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Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, Part Two
By Kristy Valenti
Tuesday June 3, 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.
The Art of Modesty Blaise

Despite the fact that the comic strip Modesty Blaise made its debut during the '60s spy craze, it never caught on in the U. S., and I suspect there are two reasons for that. The first is that the 1966 movie gave a dreadful first impression of the character, and the second is that the strip was essentially hamstrung by its format. Modesty Blaise ran in a rigid, horizontal, three-panel layout, very occasionally broken up into a two-panel strip. (I'm not sure if Modesty Blaise ever ran on Sundays: if so, it didn't change format when it did). This three-panel format appears to have been de rigueur for many British strips of this era (like the James Bond daily that preceded Modesty Blaise by five years), judging by Gravett's Great British Comics (and at least two of O'Donnell's previous strips, Tug Transom and Romeo Brown, were also done this way), but, while this format showcases witty dialogue quite well, it throws off the pacing for action.[1] (It seems as though it's particularly difficult to depict Modesty's patented drop-kick: as far as I can tell, the sense of momentum required was never successfully accomplished in three panels. Most of the time she just looks like she's suddenly floating parallel to the ground.)

Modesty Blaise's first artist, Jim Holdaway, drew the strip with brushes, pens and Zipatone in a style that was heavy, blocky and sharply detailed, much more so than his art for his previous strip with O'Donnell, Romeo Brown; as a result, Modesty Blaise is more stiff than their earlier effort. (It doesn't help that Holdaway had a predilection for three-quarter profiles.) In Romeo Brown, Holdaway's backgrounds and interiors were more meticulous than his comic-strip-artist contemporaries; this became more rampant in Modesty Blaise. (Holdaway also drew natural scenery and animals beautifully — there are some marvelous birds in "The Long Lever" as a throwaway detail.) For a strip with characters who globetrot as much as Modesty and Willie do, this establishes settings wonderfully; however, the strip's space is so limited that it can become claustrophobic. Sometimes all of the bold artwork, designed to stand out on newsprint, squishes together into a murky mess. Even when it works, between the writing and the art, the comic strip Modesty Blaise is not a quick read; it's dense and rich, packed both narratively and visually with information, even when the action and dialogue are fast-paced.

Holdaway was still feeling his way in the first Modesty Blaise arc, "La Machine," but by the third arc, "The Gabriel Set-up," he, O'Donnell, and the strip began to gel. Holdaway's art had lightened up a little; his villains became more exaggerated and suitably grotesque. 2008 readers benefit from being able to view the strips as sequences in the First American Edition Series and the Titan collections (as well as the magazine Comics Revue); Holdaway's portrayal of action is considerably improved this way. By '65/'66, O'Donnell and Holdaway were firing away on all cylinders: "Top Traitor," in which Tarrant is kidnapped and Modesty and Willie must save him, is a zenith. O'Donnell has raised the stakes by imperiling one of the strip's core cast (and a sympathetic character), and Holdaway does not disappoint: it's genuinely exciting to see Modesty, in six panels, defeat a spear-wielding opponent on a horse with merely her well-timed moves.

The strip went through some changes in the '70s. To begin with, Holdaway passed away in 1970; Enrique (also Enric) Badia Romero became the strip's artist until '78. He returned eight years later to draw the strip until its conclusion in 2001— John Burns, Pat Wright and Neville Colvin handled the art chores in the interim. Also, censors began to crack down. The Titan edition of Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird shows some strips from the titular story in which one of Willie's paramours is eliminated from his bed entirely.


Romero drew ladies slightly prettier than Holdaway did, and was also more skilled at drawing clothing and fashion (in "Take Me to Your Leader," Modesty and Willie have some pretty sweet matching spy outfits). However, he wasn't as deft with the action as Holdaway was: for example, in "Cry Wolf," Modesty and Willie must ski jump across a ravine. In the first of the three panels depicting the jump, Modesty and Willie are facing to the left. Rather jarringly, in the middle panel, they're facing to the right, and in the last panel, they land nearly head on, their bodies veeing to the left. This chops up the action where there should be smoothness: the eye doesn't sweep across the strip the way it should. I wonder if the strip's logo, consistently parked in a prim box on the upper left of the first panel, had something to do with this layout. Another "Cry Wolf" misfire is when Tarrant, a distinguished, middle-aged bureaucrat, has a body as equally ripped, and in fact, nearly identical to,[2] the 30-something, in-top-physical-condition Willie's.

Overall, Romero had a lighter touch: he stripped away a lot of Modesty Blaise's pen-and-ink crosshatching and gave the brushwork more room to breathe. As such, his style leant itself to comedic situations: the Modesty Blaise comic strip rarely strayed into high camp, but it does so rather spectacularly with "The Bluebeard Affair." One would think the most over-the-top moment of this tale would be when two of the villains— evil, ugly sisters — hair in curlers, find an elephant in the partially submerged caverns under their villa and fire at it with a shotgun, but Romero aced the strip in which they perform a Maurice Chevalier tune.

The European-album format would have best suited the Modesty Blaise comic: O'Donnell's story arcs were the right length and the artists would have had enough room to play with. This is proved by The Dark Angels, which was written and drawn as an album and released after the strip's 2001 conclusion. (I found it reprinted in Comics Revue #200). It isn't O'Donnell's best script, the layout is still a bit blocky, and the unattractive-but-functional font might have been added in by the CR folks (the album was originally released in the Swedish market), but otherwise, Romero literally gets to stretch his artwork: while Modesty still looks better in action poses than in actual action, the proceedings are so much more graceful than in the strip as Romero skillfully draws the readers' eyes across the page. In one panel, fairgoers are foregrounded while Modesty is the vanishing point: even though she's in the distance, as always, she's the nexus of the action.


Previous article: Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, part one
Next article: Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, Part Three
[1] Milton Caniff's Steve Canyon looks like it had a basic three-panel pattern, but Caniff was more apt to divide the panels up into four, or to alter the width of the panels: he also had an expanded space for Sunday strips.
[2] Sir Gerald has slightly saggier pecs.
Art credits:
Holdaway dropkick: From "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.]
Holdaway spear: 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]
Romero censor: From Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero: top, original, bottom, printed version. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Romero ski jump: From the titular story in Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Romero identical: From the titular story in Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Romero Chevalier: From "The Bluebeard Affair," written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero, collected in Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Romero Fair: From The Dark Angels, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero, in Comics Revue #200. [©2002 Manuscript Press]

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

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010


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