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Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, Part Three
By Kristy Valenti
Tuesday June 10, 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 Plot … Is Rather Clear and Concise, Actually

If Part One had an overabundance of plot summary, it's because plotting is one of O'Donnell's most well-honed skills. There's a stark contrast between Modesty Blaise's tight story arcs and those of contemporary action/adventure strips, such as the still-running Dick Tracy, which nowadays seems like an experiment in Dadaism[1]. Surely this structural and narrative coherence was achieved by O'Donnell's careful preparation: in an introduction in Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird, he wrote: "In my writing days, when it was time for Romero to start a new story, I always had a full script of a hundred or so days ready to send him together with a detailed synopsis that would tell him all about the characters involved before he started to draw." Even in the'60s, when action strips were more viable, Modesty Blaise was ambitious: the story arcs ran for four months, instead of the more customary two.[2]

Because there is not much continuity (every once in a while, a previous adventure is mentioned, or a supporting character reoccurs), once the basic premise is established, it's fairly easy for a reader to jump in at any story arc, as befitting its daily-strip format.[3] As aforementioned, Modesty's and Willie's character development really occurred during their back–story and the first story arc, and as O'Donnell noted, Modesty and Willie don't start trouble, it finds them. O'Donnell's methods allow him to successfully accomplish serial narrativity without having to resort too often to melodrama or soap opera;[4] and he never uses will-they-or-won't-they to create tension, or strays into tired storylines (that many serials run into) of the sort that involve evil supernatural/sci-fi babies with an accelerated birthrate.[5] A story arc's payoff is the plan coming together, or even more simply Willie and Modesty solving a problem using only their smarts, training and daring.[6]

In the beginning, Willie equipped himself and Modesty with the usual spy accoutrements (tear-gas lipstick in her favorite shade). As time went on, however, O'Donnell stripped it down[7] and began to emphasize Modesty and Willie's resourcefulness, which is much more engaging (Willie escapes through an underwater passage using the volume equation, an old barrel, tar and a makeshift weight-belt in "The Wicked Gnomes"). Although Willie and Modesty, as par for the genre, have a bewildering array of talents, skills and hobbies, their main choice of weapons (Willie's knife-throwing and Thai-fighting; Modesty's kongo[8], bows and arrows, hand guns and drop-kicks) are basic, sensible and effective. Like his characters, and befitting an analog writer whose research is hard-won through life experiences and libraries, O'Donnell is never wasteful: loose ends are tied up and all plot points and info-dumps have their purpose.[9]

This (Post)Modern World

In these post-y times (postmodern, postfeminist[10], postcolonial), one might ask how O'Donnell's writing holds up, especially since the James Bond stories are Modesty Blaise's closest comparison. O'Donnell always said that he admired and esteemed women, and it comes across to a female readership. In the strip, Modesty is unquestionably the boss, and those who underestimate her regret it if they live that long. A number of female characters are grist for the plot-point mill (and for casual shower-taking), but a fair number of them are formidable villains. Probably the most physically strong character Modesty ever faces is the first novel's Mrs. Fothergill. In the strip, Sister Binks is basically the same character.[11]

Although there are plenty of partially clothed and nude situations, the strip doesn't come off as exploitative: one, because the angular art doesn't really lend itself to that[12] and two, because O'Donnell (mostly) gives every character, even incidental ones, dignity.[13] O'Donnell often takes the time to show characters treating each other respectfully, too: Modesty never commits Willie to a caper, but always asks him if he'll participate. Death is frequent, but not cheap (Willie and Modesty always decide if they're fighting to kill or merely to temporarily incapacitate[14]), and if a good guy goes down, Willie and Modesty always take a post-fight moment to honor him or her.

This respect extends to the strips' minority characters: O'Donnell traveled widely in "Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Italy and Greece" during WWII, according to Tolley, so he had some first-hand knowledge of many of the cultures he depicted.[15] Modesty herself is of mixed heritage. One plot device O'Donnell uses frequently is having some British guy meet a character with another cultural background. The former (and by extension, the reader) is immediately embarrassed for his preconceptions by the latter's intelligence, kindness and classiness: it happens 60 pages into the first Modesty Blaise novel when Tarrant meets Sheik Abu-Tahir. O'Donnell isn't entirely blameless: occasionally he seesaws between condescension and political correctness — this is most evident with Jacko, an educated Aborigine who can smell a car miles away (Modesty jokes, "Peggy, a bush-born Aborigine is smarter than any bloodhound — eyes as sharp as his nose"). Also, O'Donnell was never able to make Modesty's Chinese houseboy, Weng, anything more than a stock character, despite his efforts in the subsequent years.[16]

Still, and unusually for a writer of action/adventure yarns, O'Donnell refuses to oversimplify complex cultural and political situations. In "The Iron God," the character of Nauga has a back-story that highlights the practice of separating aboriginal children from their families for "reeducation:" as an adult, she trains as a nurse to improve the medical conditions of her people, but when we meet her, she's fleeing for her life bare-chested,[17] in native dress, from a tribe that has been made suspicious of strangers (by warring caused by a white male villain). She's sensitively handled, and ends up saving both Modesty and Willie with her quick thinking, ending the threat to the tribe at the same time.

Of course, the strip can also raise politically incorrect sentiments in the reader. While in real life, it's horrifying that our president recently vetoed an anti-torture bill, fictionally speaking, creative torture is endemic to the spy genre: episodes of Alias or 24 will bear that out. Even so, it's probably wrong for me to say that I found it hilarious when Modesty is threatened with "The Glockenspiel" — i.e., a bucket will be placed over her head and then pounded — in "La Machine." (The fist-clenching monk in the foreground of the panel only makes it funnier.)

The Formula

Another critique of O'Donnell's writing is that, while he managed most of the time to avoid cliché and predictability, he wasn't above formula. Elements from Modesty's story would be cannibalized for his later historical romance novels: the marriage of convenience, the wise father figure,[18] the escape from prison as a metaphor for reinvention or rebirth. And the historical romance novels stress his flaws as a writer, too: accustomed to writing for word balloons, his dialogue can come across as unnatural info dumps[19], and, stranded without art to help them (not that Modesty Blaise's stylized art could be called overly expressive), his characters tend to baldly state their emotions. Also, in the historical romances, even though it seems like it's fundamental to the genre, O'Donnell refuses to display his gift for costuming. He wrote that "The Wicked Gnomes" basically came about because he wanted to put Modesty in a fairy outfit.[20] O'Donnell proves that it's not the story, but the execution: ultimately, O'Donnell may have had only one story in him — Modesty's— but for close to 40 years, he told it masterfully.

Previous article: Peter O'Donnell: an Appreciation, Part Two
[1] Regarding Dick Tracy, I'm sure I nicked that observation from one of the commentators on the Comics Curmudgeon site.
[3] The characters often drop helpful back-story information into their dialogue of the "Well, if you had been a girl-child in a D.P. camp in '46, then …" sort.
[4] Modesty's uncynical pragmatism is one of her chief charms. In "The Gallows Bird," Modesty is hanged (she escapes death, of course). Her final thoughts are: "So here's where it ends … Bye Willie.") *SPOILER: When Modesty and Willie do die in the final story in Modesty's timeline, they do so calmly, as they wish to. For comics, their death is so dignified it's more shocking than a shock ending.
[5] I'm looking at you Xena/Angel/The Amazing Spider-Man #509-514/The Last Vampire Vol. 4.
[6] In his introduction to The First American Series #2, Chris Claremont related a story in which he demurred the suggestion of doing an American version of Modesty Blaise, as he thought O'Donnell's (the strip's one and only writer) was already perfect. (This made me both think better of Chris Claremont and thank God, his writing style would have been anathema to the strip.)
[7] Modesty will use nudity if it gives her an advantage.
[8] A kongo is a real weapon, otherwise known as a yawara. It's small, wooden, fits in the hand and is used to strike at nerve centers.
[9] When I was reading the historical romance The Long Masquerade, there's a part in which the heroine explains the layout and routine of the ship she's living on. I thought, "I wonder how they work out the bathroom situation?" and damned if O'Donnell didn't answer that question a few sentences later.
[10] I don't really like that concept. I prefer my feminism plain without the post on top.
[11] Possibly the wife of the gentleman in O'Donell's play, "Mr. Fothergill's Murder."
[12] Attractive young ladies are usually drawn as voluptuous or athletic: Modesty is quite amply endowed, but she has the muscular frame to support it (and to make the majority of her fighting moves more believable).
[13] The most obvious example is that there are plenty of female supporting characters that could lazily be written as bitchy or slutty or stupid, but O'Donnell simply doesn't. For example, Marjorie, one of Willie's girlfriends from "The Gabriel Set-Up" and a MacGuffin in a later arc, is "wild," has a bad temper and ends up being manipulated, but in her own milieu, she's hardy and capable, and when she tries to stop Willie, it's out of genuine concern.
[14] Willie's been known to throw a gun during a caper.
[15] And his political MacGuffins were almost always intelligent, sophisticated and relatively plausible (OK, maybe defeating a family of serial killers with an elephant is pretty farfetched, but in Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird, O'Donnell comments that several of the villainous threats have come to pass in reality).
[16] In the 1996 collection The Cobra Trap, Sir Tarrant thinks to himself that if Weng didn't love being Modesty's houseboy so much, he could be a captain of the industry. O'Donnell did better by his later Chinese characters, such as The Long Masquerade's Daniel Choong.
[17] The Titan edition makes no mention of this being censored: if it did get printed in papers, I can only imagine it was because of its National Geographic-like quality.
[18] There is a neat moment in The Long Masquerade in which the main character, Emma, escapes via seacraft with her former servant Daniel Choong, and O'Donnell marks the shift in power balance between them.
[19] In The Long Masquerade, 17-year-old Emma Delaney responds to the observation that shipbuilding is skilled work with this: "'Yes, it is.' I agreed. 'But it was work he learned in another country years ago. He was over thirty when he came here, and he'd been employed in several different jobs before. Mostly he makes small rowing boats or dinghies, but each one takes him many weeks because he works alone and uses only the simplest of tools. He's building one big boat, though. He's been working on it for almost two years, and that will bring him a lot of money when it's finished, which won't be very long now. It's a thirty-seven foot sloop with a big cabin and an engine he salvaged from a sunken navel pinnace, to use when there's no wind or a foul wind.'"
[20] A skill most likely acquired during his freelancing for women's magazines.
Art Credits:
Volume and Fairy: From "The Wicked Gnomes," collected in Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Kongo: From "The Long Lever" in Modesty Blaise Book One: written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [©1984 Express Newspapers Ltd, Titan Books Ltd.]
Fothergill and throwgun: From "Highland Witch" collected in Modesty Blaise: Cry Wolf, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Weng: From "The Mind of Mrs. Drake," collected in Modesty Blaise: First American Edition Series #2, written by O'Donnell and drawn by Holdaway. [©1981 Ken Pierce, Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Nauga: From "The Iron God," written by O'Donnell and drawn by Romero, collected in Modesty Blaise: The Gallows Bird. [©2006 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication]
Cobra Trap cover: illustrator unknown. [©1996 Peter O'Donnell, Souvenir Press]

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

Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010


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