Posts Tagged ‘Peter O’Donnell’

The Never-Before-Seen Conclusion! (Catch up with parts One, Two, and Three – They have video!)

Popular culture is a fantastic place to explore ideas and assumptions about gender, and because I’m a firm believer that questions are the content, before I close, I want to reference those I posited at the beginning of this presentation, now that we have some context.

If male characters define the archetypes of Spy and Detective, what does it look like when women fill those roles? And are these female characters simply superimposed on to their male source material?

Greg Rucka has said that while gender is an element of character, gender is not character itself – and that while he treats his female characters the same way he treats his male ones there is a difference in how he writes them.

He asserts that if he wrote a female character the same way he wrote a male one, then she wouldn’t be female, she’d be a guy who looks like a girl with a girl’s name.

And a female character is not, in his words, “a guy with tits.”

The next was: is the idea that they are possibly female versions of male characters a gimmick? Or does the fact that they are unconventional bodies in traditional positions mean that they are capable of challenging assumptions about gender? And does that make them feminist?

What about a “female Mike Hammer”? Sure sounds like a gimmick.

And yet, as Collins has said, one of the interesting aspects of writing Ms. Tree is that all he had to do was let her do things men routinely did in this kind of story – meaning a pulpy detective tale – and a special resonance would be created.”

Which does reinforce the idea that unconventional bodies in traditional roles are capable of challenging assumptions about gender, simply by being there.

But because sex and subterfuge are inseparable from the spy fiction and detective genres, even when female agents use the same fighting skills and weapons as the opposite sex, the addition of their sexual appeal makes them deadlier than the male.

For example, Modesty has a trademark technique called “The Nailer” – where she walks into a room full of criminals topless, effectively stunning them, while Willie sneaks round from behind to take them down.

Ms. Tree, in a nod to the cover of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury – as well as to Modesty, distracts a villain in nearly the same way.

And it worked so well the first time that she did it again.

Tara, in a more subtle fashion, manipulates a border crossing in potentially hostile territory by pretending to accidently hand over a nude photo of herself with her papers.

So we can assume, at least with these 3 character examples, that women in unexpected roles are capable of BOTH subverting and reinforcing assumptions about gender.

Finally, why a female – and is she feminist?

Modesty Blaise, who was often, and erroneously compared to James Bond, was created by O’Donnell to counter the preponderance of “big,” . . . “male,” . . . “superheroes.” And has himself has said, she is the antithesis of Bond.

A female character with all the skill and excitement of a “Bond”- type, but that has little to do with him, is not modeled on him, and is the protagonist of a series that ran successfully for over 40 years, is certainly feminist indeed.

Of Ms. Tree, Max Allan Collins has said that she was, and is, a feminist in the sense that she is a strong woman who makes her own decisions.

He didn’t want to do the typical role reversal story in which the female hero is depicted as tougher, smarter, and more athletic than the men around her – feeling that an approach of that nature was inherently sexist. And he wanted equality for his female protagonist.

Of course, one Ms. Trina Robbins recognized Michael as a feminist early on. In a missive to Beatty and Collins’ letter page, she writes, “Any woman as intelligent, tough, and independent as Michael is certainly a feminist.”

Tara, is a highly trained, intelligent, and skilled agent. She’s also realistically depicted as having a complex emotional life. She’s depicted as physically beautiful – as most female heroes are – but Rucka has noted that “she’s never more attractive than when she’s being smart, when she’s doing her job, and doing it well.”

It’s a welcome rarity in spy fiction for a woman’s actions and intelligence to be emphasized over her appearance.

Queen and Country is more than a simple role reversal story, a woman in a man’s place. As Rucka has said, one of the reasons he loves writing female characters is that “situations and stories that we have seen thousands of times before, become entirely different if you recast your protagonist as female, because dynamics change.”

So while these women ARE rooted in, based on, or frequently referenced in relation to male characters, they are not merely female imitations.

They are anti-Bonds and female dicks.

Tara Chace: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

If you haven’t read Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, yet, I suggest hook yourself up with one of the most unique spy comics you’ll encounter.

There are 8 volumes of this espionage series – illustrated by different artists.

As well as 3 novels.

The protagonist, is Tara Felicity Chace, named so after Rucka’s high school best friend, in honor of discovering a love of gritty spy fiction series together.

One of those was, The Sandbaggers – a British Cold-War era drama broadcast in the late 1970s. It was created by, Ian Mackintosh, a former lieutenant-commander in the Royal Navy who had an Intelligence background.

“Sandbaggers” is a nickname for special operatives in the secret intelligence service – an organization also known as “SIS” or MI6.

Essentially, they are the equivalent of the CIA.

The people in Special Operations are absolutely nothing like James Bond, and in fact, Bond is mentioned throughout the series to reinforce how much of a fantasy 007’s world of espionage is compared to the real thing.

The real thing is filled with tedium, cramped offices, contention between the government and SIS, a “Special Relationship” with the CIA – one that consists of exchanging mutually beneficial, if seedy, favors.

Politically and personally dangerous missions are the rarity. Most of the Sandbaggers time is spent shuffling paper from In Tray to Out Tray. They are instruments of government, and nothing more.

What impressed Rucka about the show was that it emphasized the politics – and political tension – between government and espionage – something that was, and for the most part remains, lacking from Bond.

Rucka says what made The Sandbaggers sing for him was that the stories were always about individuals.

And that you saw the toll this work takes on people’s lives set against the context of the mission, and the even larger context of the political situation, and how those influence one another.

He found dramatic power in the idea that these people were entirely expendable – and that it was the political level that made it the most human story because it was the political level that said people don’t matter.

That dramatic potential, combined with character-driven stories that explore the moral complexity of global politics make Queen & Country a spiritual sequel to The Sandbaggers.

Tara is a special operations officer for the Secret Intelligence Service. Here nicknamed Minders rather than Sandbaggers.

Like its inspiration, Queen and Country is set in the real world, and takes an honest look at modern espionage – from sending agents on politically sensitive, and often dubious, tasks such as government sanctioned assassination – to the subsequent, . . necessary . . .paperwork.

Tara’s is a thankless job – one marked, as her boss, says, by “months of tedium, interrupted by bursts of bowel-freeing panic.”

Like James Bond, particularly Daniel Craig’s most recent incarnation, Tara is, as 007’s superior, M, describes him, “a blunt object.”

But she’s also smart, . . . very smart, and skilled. And, as Rucka has noted, Tara feels fear, an emotion that humanizes her, without making her vulnerable, and further grounds the series in reality.

Regardless, she’s also incredibly damaged – understandable considering one day she’s asked by her government to assassinate someone, and the next, handed over to a foreign government by her own people to appease the very act she had been sent by them to do.

She goes to work knowing she’s good at her job, better than most, and is still entirely expendable.

She does it for Queen & Country.

And as Gail Simone said, I think she’s ruined me for other spies.

Video of Part Three and Q&A – I had to skip the conclusion as the previous panel ran long, cutting into our set-up time, and I had to leave time for Q&A (which gets cut off at the very end). I’ll include my conclusion in a bonus Part Four.

Parts One and Two.

Each of the three characters I talked about have been described in terms of male icons of popular culture. Modesty Blaise and Tara Chace have both been called a “female James Bond.” And Ms. Tree was conceived as the “female Mike Hammer.”

Now, Bond and Hammer have clearly become cultural embodiments of specific archetypes – the British spy and the American hardboiled detective, respectively.

But rarely does one hear of male characters being described in terms of iconic female characters. Additionally, to say that someone is a “female spy” or a “woman detective” continues to reinforce the idea that male identities are the default position.

Questions I invited the audience to consider during the presentation were:

• If male characters define these archetypes, what does it look like when women fill those roles?

• Are these female characters simply superimposed on to their male source material?

• And is the idea that they are possibly female versions of male characters narrative novelty? A mere gimmick?

• Or does the fact that they are unconventional bodies in traditional positions mean that they are capable of challenging assumptions about gender? And does that alone make them feminist?

After meeting these three characters, we were able to revisit these questions with a bit more context – with the intention of further exploring them together during the Q&A.

Modesty Blaise, one of my favorite heroes in popular culture, is a survivor, a force of nature, an ex-crime boss, and a loyal friend.

She was born out of glamour girl strips and British espionage stories—but Modesty is neither a nearly-naked ditz, nor, as she has often been called, a “female Bond.”

She is one of the great literary characters of the 20th Century.

Peter O’Donnell, who passed away just last year, created the character and was her only writer. Prior to her debut in 1963, he wrote other newspaper strips, as well as romantic serials for women’s magazines.

Modesty was drawn by the talented, Jim Holdaway—until his untimely death.

Even though other capable artists took over – it was his work that was the most exquisite.

Modesty was inspired by a encounter O’Donnell had with a young female refugee while he was stationed in Persia during World War II in which his unit shared rations with her.

His fictional character, was also a refuge, an orphan from Hungary who traveled alone until she met a Jewish man in his fifties at a displaced persons camp.

He became her teacher and traveling companion.

Upon his death, Modesty made her way to Tangiers, where she ran a roulette table at a casino, before becoming the leader of a crime syndicate called the Network – at age 19.

But Modesty had her own sense of morality, and made sure The Network never dealt in vice. Those who disobeyed this rule through the sale of drugs, women, or children were delivered to the authorities or their graves.

A man named Willie Garvin was Modesty’s right arm in The Network, and is her closest companion. She is his “Princess.”

The pair have been called “criminals with hearts of gold,” a description which is only partly true, as when we first meet them, Modesty and Willie are retired from crime.

More accurately, they’ve always walked a fine line between criminality and heroism—always leaning towards the moral side, if not necessarily the legal one.

They occasionally do favors for a dear friend in the British Secret Service.

But Modesty is no one’s agent, and where she goes Willie follows.

Over the years Modesty branched out into other media. A terrible, terrible movie was released in 1966. In fact, we took a few minutes so everyone coulds get an idea of just how very awful it is.

Peter O’Donnell once said of the film, “It makes my nose bleed to think of it.”

O’Donnell, was able to turn his original screenplay for the movie into the first of a series of 11 novels. As well as two collections of short stories detailing Modesty and Willie’s exploits and adventures – including their eventual demise.

Since the original Modesty Blaise fiasco, several prominent creators of popular culture, including Neil Gaiman, Luc Besson, and Quentin Tarantino, have expressed interest in making an adaptation that would remain truer to its source.

Tarantino was tangentially involved in a B-movie made over 18 days in Bucharest called, My Name is Modesty. Which is actually pretty good.

It features an original story, which O’Donnell was consulted on, and an authentic Modesty – one who is compassionate, resolved, resourceful – and completely full of whoop-ass.

Max Allan Collins notes that the character, Ms. Tree, which he created with Terry Beatty, was partly inspired by Modesty. They were intrigued by the idea of “An American Modesty Blaise” for their detective series, who would be to private eyes what Modesty is to spies.

Their “female Mike Hammer” debuted in 1981 – and thus predated the wave of women PI’s in literature in the 1980s – a fact that gets often gets overlooked, mostly due to the medium of the comic book.

As hard-boiled as they come, Ms. Michael Tree (her father wanted a son) first appeared in a 6-part serialized graphic novel called “I, For an Eye” in Eclipse Magazine, and most recently in the pulp paperback novel, Deadly Beloved.

A true dame of modern noir, the tough talking Ms. Tree was conceived out of Collins’ and Beatty’s love of EC Comics, Dick Tracy, Dragnet, the lone wolf tough guys of Hammett and Chandler . . .

. . . And especially Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

Ms. Tree, left the police force her father had worked for, to ultimately end up following in her husband’s stead.

First, as his begrudging secretary, and later, as the head of Tree Investigations.

For the physical look of Ms. Tree, they referenced the obscure ‘Mike Hammer’ comic strip from the early 1950s and were inspired by the way Ed Robbins had drawn Velda – Hammer’s Amazonian secretary and eventual lover, who, by the way, was a licensed PI herself. But they’ve noted that even without cartoonist Robbins to light the way, Spillane’s description of Velda had been fairly exact:

To put it even more bluntly, Velda is a brick house.

As Collins and Beatty were fans of Blaise, they additionally referenced Holdaway, and borrowed from Modesty, what Beatty calls that “Velda/Bettie Page/Tura Satana look” noting that “a wasp-waisted, big breasted, long-legged super-heroine figure made no sense in Ms. Tree’s ink and paper universe — especially after her pregnancy!”

They wanted her attractive but strong, feminine, but not girly.

Collins, has often explained the central notion of the Ms. Tree series was a play on the cliché of the tough guy private eye, his loyal secretary, and their unrequited love.

Here, this was rooted specifically in Hammer and Velda – a couple that Spillane had eventually intended to have marry.

In Ms. Tree the comic they do, only for the P.I. to be murdered on their wedding night, leaving the secretary to take over the detective agency and step into her late husband’s shoulder holster.

The private eye’s murder was the former secretary’s first case.

But Ms. Tree became much more than a playful, or even, progressive, gender reversal in a noirish tale of loss and revenge, and her story moved far beyond the confines of a reductive “you-touched-my-stuff” narrative.

Don’t get me wrong – She IS vengeful – and, as Beatty has said – “Female PI’s hadn’t been nearly as gun happy or disturbed as their male counterparts until Ms. Tree came along.”

But, while adhering to tropes of the hard-boiled detective genre, Collins and Beatty also created a complicated character – tough, but tender, feminine but not girly, gun-happy, but feminist.

As argued in Hard-Boiled and High-Heeled this is partially because, “The very concept of the ‘female dick’ asks us to reimagine sex . . . bodies . . . and gender.”

But also because while dealing with the stereotypes of pulpy crime comics, Collins and Beatty wanted to “build some flesh and blood onto them.” So that, for example, Ms. Tree herself was a distinctive tough detective, “not just another refried Philip Marlowe.”

For over 15 consecutive years, and through various publishers, Ms. Tree was the heroine of the longest running detective comic book of all time. She lived . . . loved . . . and lost, as hard-boiled protagonists do, but she was also afforded a complexity denied most female characters in comic books.

Her first case as a P.I. may have been to track down her husband’s killer, but Ms. Tree was never reduced to a widow (or, for that matter, to a cop’s daughter). She was also independent, a killer, a sister, a step-mother, and a dangerous enemy.

She was the respected leader of her own, successful business, and later, a mother, who hunted down baddies while 8 months pregnant . . .

. . . and was even lovingly and beautifully depicted breast-feeding her newborn—a rarity in comics for sure.

As per her creators’ intention, she is not a superhero, and doesn’t know martial arts, but she is smart, resolved, lethal, and a bad-ass babe. She has a gun, and she knows how to use it – happily.

See Part One.

Part Three is next!

Here are slides and video from my recent Wondercon presentation with Trina Robbins for the Comics Art Conference. The video is missing the very beginning of our opening, but I’ve included text below.

Comics Arts Conference Wondercon 2011

If one imagines a Spy, someone that embodies spydom, espionage, and intrigue – someone who is a covert agent, it’s quite likely that James Bond, in any of his incarnations, should most definitely spring immediately to mind.

But maybe you also picture, Harry Palmer or Jason Bourne.

Now, if you imagine a PI, it might just be an archetype you imagine . . .

. . . or it could be a specific character: Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, maybe Columbo, Kojak, or Mike Hammer.

For those of you who know Trina and myself – you know we want to represent when it comes to the female of the species – and therefore, we wanted to share with you but a few of our favorite women of spy-fi and detective comics.

For those of you who don’t know us – Ms. Trina Robbins is an award-winning herstorian and expert on the subject of early 20th century women cartoonists. She produced the first all-woman comic book, It Ain’t Me, Babe, in 1970, and was a co-founder of the Wimmen’s Comix Collective. And she is a writer whose subjects have ranged from Wonder Woman and the Powerpuff Girls to her own teenage superheroine, GoGirl! – from women cartoonists and superheroines to women who kill.

As for me, I’m a writer, blogger, author, feminist, and also a pop culture herstorian. I’m a regular contributor to Bitch magazine, a Charter Associate of the Whedon Studies Association, as well as the Programming Director for GeekGirlCon. My first book – Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology – is both a history of, and a thematic look at, female super and action heroes and was awarded on place on the 2011 Amelia Bloomer Project List.

Because someone will inevitably say – “You didn’t talk about my favorite character” – we wanted to acknowledge upfront that there are many characters we could have talked about in our presentation, both well-known and obscure . . .

. . . but since we only had an hour we decided to each pick three of our favorites to share.

We hoped we introduced you to something thrilling in the herstory of spy-fi sheroes and female dicks in comics.

After I introduced the presentation, Trina started in the 1940s with her talk, Fighting Women’s Fashions: Marla, Rio, and Honey – and I joined her in the 1960s, with my Anti-Bonds and the Female Dick: Subverting, and Reinforcing, Gender Expectations in Spy-Fiction and Detective Genres. We then had time for a very brief Q&A and were joined by the wonderful artist, Cynthia Martin — who is doing work on Moonstone’s Honey West comic book.

Part Two – Coming Up!

In 1960s Britain, even before the Bond Phenomenon was
ignited by film adaptations
of Ian Fleming’s novels about a rakish secret government agent, a spy-fi woman was kicking ass in a daily news strip. She dealt in espionage, but never worked in an official capacity, preferring instead to handle matters on her own terms.

This woman was the extraordinary Modesty Blaise.*

At the same time the producers of the then-fledging British television series, The Avengers, recognized that the time was ripe for a female adventurer of complexity, independence and sexual sophistication – which we saw in Honor Blackman’s Dr. Catherine Gale – O’Donnell was thinking on a serendipitous wavelength. His spy-fi creation, Modesty Blaise, debuted in England in 1963 and appeared in newspaper strips and novels for over 40 years; all written by O’Donnell himself.

Modesty is a survivor, a force of nature, an ex-crime boss, and a loyal friend. She was born out of glamour girl news strips and British espionage stories—but Modesty is neither a nearly-naked ditz, nor, as she has often been called, a “female Bond.” She is one of the great literary characters of the 20th Century. And yet, though she has both subtly infiltrated—and overtly influenced—European and American popular culture, and was a groundbreaking and progressive character that rivaled the other spy-fi icons she was so often compared to, the name, Modesty Blaise, remains practically unknown to an American audience; and is increasingly distanced from a British one.

Prior to her debut, O’Donnell wrote other newspaper strips, as well as romantic serials for women’s magazines. In the mid-1950’s, he was hired alongside Jim Holdaway—a former advertising illustrator, to take over work on Romeo Brown—a detective strip that frequently featured women in various states of undress and who were much in the tradition ofNorman Pett’s, Jane (1932-1959). O’Donnell and Holdaway collaborated on the title for seven years, and became close friends in the process.

In 1962, O’Donnell was asked by the Daily Express to create an original strip for their paper. For the project he was interested in bringing the two genres he had been working in together; “big superhero types” like Garth and Tug Transom, combined with the stories he wrote for the women’s market. Like William Moulton Marston before him, who created the character of Wonder Woman to counter the preponderance of “big,” “male,” “superheroes,” O’Donnell observed that the time was ripe for an audience to be receptive to a feminine woman who would be as good in combat as any male—often better—though unlike Marston his creative choice seems to have been made out of playful ingenuity rather than a sociopolitical agenda.

O’Donnell scripted the first 8 weeks of a story arc for his female adventurer and artist Frank Hampson, of Dan Dare fame, was hired to draw the strip. Though talented, Hampson thoroughly misinterpreted the character. Modesty looked like a grown-up girl sleuth, when she needed to be naughtier, more exotic, and less British. O’Donnell convinced the Express that Holdaway would be a more appropriate artist. He was, and his work has long since been praised by writers, artists, and critics for his masterful and cinematographic use of black and white.

When the strip was ready to print, the Express backed out at the last minute when someone came to the conclusion that the exploits of a “woman of the underworld” wasn’t appropriate material for a family oriented newspaper. Fortunately, Charles Wintour, an editor at the Evening Standard, picked up Modesty Blaise for his paper, where the strip stayed for 38 years.

O’Donnell believed that Modesty’s character had to be ingrained in her bone; that she would have experienced a childhood of struggle, yet had an innate will to survive. Her backstory was inspired by an encounter O’Donnell had with a young female refugee while he was stationed in Persia during World War II. His unit had shared some food with what appeared to be an orphaned child, and even provided rations for her tiny traveling bundle. She gave thanks and went on her way, all of age twelve, and all alone. O’Donnell never forgot her, and it was this girl’s brave spirit he channeled into Modesty’s fictional past.

Modesty Blaise, then, is a refugee from Hungary, whose parents were killed—a tragedy that resulted in amnesia for the homeless child. She traveled alone for over a year until she met a Jewish man in his fifties named Lob at a displaced persons camp. Lob had been a professor in Bucharest prior to the war and though intellectually brilliant, he wasn’t equipped to protect himself from the threat of other, more desperate refugees. The wild child took him under her protection, and they traveled the Middle East together. She provided food and safety. He gave her an education, and her name, Modesty; which was given in irony to a girl who held no shame about her body, naked or clothed. Her last name she gave herself, Blaise, after Merlin’s tutor from the Arthurian legends. Lob died when Modesty was 17. She buried him in the desert and moved on, once again alone, to the city of Tangiers.

For two years she worked the roulette table at a casino in Tangiers owned by a man named Henri Louche, who also ran a crime gang. On the night of Louche’s murder by a rival gang, a 19-year-old Modesty took over his organization. She rallied Louche’s employees and built up the small time gang into a global syndicate called, “The Network.” But while the underworld was their playground, Modesty had her own sense of morality, which governed their dealings. She made sure The Network never dealt in vice; those who disobeyed this rule through the sale of drugs, women, or children were either delivered to the authorities or their graves.

While in Saigon on Network business, Modesty came across a man named Willie Garvin who became Modesty’s right arm in The Network, and her closest companion. “Princess” was what he, and he alone, would always call her.

On a side note, O’Donnell’s introduction to Titan’s 2004 reprint of his first Modesty Blaise strip story, “La Machine,” tells how he was looking for somebody to give Jim Holdaway as a model for the physical appearance of Willie Garvin. One evening he was watching a televised performance of the play, “Hobson’s Choice” and thought of one of the actors, “[T]his bloke would do good for looks.” The next morning O’Donnell called the BBC and asked for the agent of the man he’d seen, hoping he could sit in as a model. The actor was Michael Caine.

The response from the operator at the BBC was, “Michael who, was that?”

O’Donnell has said that “Modesty and Willie aren’t superheroes, they don’t always get things right and they can end up in a hopeless situation.” But, as any reader can see, they are “fantastic”—especially when you start to add up their varied talents. Modesty is adept in both armed and unarmed combat, often employing obscure and concealed weapons. She is compassionate, yet has a capacity for ruthlessness that is tempered only by her sense of justice. She will kill anyone who hurts a friend. She is a self-proclaimed “compulsive payer of debts,” and has a progressive attitude towards race, class, and spiritual beliefs. And Modesty rewards loyalty; upon dissolution of The Network in order to retire at age 26, she made sure each of her employees would receive either a pension or a branch of the organization.

Modesty is completely comfortable in her skin, whether she’s fighting, nude, or fighting while nude. She is fully present in her body, recognizing it as a source of pleasure, a weapon, and a gift to give. The most infamous way that Modesty’s body, sexuality, and confidence come together as perfect weapon is in a technique she calls, “The Nailer” –a particularly action femme move. (Though it should be noted that seduction is only one of many of Modesty & Willie’s tools. They both do it, but it’s not their only skill, as is often the case with vixens, femme fatales, vamps, and lotharios.)

The Nailer involves Modesty stripping to her waist to reveal her lovely, bare breasts, while Willie sneaks around back of whomever it is they’re set to take down. Modesty walks into the room, the men are stunned, a few extra seconds are bought that enable Willie to chill them—the villains are Nailed.

Willie Garvin is an expert with knives, crafting them himself, along with all of the pair’s requisite spy gadgets. He always wins at cards, can bend steel with his bare hands, and is mildly precognitive. He can quote at length from the Bible, having spent a year in prison with only a Psalter to read. He also speaks Pidgin English and can mimic voices to perfection.

Modesty and Willie have one of the most unique relationships in popular culture, and their humanity and friendship are the foundation of their adventures. They’re soul mates; inseparable and symbiotic. They trust and know one another completely, but they aren’t lovers. They’ve never indulged in a sexual relationship—never will. And unlike Steed and Peel, or Mulder and Scully, we want it that way. Their friendship is a large part of what makes them compelling.

The deadly duo work hard, taking out dangerous criminals, drug dealers, and diabolical masterminds through a combination of martial arts, money, connection & influence, ingenuity and verve. But they also play hard—a tough caper might be alleviated by a turtle race in the ocean, or perhaps a go-cart ride at dawn. Few have the skills to live so confidently—and the world truly is the oyster of Blaise and Garvin.

The pair have been called “criminals with hearts of gold,” a description which is only partly true, as when we first meet them, Modesty and Willie are retired from crime. More accurately, they’ve always walked a fine line between criminality and heroism—always leaning towards the moral side, if not necessarily the legal one.

Sir Gerald Tarrant, of the British Secret Service, was savvy enough to recognize that the pair wouldn’t be content to remain idle, and that they could be an asset to Her Majesty’s government. But Modesty is no one’s agent, and where she goes Willie follows. They do help Sir Tarrant out, personally and professionally, but never in an official capacity. And they are grateful to him for helping them realize they need adventure every now and then; they crave danger, intrigue, problem-solving, and hand-to-hand combat. It’s who they are.

As mentioned already, Modesty has frequently, and erroneously, been referred to as “the feminine answer to James Bond.” The Evening Standard once wrote that “Comparisons of Modesty with James Bond are irresistible. The similarities are marked—the restless changing scenes, the ingenuity of both sides, the violence, the surging confidence in telling.” But these are superficial similarities; part and parcel of the genre, and those who claim that Modesty is a female James Bond—which O’Donnell has firmly stated is “the last thing she is” thoroughly misunderstand his creation. Modesty is the antithesis of Bond.

One must of course acknowledge, as O’Donnell does, that Bond is a worthy icon, but “he only exists for the period of the mission he’s on—he doesn’t have a home, interests, friends.” Indeed, while Bond has a residence, a housekeeper, silver and china, he’s indifferent to comforts which give others pleasure or a sense of security—the sensations of living. He may play cards, sleep with beautiful women, and indulgently imbibe, but one gets the feeling he couldn’t care less about any of it. Modesty, on the other hand, is capable of truly experiencing the moment. She enjoys her luxuries, as much as she enjoys sharing them. As O’Donnell notes, unlike Bond, “she’s got a small circle of close friends . . . interests and . . . a life that goes on in the background and is interspersed with, not missions, but events that she falls into for one reason or another.”

Over the years Modesty Blaise has branched out into other media. A terrible, terrible movie, directed by Joseph Losey, was released in 1966. O’Donnell claims it makes his nose bleed just to think of it. Indeed, the failures of the 1966 Joseph Losey film are legendary; characters are miscast, misread, and misrepresented. Fight scenes are poorly choreographed; stunt doubles are embarrassingly obvious. The ultimate offense was, the quality of the material O’Donnell created certainly had the potential to rival the Bond franchise. If the movie had stayed true to character, tone, and genre, Modesty Blaise could have been as well known. But the Joseph Losey film single-handedly prevented the property from reaching an American audience—one which was already in the midst of a profitable spy craze.

A good thing did come out of the movie. O’Donnell was able to use the story he had done for the original film script for the first in what would become a series of 11 novels and 2 collections of short stories detailing Modesty and Willie’s capers, exploits, and adventures—even their demise. The final collection of short stories came out in 1996 and was titled, Cobra Trap, which was also the name of what O’Donnell imagined as the final story for Modesty and Willie. He wanted to create a suitable end for the pair, and didn’t want their fate to end up in the hands of another writer. And who can blame him? They had been his companions for forty years. O’Donnell sets the story far in the future and says of his choice, “I concluded that they would want to go out doing something really useful, not saving the world James Bond-style, but something on a small scale that was worth doing, saving lives in way, and together. . . Quite a number of fans haven’t been able to bring themselves to read that last story . . . those who have usually say that it was right; it was the suitable ending for them. It was the kind of ending that they would have wanted.” I can tell you it was.

On a side note, while writing the Modesty strips & novels, O’Donnell was also writing a series of romance novels under the pseudonym, Madeline Brent. The true identity of “Ms. Brent” remained a secret until the mid-1990s.

Since the original Modesty Blaise fiasco, several prominent creators of popular culture have expressed interest in making a filmic adaptation that would remain truer to its source. Sandman creator Neil Gaiman has glowingly said, “I fell in love with Peter O’Donnell’s astonishing heroine, Modesty Blaise, when I was twelve,” adding that as he grew up he “also came to admire the craft with which she was brought to the world, the lunatic skills of her creator, and, last of all, I found the comic strips, where she started, and discovered just how much of what I loved about Modesty was there from the beginning….”

Gaiman wrote a treatment for the novel, I, Lucifer, and apparently even started actual script work. Luc Besson was rumored to direct the picture.

Quentin Tarantino, a long-time fan of Modesty Blaise, was rumored to direct the film version of another novel, A Taste For Death—an intense, emotional, improbable, paranormal, and wicked deadly story that would have been a fitting venture for the frenetic auteur—but unfortunately the project has never come to fruition.

Tarantino, however, was tangentially involved in the B-movie, My Name is Modesty, directed by his occasional cohort, Scott Spiegel. The movie is an original story, which O’Donnell was consulted on, that centers on the night Henri Louche is murdered at his casino and how a young Modesty manages to save a group of hostages from similar demise. Alexandra Staten plays a convincing Modesty by conveying the essential characteristics we’d hope to see in a filmic embodiment; compassion, resolve, wile, bravery, and yes, of course, ass-kicking.

Spiritual Descendents
Once established in their respective media, Cathy Gale and Modesty Blaise no doubt influenced each other—but what’s especially interesting is that they emerged at nearly the same time. It was a cultural moment; a zeitgeist collision of changing social values which were reflected in popular culture. Women’s lib was around the corner, and subsequent representations of extraordinary women in modern mythology would be modeled after Cathy, Mrs. Emma Peel, and Modesty. These women combined intelligence, femininity, independence, and agency with confidence in their sexuality and a sophisticated style.

Their legacy deserves some attention, Modesty’s in particular, because she is so little known, yet has had such a wide influence. Therefore her contribution to a pop culture lineage of spy-fi superwomen will receive special attention in the following paragraphs.

Ms. Diana Prince
Members of the team of writers and artists who worked on Wonder Woman during her Spy-Fi era (Issues 178-204) have acknowledged that Mrs. Peel’s style was inspiration for the mod direction taken with the new Diana Prince, and this is most evident in her hairstyle, her Emmapeelers, and in her partner I Ching’s bowler and brolly.

But the spy era issues show that Diana has a striking amount of Modesty in her as well. Definitive evidence that images, story arcs, or characteristics were borrowed from Modesty Blaise are difficult to come by but those in the American comics industry would likely have had access to reprints of British strips—no matter obscure they may have been in the States. A few examples are in order because while the physical style may be Peel, the attitude can, at times, be very Blaise.

Like Modesty, Diana works outside of the law and will kill if she feels it’s just.
She uses yogic trances to preserve her resources—which is a technique Modesty learned from her guru, Sivaji; and she travels the world much like the globally sophisticated Blaise, while Peel remained in the UK.

Maybe O’Donnell directly influenced Mike Sekowsky and Denny O’Neil—he certainly inspired other mythmakers. But perhaps a definitive answer to the question is irrelevant when popular culture is so porous.

Ororo Munroe (a.k.a Storm)
The influence is much clearer with Ororo Munroe. X-Men writer Chris Claremont has shrugged off his appropriation of Modesty’s origin story for the character of Storm by saying “If you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best.”

In Uncanny X-Men #102, we learn that Ororo, like her spiritual ancestor, was an orphan who traveled alone and by foot, until meeting up with a man who would become her mentor. (But while Lob was a scholar, Achmed el-Gibar was a master thief.)

In an article for Back Issue, Peter Sanderson suggests that “Modesty Blaise is the prototype for today’s female action heroes” and that “it should be no surprise that Modesty Blaise was an important influence on Claremont’s own depictions of independent, capable, heroines.”

Ms. Tree
Ms. Tree ran non-stop for fifteen years, making it the longest running detective comic book of all time. Max Allan Collins based the initial story on the idea that Mickey Spillane’s P.I., Mike Hammer, finally married the gun-packing, tough-as-nails Velda. Collins, who co-created Ms. Tree with artist Terry Beatty explains:

“The central notion was that the tough private eye and his loyal secretary, his unrequited love for years and years, would finally get married, only for the P.I. to be murdered on their wedding night, leaving the secretary to take over the detective agency and step into her late husband’s shoulder holster. The private eye’s murder would be the former secretary’s first case.”

Collins notes that the character of Ms. Tree owes a nod to Modesty as well. He and Beatty were intrigued by the idea of “An American Modesty Blaise” for their detective series, who would be to private eyes what Modesty is to spies.

In Die Another Day (2002) Halle Berry starred as “Jinx,” a role that director, Lee Tamahori, says he modeled on Modesty Blaise in hopes the character would be “as kick-ass as Bond.” Unfortunately, the result was a poor excuse for a Modesty wannabe, rather than a unique, or even intriguing, homage.

The Bride & Kill Bill
Though A Taste for Death never reached production, Tarantino’s love of Modesty was clearly subsumed into the character of Beatrix Kiddo—also known as “The Bride” in Kill Bill. In Kiddo, we see Modesty’s intention, ingenuity, and controversial justice. (Plus, lot’s of killer sword fighting.)

Uma Thurman’s Bride succeeds where Halle Berry’s Jinx failed—Kiddo is a compelling homage. She’s Modesty in her guts; unafraid, undeterred, and always stylish.


The following examples, like Diana Prince, are unconfirmed descendents, but also likely candidates. Regardless of whether or not Modesty directly influenced these superwomen, she certainly influenced the Spy-Fi genre, and is therefore still a spiritual predecessor to them.

When thinking of female orphans who are innate survivors it makes sense to suggest that “Mathilda”—from Luc Besson’s 1994 film Leon (also known as The Professional)—may be a spiritual relative of Modesty.

Observation is the only formal evidence of this. But we do know from Besson’s collaboration with Moebius and Mezieres on The Fifth Element that he is familiar with comics, and as mentioned, the director was rumored to be linked to the I, Lucifer project so he is clearly familiar with Blaise.

Played by a very young, sultry and precocious, Natalie Portman, Mathilda, like Modesty, is fierce, resourceful, cunning, and brave. From the start of their respective quests, both are young girls who don’t just survive –which is a laudable feat unto itself–but seek out and master skills that will make them survivors. They are sexually confident, and combine compassion with the ability to exact just revenge. It’s quite easy to see Mathilda growing up to be a woman very much like Modesty.

Lara Croft
Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft is Modesty incarnate. She’s wicked, rich, beautiful, and shameless. An orphan, a woman of leisure, and a seeker of treasure, Lara, like her spiritual predecessor thrives on danger.

The most obvious Modesty Blaise Moment arrives early in the movie, when we see that Lara, like her spiritual ancestor has an admirably healthy lack of shame. Lara has just taken a shower and her man-servant, Hilary, greats her with a towel and a very feminine sundress.

Lara Croft: Oh… very funny.
Hilary: I’m only trying to turn you into a lady.
Lara Croft: Mm…
(She drops her towel as she walks past him, completely nude, and into her wardrobe)
Hilary: (sighs) And a lady should be modest.

“Yes” replies a mischievous Lara, “a lady should be modest.” (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider)

The two women both exude a combination of sass, confidence, sex and danger.

Sydney Bristow
Sydney Bristow is the daughter of two spies. One is an agent for the CIA, the other worked for the KGB. But she is also the spiritual daughter of Modesty, Cathy, Emma, Honey and Pussy, as the quintesstial feminine spy-fi characteristics established by Bond, The Avengers et. al, have seeped into popular consciousness establishing precedents which have then descended to her.

Sydney, like Modesty and Cinnamon Carter, skillfully uses her body as a tactical distraction. In fact, she frequently used variations on Modesty’s “Nailer” technique. For example, in the series Season Four opener of Alias, “Authorized Personnel Only,” Sydney, who has “accidentally” been booked in the same sleeping cabin as her mark on a train, emerges from the bathroom clad in a white negligee. With a blonde wig and Swedish accent she forces his focus to her, and her alone, as she coos in broken English, “Is dis okay for me? I just got it.” It’s not a full-on bare-breasted stunner, but her physical beauty and hypnotizing sexuality perform the same function. They’re arresting, and her audience is nailed.

Alias plays with the genres that O’Donnell combined to create Modesty Blaise—the concept of a superhero, or at the very least, a superwoman, with romance and high drama. Syd is much more emotionally volatile than the cool, cool Modesty, but they do share a fierceness not to be reckoned with. It was inevitable that Modesty aficionado Tarantino would write and star in a number of episodes. In 2002, he told Rolling Stone that, “Alias delivers what The Man From U.N.C.L.E. always promised. It actually lives up to the coolness of its potential.” The author of the piece, a profile on Jennifer Garner, noted that while the actress has a stunt double (Shauna Duggins) she also does most of Sydney’s fight sequences herself. He writes, this can be much trickier when you’re showing off cleavage and that “it brings to mind the old quote about how Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. Likewise, Garner is Jackie Chan in a slinky cocktail dress.” (Rather than commending her talents by comparing her to a talented male, let’s just acknowledge that Garner kicks ass—backwards and in heels.)

The rare and admirable accomplishment of Alias was that it could show Sydney in any number of dominatrix wear, school-girl outfits, rubber dresses, wigs, sexy librarian glasses, thigh-high boots, high-heeled shoes, and high-tech catsuits and not have it detract from her power. Sexuality may have been her weapon, but it was never her source. Her aliases were a playful nod to genre conventions, but it was also stressed that Sydney was a well-trained government agent. Athletic, intelligent, skilled in various martial arts and weaponry (which, unlike Rigg, Garner actually trained for) and fluent in at least a dozen different languages, Sydney had friends, was a kick-ass mom, a kick-ass daughter and had an admirable sense of justice, compassion, and integrity. Unlike many of her spiritual predecessors, Sydney Bristow was allowed a multi-dimensionality that made her sexuality just a part of her—rather then the reason for her being.

Admittedly, marketing to a heterosexual male audience could not be completely avoided. When Garner became pregnant, she wanted to go undercover as a “big, fat, man.” Despite her pleas, the producers refused. And as Leigh Adams Wright, points out in her contribution to Alias Assumed: Sex, Lies and SD-6, “there’s a difference in the ways men and women on Alias perform their espionage duties. Vaughn never has to flirt with the door guy; Dixon may have to wear dreads once in a while, but he’s always fully clothed.” She adds that, “It’s only Sydney and her fellow female agents who end up parading around half naked and charming their way past high-tech security systems into top-secret labs . . . feminine wiles are a favorite weapon in the Alias female spy’s arsenal.”


In the interplay of popular culture, of new ideas and borrowed ones, of zeitgeists, cultural trends, swipes, homages, and amalgamations, Modesty is a feminist archetype in the spy genre, as well as a groundbreaking female action hero. In laying out where she’s come from and who she’s linked to, it’s clear that Modesty Blaise has inspired representations of phenomenal, mythic women who’ve come after her. And perhaps she can rightly be seen as a “missing link.” Like other female action heroes who are better known (at least in America; Wonder Woman, Foxy Brown, Ellen Ripley, and Buffy Summers to name a few) who have pushed the boundaries of their respective genres to further enhance the world of pop culture it is important to include Modesty Blaise in a mythical, matriarchal lineage in order to better see how porous and connected modern myth is.
* * * * *

Peter O’Donnell passed away yesterday, just 2 weeks after his 90th birthday. He died peacefully in his sleep, and is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren, and Modesty Blaise fans the world over. I will always be grateful to him for creating the most complex, resilient, kick-ass, yet compassionate, inspirational, and sophisticated female hero of all time.

* The majority of this article was based on a presentation for the Comic Arts Conference called The Princess of Spy-Fi: A Critical and Historical Overview of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. Please remember and respect that no part of this may be reprinted without express permission of the author.

I’m sad to share that I received an email this morning from a friend of Peter O’Donnell’s that he died quietly and peacefully in his sleep yesterday morning – just two weeks after his 90th birthday.

He leaves a widow, Constance, two daughters, grandchildren, and a globe of Modesty Blaise fans.

Funeral details have not yet been arranged, though the event will likely take place in mid-May and in Brighton, East Sussex.

Modesty Blaise is my favorite superwoman of all time and is quite a special character to me. As the spy-fi heroine of O’Donnell’s comic strip and novels, she is the most complex, rounded, and unique superwoman I’ve yet to come across — and I just love her. She is little known here in the US, but has been influential in the creation of our pop culture: from Ororo Munroe’s back-story to Kill Bill.

More to come on Modesty and O’Donnell later today, but for now here’s a link to a post I wrote on the 1966 Modesty Blaise film for my Grrrl on Film blog for Bitch.

Modesty Blaise: Princess of Spy-fi

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I will be presenting on Modesty Blaise
at this year’s Comic Arts Conference at Wonder Con. I’m scheduled for Sunday.

1:00-2:30 Comic Arts Conference Session 8: Forebearers and Survivors— Doug Highsmith (California Sate University, East Bay) focuses on the changes and revamps made to post-World War II comic books in an effort to reverse flagging sales. Jennifer Stuller (Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors) provides a critical history of spy-fi princess Modesty Blaise, and finds evidence of her inspiration in modern heroines. Room 228/230
Categories: Comic Arts Conference | Comic Books