Posts Tagged ‘Peter O’Donnell’


blaise sword

I am way, way too old to be reading graphic novels. Especially ones that are mere collections of comic strips.  Because obviously comic strips are unintellectual, juvenile, and just plain beneath a smart (allegedly) writer person like me.

So maybe now I should confess to my addiction to Modesty Blaise.

You’ve probably heard of Modesty, although she’s a lot more famous in Europe.  Her strips were often absent from U.S. newspapers because she was sometimes scantily clad and on a few occasions naked.

Peter O’Donnell created the Modesty Blaise comic strip in 1963 and continued to write it until wrapping up in 2001.  He also wrote thirteen Modesty novels and one collection of short stories, all of which got great reviews from critics; a few even said they were better than Ian Fleming’s Bond stories.  But while Bond was turned into classic movies, Modesty had the bad fate of appearing in a few stinker flicks, even though one was made by her fan Quentin Tarantino.

While I enjoy the graphic novels, I like the real novels much more.  They’re well written and plotted, come with requisite preposterous villains, and they do a good job of getting into Modesty’s brilliant cool head as well as that of her loyal sidekick, Willie Garvin.  On the down side, several of the older paperbacks have silly, too-sexy and irrelevant covers.

 penthouseA while back I wrote here about the great backstory O’Donnell gave Modesty:  how she was a young orphan refugee who survived WWII and by the time she was a teenager headed up a lucrative crime syndicate (mostly gambling and high-end thievery, and absolutely no drugs or prostitution, which she hates).  While in her twenties she retires—which means she starts to work in an unofficial capacity for a friend in British intelligence.

But it’s the life O’Donnell gave Modesty that really appeals to me.  She is what I wish I were:  wealthy, free, gorgeous, in perfect physical condition, a martial arts expert, speaks about ten languages, is pursued by loving lovers, and is deadly when taking on bad guys.  She has homes in London, Morocco, Malta, and Paris, and servants who do the housework.   She never worries about money.  Above all, she has an inner calm and unshakeable self-confidence.   Mentally and emotionally, she’s not messy like me.

Peter O’Donnell passed away just a couple years ago, and I wish that I had discovered his Modesty Blaise earlier and written him a fan letter.  I’ve never written to any public figure before, yet I wish I could have told him thanks for his creation.

Is there any semi-famous writer you wish you had written to?  Or maybe you’re corresponding with one?

Have a great week.

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?