Heroine Addict 04: Intro to Modesty

Oct 25, 2011 by     Comments Off on Heroine Addict 04: Intro to Modesty    Posted under: Brian Wrote This, Comics Reviews, Graphic Fiction (comics), On Writing
Inauguration of an obsession: A first look at British adventure character Modesty Blaise, an undersung treasure of the thriller genre, in comics and prose. Creator Peter O’Donnell was a master of an incredibly challenging form of writing—the daily serial strip.

Modesty Blaise is hardly known in the United States, and probably not top-of-mind in the property’s native UK. She’s a fantastic character who enjoyed one of the most successful runs in the thriller genre. Creator Peter O’Donnell wrote 11 novels and two short-story collections between 1965 and 1996, and a comic strip chronicling the adventures of Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin six days a week for 38 straight years, ending in April 2001. He died last year, aged 90, having written other comic strips and even a series of pseudonymous romance novels. An amazing guy who always came off as smart and amusing and charming in interviews.

Modesty’s essential story is this: She was orphaned in the Second World War, and her origin story shows her as a refugee in her early teens. She survives on her own, and with a hapless, equally orphaned former professor who travels with her, until she ends up working at a crooked casino in Tangier. When the club’s owner is murdered, she takes over the casino and his small criminal gang. No older than 18, she molds the gangsters into an international concern called The Network that maintains a strict code of honor by not dealing in drugs or human trafficking. Then, rich by her early 20s, she retires to a life of leisure in England, which is where we meet her in 1963, at the age of perhaps 27.

Again, all that is the backstory. We haven’t even got started, and she’s an amazing character. The actual stories O’Donnell writes always begin with astounding coincidences in which misadventure finds Modesty, and her best friend/former lieutenant Willie Garvin. They face Russian agents, mad millionaires, grimy gangsters, international cartels, third-world armies, all the usual stuff. O’Donnell creates in Willie and Modesty an amazing duo, partly superheroic, in that they are like Batman or James Bond in their degree of competence at pretty much everything, yet with a subtext—and I’ve no idea how much it’s intentional—that suggests these people have paid a price. Modesty, in particular, has a number of tragedies in her past, and her amazing ability to shut down the logical emotional reactions that would cripple a person is useful in the field, but … it sometimes doesn’t take much imagination on the reader’s part to see her as something once broken and magnificently reassembled.

The Art of the Strip Writer

The first question that confronts a reader of both the Modesty novels and the comics is, “Which is better?” Since she was created for the comics, which is by far the larger body of work, most fans think of the comics as the “real deal.” For me it’s the other way around, because the novels let me luxuriate in the company of Modesty and Willie, let me enjoy longer conversations and more complex capers. I learn more about them and their world. The novels have more danger, more violence, more sex, and the newspaper comic strips seem therefore strangely expurgated, even though, again, they are the original stage.

A note on the art

The strips excerpted for this piece are by Jim Holdaway, the first artist on the Modesty strip.  He drew it for about seven years before dying of a heart attack at 43, the age I’ll be in a handful of months.  I’ll devote a full piece to the Modesty artists soon, but suffice to say that Holdaway originated the strip, set the style.  With time, I came to appreciate him as the best Modesty artist.  (The next artist, Enric Badia Romero, has perhaps a more easily appreciated style, but with time Holdaway’s clean, angular style really stands out.

Nonetheless, as an artistic achievement, I admire O’Donnell’s comic strips far more, because writing comic strips well is bloody hard. At a casual read, it looks like smart adventure comics—maybe it’s your thing, maybe not, you know? But look at what he actually does. Every strip has to remind you of what has happened before—one storyline would run three to six months—and advance story and characterization, all in three panels.

Every day O’Donnell has to open with just enough recap to remind the reader where the story left off, advance the story, and leave off with enough hook to bring you back tomorrow, but enough satisfaction with the single day’s unit that you won’t give up in frustration. The economy of writing, as he puts together one tale of international intrigue after another, is jaw-dropping. And when you compare the result with any of the serial comics you’ll find being published today, the complexity, characterization and energy of the work becomes all the more impressive.

It’s like narrative haiku, and he pulled it off six times a week, for almost four decades, and made it look absolutely effortless every bloody time. On a sheer level of craft, I’m not sure I can think of a more difficult writing challenge. I’ve read 17 of Titan Books’ ongoing series of Modesty reprints. That takes me through every strip from 1963 to about 1982, and I’ve got the three remaining published volumes on my shelf. After those, I’ll have to wait—Titan puts them out about two or three times a year. I’ve also read ten of the novels, and I’m reading them roughly concurrently with the strips, meaning I don’t read a novel published in the early ’80s until I’ve read the strips from the same period. (Modesty, like all good serial characters, never really ages. She’s not yet 30 in the ’80s strips, though she’s a long way from 1963’s “TITLE.”)

In the near future, I’ll go through some of the strips and novels—the latter having been reprinted in the past decade, still available—and try to pull out the genius of O’Donnell’s creation.

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