Monday, September 12, 2011

Modesty Blaise

Reading comics is not necessarily a nerdy activity. Back in the 60s and 70s, comics with long story arcs ran in our local English dailies such as the Straits Times. Remember Tarzan? Or the sci-fi one called Garth?

They were the soap operas of the day for avid newspaper readers, dispensing action, gems of wisdom and action across all three panels of confined but glorious space.

My own favourite strip of that time had always been  Modesty Blaise.

Modesty Blaise, with her skills and adventures, seem like a female James Bond; but she was not. She's more like the bored rich lady with the killer body and equally deadly skills. She could fire a pistol at a coin from 50 paces and drop-kick a big-guy goon from a standing position - all dressed in her signature black pantsuit, high heels and bunned-up hair.

Unlike Bond, she answered to nobody but herself. She had her own set of values and sense of justice. Her sexuality was classy, mature. She was not adverse to spending a night with an old love who had stopped over in town. Men of substance and grit pursued her. Certainly, there are similarities but was Blaise a female James Bond then? No. She was a creature of her upbringing as well as life experience - all international. She was also a chick of 60s' London.

Peter O'Donnell, the creator, conceived Modesty Blaise the strip after a chance encounter with a girl while doing his wartime service in the Middle East. This is the reason why Blaise was given such an exotic background story.

In some early-story panels, you can see a young and naked Blaise meditating with an 'Indian guru'. Blaise is learning self-awareness or some deep mysteries of the mind and spirit from him. In actual fact, she is an orphan and that 'guru' is an acetic Hungarian scholar. As a child, Blaise was a prodigious talent. By age 12, she was deemed mature enough to take over a criminal gang based in Tangiers, Morocco. This gang was later referred to as 'The Network' after it disbanded. It was at The Network that she met and gave Willie Garvin his purpose in life. From then on, Garvin became her loyal friend and able sidekick. He was more like the 007 agent: he could fight, throw knives (he always carried two) and he liked his ladies and drink. But Garvin was never sleazy and was always the gentleman. When not on a mission with Blaise, he ran his own pub.

Blaise grew up and later married a British guy named Turner and obtained British citizenry. That's how she ended up in London. But her marriage did not last long with Turner, who was an alcoholic. He died soon after divorcing Blaise. In London, Blaise got to know Sir Gerald Tarrant, a top official of the British Secret Service. It was not a chance friendship. Tarrant had been aware of Blaise's history (and abilities) through his investigation of The Network. However, he had nothing but fond respect for her. They shared an interest in ridding the world of some very evil and diabolical monsters. In his duties, Tarrant would often call upon Blaise and Garvin for help, especially when it became more discreet and expedient than involving Her Majesty's spies. This is where it gets all exciting and dangerous for Blaise and Garvin. For often this was when and where the adventures of Blaise and Garvin would take off. Other times, the adventures were also triggered by loyalty to friends.

So you see, the Modesty Blaise comic strip is not your usual cup of tea. It is international, it is complex. More than that I like the way Peter O'Donnell crafts his stories: there's always something to learn, whether it is an exotic weapon used by Blaise or Garvin, or some tactic/technique to get some spy-ish job done. In one story, Blaise and Garvin even talked about memory mnemonics, of how ordinary objects could be used as aids to memorising long sequences of stuff like coded numbers. Stuff like these were only talked about in Singapore in the 90s!

In the comic strip, there were often sparring scenes between Blaise and Garvin in their dojo: it's a place where they could keep and stay fit and agile. It is also when they had private time to discuss a case. While Garvin preferred to use throwing knives, Blaise often relied on a kongo that also doubled as a hair roller. She could shoot darts with it too. A kongo was something a girl could use to deliver a deadlier punch, or knock someone unconscious on the head. Between the two of them, there were more clever tricks.

Almost all the stories in Modesty Blaise are timeless. It was done intentionally by O'Donnell. He said the 60s was just an incidental backdrop where the stories are set. Replace the rotary dial phones, walkie talkies, period cars, etc., and the whole story could be transplanted to another era. How is this even possible?

Well, it can be done because Modesty Blaise stories are about encounters with exotic criminals carrying out  nasty intentions. They are drug peddlers, kidnappers or some underworld king-pin. For folks like these, you can find them across the millennium, not just the 60s. Also, fighting crime, solving international intrigue and overcoming danger - are stuff of James Bond films that have been attracting crowds to the cinemas for decades! So, O'Donnell's formula works. Besides, his engrossing stories are superbly illustrated by Jim Holdaway and then later by Enrique Romero. Both their pen-based drawings are timeless in flair and execution, although I have a slight preference for Romero. Really, you can just collect the Modesty Blaise comic books for their exquisite drawings alone! Consider them 60s 'period art'.

However, on the point of timeless tale-telling, O'Donnell did make an exception with his story Bad Suki. It is obviously (and delightfully so) set in the Swinging 60s. (Quite prescient because it was actually set two years before all that swinging happened). That aside, it is a serious story about murderous drug peddlers.

One of my favourite stories has to be Uncle Happy. It's about a seemingly jolly and rotund philanthropist who actually runs a call-girl racket from his own private island. (In Modesty Blaise stories, the villians are often not what they seem.) When the missing girl of a friend turns up dead, Modesty and Willie decides to investigate. But once on the private island, they are captured and later made to play life-and-death games to survive. Along with them is captured also an American CIA agent named Steve. In one scene, Willie and Steve are forced to fight each other "to the death" beside a cliff. It is in this story sequence that I first learned the idea of "to roll with the punches" as a kid.

Steve and Willie then contrive to escape while seeming to fight each other to the death. In the end, Willie throws Steve off the cliff just as a swell rolled in. It cushions his fall onto the rocks and he is then able to escape but not before faking his own drowning. Meanwhile, Uncle Happy continues his death inducing games, this time with Modesty. As a reader, you wonder how long these kinds of game can go on before either Modesty or Willie get hurt (as they often do). Steve would later return with police reinforcements in the nick of time. It's an "edge-of-the-seat" kind of suspense. Quite terrible if you have to wait a day (or over the weekend) for the next installment of the panel-story in a newspaper.

However, patience is not without its rewards. For a kid, there's a lot to learn from an intelligent comic strip like Modesty Blaise, as it ran day to day, week after week in the dailies. For everything else, there was Peanuts, Blondie, Bringing Up Father, Andy Capp, and Nancy.

What amazes me today is that some of these comic strips have been launched many donkey years ago, and stayed published for decades. For example, Bringing Up Father was first published on January 12, 1913 and ran till May 28, 2000. Some 87 years!!! Fortune 500 companies don't even last a quarter that long! The lesson? Humour lasts.

As I grew up and worked and travelled, I would take any chance to hunt down a Modesty Blaise comic book. For a time, they were re-issued and sold in Singapore, England and the US.

I am glad to say that I have a good collection of them now, but there are a couple more to trace. The sad news is that the author passed away in 2010 after suffering from Parkinson's in his later years. He was 90. But despite that, he set up a website in 2007 to be closer with his fans. (I was in London once and did not realise that he lived there. I would have dropped by to say hi and thank him for his wonderful stories. Quite a few of his Modesty Blaise stories also appears in book form (13, with another nine written under the pen name of Madeleine Brent). Modesty Blaise books are much harder to find - almost impossible here.

One thing I don't get: Nobody has been able to translate Modesty Blaise successfully to the big screen. The first attempt in 1966 starred a very youthful Terence Stamp as Garvin and Monica Vitti as Blaise. It turned out to be rather campy (in true '60s fashion; the trailer also called Blaise "the priestess of camp" (what the ...???). The second was in 2002 and hence more modern. But it took a different tack focusing on Blaise's early life instead. It  was so badly casted and acted that it made viewing uncomfortable. No wonder it went straight to video instead of a cinema release. Incredibly, that same movie was even introduced (and executively produced) by Quentin Tarantino on the cover of the DVD. He must have known that it was one crap of a movie. Did QT do it for a quick buck?

The core mistake these producers make is to bill Modesty Blaise as a secret agent. She never was one. The story of Modesty Blaise is that of a woman's journey - from her adoption as an orphan by that Hungarian scholar in Morocco to her retirement as The Network chief in London. There's also the story of Willie Garvin. Everything else is incidental, including her friendship with British top brass Sir Gerald Tarrant. He and Blaise help each other both ways so there should be enough material to craft a Modesty 1/2/3 trilogy, not to mention a long and engaging TV series similar in vein to Kiefer Sunderland's '24'.

Of all the actresses and movies that have graced our screens recently, I thought SALT (2010) came closest to showcasing a woman that could take on the best criminal minds and spy agencies. If anybody can play Modesty with a bit of Middle Eastern mystic and charm, it is Angelina Jolie. I hope someone will take a look at Modesty Blaise again. If they can revive an iconic show like Hawaii Five-O, then there is hope. Besides, with Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise stories, the script sources are already there. Seriously, his MB creation deserves enlightened treatment and the introduction to a wider audience.

If one has to put an extra tag on Modesty Blaise, it is that she is also a female ex-crime boss. How many movies and films out there are about such female protagonists? None? So, you see, there is a great opportunity and scope here. You can even pen her to be a female Robin Hood saviour of sorts...although that will make here character a bit idealistic. I prefer Blaise and Garvin mature and grounded the way they are.

Haha, maybe that is just the fan bit in me talking! Certainly there is no harm in me trying to write a script for a possible TV pilot. I am sure I can do a better job than what that has gone on before. Anybody up for a bit of '60s nostalgia and crime fighting?

Note: For pictures of Modesty Blaise comic strip, see Modesty Blaise Artworks under Anecdotal Links.

Youtube song from '60s Modesty Blaise movie plus stills. 

Peter's books have been hard to find these days, but someone has uploaded this here: Peter's novels (in txt, pdf and html)

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