*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge On the Artists who drew Modesty Blaise


Of the five artists who drew Modesty Blaise 1963-2001, Jim Holdaway (1963-70) was by far the best, while my least favourite was Pat Wright’s brief stunt, one and a half stories (1980). Wright was a good enough artist (rather in the Brian Lewis mode), just not the right (no pun intended) artist for Modesty Blaise – being too light, not enough dark, and strangely flat. Sadly John M. Burns (born 1938) never got to finish “Eve and Adam”, for whatever crazy reason the London Evening Standard editor had for sacking him on the spot. Potentially he was a much better artist than longest-running (and, in consequence, the best-known Modesty artist) Enique (Enric) Badia Romero, as Burns’ two and a half stories, “Yellowstone Booty”, “The Green Cobra”, and even the first half of “Eve and Adam”, shows. Like Holdaway, he was particularly brilliant with faces (I would argue much better than Romero), although his Modesty’s hair-do seemed a bit top-heavy and exaggerated at times! In addition to other projects, Burns illustrated Danielle, a sort of blonde female version of Garth; a more contemporary version of Norman Pett’s original Jane (in the Daily Mirror); and later the early, black and white version of George and Lynne in the Sun. The pity is just how good and underrated he was, and what he might have contributed to the Modesty Blaise stories that followed. The two and half stories he did illustrated showed great potential.

At first my next least favourite after Wright was Neville Colvin (1918-1991), but gradually I’ve come to appreciate him more. His style is often scratchy, messy, and sometimes his stuff could be quite ‘scrappy’. On the plus side, however, as others have remarked, he would occasionally hint at the heyday of Holdaway; for instance, in his rather cinematic ‘pull-back’ images, but, in particular, at the originality of the appearance of characters. However, unlike Holdaway or Romero or John Burns, he wasn’t always particularly confident at drawing sexy females, although his women didn’t all fit into same mode (as with Romero) and his artwork certainly improved over the time-period, 1980-86, while his swansong, “The Double Agent”, is justly a classic, in every way. However, by contrast, if we look at his first story, “Dossier on Pluto”, although he depicted Willie’s latest girlfriend as cuddly and sexy, suddenly Modesty had a really narrow wasp waist – almost like a Victorian lady in a corset! In fairness, Colvin saw himself more as a cartoonist, and he was much more constrained than his predecessors in depicting Modesty minus her clothes, even for the apparent ‘tastes’ of a ‘family newspaper’. However, Holdaway’s Modesty always looked real, flesh and blood, natural, and her facial expressions in particular. Holdaway’s ‘style’ was realism. Burns, like Romero, excelled at the female nude, but (as we will argue below) the Spaniard often made all his non-Modesty women characters, especially the blondes, look rather alike. Ultimately his style was always much more ‘comic strip’.

Unfortunately (facial features aside) Colvin’s Modesty, especially in those early strips, looks, at times, rather like a Barbie doll. While he was good (if not always consistent) at depicting Modesty’s and (for the most part) Willie’s faces (something, in retrospect, I started to appreciate more also with his other characters), there were times when he could sink into something more like a crude caricature. Examples of this are Tarrant in “Dossier on Pluto” strip 5012A; or Willie, same story, in strip 4937, where they are rendered almost unrecognisable, or at other times distorted. Other examples are: Zahki in “The Lady Killers” strip 5087; Steve Taylor, again in “Pluto” strip 4987; or (perhaps to a lesser extent) occasionally Colonel Greb in “Return of the Mammoth”. Incidentally, another oddity during the Colvin period was Tarrant occasional took to smoking a pipe. Before that (under Holdaway) he always smoke cigars!

Both Holdaway and Burns had a very dramatic style, almost cinematic at times, different angles, sudden close-ups, unusual angles. Wright’s brief tenure, by contrast, was quite static at times. Colvin, in fairness, improved, but never measured up to the master, Holdaway…But then Holdaway was always going to be a hard act to follow.

One of the great things about Holdaway’s Modesty was that she was sexy without ever being tarty or pornographic. At that time (1960s into the 70s), of course he was still quite restrained by what was acceptable in a so-called ‘family’ newspaper. She never intentionally got her kit off like Jane, or Romero’s own later science fiction Axa character in the 1980s – a sort of Logan’s Run type of story, but a naked blonde. Right from the start, however, Modesty dressed and undressed, slept nude, sometimes swam nude, like to have baths and showers, but at most the reader saw only a bare back.

Despite having worked with O’Donnell before (on the Romeo Brown stories) Holdaway was not apparently the editorial first choice. However, we now know that choice to have been offered to Frank Hampson, late of Eagle comic, creator and on/off illustrator (from 1950 until the early 1960s) of “Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future”. Hampson was a wonderful artist in his own right, able to create in magnificent detail exotic worlds, whether it be an alternative Venus, the moons of Saturn, distant planets, or the Biblical story of Jesus. However, science fiction was his forte, and he mostly worked in colour, and on a less restrictive pictorial scale than a newspaper comic strip of three panels per day maximum. Also, although while he was perhaps ahead of his time in introducing the female character of Professor Jocelyn Peabody into a boy’s comic as early as issue No. 5 (May 1950; initially based on fellow team artist Greta Tomlinson), in reality women – and especially sexy women – were simply not his forte. Away from “Dan Dare” or his graphic (if rather over idealised) depiction of the life of Jesus, his style was too prim, too 1940s/50s, more appropriate for Women’s Own magazine. Looking at Hampson’s sketches for the first half a dozen or so episodes, O’Donnell hated it (although, even years later, he remained too much the gentlemen to actually name names), and fortunately he was able to insist on Holdaway instead. It was a splendid choice. Modesty was as much the creation of Holdaway’s penmanship as of O’Donnell’s own imagination.

In fact, Hampson’s Modesty was rather bland and devoid of any eroticism, and the action scenes with the unwanted American would-be boyfriend also rather static, lacking drama. Almost needless to say, Sir Gerald looked remarkably like Sir Herbert Guest, Space Fleet Controller from “Dan Dare”, who had been based on Hampson’s on father. With all due respects to Hampson as an artist (and alas, sadly he never found his niche after being forced out of illustrating “Dan Dare”), we can only be thankful he didn’t get the job of illustrating Modesty! Indeed, in all likelihood, maybe he knew this wasn’t his kind of thing, and probably deliberately didn’t put much ‘heart’ into it!

Holdaway stamped his interpretation of Modesty, Willie Garvin, Sir Gerald Tarrant and Jack Fraser on the characters that no subsequent artist dared to change – but then perhaps Peter O’Donnell would never have sanctioned any such drastic change…especially after the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie, whose Italian actress (Monica Vitti) insisted on being blonde – which was foolish and unfortunate, because with a black wig she actually looked like Modesty. Pity about the butchered script and that Willie Garvin was played by Terence Stamp, who has dark hair. After that debacle, Peter O’Donnell was perhaps right to be protective of his creation.

Continuing on from Holdaway, both the Romero and Burns versions of Modesty were quite erotic, sizzling with sexuality, while keeping her exotic. As the comic strip moved into the less repressed 1970s (at least in the UK, if not the USA), both delighted in depicting her (and occasionally other female characters) in the nude. However, what may have been Burns’ downfall, his wonderful depiction of Lucy Grant in “Yellowstone Booty” had full-on boobs, very daring. But that really justify his instant dismissal in mid-story?

Romero especially, in his second and final period as artist, grew ever more daring throughout the 1980s and 90s, thereby showing a side to her that Peter O’Donnell had previously really only explored in the Modesty Blaise novels. The greatest tragedy was Jim Holdaway’s untimely early death in 1970, midway through the Japanese-based “The War-Lords of Phoenix” story – itself one of the few in the comic strip to be most like a James Bond story, and actually not one of the best of the early Modesty stories. The decision was made to recruit (very quickly) the Spanish (actually Catalonian) artist Enrique (or Enric, as he later styled himself) Badia Romero, despite him being based in Barcelona and speaking little, or no, English.

Unlike the visually jarring Burns/Wright changeover in “Eve and Adam”, he did at first continue the Holdaway style in the second half of the story, perhaps to conceal Holdaway’s demise from the reader. The artists were uncredited until Colvin took over, although Holdaway and Romero both had their ‘signature’ logo. However, in the next story (the less than successful “Willie the Djinn”), he quickly evolving into his own bold, soon to be familiar, style. He was competent and often visually interesting, and – as remarked – the major characters (Modesty, Willie, Sir Gerald Tarrant, Jack Fraser) continued to be recognisable, but, in retrospect, he never quite equalled Holdaway, or had that visual flare for characters Burns showed, even in his all-too-brief tenure.

Later, in the last phase of the Modesty strips from the 1990s to 2001, his style subtly changed again. Personally I think it greatly deteriorated; becoming rather mechanical, less vivid, not so strong perhaps, even crude at times, and more ‘typical’ comic strip. However, even before this period, there were occasionally visual mistakes and a few outright howlers, either through lack of personal knowledge of locations, or either haste or indifference. Eventually his style became lighter, details more scrappy, repetition crept in, and realism seeped away. Perhaps, in truth, Romero had, by then, tired of the strip, and it was more of a chore that brought a regular pay-packet, rather than enjoyable anymore. However, the sheer length of his tenure, and the sexy quality of his depiction of Modesty (including ‘off-story’ nudes – although Holdaway did a few also) has made him the Modesty artist for many.

During that time, the quality and style of O’Donnell’s stories changed also, but strangely (for me) I enjoyed them less when Romeo was the artist after Holdaway. The stories seemed to improve under Burns and Colvin, only to decline again, become darker in both tone and plot, the previous humour less apparent. One thing Peter O’Donnell was good at, in both comic strip and the novels, were villains. They were almost always delightfully evil, but not as merely demented and two-dimensional as Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” villains. At the same time they were often complicated, clever or ruthless geniuses, who often (at least at first) managed to get one step ahead of Modesty and Willie. Time and again, this meant it took that extra measure of intelligence, cunning, skill and literal thinking for our two heroes to finally win out.

Their enemies might be evil, even sometimes a bit crazy, but they were never stupid like comic strip “Garth’s” villains, who often left me wondering how had they ever got to what and where they were supposed to be? The Garth character, too, was brawn rather than brain, and only won in the end because his enemies were so intellectually challenged. There was never that imaginative cleverness to his success, no more than to Fleming’s James Bond. Even in the shorter – and, hence less complex – comic strip stories (or the short stories), that rarely was the case with Modesty. Garth, in his earth-bound or non-science fiction stories, often displayed little forethought or planning, and sometimes idiotic negligence, in a way that was unthinkable with Modesty, who (together with Willie Garvin) was always the intellectual superior.

For much of his career writing Modesty, Peter O’Donnell was a master story-writer, although I personally still think it was the majority of his early comic strip stories that were amongst his very best. Into that category I put “The Long Lever”, “The Gabriel Set-Up”, “Uncle Happy”, “The Red Gryphon”, “The Hell-Makers”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, “The Magnified Man”, even “Mister Sun”. All brilliant stories, clever, complex, challenging, with exceptionally evil (but at that time, still believable) villains who often finished up justly dead.

As we have remarked, both Holdaway and Burns were brilliant at faces. Observe Holdaway’s gallery of emotions on Modesty’s face (strips 184-5, 189-95) in the magnificent “The Long Lever” story; and again (strips 1817-26) in “The Hell-Makers”. And together they created some wonderful heroes and villains: Holdaway’s Gabriel (who, together with Sir Angus McBeal, was the only villain to ‘cross over’ into the novels), Uncle Happy, Gus Fletcher (again a delightful character from “The Hell-Makers”), Korzin in “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, almost all of the characters (both important and peripheral) in “The Red Gryphon”, another excellent, emotive story. Sadly, we have only Burns’ Pandora and the dwarfish but sinister Doctor Vigo, his excellent portrayal of Sir Angus McBeal (“Green Cobra”), Jed Bowley and Mr Hogan (the superb “Yellowstone Booty”) and millionaire Dan Galt in the first half of “Eve and Adam”.

They, together with the clever panel compositions, give a hint at just what was so foolishly lost by Burns’ abrupt, needless dismissal. It’s worth just pausing to look at the handful of ‘cross-over’ strips the Evening Standard secretly commissioned from Pat Wright, his version of the ongoing “Eve and Adam” story, with those of Burns. It’s quite obvious which is the better, which has the drama and most evokes the two lead characters, yet still they dumped Burns and enlisted Wright. One can only speculate just how Burns would have depicted the rest of the story, with its abrupt (and, I think, rather disappointing) plot twist, but, again in retrospect, Wright’s effort is valiant perhaps, but horribly flawed.

Incidentally (given this was 1980) that story at first seemed to very much shake us out of Modesty’s original 1960s time-period and into the contemporary world of space satellites, but it was an idea, however, O’Donnell had previous already used in his 1971 Modesty Blaise novel The Impossible Virgin. Later, especially in the novels, but also in the 1980s/90s technology like mini-computers and mobile phones, that discord between the character’s origins and World War II time-period and apparently still being in her late twenties/early thirties at best, would only get more glaring and obvious. It was – along with the apparent fundamental lack of continuity between strip and novels – the most annoying and disappointing flaw to O’Donnell’s wonderful creation. This is the problem perhaps when an author creates a character (one thinks of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or, more especially Georges Simenon’s Chief-Inspector Maigret), but which is still being writing about two, three or four decades later. Simenon’s Maigret, for example, first appeared in 1930, aged (Simenon immediately informed the reader) 45. Despite ‘retiring’ him at one point in the 1940s (as a Parisian police office he would have retired at 55), Simenon continued to write more Maigret novels throughout the 1950s and 60s (the period, in retrospect, most associated with him) and on into the late-1970s, by which time the still serving Chief Inspector would have been pushing 90! In truth, Simenon’s best writing pre-dated 1965. Most books after that period – the Maigret novels in particular – were inferior, lacking his originality or descriptive magic.

The same was true of Modesty, who we are told in the first comic strip story, “La Machine” (1963), to be “about 26” – hence born c.1937. On that basis, by 2001 (and the last Modesty strip, “The Zombie”) she would be 64, while in the last of the novels, Dead Man’s Handle (1985), she would still have been aged 48. The one exception to this, of course, was the short story “Cobra Trap” (1996), in which Modesty is in her early fifties, and (apparently with an incurable brain tumour) sets out on her final death mission. For most Modesty fans (myself included) it is hardest to read. Indeed, some hardened fans claim they still haven’t read it, deliberately. Given that Modesty could still have been physically active at least into her mid-forties (therefore the late-1970s), O’Donnell could have aged her, while keeping her within the time-frame, and that would have been more credible. Of course the counter-argument is she was just a fictitious character anyway, but O’Donnell often remarked he thought of her otherwise. He remarked on occasion that he was merely her ‘biographer’, or that, on his own travels about the world (presumably places like the USA, France, or Malta, where he also had a villa, like Modesty) he half-expected to see her and Willie sitting in a nearby cafe or restaurant!

Looking back at the first run of Romero (1970-78) one cannot help but wonder how different they might have looked under another artist, like Holdaway, had he lived, or even Burns, for instance. But actually there was another artist working away at about the same time, who might have been equally interesting, both in his interpretation of Modesty and Willie, but also in his visual and physical depiction of other characters – villains especially. To my knowledge no one has suggested this, but what a pity Martin Asbury never got the opportunity to illustrate Modesty. Alas, in our parallel universe, Asbury inherited The Daily Mirror’s “Garth” strip following the tragic death of Frank Bellamy. Asbury was equally competent drawing stories set in the Wild West, Greek mythology, Medieval, Tudor, or eighteenth century England (“Hell-Fire”, about the Hell Fire Club, is especially good), or conventional science fiction (futuristic architecture, spaceships, aliens and alien planets), but it is his ‘contemporary’, mostly crime, “Garth” stories that (for me) peaked my interest (despite, as we have said above, being greatly inferior to Modesty Blaise, or even the earlier, 1940s to 50s-period Buck Ryan stories, drawn by Jack Monk), and got me thinking “If only….”

Three in particular, “The Don’s Daughter”, “Sapphire” and “The Fishermen”, all show Asbury’s ability for the vivid angle or prospective we see with both Holdaway and Burns, but (perhaps more important) was his talent at depicting faces. Compare the early strips of “The Fisherman” in conference, or the wacky (but totally stupid and incompetent) villains in “Sapphire”. They are original, believable, vivid. Sadly (and “Sapphire” is a good example) he was let down by an inferior story and the totally unbelievable beefcake of a hero, who all too often uses muscle rather than much brain, and mostly against the most stupid villains or evil, so-called, geniuses. Even the weakest of O’Donnell’s Modesty stories (and there were a few) was still much better written, cleverer and more intellectually challenging than anything from the “Garth” stable. But I still contend that Asbury might have excelled at illustrating Modesty, had he been given the chance.

Instead let us consider the Neville Colvin period of 1980 to 1986. I’ve already remarked his – at first – shaky ability to depict Modesty’s body (although, even in his first story, he drew two well-proportioned bit-part bikini-clad and nude females); also his tendency to slip into caricature (he thought of himself as a cartoonist first, comic strip artist afterwards), but, while we might wish in vain for the (sometimes over the top) detail of Holdaway, or the strong clarity of Burns, many of his faces or characters are first rate. Consider Gasper in “Dossier on Pluto”; or ‘Comrade Doctors’ Vole and Yago in the rather crazy, but enjoyable, “Garvin’s Travels”; or the Russian diplomats in “The Moon Man”; (and again in his swansong, “The Double Agent”, another excellent story); almost all of the characters in “The Wild Boar” (the French policeman, in particular); or Colonel Spooner in “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”. Colvin’s version of Maude Tiller (who first appeared in “The Puppet Master”, drawn by Romero) is blonde, beautiful, but somehow quite distinct, whereas Romero’s blondes all came to rather look alike, variations of his sexy sci-fi heroine “Axa”.

Probably Colvin’s best creation was the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his blonde girlfriend Aniela. Guido, who has a touch of Salvador Dali about him, is a wonderful and memorable visual creation, who Romero was to later depict, competently enough, but without much flare, in several more later stories. Less successful, however, was Romero’s later depiction of Aniela. As I’ve already remarked, all his blondes (Maude and Aniela especially) somehow looked much like Axa. Go back and look at Colvin’s version, and somehow she actually looks Italian. Again, she is quite distinctive, with an interesting profile.

And this was Romero’s main artistic weakness. Modesty and Willie are OK, although Modesty was still lacking that magic which Holdaway, Burns and even Colvin gave her sometimes, but Romero’s other faces are a bit like well-drawn masks. Just occasionally (like with his blondes, or elderly women characters) they actually start to look alike, as if he had a limited repertoire of faces he merely ‘tweaked’ with different stories. Maybe I’m being unfair, but the best Modesty stories (even in the later period, when the really original clever stories were less frequent) needed a subtly and believability that Romero lacked, Colvin had perhaps 60% of the time, and Holdaway almost every time. In my opinion “Bad Suki” and “The Vikings” were perhaps the least successful of that early fertile Holdaway period, but that was through no fault of Holdaway as an artist.

If one were to divide up the strip into that of the three main artists, I would say Holdaway’s period (1963-1970) has the greatest concentration of the best stories – Peter O’Donnell at full-flight. Even the (mostly introductory) “La Machine” is excellent, and the characters and setting already almost fully formed, while “Mister Sun” saw the introduction of ‘houseboy’ Weng. What followed was newspaper strip comic at its most adult and complex. No wonder the American newspaper editors at the time didn’t ‘get it’, and wanted to cut the length, the clever (and funny) sub-plots, even the ‘naughty’ bits – a naked female back! Horror! Blood and gore, yes. Nudity (especially female nudity) a no-no. As is often the case with British comic strip artists (one thinks of both Hampson and Sydney Jordan, who draw the science fiction “Jeff Hawke” and later “Lance McLean” strips), they are more appreciated in Europe than in Britain. Virtually all of Sydney Jordan’s work has been reproduced in Italian, whereas less than a dozen “Jeff Hawke” stories (mostly from the Willie Patterson scripted period) were reprinted in their original English by Titan Books. Likewise, Modesty was especially popular (both comic and books) in Scandinavia, the comic strips often coloured, and both they and the books with very competent colour covers – we believe at least some by Burns, others by Romero, others but unidentified artists.

Holdaway’s “The Head Girls” (1966) saw the second (and in the strip stories, last) appearance of evil arch-criminal Gabriel, the only villain who also appeared in the novels Modesty Blaise (1966) and in A Taste for Death (1969), when O’Donnell rather briskly killed him off! “The Black Pearl” (1966), set in Chinese-occupied Tibet, followed, and first introducing the more mystic/occultist aspect to some of the Modesty stories. As we will see this had a ‘sequel’, but one of the final Modesty stories, “Death Symbol”, written in 1999, which bizarrely reintroduces both the Tibetan setting and some of the Tibetan freedom-fighting partisans from 32 years previous, but we are told the earlier adventure had happened only two years earlier! Eight or ten years maybe, even that would be stretching it! Again the time scale makes no sense.

“The Magnified Man”, another clever story, featuring an exo-skeleton, something that was being researched in that time, but never really took off. “The Jericho Caper”, and “The Galley Slaves” followed, both competent and miles better than anything from the “Garth” stable, then two wonderful stories “The Red Gryphon” and “The Hell-Makers”, the former showing just how dangerous it could be as Modesty’s boyfriend, the latter a classic, illustrated the bond between Modesty and Willie. “Take-Over” was next, on a theme I think was used again by O’Donnell, and (I believe) in a Garth story, but never as cleverly plotted, and then “The War-Lords of Phoenix”, which sadly brought the Holdaway period to its conclusion.

Romero’s first period (1970-78) saw a slightly dropping-off in the really edgy, clever stories, although “The Puppet Master”, “The Bluebeard Affair”, “The Gallows Bird”, “The Iron God”, “Highland Witch” (with some clever trickery from Modesty), “Cry Wolf”, and “Idaho George” were good, if not quite reaching brilliance. There followed (1979-80) the brief Burns/Wright interlude, then the Colvin period, 1980-86. This latter period saw the competent “Dossier on Pluto”, the very clever plot twists (and more Modesty ingenuity) of “The Lady Killers”, the crazy cleverness of “Garvin’s Travels”, the again competent “The Scarlet Maiden” (an old story O’Donnell had started back in the 1960s), followed by “The Moon Man”, a goodish espionage story. “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”, had a story-line not dissimilar to “The Jericho Caper” (or the 1972 short story “A Better Day to Die” from his Pieces of Modesty collection).

That was followed by “The Balloonatic”, which first introduced the reader to one of O’Donnell’s re-occurring characters: the roguish Italian journalist Guido and his beautiful, but long-suffering girlfriend, Aniela, who ‘Weelie’ gets to bed on more than one occasion! Not for the last time we get a hint of a back-story of previous encounters between the two, never elaborated further. This, however, was a routine Italian-based espionage/terrorist gangs story made memorable by the Modesty/Guido, Willie/Aniela on-going banter. It sees Modesty in a hot-air balloon and Willie and Aniela following by car, except Aniela can only read a map if facing north – hence her leaning over the passenger seat with her bottom in the air!

This is followed by the revenge thriller “Death in Slow-Motion” (in which Willie waylays a truck using ingenious disguises), then “The Alternative Man”, both good, if not quite ‘excellent’. “Sweet Caroline” is so-so, but like “The Vanishing Dollybirds” is now very dated, relying on the Neil Diamond pop-song context. Colvin does good work on illustrating some of the minor characters – compare his middle-aged, working-class lady hostage with any similar aged females Romero draw! However, the better stories are timeless. “The Return of the Mammoth” is competent, set in Finland and the Soviet Union, introducing Russian army Colonel Greb; while “Plato’s Republic” and “The Sword of the Bruce” are both workable capers. In the former – like the earlier Romero-illustrated story “Death of a Jester” – Modesty literally ‘sleeps with the enemy’, not for the only time either.

“The Wild Boar” (1985) raises the stakes, as well as introducing a character from the novels, Dr Giles Pennyfeather, who featured in The Impossible Virgin (1971) and The Xanadu Talisman (1981). While Colvin’s depiction sometimes looks gross, nevertheless it is how we envisage him, and Romero again followed the earlier portrayal of him in later stories. This was back to Modesty at her best, as was the final Colvin story (“Kali’s Disciples” being so-so), the excellent “The Double Agent”, with Modesty coming face to face with her evil communist agent dopplegänger! One almost regrets Colvin bowing out by then, especially as the next and last phase of stories seem to move more towards the dark, gritty style of the novels, away from the early clever, tricky, playfulness of the Holdaway period.

With the (this time) permanent return of Romero (1986-2001), both story and style seems to be darker. “The Vampire of Malvescu” is competent (set in much the same location as “Top Traitor”, 1965, Holdaway, actually Transylvania), while “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987) introduces the young, feisty Samantha character who appears in “Ivory Dancer” (1992) and “The Special Orders” (1998) – this last being another dark story about the white slave trade. Between Sam’s first appearance and her last there is actually a several years’ time gap. Samantha was probably only about age ten in the first story, before becoming a 15-year-old teenager in the last story. The problem is more in Romero’s art. He isn’t good at depicting children (as exampled in his first illustrated story, the dated and rather silly “Willie the Djinn”), and Samantha finished up looking too much like a young Modesty.

Another failing perhaps – which Holdaway or Colvin would never have done – is Romero’s obvious lack of direct knowledge of Britain, and London in particular. Sam, we are told is a working class girl living in the East End, but her house, when we see it, is much too posh. Tarrant’s office, originally in the Whitehall/Foreign Office area, is now depicted as some anonymous modernist block, surrounded by equally unidentified modern buildings, having almost a hint of some futuristic science fiction city-scape. Likewise, Romero’s depiction of the architecture of the capital of the communist East European country in “Death Trap” (1977/78) just looks quite wrong, again more like something out of science-fiction – nothing like Soviet-style architecture, although the villain looked a bit like the long-time president/dictator of post-Soviet Belarus! In other illustrations – of Paris, for instance, or views of Big Ben from across the Thames, both landmarks and scale are all wrong. We will give examples below, including his totally wrong depiction of both an English village and castle.

“Milord” (1988) is equally dark, with a grim theme (it has Guido and Aniela again, but not much humour left, with girls being kidnapped for extreme porno and stuff movies). So too is “The Astro” (1994, again featuring women being sold into the criminal sex trade). On a happier note is “The Girl from the Future” (1989), with a rather crazy plot to swindle a gullible mega-rich science fiction publisher (not a writer, but, given he thinks to change the future of humankind, why did I think of L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientology man?) “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90) was another ‘cross-over’ from the novels, featuring Steve and Diana Collier, but, while they are sympathetically portrayed by Romero, neither are perhaps particularly visually outstanding to anyone first having read the novels.

“Walkabout” (1990) is another of O’Donnell’s favourite locations, the Australian outback, and again features Mafia hoods. There followed a gritty, but very good, “The Girl in the Iron Mask” – my only complaint being that the back-story of the Bone brothers having their reason to hate Modesty is only alluded to, but doesn’t appear in either the strips or novels, although the master planner of the rather inapt criminal gang in “Idaho George” (1978) was named Bone. O’Donnell often repeated names (as well as a few plot ideas or accessories) over his near-40-year period. George was a likeable con-man, and another one whose pretty and sexy girlfriend (like Aniela) flirted outrageously with Willie – except Aniela we know did enjoy having nooky with Willie – Maisie apparently was less lucky!

“My Friend Maude” (1992) is again passable espionage, although again the plot itself is rather silly, while “The Maori Contract” (1995, which rather repeated “The Sword of the Bruce” story idea), “Durango” (again with overtones of previous stories, like “The Iron God”), and “The Murder Frame” (1997, a revenge caper) are so-so. The previous playful humour has completely evaporated now, as exampled by “Fraser’s Story” (1997), which reintroduces the character Doctor Yago (from “Garvin’s Travels”), but he too is no longer a comic villain, instead gone completely to the dark side, now quite unlikeable. Towards the end Jack Fraser (Tarrant’s assistant and ex-field agent) breaks his neck. There is no more ‘Mr Nice-Guy’. Villains are über-villainous and meet nasty deaths accordingly. However, at least Maude and Willie are now, at long last, getting to enjoy sex together! In the novels Willie’s regular bed-partner was Lady Janet Gillam, but she only appeared a couple of times in the comic strip world, and only as a major plot character in one, “Murder Frame”.

We have already mentioned “Death Symbol” (1998, the series is near to its end) which was again set in Tibet, and with some of the same characters as “The Black Pearl” (1966), but it has the utterly bizarre plot line that the two stories (actually 32 years apart!) are only two years apart! Sorry, Peter, but that’s nonsense! Why did you say that? But that too is a much darker story, with Modesty being beaten and raped at the hands of a sadistic Chinese renegade – something that happened several times in the novels, but rarely in the comic strips. If she went to bed with the villain (Saint-Maur in “Death of a Jester”, Plato in “Plate’s Republic”, Dom Tregallion in “Those About to Die”), it was by her choice, not force.

“The Last Aristocrat” features Guido and Aniela again (they also featured in “Guido the Jinx”, 1994, along with Russian GPU Colonel Greb from “The Return of the Mammoth”), and does have some humour still, with Aniela again promising the faithless Guido “I will keel him! Slowly!”, although Romero does treat us to five strips of a very naked Aniela in bed with Willie and getting dressed afterwards! But the ‘macguffin’ is a plague bomb, again rather grim, and more in the James Bond spirit, which the greater majority of the comic strip stories were not. At the end Aniela and Guido finally get married, although one must question just why would she want to do so, knowing he was an unrepentant liar and womaniser! The penultimate story, “The Killing Game”, again returns to a theme used before, in the 1968 story “The Killing Ground” (reworked as a short story “Bellman”, 1996, in the Cobra Trap collection), and also “Eve and Adam”, with Modesty and Willie in ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ skimpy jungle outfits being hunted by a team of professional killers. However, the best that can be said it is competent.

The strip ending (unlike the more downbeat “Cobra Trap” short story) is the ultimate crossover between the two genres, with Modesty suggesting they go dig up the priceless Roman treasure that was re-buried in the North African desert at the end of the novel A Taste for Death, and afterwards donate the lot to the Salvation Army! Maybe, we know Modesty had a phenomenal sense of direction and place, but, as David Attenborough would tell you, the Sahara is a never-ending, wind-driven shifting place with no land-marks. Would they really find the treasure again? Given the near-forty years, it ends there, in a rather timeless limbo and anti-climax, as they apparently walk off into the sunset whilst planning their final caper. One is rather reminded of the unimaginative ending to the “Jane” comic strip, as she finally marries her idiotic boyfriend Georgie Porgy. Compare perhaps to the ending of the French science fiction comic saga “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin, in which the two heroes are projected back from the 28th century to early 21st century Paris, but as young children, remembering nothing of their past adventures as space-time agents. Like it or hate it (fandom was mixed), but it was an ending, with finality of sorts, rather than disappointing let-down.

Again it might have been better if O’Donnell had allowed Modesty to have aged just a bit (even 15 years perhaps), or to ended on a story that wrapped things up in a more satisfactory way – perhaps with the retirement (not before time!) of Sir Gerald, Willie selling his half of the circus (perhaps to Lady Jane), and it might have been better if Maude Tiller and Danny Chavasse (ex-Network operative, who had featured in a lot of novels) had partnered up, instead of the female, Leda, daughter of the latest villain in “The Zombie” (2001). It was too much a ‘routine’ story, rather than the ending it should have been.

ILLUSTRATIONS:

Fig. 1: Jim Holdaway, 1927-1970, the original Modesty Blaise artist, and the best. He had previously illustrated Romeo Brown, also written by Peter O’Donnell. He died, aged 43, mid-way through “The War-Lords of Phoenix”.

Fig. 2: Holdaway, 1963 – Jack Fraser and Sir Gerald Tarrant visit Modesty at her penthouse apartment (I suggest Bayswater Road), overlooking Hyde Park.

Fig. 3: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Modesty Blaise. Note the intricate background detail in both this, and the previous, illustration. The Rolls-Royce parked at the kerb in panel 2 is probably Modesty’s.

Fig. 4: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Willie Garvin. Modesty visits him at his Thames riverside pub, the ‘Treadmill’. Note the interesting angles in panels 1 and 2. All three illustrations are from the first story La Machine.

Fig. 5: Holdaway, 1965/66 – Willie Garvin, Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser, and Modesty. Illustration from the story Top Traitor. Fraser is a former field agent whose outward persona is now that of a rather dull desk-bound bureaucrat. He, along with Sir Gerald, featured in many of the Modesty stories, both comic strip and the novels.

Fig. 6: Holdaway, 1963/64 – The first appearance of arch-criminal Gabriel.

Illustration from the third Modesty story The Gabriel Set-Up. Gabriel made one more appearance in the comic strip, in The Head Girls (1966), and featured in two of the Modesty Blaise novels, Modesty Blaise (1965), and A Taste for Death (1969), in which he is rather unceremoniously killed off.

Fig. 7: Holdaway, 1964 – The introduction of another regular character, that of Modesty’s ‘houseboy’ Weng, seen here in the fourth story Mister Sun. Again, take note of the detail of Mister Sun’s underground inner sanctum, the expressions and body language of the characters. Mr Sun was something of an Ian Fleming-type villain, in a story set in Hong Kong (then still a British colony) and during the Vietnam War, whilst emphasising Modesty’s hatred of the drug trade.

Fig. 8 : Holdaway, 1964 – Another episode from Mister Sun. A masterstroke to have the Chinese criminal villain practising his cartography while hoping to corrupt Modesty into the drugs trade. Probably only Neville Colvin equalled Holdaway in his ability to capture facial expressions and body language so effectively.

Fig. 9a : Holdaway – Modesty taken captive by another Cold War espionage villain, osteopath V. N. Korzon, from the fifth story The Mind of Mrs Drake. As with the second story, The Long Lever, often the good guys get killed; in this instance one of Tarrant’s agents, blonde Jeannie Challon. Holdaway’s artwork and characterisation is at the top of its game, except for the old Hollywood mistake that silencers aren’t actually effective on revolvers, only automatics!

Fig. 9b : Unknown artist (perhaps John Burns?), cover to a later Swedish language edition of Modesty, the title apparently changed to Psyko-spionen – psycho-espionage.

Fig. 10 : Holdaway, 1964/65 – Again from The Mind of Mrs Drake, and just one of numerous examples of the incredible detail Holdaway put into what was just a daily newspaper comic strip. Look at the third panel in particular as Modesty and Willie drive through London in her sports car convertible. Cars feature a lot in the Modesty comic strips.

Fig. 11 : Holdaway, 1969 – And another Cold War espionage villain from The Hell-Makers. Like the earlier Uncle Happy, this too was set in the USA, with the final action taking place in Montana. In addition to the larger than life Alex Kazin, Peter O’Donnell introduced another fascinating character, Gus Fletcher.

Fig. 12 : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s incredible attention to detail, as Modesty and her latest lover, Italian architect Max Aquino, attend Count Alborini’s Venetian ball in the palazzo on the Grand Canal. Another ruthless villain, driven by arrogance and greed. How long would it have taken for Holdaway to ink in all this intricate detail, only for it to be reduced down to probably a quarter of the size of the original, and with all the smudgy imperfections of 1960s/70s newspaper print?

Fig. 13a : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s almost cinematic compositions and mastery of light and shadow, especially in the top first panel. The (by now) slightly insane Count Alborini and his henchman hunting Modesty in the spooky derelict palazzo on its own island in the Venetian Lagoon, Modesty still with her wrists in handcuffs.

Fig. 13b : Unknown artist, the cover to the Swedish publication Agent X9, featuring translated Modesty Blaise stories, again from The Red Gryphon.

Fig. 14 : Holdaway, 1969-70 – Yet another example of Holdaway’s maticulous artwork, this from the story Take-Over. Modesty is being wined and dined by another comic strip regular, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard. Although the story text does not say so, my guess this is the ‘Trafalgar Tavern’ at Greenwich.

Fig. 15 : Holdaway, 1970 – From The War-Lords of Phoenix, set in Japan, with the crazy mega-rich industrialist brothers Kato and Fumiya having forcefully ‘recruited’ Modesty and Willie to train their warrior fanatics. This was the penultimate Holdaway-drawn episode before he died so suddenly.

Fig. 16 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – In November 1978 John Burns took over illustration with the departure of Enric Badia Romero to concentrate on his “Axa” science fiction comic strip in the Sun newspaper. The first Burns story was Yellowstone Booty, another American story, and featuring the mega-rich American businessman and Modesty’s lover, John Dall, another ‘cross-over’ from the novels. Burns used strong black and white, and, while less meticulous in detail than Holdaway, he was excellent on faces, expressions and composition.

Fig. 17 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Two more illustrations from Yellowstone Booty, featuring the feisty Lucy Grace, half-Native American Indian treasure-hunter, and her husband Brad, about to rescue an unconscious Willie Garvin in a canoe. Was the nudity really too up-front for the Evening Standard readers in 1978? Why else was Burns given instant dismissal half-way through only his third Modesty Blaise story?

Fig. 18 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Another episode of Yellowstone Booty. Note that Burns is credited as artist, as later was Neville Colvin. Was it just a coincidence that a strong story also had a strong artist in the same vein as Holdaway? Burns’ portfolio is huge and impressive, and includes “The Seekers”, a Modesty Blaise-like comic strip (written by Les Lilley, 1966-71); “Danielle” (1973-74, 1978); George and Lynne (1977-84); “Bionic Woman” (1976-77) and “Eartha” (written by Donne Aveness, 1981-82).

Fig 19 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Peter O’Donnell’s equivalent of Ian Fleming’s SPECTRA was Salamander Four, which appeared in both novels/short stories and here, in one of several examples, in the comic strip. Sir Angus McBeal also featured in the novels, and the short story “Old Alex” (1996). This is from the story Green Cobra, another strong espionage story in which Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser is kidnapped – a twist on the much earlier story Top Traitor, or the novel The Silver Mistress, when Tarrant was the kidnap victim.

Fig. 20 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Another episode from Green Cobra, and an example of Burns’ strength at creating memorable (if eccentric) characters – the ruthless Pandora, egocentric martial arts fighter with a chip on her shoulder concerning Modesty, and the Toulouse-Lautrec-like midget Dr. Vigo.Fig. 21 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Although Burns’ Modesty occasionally looks wrong – her hair piled too high, lips too full, by his third story, Eve and Adam, he had already stamped his strong, distinctive style on the strip, and drawn some memorable characters, here the slightly bonkers Dan Galt, convinced the world was about to end, and planning to transplant Modesty and Willie to an isolated, fertile valley in Africa to be the new Adam and Eve. The perfect excuse for some discreet nudity and the odd flash of Modesty’s bare boobs, but then suddenly, mid-story, Burns is gone and replaced by another artist, Pat Wright, whose style is completely different. As editorial decisions go as far as a popular comic strip was concerned, it was completely crazy.

Fig, 22a and 22b : John M. Burns and Pat Wright – John Burns was dismissed by orders of the then Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour in September 1979, and hurriedly replaced by Pat Wright. The last two Burns strips were not printed and replaced by the Pat Wright version instead, thus giving us an interesting opportunity to compare the two artists and their individual interpretation of Peter O’Donnell’s script. The contrast is apparent. Burns’s style was strong and realistic, and, like his two predecessors, Holdaway and Romero, he used shadows a lot. Wright’s style was much lighter, often almost devoid of shadow, and, while he was quite good with his depiction of Modesty’s face, he was weak on figures in general, and even more so on background. He was the son of comic artist David Wright (1912-1967), who draw the comic strip “Carol Day” (written by Peter Morris, 1956-67) for the Daily Mirror. Perhaps had Wright been drawing a completely new comic strip, he might have survived and thrived, but there is no denying that he was the weakest and least able of the five artists, and his tenure lasted only one and half stories, before he, too, was replaced in May 1980 by Neville Colvin, and the artistic style dramatically changed yet again. Pat Wright had previously drawn for The Eagle, 2000AD, and the Commando comics, and later for Private Eye. His forte were single panel cartoons. Continuity error! Willie is weeks in the wilderness but is still clean-shaven!

Figs. 23 and 24 : Pat Wright, 1979-80 – Wright completed the story Eve and Adam, ironically taking over almost at the point where the story took on a totally unexpected twist, and a more brutal edge. Alas, one can only imagine how John Burns might have illustrated this change of direction. Wright’s version is disappointing. Between January to May 1980 he completed the next story, Brethren of Blaise, a routine crime caper set in a small village in winter. Artistically, this too was, at best, serviceable, at worst, mediocre. As the two examples above show, his Modesty and Willie were perhaps better even than Romero’s, and certainly nearer to the original Holdaway images. But little else worked – the backgrounds were scrappy and vague; there was little detail, the style was sketchy rather than realistic, and the composition was workaday, nothing else. Sadly, Pat Wright’s Modesty was the least successful.

Fig. 25 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – This from the opening episodes of the first story Colvin illustrated, Dossier on Pluto, and from the man, who – so the story goes – when offered the job of being the replacement Modesty Blaise artist, claimed he couldn’t draw women! Straightway he was drawing Willie’s latest squeeze, American former cheer-leader and prize bimbo, Cheryl, and in the skimpiest of micro-bikinis! Later, in the same story, he draw a very nude Rosita, another of Willie’s horizontal playmates (although this time in the noble cause of duping the villains, of course!) Given how American newspaper editors had so heavily censored Romero’s artwork in The Gallows Bird (1973) from even the hint of bare feminine flesh or Willie sleeping with his girlfriends, one can only suppose the later Modesty stories never saw the light of day in the USA. Like Pat Wright who he replaced, New Zealand-born Colvin regarded himself as more of a cartoonist, and his artwork was not without flaws and failings, but, in retrospect, he did restore something of the Holdaway spirit – most notably in his depiction of characters and often real emotion in their faces – something that both Pat Wright and Enrique Badia Romero often failed at.Figs, 26 and 27 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – The two villains from Dossier on Pluto, Squire Maitland and Gaspar (an overweight Captain Hook type). This story has the third appearance of another of Modesty’s lovers, American Steve Taylor, the F.B.I. agent who first appeared in Uncle Happy (drawn by Holdaway) and then The Gallows Bird (by Romero) – so three different artists. Now retired, he is conducting dolphin research – Pluto being the name given to one of the dolphins. During the Cold War (and perhaps since) such research was actually being carried out by both the USA and the Soviet Union. One feature which distinguished Modesty from her fictional rivals, especially government-employed thugs like James Bond, was her empathy for dumb animals, donkeys and dolphins in particular. Maitland is the first of several posh, rather autocratic, long yellow- or silver-haired villains portrayed by Colvin; we see his type again in Sweet Caroline (perhaps the least successful of the O’Donnell/Colvin stories), Plato’s Republic, and the foreign office sleeper agent in the last Colvin illustrated story, The Double Agent.

Figs. 28a and 28b : Neville Colvin (above) and Enric Badia Romero (below).

The Neville Colvin period was from 1980 until 1986, and included some excellent stories, but also Peter O’Donnell reintroduced some previous characters, like circus-owner Georgi Gogol, French intelligence chief René Vaubois, and Maude Tiller, who had first appeared in The Puppet Master (1971-71), drawn by Romero. Here she is again in Gavin’s Travels, and – while still a blonde – looking completely different, actually with more character!Fig. 29 : Neville Colvin, 1981. Here is Maude Tiller again in Gavin’s Travels, with comrade Doctors Yago (with the bald head) and Vole, rare comic book incompetent villains in Peter O’Donnell’s world, although Dr. Yago made a later reappearance in Fraser’s Story (1997, drawn by Romero), in which he was no longer comic and inapt, but a true nasty who merits getting his neck snapped! Holdaway would have handled the background with more subtlety and perhaps detail, while Romero would had perhaps emphasised contrasting shadow more, but the two villains are distinctive (if perhaps comic), and Colvin’s version remains the best ever depiction of Maude, here and in The Double Agent.Fig. 30 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Circus owner Georgi Gogol is another character who made a few ‘guest appearances’ over the span of stories, first in The Bluebeard Affair (1974, Romero), then Death Trap (1978, also Romero), but seen here by Colvin in The Return of the Mammoth, ten years later, in 1984. Once again, it is Colvin who really captures Gogol’s appearance and character to match O’Donnell’s dialogue. The second illustration by Romero (2001).Fig. 31 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – When it came to depicting another of Modesty’s regular lovers, the medically talented, if mildly eccentric Doctor Giles Pennyfeather, Colvin did occasionally stray into caricature. This is one of his less comic portrayals, from the excellent crime caper The Wild Boar (which also features another regular from both comic strip and novels, Rene Vaubois). Giles first appeared in the novel The Impossible Virgin (1971) and again in The Xanadu Talisman (1981), and in the comic strip stories The Young Mistress (1992), Honeygun (1996) and Children of Lucifer (1999, all drawn by Romero).Fig. 32 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – Just in this one story, The Wild Boar, where the action moves from Tangiers to Cannes to Corsica, there are a number of fleeting characters, yet all vividly depicted by Colvin. Whether it be Cannes police inspector Durand, seen here on his day off at the marina, and looking characteristically French, or the elderly Corsican gentleman with his white flowing moustache, or Vaubois’s scheming deputy in French intelligence, who looked a bit like Mitterrand!Figs. 33 and 34 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Two episodes from The Return of the Mammoth, in which Willie loses his favourite circus elephant Chloe in Russia. G.R.U. Captain Novikov doesn’t believe Willie’s story, until an old Soviet army officer acquaintance, Colonel Greb, rescues him. Greb appeared again, in Guido the Jinx (1994, drawn by Romero). But even if we allow for the time lapse, Romero’s Greb looked nothing like Colvin’s, who, as we see here, depicts a much more typical, stocky, ruddy-faced Russian. Romero’s Greb is just a fat man of no discernible nationality with short fair or cropped hair. I always felt that O’Donnell’s Greb was a nod to Len Deighton’s Colonel Stok as featured in his early novels Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.Fig. 35 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – From the story A Few Flowers for the Colonel, this is Colonel Rodney Spooner, retired, Royal Engineers, a story set in another fictitious O’Donnell South American country, and a variation on The Jericho Caper (1967/68) and the short stories A Better Day to Die and Cobra Trap.Figs. 36 and 37 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – Two illustrations from The Moon Man, seen here in the second frame, Herbert Duck, aka The Moon Man, the UK agent of an unnamed East European (e.g. communist) foreign power, who uses his apparent claim to be in contact with extra-terrestrials aliens in UFOs as ‘cover’. Perhaps even aside from his time writing the “Garth” stories for the Daily Mirror (1953-65), Peter O’Donnell obviously had an interest in science fiction and so-called flying saucers, or UFOs. They feature in at least two other Modesty comic strip stories, “Take Me To Your Leader” (1974, Romero), and The Girl from the Future (1989, also Romero). The story sub-plot has Modesty posing nude for a painting by her latest lover, again a plot idea used (but sculpture) in The Jericho Caper, and the short story Salamander Four. Aside from the dastardly East European villains, Colvin depicts a cast of characters, including the painter’s young daughter and a motley collection of ufologists!Figs. 38 and 39 : Neville Colvin, 1982-83 – Perhaps Colvin’s most enduring visual creation was the lying, scheming, fantasizing and womanizing Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his long-suffering blonde girlfriend Aniela, both seen here in different episodes of Guido’s introductory story The Balloonatic. Despite her misgivings, Modesty agrees to take part in a hot-air balloon race in Italy, while Willie (“Weelie”) and Aniela follow by car, except Aniela can only read maps if facing north! As usual in Peter O’Donnell’s world, murder and terrorist gangs very soon come to dominate the plot. Colvin’s Guido has a touch of Salvador Dali about him. They appear again in Guido the Jinx (1996), Milord (1988), and finally The Last Aristocrat (1999-2000). All three were illustrated by Romero, but now Aniela looked just like Romero’s version of Maude Tiller, and Guido is recognisable, but rather ‘stiff’, and the last two stories in particular are rather nasty and brutish – snuff porno movies and biological warfare terrorism.Figs. 40 and 41 : Neville Colvin, 1986 – In retrospect we must regret that Colvin decided to retire from drawing Modesty, and, perhaps even more, the editorial decision to again engage Romero to take over illustrating the comic strip again. Colvin had got better and better which each story, but bowed out in style, with the excellent – and at times, quite comic – espionage story The Double Agent, which, as almost immediately becomes apparent, has itself a double meaning: Modesty is up against her own double! With the communist operative Havil, not for the first time in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty universe, we have a villain who has apparently crossed swords with her before, but in some previous, untold story. His intended revenge is to use a ruthless and highly trained Modesty-lookalike to assassinate Tarrant, with Modesty taking the blame. The problem being, of course, that, no matter how good the double, Willie would know. This story – Colvin’s swansong, culminating in a hand-to-hand battle between Modesty and Gemini, her double – is O’Donnell at his creative best, evoking both tension and humour. The story again features Maude Tiller, at her most seductive, but also a cast of villains (seen above, two underlings and Havil himself), a circus bear, a man in a clown suit, holograms, an ingenious murder attempt on Willie, and the final confrontation on a golf-course – I like to think somewhere in Surrey. Colvin bows out, and Romero returns, and once again it almost seems as if the tune of the stories start to change also.

Fig. 42 : Romero, 1970 – The first Enric Badia Romero period was from 1970 to 1978, and Willie the Djinn (above) was the first complete story illustrated following Holdaway’s untimely death. It was not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best or most memorable stories, set in a fictitious Middle Eastern Arab country (perhaps not unlike Kuwait) now rich from oil wealth, whose eccentric ruler knew Modesty in her teenage wandering days. O’Donnell returned to a similar plot in 1977/78 with the equally mediocre The Vanishing Dollybirds, also one of his less successful titles. Romero’s style is bold and strong, but, while he was excellent at drawing young women, he seemed strangely unable to draw very young children. For instance, compare the middle panel of the top episode with the much smaller, almost babyish girl in the last panel of the bottom episode. In The Stone Age Caper (1971) the Aboriginal children look quite grotesque, while the later character of Sam Brown (Samantha and the Cherub, 1987) often looked like a miniature Modesty.

Fig. 43 : Romero, 1971 – The third fully-illustrated Romero was Death of a Jester, a competent, if not particularly outstanding, quasi-espionage/crime caper, whose lordly, ex-British Army commando villain is the bearded and ruthless John Vandeleur Saint-Maur. Both monasteries and castles feature a lot in the Modesty stories, but Romero’s castles are always rather ridiculous, like out of fairy stories. His artwork is detailed, and his Modesty already quite exotic (not for the only time, in either novels or comic strip, she sleeps with the bad guy). Also not for the only time, Peter O’Donnell has a reoccuring name – in his 1982 novel The Night of the Morningstar, one of the villains is Major Ronald St. Maur, a.k.a. the Earl St. Maur. Had O’Donnell forgotten he had used the same name back in 1971?Fig. 44 : Romero, 1971 – The Puppet Master was more of a revenge caper, featuring the evil-looking Mahmoud, former vice-ring boss, seen here with the title character, mind-molding psychiatrist Dr. Hans Baum. Set mostly in Italy, with excursions to the South of France and Athens, this story also introduces Maude Tiller, another one of Tarrant’s blonde female agents, who became a Peter O’Donnell favourite, featuring in over half a dozen comic strip stories, as well the novel Last Day in Limbo. Strangely enough, an early Romero sketch for Maude, reproduced in the Titan reprints, shows more character than his later depiction, when she became rather a ‘typical’ Romero blonde. The final action takes place on the Monte Solaro chairlift in Carpi, O’Donnell supplying Romero with photographs as to the location.Fig. 45 : Romero, 1971 – Another favourite O’Donnell location was Australia, and especially the Outback, which featured in a number of the Modesty comic strip stories, The Stone Age Caper (opening episodes above), and Walkabout (1990-91), as well as one of his ‘Madeleine Brent’ pen-name novels, The Golden Urchin (1986, something of a literary tour de force, being written in the first person, whose heroine is a young white girl brought up as an Aborigine). This introduces both another recurring villain, Chinese Mr Wu Smith, who perhaps inherited Mr Sun’s criminal empire, and Australian Aborigine Jacko, former of the Network, whose tracking skills are occasionally called upon. Here too we meet one of Modesty’s one-off, one-time lovers, Australian zoologist David Collins, whose persona is remarkably similar to that of near-namesake Steve Collier, another former Modesty lover, who first appeared on the 1967 novel I, Lucifer, but only appeared in the comic strip in 1989. Fig. 46 : Romero, 1971 – Horror, shock! Modesty shows her nipples! Tame by the standards of the 1980s – “George and Lynne” or “Axa”, but still got reader complaints apparently, and a mild rebulk to Peter O’Donnell. Laughable now.Fig. 47 : Romero, 1972-73 – The Bluebeard Affair was a more conventional crime caper, the wicked Baron Rath and his two hideous daughters, Hortense and Celeste, planning to murder his fourth wife for her money. The setting is the South of France, near Cannes, although Romero’s depiction of the town at night, viewed from the bay, is strangely unconvincing. However, the would-be victim is the niece of French intelligence chief, Rene Vaubois, who first appeared in The Magnified Man (Holdaway, 1967). This also sees the first appearance of Georgi Gogol’s circus, who Willie half-owns (much to the surprise of both us, the reader, and Modesty herself!) The circus will feature again in Death Trap (Romero, 1977-78), and Return of the Mammoth (Colvin, 1984), and The Zombie (2000-2001). Fig. 48 : Romero, 1973 – Next to guns (Modesty’s speciality), cars feature a lot in both comic strip and books, and – apart from Willie’s London black cab – mostly left-hand drive. I suspect both Holdaway and Romero enjoyed drawing them. This final episode of The Bluebeard Affair is especially good.fig. 49 : Romero, 1978 – American con-man Idaho George and his girlfriend Maisie has him pretending to be misogynist Indian mystic Ram Dal Singh, supposedly able to materialise gold or silver. I believe O’Donnell had a personal interest in stage magic, and several of his stories use this theme – The Girl From the Future and “Take Me to Your Leader”, for instance. A routine crime caper, with a thuggish gang of incompetents lead by Anastasia Bone, following the death of husband Alfred Potts. Maisie is another, like Guido’s girlfriend Aniela, who flirts with Willie, but less successfully. This story is notable for bringing together (if only briefly) Maude, Weng, Steve Collier, Lady Janet (who featured more in the books) and Inspector Brook’s nephew Rufus, who had appeared in the story From Rufus With Love (Romero, 1972). It also has Modesty badly beaten up, and performing a self-inducing near-death coma. Other stories of interest in this first Romero period are The Gallow Bird (1973), a USA caper in which the villains (an elderly pseudo-Confederate ‘General’ and his crazy wife, obsessed with hanging) plan to flood New Orleans – 32 years later Hurricane Katrina was unfortunately more successful; The Iron God (1973-74), set in New Guinea, with roguish bearded Irishman O’Mara as villain – although Romero had him looking not unlike John Saint Maur (above). Romero can at least draw believable black adults, as exampled in this story, unlike the dreadful effort of Pat Wright in Eve and Adam. Finally one of the better stories, even if a routine crime caper, Highland Witch (1974), featuring another sarcastic Steve Collier-type named Dr. Gordon Ritchie, and another samey Romero blonde-lookalike girl-in-peril, Peggy Western, looking like Maude Tiller much of the time. The villain is Sister Binks, middle-aged and fat, another Romero stereotype. Aborigine Jacko makes a brief appearance, but the best part of the story is Modesty’s ingenious frightener on the bad guys who think Peggy is dead, only to keep seeing and hearing her ‘ghost’… Fig. 50 : Romero, 1986-87 – Enric Badia Romero returned in 1986, with the cowboy/western-themed Butch Cassidy Rides Again, featuring a English-born, gun-slinging villain named The Preacher – a throwback perhaps to the Revd. Uriah Crisp in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw. There seems to be a subtle change in Romero’s art, but also increasingly in the nature of the stories in this final fifteen year phase. Workaday art for a workaday story, but it does see a brief intervention by Modesty’s favourite multi-millionaire boyfriend, John Dall.Fig. 51 : – Romero, 1987 – The story The Million Dollar Game is one of several Modesty comic strip stories over the entire period with a hunting theme – more often Modesty and Willie being the hunted. These are the short, fill-in story The Killing Ground (1968, Holdaway – O’Donnell later wrote a short story version, Bellman, 1996), and The Killing Game (Romero, 2000). This story, eventually about large-scale poaching in Africa – sadly, still on-going in real life – actually begins with a flashback to Modesty’s Network days in Tangier, and her love of dumb animals, donkeys in particular. Grey Lawton is the animal doctor, eventually, after a bumpy start, another of Modesty’s lovers. When he later appears, shaven-headed with a beard, in one image he looks a bit like the American actor Tom Selleck.Fig. 52 : Romero, 1987 – Samantha and the Cherub (in retrospect, not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best titles) introduces young Sam Brown, working class London East Ender, into martial arts, who was to feature in a number of subsequent stories, below.Fig. 53 : Romero, 1992 – Sam’s second appearance, seen here with Modesty’s millionaire American boyfriend, John Dall, another cross-over character who appears in both comic strip and the books. Sam shows herself to be both intelligent and brave, with another Modesty characteristic, empathy with animals, in this instance Dall’s champion race-horse, the title’s ‘Ivory Dancer’. Fig. 54 : Romero, 1998 – Sam Brown again, no longer a child, now about 15, seen here in The Special Orders, and looking quite different! This story is set in the Far East, this is about girls being kidnapped for a vice ring.

Fig. 55 : Romero, 1989 – The Girl from the Future is another caper set in the USA, so almost inevitably also featuring John Dall, the Texan tycoon. It features Alex Gant, a rather arrogant, self-centred multi-millionaire science fiction publisher and flying saucer enthusiast, who believes he has been visited by a girl from the 25th century AD, so he might prepare humankind for cosmic enlightenment. However, to return her to her own time requires two solid gold spheres worth a mere $4million each. It’s a scam, but by whom, and how was it done? Peter O’Donnell could still think up an ingenious plot. Romero depicts Modesty in skimpy swimwear, his usual gruesome ruffians, and some non-Modesty female nudity in one of the better stories from this last phase.Fig. 56 : Romero, 1989-90 – Another enjoyable workaday story is Lady in the Dark, which finally (belatedly) introduces Steve and Diane Collier, regular characters from the novels and short stories. Romero’s depiction of them is seen here, from another, later, comic strip story, Durango (1996-97). Collier is another of Modesty’s ex-lovers, while Diane, who is blind, but has compensated with enhanced psychic senses, first appeared in A Taste for Death, when her sister was murdered by Gabriel, and she was rescued by Willie Garvin. Lady in the Dark features another, rather ridiculous-looking, castle in Carinthia, together with Salamander Four villains. Thereafter the Colliers appear as both key- or bit-players in a number of subsequent stories.Figs. 57 and 58 : Romero, 1991 – The Girl in the Iron Mask is another revenge caper – so like The Killing Ground (Holdaway), The Puppet Master (Romero), Death in Slow Motion, and The Double Agent (Colvin), Live Bait, or The Murder Frame (Romero), but this time by the retired millionaire Bone brothers, Reggie and Humphry, seen here with their servant, Celeste, at their home in the Swiss Alps. Modesty is kidnapped, fitted with the iron mask, and put down a deep pit, Kippel Hole, in an operation carried out by the ‘Magpie’ gang. Again, Peter O’Donnell hints at a backstory not chronicled in either book or comic – that Modesty foiled an attempt by the vindictive brothers to ruin John Dall. The ‘Bone’ name, however, was also used before, in the 1978 story Idaho George. Figs. 59, 60 and 61 : Romero, 1999-2000 – Romero’s version of the lying, womanizing Italian journalist Guido and girlfriend Aniela (also seen here, commiserating with ‘Weelie’ having been jilted at the altar by Guido); this from their final appearance in The Last Aristocrat. Even at this late stage, as we see here, Romero continued to draw what was perhaps his true speciality, faces and naked, or near-naked, women, to perfection – even if his villains started to look more and more like grotesque masks and his blondes all looked like Axa, his other ‘creation’ after his version of Modesty. However, by the 1990s his previous attention to detail – whether it be cars, planes, room interiors, or background locations – had greatly declined, become more slapdash and indifferent. Always rather eccentric in how he depicted places, as we shall illustrate below, I get the impression drawing the Modesty comic strip had – for the most part – became a chore, made only enjoyable perhaps by the opportunities to draw her – or other female characters, friend or foe. It was a slow, steady deterioration into what was often – at best – crude simplicity; or worst, the kind of scrappiness only previously seen with Pat Wright. Fig. 62 : Romero, 2001 – the last Modesty Blaise comic strip – ever. 38 years, 95 adventures (excluding the novels and short stories) and they’ve barely aged. Peter O’Donnell, however, was then 81 when he finally retired from writing. He died in 2010, aged 90. He expressed the wish that no one write any further Modesty Blaise stories. The short story Cobra Trap (published 1996) was to have been Modesty’s true swansong, with her (then in her fifties and with an incurable brain tumour) and Willie dying in a sort of A Few Flowers for the Colonel situation. The “Evening Standard” comic strip ending, by comparison, is an anti-climax, rather tame. With Peter O’Donnell’s permission, Romero illustrated one more story, The Dark Angels, another short story from the 1996 collection. Romero also illustrated the covers to the Scandinavian translated reprints. Romero is, therefore, now the artist most associated with Modesty. Like Colvin, his art was 60% very good, but none of the other four artists matched Jim Holdaway for talent, detail or skill. John Burns had also illustrated some of the short stories, and – we believe – some of Swedish translation magazine covers. If so, we can only lament yet again what might have been had he continued the “Evening Standard” comic strip.Figs. 63 and 64 – Possibly John Burns – covers to the Swedish edition of The Dossier on Pluto and The Alternative Man, both originally by Neville Colvin.Figs. 65 and 66 : Two more covers to the Swedish translation, this time of The Head Girls, and Top Traitor, both originally by Jim Holdaway.

Fig. 67 : The now classic image of Modesty Blaise, as illustrated by Romero, black, zip-up bodysuit, gun and holster, hair up.Fig. 68 : Contrast to the John M. Burns version, much less sexy!Fig. 69 : Another John M. Burns illustration, this time to Uncle Happy, recognisably in the style of the original Jim Holdaway illustration.Fig, 70 : Italian actress Monica Vitti (born 1931 as Maria Luisa Cecilarelli) as Modesty Blaise in the 1966 movie of that name, directed by Joseph Losey and produced by Joseph Janni. Vitti was a natural blonde, but did actually look like Modesty in a wig. Sadly the movie was awful, about which less said the better!

Figs. 71 and 72 : Over a period of time Romero also draw illustrations loosely based on the comic strip stories. These actually bore little relation to the stories themselves, and were essentially excuses to depict Modesty in various states of undress, exposing legs or upper body, as seen in these two examples. The first is supposedly the scene from Colvin’s A Few Flowers for the Colonel, where Modesty is holding off the advance of the bandits in the narrow gorge, but Romero has inflicted serious damage to her trademark bodysuit that never happened in the actual story. The second illustration is from Walkabout, when Modesty goes ‘native Abo’ with her ex-Network operative, Australian Aboriginal Jacko – a good excuse to depict her near-naked, if still strategically concealing her breasts! Actually, in the story, Modesty let the Aborigines kill the kangaroo!Figs. 73 and 74 : Romero and Holdaway – Modesty in the nude.Fig. 75 – Romero – Axa (with Donne Avenell, 1978-86) and Modesty.Figs. 76 and 77 : Enrique (Enric) Badia Romero (born 1930, Barcelona, Spain); Peter O’Donnell, British journalist, writer and novelist (1920-2010), who also wrote under the pen-name of Madeleine Brent.

Fig. 79 : Superb illustration by Romero depicting a nude Modesty about to fight the villainous killer ‘Mr Sexton’, from the novel The Silver Mistress.

However, below we review some of Romero’s less successful work, repetition, and (we suggest) artistic decline:

Castles: Along with monasteries, castles often featured in the Modesty Blaise comic strip stories, most of which were illustrated by Romero. The most obvious exception is in the Holdaway illustrated story “Top Traitor”, featuring Storgen Castle, in the “Savinsken Alps”, which at least some readers insist are now known as the Savinja or Savinjska Alps, located on the Austrian/Slovenia border. If so, we must assume, from the date of the story (1965) it was in Austria, rather than Yugoslavia! Holdaway’s rather low-key depiction certainly has a Central European appearance, whilst also elements typical of Hapsburg architecture. The castle in the later (1987) story “The Vampire of Malvescu” is set in “Transylvania”, actually in Romania – which again at that period was still part of the Eastern communist-controlled Bloc. It is perhaps questionable if Modesty and Willie would have been allowed to travel there so freely.

This is Romero’s illustration:

The interior is even more grand:

Romero’s depictions of French chateaux are also rather over the top. Here, in “Our Friend Maude” (1992), the chateau looks almost Central European again:By contrast below is the French crime boss Reppo’s chateau “on the Aisne”, apparently once owned by Modesty during her Network days:

However, Romero’s English castles are both more exaggerated and unbelievable. Below we see Saint-Maur Castle, Cornish home of crazy ex-commando Earl Saint-Maur, in “Death of a Jester”:

Oddly enough, it has both drawbridge and moat, and a grand entrance for Modesty’s Rolls-Royce!

If this seems a bit over the top, consider Stutley Castle, supposedly in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood, in the story “The Greenwood Maid” (1975), what might be described as a ‘Robin Hood Caper’. Peter O’Donnell has mixed Locksley, the supposed birth-place of the legendary Robin Hood, with the equally folklore character Will Stutely, sometimes associated with Will Scarlett. There is a Studley Castle, but it looks nothing as fanciful or exotic as this! This image is grand to the point of being quite ridiculous. Just look at the scale!

I’m afraid Romero really lost it in this story, supposedly set in a rural England that he obviously had no personal knowledge of. His depiction of ‘Stutely village’ isn’t just wrong, it is crazily and recognisably wrong! The architecture of the façades and roofs are German, not English, and, indeed, it has been directly lifted from photographs of that of the German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria! hat presumably both O’Donnell and the London Evening Standard editors let this one go, surely was an insult to their readers’ intelligence. Or did no one not notice?

CITIES: Let us move on to Romero’s depiction of cities and places. In the story “Death Trap” (1977) we see several images of the “capital of an (unnamed) minor East European” communist country. Given that there are mountains “on the northern border”, and Willie talks about walking “for two or three hundred miles”, one must assume this mysterious country to be in the Balkans rather than Eastern Europe. The geography, in fact, makes little sense. The capital, as envisaged by Romero, is even less believable. It looks like something out a Flash Gordon comic, almost science fiction. Again, really, even at the time one would expect something a bit more realistic. I cannot imagine Holdaway drawing something quite so absurd. Later Romero depicted similar tower-blocks into an unrecognisable London.

Two views of Paris, both featuring the Eiffel Tower, the first from the story “The Killing Distance” (1994), the second from the earlier “Those About to Die” (1976), perhaps illustrating the deterioration in Romero’s artwork – the later illustration being crude, scrappy and slapdash. My issue with the earlier illustration is scale. Is the Eiffel Tower in the background really so much taller than the modern skyscraper tower-block we see in the foreground? Although Peter O’Donnell said he often sent photographs of real locations to help Romero (Monte Solaro on Carpi, for instance; and possibly Mdina, on Malta), my feeling is that Romero was much less meticulous in his illustrations of foreign locations – be it London, the South of France, the USA, New Zealand or Australia – than either Holdaway, or even Colvin. And, sadly, as time went on, Romero played less attention to detail or background, concentrating only on figures and faces. Fine artist as he could be – the above illustration to The Silver Mistress shows that – he had limitations, and gradually these became more apparent.

Two views of London – both very scrappy, the first from “The Big Mole” (1989), a view supposedly from the direction of St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Albert Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, with a misshapen Big Ben, and the bad guys seemingly located in the buildings facing onto the Victoria Embankment; while the second – from “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976), supposedly of Willie, driving a London black cab down The Mall, which what looks like Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial in the distance. Again, the art is very crude, especially for this earlier period. However, another small point of criticism: in the story Willie and Modesty pick up Sir Gerald from his Whitehall office, and we then see them drive around Trafalgar Square. However, if they then turned from Admiralty Arch into The Mall, they would be going towards Buckingham Palace, not away from it.

Repetitious places: Of course when the comic strip was originally drawn, to be published Monday to Saturday in a British newspaper, perhaps no one really thought it would be reprinted or become collector’s items. No one was going to go back and look at illustrations from years earlier. Titan Books only began to reprint the entire comic strip series in English in 2004, finally completed in 2017. Much earlier, Modesty was reprinted in various European countries – most notably in Sweden and in Swedish – and even (surprisingly, given some of the images) in India – we presume from samples seen, edited and, in part, redrawn. Romero was at least consistent in depicting the interior and roof-terrace of Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, as it was originally envisaged by Holdaway. For the most part Romero also maintained the general exterior views – mostly of the upper floors and roof of the building, with glimpses of street level. In the comic strip it is always described as “overlooking Hyde Park”, which could put it in three possible locations – on the south side (Knightsbridge), to the east (Park Lane), or north (Bayswater Road). Both the first and last are most likely options, but I personally prefer the Bayswater Road. However, there are a number of quite different variations for Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire”, including the original depiction from Holdaway in “The Gabriel Set-Up”; one, quite different version, from Romero, in “The Grim Joker”, which he used again in “The Young Mistress”; but a different house completely in “Lady in the Dark”. There is yet another quite different version again from Pat Wright in “The Brethren of Blaise”; and, finally, one – perhaps the best and most believable – from John Burns in “The Green Cobra”, which is at least still loosely based on the Holdaway version. Likewise, Jim Holdaway, right from the first comic strip “La Machine”, gives a wonderful image of Willie’s Thames riverside pub in Berkshire, “The Treadmill”. Colvin gives a tantalizing glimpse in “the Moon Man”, and again the rear, facing onto the river, in “Death in Slow Motion”. Romero gives two half-views in “Murder Frame”, which do at least match Holdaway’s original vision, although at the same time contrasting their styles. Otherwise, there are only interior views, too tiresome to compare!

Jim Holdaway – Modesty’s cottage in Wiltshire.

The John M. Burns’ version – my preference!

The Pat Wright version – more a shack! One Romero version, in “Lady in the Dark”, more a English country house than a cottage! Completely different!

Romero’s second version – completely yet different again, back to being a cottage, but now with a thatched roof!

The Treadmill”, Holdaway’s version.

Romero’s version of “The Treadmill”, pretty much the same, but cruder!

Colvin, by contrast, gives us this rather scratchy rear view. It doesn’t look to be the same building – too wide!

Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, by Jim Holdaway, 1963/64.

And as depicted by Romero, with some detail in “Death of a Jester”, more crudely in “The Killing Distance”, but consistent with the Holdaway original.

The Murder Frame” was the one comic strip story that featured (other than a fleeting bit-part) Willie’s regular lady lover, Lady Janet Gillam, who had more prominence in the novels and short stories. Somehow, Romero’s depiction of her never seemed quite right, to say nothing that the comic strip version makes no mention of her artificial leg. Here, however, is her farm house, surprisingly credible in its appearance, if not unlike the earlier Romero version of Modesty’s cottage in “Lady in the Dark”!

More oddly is Romero’s apparent repetition in his depiction of other houses. This only becomes apparent when trawling through the entire Romero period. The house on the top is from “The Puppet Master” (1971) and is supposed to be on the Italian island of Carpi. However, the house on the bottom is from “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973), and is supposed to be on the Cornish coast, England.

These two houses look virtually the same, even to the foreground trees, yet the one on the top is meant to be in Australia (from “Walkabout”, 1990), while the one on the bottom is supposed to be in Italy (Willie with Aniela) in “The Last Aristocrat” (1999)! Both have a passing similarity to the Cornish house above.

Another example of repetition from Romero – again hauntingly similar, yet depicting entirely different locations, even countries! On the top, is supposed to be an English village in “The Killing Distance” – it looks more urban, nothing characteristically rural English. On the bottom, again from “The Last Aristocrat”, this is supposed to be an Italian village. The parked vehicles look much the same, as do the planted trees and the building, with its low wall, on the right frame. Again it does not look at all Italian. It could be anywhere. Both illustrations are rather crude compared to Romero’s style in the 1970s. Sadly, this shows Romero’s later, more slapdash, indifference to places or things.

In “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986), or even “Ivory Dancer” (1992), Romero’s depiction of towns or buildings in the USA is credible. Here, however, in “The Children of Lucifer” (1999), his art is flat, crude, composition and scale wrong.

Faces. On Wikipedia Romero is described as a “good-girl artist”, and his depictions of women, especially semi-clad or nude, never faltered. However, we have already remarked his blondes all rather look alike – Maude Tiller, Aniela, Carmen in “The Vanishing Dollybirds”, Peggy Western in “Highland Witch”, Debbie Grant in “Walkabout”, Sophie in “The Big Mole”, or even Marian Hall in “The Young Mistress” – and all rather like his science fiction comic strip character Axa. His depiction of young Modesty (in “Tribute of the Pharaoh”) looks like the younger Samantha Brown, while the female character in the New Zealand-based story “The Maori Contract”, Carol Nash, also looks rather like Modesty.

That said, even some of male characters started to look vaguely alike.

Here is Gilbert Bone, husband to crime gang boss Anastasia, from “Idaho George” (1978), compare to Reppo, French crime boss in “Those About to Die” (1976). Compare again, the evil looking Mahmoud, ex-vice gang boss and Modesty enemy in “The Puppet Master”, with the equally evil Sangro in “The Greenwood Maid”.

Two more villains, ‘Friar’ Tuck, in “The Greenwood Maid”, and Stanley Boote, in “The Wicked Gnomes”.

Perhaps the more obvious – Brosni, Director of Security of a “minor East European country”, from “Death Trap” (1977), and Felix, a minor underling to “Ripper Jax” (1995).

What Might Have Been: We have remarked the sudden – and still, really, unexplained – dismissal of John M. Burns, an British artist of considerable talent, who, even in his brief tenure, showed empathy toward the key characters – Modesty, Willie, Tarrant and Jack Fraser, and even in depict their environment – Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire” looks just right, not too dissimilar to what Holdaway illustrated. Burns illustrated the Pieces of Modesty short stories, and – we believe – some of the magazine covers for European editions, as well as other stand-alone illustrations. This implies – whatever the opinion of the London Evening Standard editor – that Burns felt a continued affiliation with Modesty, and one, we have to presume, that Peter O’Donnell also approved. Both Burns and Colvin had another advantage also over Romero. They knew Britain. They knew London and British rural architecture, countryside, and British faces. It was not a foreign country. Although his style was not as bold or ‘realistic’ as Burns, Colvin showed himself more than capable to vividly illustrate foreign localities also – the West Indies, North Africa, South America, Italy, the South of France and Corsica, and India. Both the characters and their environment look right. However, Colvin was the eldest of the five artists, and eventually chose to retire – if, nothing else – on a high note, another of O’Donnell’s more classic stories.

Reluctantly, and with no disrespect to Romero, we would argue that the editors should have looked to other talent to have continued what was to be the remaining 15 years of the comic strip. At least one talented British artist was already working in the newspaper comic strip field, and that was Martin Asbury (born 1939), from 1976 to 1997 on the “Garth” strip for the Daily Mirror.

This is Martin’s “Garth” in the original black and white, giving a taste of his style, at times not unlike Frank Bellamy. More important, if we look at the reprints of the “Garth” stories on-going on the Garth Comic Facebook website, now reproduced in colour, we can see Asbury’s ability to illustrate places and faces – especially the latter. Below are some random samples. Look, and reflect, imagine if it had been Asbury drawing Modesty in her final one-and-a-half decades.

Modesty Blaise Story List:

  1. La Machine – 1963 – Artist: Jim Holdaway

  2. The Long Lever – 1963-64

  3. The Gabriel Set-Up – 1964

  4. Mr Sun – 1964

  5. The Mind of Mrs Drake – 1964

  6. Uncle Happy – 1964-65

  7. Top Traitor – 1965-66

  8. The Vikings – 1966

8A. In The Beginning – 1966

  1. The Head Girls – 1966

  2. The Black Pearl – 1966-67

  3. The Magnified Man – 1967

  4. The Jericho Caper – 1967-68

  5. Bad Suki – 1968

  6. The Galley Slaves – 1968

14A. The Killing Ground – 1968

  1. The Red Gryphon – 1968-69

  2. The Hell-Makers – 1969

  3. Take-Over – 1969-70

  4. The War-Lords of Phoenix – 1970 – Jim Holdaway & Romero

  5. Willie the Djinn – 1970 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  6. The Green-Eyed Monster – 1970-71

  7. Death of a Jester – 1971

  8. The Stone-Age Caper – 1971

  9. The Puppet Master – 1971-72

  10. With Love From Rufus – 1972

  11. The Bluebeard Affair – 1972-73

  12. The Gallows Bird – 1973

  13. The Wicked Gnomes – 1973

  14. The Iron God – 1973-74

  15. Take Me To Your Leader” – 1974

  16. Highland Witch – 1974

  17. Cry Wolf – 1974-75

  18. The Reluctant Chaperon – 1975

  19. The Greenwood Maid – 1975-76

  20. Those About To Die – 1976

  21. The Inca Trail – 1976

  22. The Vanishing Dollybirds – 1976-77

  23. The Junk Men – 1977

  24. Death Trap – 1977-78

  25. Idaho George – 1978

  26. The Golden Frog – 1978

  27. Yellowstone Booty – 1978-79 – Artist: John M. Burns

  28. Green Cobra – 1979

  29. Eve and Adam – 1979-80 – John M. Burns & Pat Wright

  30. Brethren of Blaise – 1980 – Artist: Pat Wright

  31. Dossier on Pluto – 1980 – Artist: Neville Colvin

  32. The Lady Killers – 1980-81

  33. Gavin’s Travels – 1981

  34. The Scarlet Maiden – 1981

  35. The Moon Man – 1981-82

  36. A Few Flowers for the Colonel – 1982

  37. The Balloonatic – 1982-83

  38. Death in Slow Motion – 1983

  39. The Alternative Man – 1983

  40. Sweet Caroline – 1983-84

  41. The Return of the Mammoth – 1984

  42. Plato’s Republic – 1984-85

  43. The Sword of the Bruce – 1985

  44. The Wild Boar – 1985

  45. Kali’s Disciples – 1985-86

  46. The Double Agent – 1986

  47. Butch Cassidy Rides Again – 1986-87 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  48. Million Dollar Game – 1987

  49. The Vampire of Malvescu – 1987

  50. Samantha and the Cherub – 1987-88

  51. Milord – 1988

  52. Live Bait – 1988-89

  53. The Girl From the Future – 1989

  54. The Big Mole – 1989

  55. Lady in the Dark – 1989-90

  56. Fiona – 1990

  57. Walkabout – 1990-91

  58. The Girl in the Iron Mask – 1991

  59. The Young Mistress – 1991-92

  60. Ivory Dance – 1992

  61. Our Friend Maude – 1992

  62. A Present for the Princess – 1992-93

  63. Black Queen’s Pawn – 1993

  64. The Grim Joker – 1993-94

  65. Guido the Jinx – 1994

  66. The Killing Distance – 1994

  67. The Aristo – 1994-95

  68. Ripper Jax – 1995

  69. The Maori Contract – 1995-96

  70. Honeygun – 1996

  71. Durango – 1996-97

  72. The Murder Frame – 1997

  73. Fraser’s Story – 1997

  74. Tribute of the Pharaoh – 1997-98

  75. The Special Orders – 1998

  76. The Hanging Judge – 1998-99

  77. Children of Lucifer – 1999

  78. Death Symbol – 1999

  79. The Last Aristocrat – 1999-2000

  80. The Killing Game – 2000

  81. The Zombie – 2000-2001

Novels & Short Stories:

  1. Modesty Blaise, 1965

  2. Sabre-Tooth. 1966

  3. I, Lucifer, 1967

  4. A Taste for Death, 1969

  5. The Impossible Virgin, 1971

  6. Last Day in Limbo, 1972

  7. Pieces of Modesty, 1972 – A Better Day to Die

The Goggle-Wrecker

I Had a Date with Lady Janet

A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck

Salamander Four

The Soo Girl Charity

  1. The Silver Mistress, 1973

  2. Dragon’s Claw, 1978

  3. The Xanadu Talisman, 1981

  4. The Night of Morningstar, 1982

  5. Dead Man’s Handle, 1985

  6. Cobra Trap, 1996 – Bellman

The Dark Angels

Old Alex

The Girl with the Black Balloon

Cobra Trap

Jim Holdaway.

2 thoughts on “*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge On the Artists who drew Modesty Blaise

  1. Goddamn! You put a lot of work into this. A real labor of love. Since I live in the US, I didn’t see the comic strip until The Menomonee Falls Gazette started running reprints weekly in 1971, followed by Comics Revue and eventually the Titan Books compilations. I did buy and read the 1st US edition of the 1st novel, then saw the movie and was suitably appalled. I agree with your judgements except I don’t have a clear recollection of the Burns or Pat Wright strips. I own all of the Titan collections and have read through them once, but for understandable reasons I only reread the Jim Holdaway ones.

    1. Hi Socrates17…Yes MB never really took off in the US – apparently the character was too sexy and the stories too long! A great pity, especially as there are some good US based stories there. Do read Burns “Yellowstone Booty” and try and get into Colvin – after a while you get into his interpretation, but there are some good stories there. It’s a oddity – or maybe just my response – that the Romero stories were not as good, and definitely tapered off towards the end, but – hey! – 40-odd years, one author, O’Donnell did good really. It’s interesting just how fully rounded MB was as a character, right from the first strip.

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