Peter O’Donnell (the creator and writer of Modesty Blaise) died last week after a long period suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, having just turned 90 this year. In my opinion he was one of the greatest British writers who ever worked in our beloved comic book medium.
If I was going to sit down and compile a list of the most influential and significant characters in British ‘adventure’ comics of the post-war period, that list would inevitably be dominated by the likes of Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl and… Modesty Blaise. One of the UK’s best kept secrets, as far as the casual reader is concerned, the long running Modesty Blaise comic strip spanned a period dating from the early Sixties to the beginning of the 21st century. Published in the London Evening Standard (which unfortunately precluded a wider readership outside the area of the Home Counties) and syndicated throughout the world (lucky them), Peter O’Donnell’s creation was, for a time at least, a significant cultural icon that made her the most recognisable ‘spy’ after James Bond.
Both Britain and America have a long standing tradition of serialised newspaper adventure strips, more so in the Sixties and Seventies than now. Peter O’Donnell began his career in the 1950s by writing a newspaper comic strip adaptation of the Ian Fleming novel Dr No, and the ongoing comic strip Garth, but it was his concept for Modesty Blaise that was to make his name in 1963.
The story goes that while serving in the army in the Middle East after the war, Peter O’Donnell saw a young, dispossessed refugee child struggling (successfully) to survive on her own. Her haunted eyes stayed with him and years later she became the template for his most famous creation. Like the anonymous child that the young O’Donnell encountered, Modesty’s early childhood was spent travelling between refugee camps and learning to survive as a self-reliant, barefoot orphan in a dangerous world. As a young woman Modesty arrives in Tangiers and within a very short time sets herself up as the head of a criminal organisation called ‘The Network’. At the peak of her notoriety and success she encounters a morally bankrupt Willie Garvin in a slum jail in North Africa and, seeing a spark of something worth salvaging, offers him a place in her organisation if he feels he can claw his way up out of the gutter and rehabilitate himself. The meeting is a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment for the young man who swiftly grows in stature to become Modesty’s right hand man, practically worshipping her as his ‘Princess’. Within a couple of years they have both amassed enough wealth to retire, which they do, disbanding the Network in the process.
This then was the starting point for the comic strip (and indeed the later novels that followed the international success of the Evening Standard serial). Enjoying the easy lifestyle of voluntary retirement, Modesty and Willie are lured back into action time and time again, often at the request of British Intelligence, or because of their disreputable past. Their adventures are always colourful and imaginative, but with an attention to realistic detail that rivalled Fleming’s Bond novels.
Written at a time when characterisation in comics was two dimensional at best, the Modesty Blaise strip commanded a loyal army of fans specifically because the characters were believable and extremely likeable. Their strong sense of morality was tempered by a realistic determination to do whatever was necessary when faced with danger. For a couple of ex-crooks, Modesty and Willie were characters that the readers cared about a lot. Male readers famously wanted to be Willie Garvin and sleep with Modesty Blaise. Ironically Modesty and Willie always remained perfectly platonic friends throughout. Modesty's iconic influence as the archetypal action-femme can be seen in later heroines, ranging from Emma Peel to Lara Croft.
The comic strips reached a much wider audience in the UK in the mid-Eighties when Titan books reprinted many of the early stories. I’d already read several of the novels by then, but living outside the catchment area of the Evening Standard, this was my first exposure to the comic strip that pre-dated the books. O’Donnell was lucky enough to work long term with two incredibly talented artists – first Jim Holdaway and then, after Holdaway died, Spanish artist Enrique Romero - both of whom nailed the visuals perfectly. More recently Titan returned to their reprint project with a firmer commitment to the series that has seen sixteen volumes to date with more on the way. Their intention is to finally put the entire series back into print, preserving the legacy of the greatest newspaper strip of all time.
Sadly, the Modesty Blaise legacy is spoilt by the 1966 film that took the same camp approach to the source material as the first Casino Royale film did to the Bond novel. Many would-be readers dismissed the original comics, unseen, after watching the Austin Powers style film, despite the fact that they are chalk and cheese.
Writing a daily newspaper strip is considerably harder than writing a monthly comic for Marvel or DC. The Modesty Blaise strip averaged three panels at a time, so Peter O’Donnell first and foremost had to write in such a way that the individual episodes were entertaining and made sense to the casual reader, but also that, when read as a complete story in a single sitting, it flowed seamlessly in the style of a graphic novel. Peter O’Donnell instinctively understood the constraints of the format. His comic strips are effectively a master class in how to write a newspaper serial and for that alone he deserves to be remembered as one of our finest 'adventure' writers.