modesty blaise


A reprint of the first three Modesty Blaise comic strips.

Publisher: Titan
Original publication years: 1963-1964
Titan publication year: 2004

I’ve been reading Modesty Blaise since I was a teenager but I’ve never read the strips in publication order, just in the haphazard way I go them in Finnish editions. Here, most were published in the Agentti X9 comic book which had one MB comic and three others, usually Rip Kirby, Corrigan, and other secret agents. Eventually, Modesty got her own albums but even in them, the stories weren’t in chronological order. I also don’t have all of them, but I have some albums and a stack of Agentti X9 comics. Also, I still have a couple of full adventures which I cut out from Finnish newspapers.

The Titan album has the first three strips: “La Machine,” “The Long Lever”, and “Gabriel Set-Up”. It also seems to have the short “In the Beginning” strip which tells Modesty’s tragic backstory as an orphan refugee struggling to survive to adulthood and then her rise to leading the criminal organization the Network and then retiring.

Even the first comic has all the ingredients that I love: a terrible enemy who seems almost impossible to defeat, clever schemes from Modesty and Willie, and really high stakes. What is missing is the occasional whimsical humor which made some of the later comics really memorable for me. But from the start, Modesty’s moral code is clear: she hates it when people are used, she especially hates drugs and prostitution and even took down those criminal organizations when she was a crime boss. She’s fiercely loyal to her people and defends them with her life, if needs be. Willie’s her right hand man.

MB is a newspaper comic strip, which makes the form very restricted. It’s black and white, in three panels. O’Donnell, who created Modesty and wrote all her stories, was already an experienced strip writer when he came up with Modesty and it shows. The panels are clear (at least when the printing is of good quality) and no panel is wasted.

“La Machine” is an introduction to Modesty and her world. Sir Gerald Tarrant, who is the head of British intelligence, comes to Modesty asking for a favor: to take down a French-based ruthless and efficient murder ring called la Machine. Tarrant has information that he could’ve used to blackmail Modesty but instead he destroyed the evidence. Modesty always pays her debts. So, she and Willie cook up a scheme to put Willie as a target for la Machine. They stage a public fight and Modesty puts a murder contract out on Willie.

This was a very good beginning. It showcases all the things Modesty and Willie are known for: they’re extraordinary loyalty to and faith in each other, their cool heads when in danger, and their fighting skills, especially with martial arts and Willie’s extraordinary skill with knives.

In the “Long Lever” Tarrant has a job for Willie but Willie won’t take it unless Modesty agrees. When she finds out what it’s about, she wants in. Dr. Kossuth is a former Hungarian citizen who was put in a horrible refugee camp. He managed to escape and flee to US. Now, he’s been kidnapped presumably to take him back to Hungary. The CIA has a lead: he might be on a yacht owned by a millionaire who needs money. Modesty and Willie are pretending to be a shipwrecked couple and search the ship. If they find Kossuth, they’ll try to free him.

“The Gabriel Set-up” introduces a bit more eccentric villain although not as over the top as some of the later ones: Gabriel whom even his own men fear. Gabriel has been working of a long time and has a large organization. This time, his minions have set up a health spa. However, Gabriel’s doctors use hypnosis to uncover secrets from their customers which include British government officials and very rich individuals. Even Tarrant is hesitant to engage Gabriel but Modesty goes to the spa to investigate. It’s near US border in Canada. Gabriel’s scheme isn’t easy to find out and he’s a formidable enemy.

Meanwhile, Willie has been working as a lumber jack nearby and is dating the daughter of the timber lord. Marjorie is an explosive blonde who has grown quite of Willie. When Modesty appears, Marjorie is jealous but Modesty quickly explains to her that Modesty isn’t a competitor and that Willie’s not the sort to stay with one girl. This is the first comic where we see that both Modesty and Willie have other partners and aren’t going to stay with just one person. Neither of them makes any secret of it to anyone they’re dating.

Several of the strips use characters who have ESP-type powers. Here the enemy uses hypnosis and only when the victim has been put into a receptive state.

These were all enjoyable reads even if none of them are my very favorites. They’re full of action, very James Bond type adventure except that I like Modesty and Willie (and many of the side characters) far more.

The fourth Modesty Blaise adventure.

Publication year: 1969
Format: print
Page count: 288
Publisher: Souvenir Press

This time we start with Willie Garvin. He’s on a holiday at a remote island on Panama when he accidentally witnesses two men murdering one girl and kidnapping another. He’s too far away to stop the murder but he manages to rescue the other girl. He kills the two men and hides the girl. She turns out to be blind and she doesn’t know why they wanted to kidnap her. She’s Dinah Pilgrim and she’s smart, brave, and resourceful in her own way.

It turns out that the man behind the murder-kidnap is Gabriel who was the main villain in the very first Modesty Blaise book. And Gabriel knows our heroes and really wants them dead. However, Gabriel himself is working for someone even worse.

Meanwhile, Modesty is back in England, entertaining Stephen Collier. Sir Gerard Tarrant asks them to see an old friend of his who is worried that something strange in happening at an archeological dig at Alger. But that old friend turns out to be dead, supposedly broken neck from falling down stairs and when Willie calls for help, Modesty leaves to Panama. Of course, things escalate.

This is one of the best books in the series, full of action, humor, and the best secondary characters. Steve’s wry, self-deprecating humor is used to relieve tension and he’s a good POV character. Modesty and Willie are at the top of their game, having to rescue others and keep them alive.

There’s no character development for Modesty and Willie, but there isn’t any in the whole series.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.

Publication year: 1982
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2012
Translator: Veli-Pekka Ketola
Format: print
Page count: 275
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Jalava

Modesty Blaise was a very successful criminal when she was younger. She rose quickly to lead her own criminal organization, the Network. But there were certain criminal activates she didn’t do, and she even brought down other criminals engaged in them. Her Network dealt mainly with espionage, smuggling, and jewels. The beginning of this story reveals how Modesty told her closest men that she’s going to retire and how they did their last job together. For a while now, Modesty has wanted to bring down Bora who deals with drugs and human trafficking. So, as her last gig she does exactly that, with the help of Willie Garvin and some of her men.

Years later, Modesty, Sir Gerard Tarrant, Professor Steven Collier, and his blind wife Dinah are enjoying a night out when they are shot with a crossbow bolt. Modesty manages to deal with the man responsible but he’s later killed in police custody. The hit could have been against either Modesty herself or Tarrant who is head of Britain’s intelligence. Modesty decides to disappear. Later, there’s another attempt against Tarrant’s life which Willie manages to stop, barely.

When Modesty is vacationing in San Francisco, she runs into an old friend but unwittingly puts him into great danger. Because of that Modesty and Willie become entangled with the dangerous plans of a cruelly efficient organization known only as the Watchmen. They have taken credit for variou terrorist attacks in the names of different causes, so nobody knows what they really want or who they are.

This is another great adventure. This time some of the elements which I don’t like are missing, so I enjoyed it even more than usual. However, I don’t remember Willie having a photographic memory before.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.

Publication year: 1976
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1998
Translator: Jussi Nousiainen
Format: print
Page count: 300
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava

This time Modesty is kayaking in wilderness in US with her lover billionaire John Dall. Suddenly two men appear, heavily armed. They kill Dall’s and Modesty’s guide and try to kidnap them. However, Modesty manages to surprise them and kills them instead. But she doesn’t know who sent them or why.

Meanwhile, Willie’s friend Maude Tiller has gone through a traumatic mission. Maude is a female secret agent, working for Tarrant, and both Modesty and Willie care for her. Tarrant asks Willie to help her but she won’t let him.

But soon Modesty finds out that her old friend Danny Chavasse isn’t dead, like she thought, but was kidnapped three years ago. In fact, Danny and some other people are in a slave plantation in South America, forced to work for the pleasure of a madwoman. Of course, Modesty and Willie have to rescue him and the others. That, of course, is very hard.

It’s a Modesty adventure: lots of fantastic violence, some sex, some humor, and superheroic Modesty and Willie in action. If you like them and the previous adventures, you’re likely to like this one, too. However, this story doesn’t have any new elements so it might feel repetitive. But it does have several recurring characters whom I enjoyed a lot. In addition to John Dall and Maude, there’s Steve Collier and his wife.

Maude is another action heroine but she a more normal person than Modesty. Still, Maude’s loyal, skilled, and determined. What’s not to like?

The treatment of rape is still problematic, tough. Once again, Modesty is put into a situation where she has to allow the enemies to use her body but she’s able to just shrug it off because of her mental powers. This is a trend and change from the comics which I hate. Otherwise, this an enjoyable action book.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.
Publication year: 1973
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1997
Translator: Jussi Nousiainen
Format: print
Page count: 251
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava

Sir Gerald Tarrant is in France for a conference and is looking forward to spending a couple of days with Modesty afterwards. But on his way to Modesty, his car is stopped and his driver forces him out. A strange blond man, Mr. Sexton, and a couple of fake nuns kidnap him. They also fake Tarrant’s death. They could have gotten away with it, too, except that a former pilot, Henry Quinn, has been nearby hiking and fell the previous day. He hurt himself and couldn’t leave, so he witnesses most of it. But he has a concussion and passes out.

When Modesty is later searching the area, she finds Quinn and gets him to safety. This includes overcoming three thugs who had been sent to silence Quinn. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what he knows and just leaves him to a hospital. Meanwhile, Willie’s girlfriend Lady Janet Gilliam has a problem: someone is blackmailing her sister. Willie and Modesty agree to look into her problem.

This is mostly a highly entertaining thriller. However, the main plot doesn’t kick in until around half-way when Modesty finds out that Sir Gerald is still alive. Personally, I liked the events leading up to it. But I didn’t like Quinn. Quite frankly, he was an asshole. When Modesty saves him (several times) that’s apparently too much for his male ego and he gets mad at her. This is apparently excused by some traumatic events he’s lived through before. Still, Modesty remains patient with him, almost saintly. Otherwise, I enjoyed the book a lot. I even enjoyed the plot twist which saddled Modesty and Willie with several people to protect. One of the best in the series so far. I’ve also read the story as a comic.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.

Publication year: 1971
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1997
Format: print
Page count: 319
Translator: Jukka Kemppinen
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava

Modesty Blaise is flying on a rented airplane over Kalimba, in Central Africa, and crash lands. She gets help from a nearby village where a missionary couple and a doctor are staying. Doctor Giles Pennyfeather has a lot of patients because of a bus accident nearby. He has medical training but very little in resources so Modesty ends up staying and helping him. Giles is a kind, honest, and decent man but also clumsy in both relationships and when moving around, and Modesty ends up liking him quite a lot. He also has an uncanny ability to heal his patients.

Then the local police orders all westerners to leave. But before Giles and Modesty can go (on Modesty’s plane), two thugs attack Giles. Modesty manages to fight them off. It turns out that a short while ago, the missionaries found a white man who had been terribly tortured. The thugs are convinced that the man told something to Giles but Giles insists that he didn’t.

The thugs work for a ruthless crime boss called Brunel. He’s a very short man but emotionless and specializes in brainwashing people to work to him. And now he wants Modesty to work for him and Willie dead.

The story almost has a two parts: the first part is set in London after Giles and Modesty return there. Brunel has documents which are dangerous to Sir Gerald Tarrant and Modesty wants to retrieve them. I really enjoyed the first part which has some hilarious moments but the rest is a very good Modesty Blaise -yarn, too. It has some quirky secondary characters, appalling villains, and lots of excitement. One of the best in the series so far.

A Modesty Blaise adventure.
Publication year: 1967
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1967
Format: print
Page count: 311
Translator: Jukka Kemppinen
Publisher of the Finnish translation: Otava

This time Modesty and Willie encounter a young man who has talents in ESP. The man is called Lucifer and an exceptionally ruthless man Seff, and his wife Regina, have acquired, perhaps kidnapped, Lucifer and are using him to their own ends. Apparently, Lucifer’s mind has fractured (he’s called paranoid in the book) and he really thinks that he’s the devil and the people around him are his diabolical servants. He has the ability to foretell who is going to die and he can also use this ability to stay ahead of his opponent in a fight. However, he’s not an evil and has no malicious intent. Seff and his crew are able to use Lucifer’s delusions to their advantage and they’ve come up with a blackmail scheme. If the blackmail subjects don’t pay, Seff’s underlings kill them. The blackmail subjects are also told about the people whom Lucifer has predicted will die and told that the subjects will die themselves if they don’t pay. Seff and his wife use very strange puppet shows to enhance Lucifer’s delusions.

Rene Vaubois, the head of the French Deuxieme Bureau and Modesty’s friend, is being blackmailed. He’s not rich but he’s a civil servant and the blackmailers want his government to pay. But they don’t. Fortunately, when Seff’s goons attack, Modesty and Willie are there to save Rene. They start to investigate the matter.

At the same time, Modesty has a new friend Steven Collier. He claims to be a metallurgist but he actually is researches all sorts of supernatural skills in humans. He’s interested in Willie’s danger sense especially when it also reacts when Modesty is in danger. However, Modesty travels to Britain in order to investigate the strange blackmailers and leaves Steve behind. But the blackmailers contact Steve because they want Lucifer to be even more accurate than he already is.

This is a fast-paced thriller where the reader knows the people responsible and enjoys the ride towards the final confrontation. Modesty and Willie are their usual almost supernaturally capable people and Steven balances that out.

However, I was troubled by some aspects of the book. Just like in the previous book, Modesty was put into a situation where she had to use sex or “allow” herself to be raped in order to save her life. She doesn’t dwell on it and treats it as just another way to survive which almost makes it more peculiar. In fact, the men around her have harder time accepting it than she which makes it even more peculiar. I don’t remember any of the comic strips using that kind of plot device but I guess it wouldn’t be possible in visual form. Also, we get some strange ideas about gay people. One of the men attacking Modesty near the beginning of the book is a crossdresser and that apparently makes him gay…

Otherwise, this is again a great ride with memorable villains.

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