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Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, Part One
By Kristy Valenti
Tuesday May 27, 2008 09:00:00 am
Our columnists are independent writers who choose subjects and write without editorial input from comiXology. The opinions expressed are the columnist's, and do not represent the opinion of comiXology.
Romance Novels Are Dead To Me Now

During my preteen years, I picked up Peter O'Donnell's Moonraker's Bride, which he had written under his historical romance pseudonym: Madeleine Brent[1]. Here is what I remember about it, although my memories may not have preserved it quite correctly: In China, Lucy Waring, the daughter of missionaries, sets out to steal food for an orphanage of discarded girls: she's been responsible for it since her parents' death. She can walk 16-20 miles a day during these expeditions. She's caught and thrown in prison: her hand is to be cut off. She meets an Englishman there, condemned, who both saves her and marries her. She's sent to Victorian England, where she experiences culture shock.[2] Her husband somehow escapes and rejoins her for a marriage of convenience, so there's no boring mushy stuff or squirmy sex scenes to distract from the treasure hunt that draws them back to China during the Boxer Rebellion. In something like the last three pages, it turns out Lucy and her husband love each other and that the treasure, emeralds, will be used to support the orphans. Moonraker's Bride, really an expertly plotted, character-driven adventure story, set the bar so high it ruined virtually any other romance novel for me.

(She) Will Survive

O'Donnell's body of work, featuring bold and capable heroines — primarily in the genres of spy thriller and gothic romance, and in the forms of comic strips, short stories and novels — has had millions of readers. Tastemaker Quinten Tarantino counts among O'Donnell's fans[3], but his most loyal audience is women and, especially and to this day, girls.[4] As such, it makes a curious sense that the catalyst for his greatest creation, the criminal-turned-spy Modesty Blaise, was a girl. In 1942, among the refugees fleeing from German troops through the mountains bordering Iran, was "a little girl no more than seven." [5]Posted nearby was a unit of the Royal Corps of Signals[6], of which London native O'Donnell was a member. The war ended, and O'Donnell freelanced on projects like writing serials for women's magazines and a few comic strips — Garth, Tug Transom and Romeo Brown[7] — for the next twenty-one years, while carrying with him a mental image of this child, who became a symbol for a "tough survivor." [8]
O'Donnell — who, after a first failed attempt with Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson, paired with his Romeo Brown collaborator Jim Holdaway [9]— unleashed Modesty Blaise as a daily comic strip in the pages of the The Evening Standard on May 13, 1963 (the strips are numbered, not dated). For "a James Bond-like" female character, to paraphrase Tolley, it was a propitious era. In his book, Great British Comics, historian Paul Gravett wrote that British strips at that time were less Puritanical than their U. S. counterparts:

Strips became closely associated with striptease in much of the British press, who would take an even more relaxed attitude about the increasingly bared flesh […] While such exposure was not palatable to more middle-class, respectable papers, several added a touch of feminine class as well […] The 1960s had begun to swing and the tough, independent, intelligent Modesty heralded the seismic social and sexual shifts to come. [10]

O'Donnell also wrote Modesty Blaise novels and short stories; there are also several Modesty Blaise film adaptations, the most famous of which, 1966's Modesty Blaise (not written by O'Donnell) is not worth writing about.[11]

A Modesty Proposal

While the strip and the 1965 novel Modesty Blaise differ, her back-story is essentially this: orphaned in a WWII Middle Eastern D.P. camp, she met a refugee professor when she was 12 and during their travels, fended for them both while he taught her.[12] At 17, after the professor's death, she began working in a Tangier gambling establishment and went on to form "The Network," a criminal group who eschewed protection and vice; her right-hand man was the Cockney Willie Garvin. She and Willie made their fortunes and retired to England.

It's at this point that the first comic-strip arc "La Machine" and the novel begin. Sir Gerald Tarrant of the British foreign office senses that Modesty, accustomed to danger and intrigue, is restless in her life of leisure: he ultimately uses this to inveigle her and her faithful Willie into spy-work on a case-by-case basis (which Willie and Modesty call "capers"). Although, over the next 40 years, O'Donnell will utilize many particulars to give readers insight into who Modesty is (the strip is primarily in third-person — the only time the audience is really privy to her thoughts is when she's calculating a move during a caper), her decision to use the contacts, combat training, and strategic tactics from her underworld days to occasionally help out the British government is the most significant character change she will undergo until "Cobra Trap," the final short story in her timeline.

Willie, Love

Besides setting the tone and the premise of the series and describing the characters' abilities and backgrounds, "La Machine" and the first Modesty Blaise novel also establishes Modesty's and Willie's simultaneously simple and complex relationship, the series' engine. (To be honest, the pace in stories that begin with just Modesty, such as the strip's "Uncle Happy," doesn't pick up until Willie makes his appearance.) Psalms-quoting, Thai-style-fighting, circus-knife-thrower (and later, Q-like-tinker) Willie was rescued from a Singapore prison by Modesty (in the O'Donnell universe, all the best meet-cutes happen in prison) who cultivated him both as a gentleman and as an agent for The Network. As such, he feels he owes her everything, and of his own free will, he discovers that he'd rather serve (her) in heaven that rule in hell (sorry, Milton).

She and he frequently save each others' lives. He calls her "Princess," she calls him "Willie, Love": they're equal parts soul mates, BFFs, partners in crime, and family — but not lovers: each freely sees others for that.[13] (Willie favors curvy blondes: Modesty is a lithe and exotic brunette.) In turn, he's the only person Modesty can trust with her life and around whom she can completely relax (and on whose shoulder she can let out a stress-relieving cry post-caper). Also, although she's mastered the quip, Modesty is rather a humorless character; Willie injects some levity (and the occasional "Strewth!") into the proceedings, and is practically[14] the only person she can really laugh with (there's a brilliant moment in "Top Traitor" in which she loses it while Willie models his Swiss peasant disguise. Lederhosen are involved). Modesty makes Willie lose it in another way: in "The Gabriel Set-Up," when he thinks Modesty is dead, he takes out eight men on an intended suicide mission, and only begins to recover in the hospital when she speaks to him.

Although some of the most powerful scenes in the novels and short stories take place when Modesty and Willie are literally in a trench, taking on hordes of bad guys,[15] O'Donnell subtly enriches their relationship by telling throwaways: Willie rummaging around Modesty's kitchen and snacking on raisins in the comic-strip arc "The Long Lever" signals an intimacy more profoundly than any dialogue; in the Modesty Blaise novel, Willie both professionally renders her unconscious (via an elbow) to help the villains to capture them and, in another instance, gallantly runs ahead and unlock her door while they're escaping (so that she can drive the getaway car) before going round to the other side. In the Comic Media interview reprinted in the strip collection Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf, O'Donnell said he dislikes talking about their relationship, but "it is, however, a relationship that women understand much better than men; I can tell this from the letters I get about the books."

Next time: The Art; The Plot; The Formula, Political Correctness
Previous article: Emerald City Comicon 2008
[1]His pseudonym shared initials with his most famous heroine, Modesty Blaise.
[2]Even the piano legs are covered, because they're thought to be immodest.
[4] The website for Peter O'Donnell's company, Modesty Blaise Ltd., was created at the urging of students at two girls' schools.
[5]Peter O'Donnell, quoted in Dictionary of Literary Biography by Michael J. Tolley.
[6]R Signals apparently was and is responsible for the British Army's telecommunications.
[7]Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.
[8]Peter O'Donnell, quoted in an interview with Jean Rosss in Contemporary Authors.
[10]I was startled to see what O'Donnell and Holdaway were able to get away with in a daily strip: Modesty changes her clothes — exposing her bra, bare back and sometimes more —bathes, and showers an awful lot. It's quite a contrast for a contemporary U. S. comic-strip reader: the most bared skin they ever see is when Cathy tries on a bathing suit. In GBC, Gravett explained the strip was originally created for The Daily Express, but was thought too risqué for it, so its home became The Evening Standard.
[11]Apparently, the filmmakers were afraid to play it straight, so they made it "campy." I have a high tolerance for camp — I managed to sit through the three-hour restored A Star is Born for a class — but 10 minutes into the Modesty Blaise film, a mime is sadistically murdered, and all I felt was bored irritation. I had to turn it off at that point.
[12]She gained the names "Modesty" (ironically, because she didn't much care if she was clothed or not) and "Blaise," for Merlin's master.
[13]The characters' sexuality is front and center in the strip, although more frankly explored in the short stories and the novels.
[14]The notable exception to this is when she lets loose in childlike play — for example, in the Modesty Blaise novel, while she and Tarrant, in especially high style, are tooling down the street in a Rolls Royce convertible, she engages in a game of cowboys with some little boys, "dying" from their imaginary gun shots. (As a side note, Modesty is more likely to go out of her way to protect women and especially children.)
[15]In which O'Donnell probably hearkened back to his WWII experiences.
Image credits:
Gabrielsetup: Willie goes postal in "The Gabriel Set-Up," collected in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [[©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]
Lederhosen: From "Top Traitor," collected in the First American Edition series #1: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [[©1981 Express Newspapers Ltd, and Ken Pierce]
Modesty Blaise novel cover: designed by Huge Adams.
Raisins: From "The Long Lever," collected in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [[©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]
Refugee: From "In the Beginning," collected in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [[©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]
Restless: From "La Machine," collected in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [[©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]
Shower: From "The Long Lever," collected in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]

Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010


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