Modesty Blaise: A Very Short Review

You could call Modesty Blaise a comic strip, but the title is so much more.  It is a classic British adventure comic strip written by Peter O’Donnell, which ran from 1963 to 2001; these evolved into a series of novels, a movie, some attempts at TV, and even a rock band in Europe someplace. Although O’Donnell has retired, the strips are still being amalgamated in large-format trade paper and sold at comic book stores.

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The reason the concept lives so beautifully, in so many formats, can be summed up in one word: characters.  Modesty Blaise herself is rightly described as fascinating.  Originally a female James Bond figure, she immediately became much more interesting by accumulating a stable of assistants and sidekicks.  Chief among these was Willie Garvin, her right-hand man.  It is the relationship between Modesty and Willie that really drives both the comics and the novels, and their commitment to each other (non-sexual but complete) is as far away as you can get from the Bond girls and their hops in and out of James’ bed.  A strong central character, comfortable in her strength and sexuality — in that sense Modesty is still a Bond cognate because she is the wish fulfilment for women, as Bond was for men.

Another more writerish fascination is the storytelling.  The comic strips and the novels run on more or less separate tracks.  Incidents from one side are shuffled and recycled over to the other.  O’Donnell seems to have perfected modular story construction, where you can assemble big standard chunks into quite different projects, a necessity if you’re going to produce a daily strip for decades.  He must have had more elbow room in the comics, where you can see him trying out different concepts — an Italian castle?  a balloon?  a Roman trireme?  And then over on the other side the elements are recombined into the longer and more complexly constructed novel.

Because of the serial nature of the work, you should feel free to jump in anyplace.  Buy a comic strip compendium, pick up a novel — you will be happy.  (The movie and TV attempts are deservedly obscure, and will be difficult to find.  Do not try.)

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Modesty Blaise: A Very Short Review — 3 Comments

  1. I agree that with the comics, you can jump in anywhere, but for the books it makes sense to read the first one first (and after that, you can shuffle around). The first novel provides the best intro to the characters.

    As for film and TV, yes do avoid the 1966 film at all costs, but the 2003 Tarantino-produced ‘My Name is Modesty’ is not too bad, although IMO it doesn’t fully capture the Modesty Blaise character. It’s readily available on DVD.

    (But your hour and a half would definitely be better spent reading one of the books). The whole series minus one has been reprinted by Souvenir Press, but some have gone back out of print again and are already hard to find ! – so if you do want to buy them, best do it soon.

    http://www.modestyblaisebooks.com
    http://modestyblaisenews.blogspot.com/

  2. The problem with the first novel, IMO, is that it is not quite as good as say TASTE FOR DEATH or I, LUCIFER — a perfect MB novel. Possibly it is because it was O’Donnell’s first novel, as well as being his first MB novel, and an excellent first novel is a rarity. Most of us have to get a couple up in the air before they are excellent. Another great one to begin on would be THE SILVER MISTRESS. I guarantee that, after reading it, you will seek out and devour the rest.

  3. Pingback: More Lives of Modesty Blaise | Book View Cafe Blog