from us on those brave skinny legs.”

Flash forward to the 60’s, and O’Donnell imagines this little girl reaching a refugee camp where she became the fierce protector of an old man, a professor who would teach her languages and literature and other things.  When she’s seventeen he dies in the desert, she buries him, and goes to Tangiers where she gives herself the name of Modesty Blaise and eventually a leader in the criminal underground.  As the strip opens, she has retired at the age of twenty-seven but is bored and now agrees to work for British intelligence.

Personally, I think this one hell of an action-hero back story.

I got these details and quotes from “Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up.” It’s a graphic novel with an introduction by O’Donnell and the first three stories in the strip.  Reading it was kinda weird because “graphic novel” really means just a fat comic book, and I haven’t read a comic book since I was a kid (okay, there was that one time in college when my roomie Ann and I bought a few comics on a lark. But definitely not since then). I also got the Modesty novel, The Xanadau Talisman, which looks like it’ll be fun.

So how about you? Are there any intriguing fictional characters or action heroes from the misty past that you’ve discovered?