CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).
11: Story name: The Magnified Man – 1967 *****
Location: France: Tarn region (Occitanie department) – MB villa “on Basque coast” – St. Jean de Luz (border with Spain) – ‘Gueule du Loup’, mountainous region.
Villain: Herr Bilke.
Body Count: 5
Modesty’s lover: none
Willie’s lover: Denise Rouelle (after story end)
Other characters: Tarrant; Denise Rouelle (Deuxieme Bureau agent); René Vaubois (DB Chief); Bilke’s gang members, notably Gridoux and Jules.
Nudity rating: MB in robe; flashing her legs whilst riding the bull, or fighting.
Who kills who? : Jules kills a French Sûreté agent by dropping boulder onto his car. MB and WG kill the two of Bilke’s gang, Andre and Jacques, who had tried to kill Denise Rouelle. MB kills another of Herr Bilke’s gang, Gridoux, by hurling him over a cliff. WG’s grenade kills Jules. MB suffers a cut on her cheek from a rock splinter.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. Tarrant is visiting MB and WG at her villa at St. Jean de Luz when WG sees an old girlfriend Denise (who is a Deuxieme Bureau agent) and inadvertently blows her cover. Very soon the mob she is embedded with take their revenge, stabbing her, but she survives thanks to MB and WG intervening. However, before she slips into unconsciousness, she says to tell Vaubois what sounded like “Girl due”. MB realises she was actually speaking French, not English, the location known as ‘Gueule du Loup’ – a narrow pass known as the Wolf’s Jaw. What follows is an ingeniously worked out gold bullion train heist, in isolated mountains using the ‘magnified man’, a metal exo-skeleton, a device that was actually being developed in the 1960s (notably by the US military), but apparently – like the thermal lance – little later came of it.
Critical comment: This story first introduces the French intelligence chief René Vaubois in the comic strips, where he later featured in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972, drawn by Romero), “The Wild Boar” (1985, drawn by Colvin), and “Our Friend Maude” (1992, drawn by Romero again). He also featured in several of the novels, first mentioned in the novel Modesty Blaise, where, strangely his first name is given as Léon. Soon after, he appeared in Sabre-Tooth (1966) as René, followed by I, Lucifer (1967). In “The Wild Boar” we discover he is married. At one point, we see MB taking part at the local course des vaches bull ring, where man and bull compete, the bull more often the victor. Herr Bilke communicates with his gang by apparently working as a waiter at their hotel. A thread throughout the story is the ball game of pelota, played with a long basket (O’Donnell calls it a cesta, Wikipedia says chistera) on one hand. Jules (“thick as a plank”, WG recollected) was a one-time champion, later “in Corbeau’s mob”. The game has its origins in the Basques region, north-east Spain, south-west France, from the 18th century, evolving into its modern form in the 19th century. Trapped in the gang’s cave hideaway, WG uses Jules’s cesta to toss one of the grenades. While the rest of the gang duck, Jules is killed and Bilke cuts his losses and tries to escape. Vaubois’s operation headquarters was at Vienne, near Lyon, over 90 minutes away. Early in the story Tarrant and Vaubois have a telephone discussion concerning Denise’s predicament in cryptic terms of patient and doctor.
Denise being exposed and being knifed is similar to the fate of MB’s friend (and Tarrant agent) Jeannie Challon in “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964/65), but Denise is luckier, MB and WG intercept her would-be killers in time, and Vaubois and Tarrant summon an ambulance, and she is rushed to hospital. In the last panels a crestfallen WG brings flowers, and Denise says she will ‘punish’ him as soon as she is better!
12: Story name: The Jericho Caper – 1967/68 ****
Location: ‘Luquerres’, small fishing village on the “Pacific coast of Central America” – Calia, capital of the ‘Republic of Desperados’ – London, Victoria Street/Bayswater Road.
Villain: Sabo de Mar (bandit, and self-declared ‘president’)
Body Count: 13
Modesty’s lover: Torres (blind artist and sculptor).
Willie’s lover: none.
Other characters: Tarrant; Father Ramon (RC priest); Rosa (village girl); Finn (Irishman, formerly from the Network); Chuck (aircraft survey pilot from Chequida.)
Nudity rating: MB swimming nude in pool.
Who kills who? : The Sabo bandits kill one of the villagers. WG and MB killed four more bandits who are besieging Finn and his companions at a mine. MB and WG decimate Sabo’s ragbag henchmen. Torres shoots Sabo’s second-in-command. MB throws Sabo to his death over a parapet.
Summary/theme: Rescue caper. MB has driven in a jeep down the USA, only to stay over in the village of Luquerres “when the road ran out”. She is living with the blind, former painter, Torres (who is making a nude clay sculpture of her), when bandits arrive, take three young girls (killing Jose, Rosa’s father) and head back to Calia, the ‘Republic of Desperados’, a self-governing, if rather lawless, territory originally founded by escaped convicts. The previous president, Lafayette, has been killed and Sabo de Mar has elected himself as the new president. MB and Torres volunteer to accompany the village priest, Father Ramon, who thinks he can negotiate with Sabo. Torres lost his sight ten years earlier fighting in the revolution; now he is a self-confessed cheerful, if cynical, pacifist. MB has alerted WG by radio and he flies to join her. Together they eventually team up with the Irishman Finn (formerly from the Network) to defeat the bandits, using the ‘Jericho scam’, a strategy of firepower and false rumours. In the subsequent shoot out at an old Aztec fort, Torres suffers a bullet grazing his forehead and has his sight restored.
Critical comment: In several of the novels (Dragon’s Claw, for instance) and in “Milord” (1988), clerics, or pseudo-clerics, are the baddies, but in this story, and “Black Queen’s Pawn” , we have a well-meaning, sympathetic Roman Catholic priest. A variation on this story (girls kidnapped by bandits) is used several times, the short story “A Better Day to Die” (in Pieces of Modesty, 1972), and again in the comic strip story “Milord”. Finn the Irishman is another character with a distinctive way of talking. Again, a pity O’Donnell never used him again. Instead he is elected Calia’s new president.
MB and WG communicate by Sked “mobile licensed radio”, on 20-metre band, 14-1-0-3 megs, WG’s call sign being G3QRM, MB’s G3QRO/CZ1. This also features in a number of the novels (with the same call signs).
Another often ‘busy’, heavily detailed, artwork from Holdaway, although sadly the quality of the Titan Books reproduction is not always very good.
13: Story name: Bad Suki – 1968 ***
Location: West End, gambling clubs – MB’s penthouse – ‘Cloud Nine’ hippie club – Scotland Yard – Pimlico, lodging house – Hyde Park (‘love-in’) – ‘Treadmill’ pub – Shorne Bay, somewhere on the south Cornish coast – the ‘Grey House’.
Villain: Miss Gertrude Porter, aka ‘Good Gertie’, aka ‘Suki’.
Other characters: Amanda Jones (hippie drug-taker); Weng; Inspector Brook (Drugs Squad, Scotland Yard); Detective Sergeant Dawson; Gertie’s gang – Mr Lefty, Mr Chalky, Slasher.
Body count: 4
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in mini-skirts; in bra.
Who kills who? : MB and WG ‘sign off’ Gertie and her gang. Both police sergeant Dawson and Amanda are beaten up as ‘bad suki’. A local Cornish police sergeant is shot and wounded. MB and WG are nearly suffocated.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. WG is ‘playing for pocket money’ at a number of West End gambling clubs after midnight, when he takes the fall for a young hippie girl high on the drug LSD, who thinks she can fly. He brings her unconscious to MB’s penthouse apartment, but the following morning she is less than grateful, not least because her marijuana reefers have gone down the toilet, and her clothes washed. She phones her hippie boyfriend to pick her up. Her name is Amanda Jones, and the only clue to where she might have got the LSD is a card for the ‘Cloud 9 Club’. MB and WG investigate, where they meet spinster, seemingly religious do-gooder, Gertrude Porter, giving away copies of her booklet of Shining Thoughts. When questioning the barman about Amanda, WG is warned off with the strange, but somehow threatening, advice that such questions were ‘bad suki’. Not long after they rescue a man (who was trailing them) from being beaten up, and who transpires to be a police detective sergeant. They take him to Scotland Yard where they meet Inspector Brook, who remembers them from the Network days. Brook gives them Amanda’s address, but she too has been beaten up, muttering ‘bad suki’. After a futile afternoon at a Hyde Park ‘love in’, WB and WG finally decide to enlist Gertrude to be their eyes and ears for the drug scene, and very soon she gives them a date, time and place, in Cornwall, where a drug shipment is arriving. Only one boat fits the time-frame and they investigate in scuba gear to discover the gang are using a floating capsule to hide the drugs (heroin) from the customs inspection. But they have been set-up. Gertrude is ‘Suki’, the gang leader, and orders her underlings to seal MB and WG in the capsule and sink it. A hidden cutting device in WG’s ring enable them to escape, only for Brook and the local police to intervene. The gang escape and MB is forced to ‘chill’ Brook (pretending he slipped and hit his head), whilst she and WG eliminate the entire gang, then load their bodies onto a boat, which “catches fire” and explodes out at sea.
Critical comments: Initially this was my least favourite of the Holdaway period stories, although the artwork is good throughout, especially faces. In retrospect, this was probably unfair. It is a routine, workable caper, if with MB and WG initially becoming involved more by accident. However, again we are reminded of MB’s special hatred (obviously shared by Peter O’Donnell) of the drug trade. It is also a story where MB and WG are completely taken in by the innocent-seeming Gertrude, and walking right into what nearly proved to be a deadly trap. It is perhaps this, coupled with the fate of the rather hapless Amanda, and the shooting of an unarmed policemen, that prompted our heroes to take such a ruthless vigilante stand against all the gang members, and even disposing of their bodies afterwards. This story also sees the first appearance of Inspector Brook (‘Brookie’) of Scotland Yard, here as of the ‘Drug Squad’, and formerly seconded with Interpol, which is where he had previous had dealings with MB during her Network days. We are told she helped in the break-up of the ‘Groppi mob’ drug gang, and Brook speculated she ‘rubbed out’ (e.g., killed) at least three big-time drug peddlers. Brook’s next appearance was in “Take-Over” (1969/70), where again our heroes (this time by encouraging others to actually do the deed) eliminate the baddies, and have the evidence spirited away, only leaving Brook assurances “they would never appear again”. Quite how Brook is able to justify closing down two on-going criminal cases to his supervisors, is never explained. Both MB and WG appear to be a bit old for the hippie scene, but Holdaway seemed to have had fun depicting her in full ‘flower-power’ mode. The ‘hippie’/flower power scene dates it to the later half of the 1960s, when hippiedom was starting to going sour with the active use (encouraged by various ‘enlightened’ intellectuals) of drugs. Again we have a fleeting reference to Interpol, and more insight to un-chronicled events from the Network days.
Peter O’Donnell claimed he got the name ‘bad Suki’ from hearing woman chastising her pet dog! Along with “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976/77, by Romero), I rate this as one of his less successful story titles.
14: Story name: The Galley Slaves – 1968 ****
Location: South Pacific Ocean – island 50 miles S.E. of Tahiti – Papeete, Tahiti.
Body Count: 7
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: WG reminisces about Maureen, a rowing champion with a big chest.
Other characters: Freddie Lampson; Tarrant; Frank Hoyland (CIA); Eddie Grant (American movie director, Spectacular Films Inc.).
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants, or in skimpy shorts.
Who kills who? : Between them MB and WG kill several of Lim’s underlings. Eddie Grant shoots Lim. MB suffers a minor graze to her side, climbing in and out of the trireme.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Bored with life on friend Freddie’s luxury yacht with his snobby, small-minded guests, MB and WG swim to the nearest tropical island for a ‘Robinson Crusoe’-like test of survival, only to stumble onto a movie production about ancient Rome (“Empire of the Eagle”), being made by American director Eddie Grant. First coincidence: Eddie is friends with FBI agent Steve Taylor. Second coincidence: Tarrant is on Tahiti as link man between the America CIA and the French authorities. The ‘Macguffin’ is a prototype American atomic powered mini submarine drone – quite ingenious for the time – which has been stolen on its first sea trials. Third coincidence: the perpetrator is Lim, a fellow criminal who once (six years before) had teamed up with the Network, and who had saved MB’s life. MB suggests simply paying $3 million as ransom, but when she and WG make contact with Lim, they realise he has changed, “gone bad” as WG puts it, and intends to extract payment from the Americans while still selling the telemetry device to the Cubans for the same price! When MB refuses to join him, his thugs attempt to kill them, only for WG to threaten them with a jar of sulphuric acid, and MB to pin Lim down under his desk. He still tricks them, however, directly them to a fake mock-up. In consequence both Hoyland and Tarrant blame MB for fouling thing up, much to WG’s annoyance. After some thought MB realises Lim intends to use the movie-makers’ replicated ancient Roman/Classical era trireme to make his escape undetected from the patrolling US Navy destroyers, but with the film crew and actors – together with MB and WG, following Lim still outsmarting them – chained to the oars as man-power. However, MB and WG lead the fight to escape and, at night and in the middle of the ocean, there follows a deadly fight to turn the tables. The story ends with MB and WG playing at turtle-racing, as if without a care in the world.
Critical comments: American FBI operative Frank Hoyland appears again in the strip story “The Hell Makers” (1969). Freddie appears one more time, if briefly, at the end of the next story, “The Red Gryphon” (1968/69). Eddie Grant appears again in “The Junk Men” (1977), but subsequently drawn by Romero and not really looking anything like he does here, as illustrated by Holdaway.
This story again refutes the lazy assertion that MB is just a “female James Bond”. She is not. MB has a moral code and sense of obligation; whereas, Bond, in both books and the movies, is simply a murderous thug, with no moral stature or remorse.
That Lim had once saved her life was her justification for not “taking him out” after realising he had “gone bad”, despite that it put her life, and that of others, in jeopardy, and that he had double-crossed both her and the Americans – much to Hoyland’s annoyance. Again, while MB was able to guess Lim’s ultimate scheme of using the trireme, Lim had still anticipated her reaction, taking her and WG prisoners. But it is typical of O’Donnell’s mastery of story-telling with a difference, that it is Eddie Grant, not MB or WG, to gets to kill Lim. In this story we get a demonstration of another WG’s many talents, this time the ability to mimic voices, which we see working to similar good effect again in “The Lady Killers” (1980/81, Colvin).
Eddie Grant says the cost of constructing a full-size, working replica of a trireme is half a million dollars. Prior to observing the film unit on the other side of the island, MB and WG spent five days playing ‘castaways’ building a raft (which never gets finished), and feasting on turtle meat, turtle eggs, coconuts and fish.
The islands of Tahiti are part of the Windward group of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.
15: Story name: The Red Gryphon – 1968/69 *****
Location: Venice – the city itself – Grand Canal, side canals – Parini’s restaurant – Palazzo Belari on one of the small, off-lying islands – Convent Santa Maria – Rome.
Villain: Venetian aristocrat Count Alborini; henchmen Luigi and Matteo.
Body Count: 4
Modesty’s lover: Max Aquino; possibly the unnamed Italian millionaire (after the story end).
Willie’s lover: none.
Other characters: Francesca and Angelo (street urchins); Freddie Lampson.
Nudity rating: MB in robe, panties, bra. MB, fighting Alborini’s thugs in the deserted warehouse (where they are about to kill Francesca and Angelo), takes off her skirt (held by Velcro-fastening), in just a tight top, bare feet and black panties. Holdaway depicts her here as rather large-breasted in that cardigan-like top – perhaps she wasn’t wearing a bra?
Who kills who? : Alborini has MB’s lover Max drowned. Alborini accidentally kills Matteo when attacked by MB. Willie kills Luigi. WG is shot and badly wounded in the shoulder. MB kills Alborini by throwing him down his own Venetian ancestral palazzo murder hole.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB’s latest lover Max Aquino is a young Italian architect who is renovating a Venetian palazzo, set on its own private island, for a Rome-based Italian millionaire client. When the previous owner, Count Alborini, discovers there is a lost fortune in jewels hidden in the base of the ‘Red Gryphon’ statue positioned up on the palazzo roof, he has Max drowned. MB and WG plot revenge but their plans almost go wrong. The final – rather cinematic – showdown takes place at night in the empty palazzo, MB still with her wrists shackled. In a sub-plot MB meets, and later protects, two young orphaned children, whose casual theft of Max’s briefcase first alerts Alborini to what he claims is his family fortune. In fact they belonged to the cousin of Alborini’s grandfather, who was murdered by his uncle, Alborini’s great-grandfather, so as to get possession of the estate. Alboirni himself was “born two centuries too late” (in Max’s words) and had “a touch of the Borgias” about him, as MB remarked.
Critical comments: Key to the story is MB making friends with the two orphaned street urchins – who she obviously feels some affiliation with – having rescued the boy, Angelo, from being caught by a policeman. When taken into care, they run away again as the convent orphanage insist on separating them. We never discover if they are brother and sister, or just close companions. Both, we would guess, are aged about twelve. Again Holdaway’s art captures Venice, as well as the various characters, although his depiction of Court Alborini’s ball is incredibly detailed – too much so, perhaps, for its reduction to newspaper comic strip size and reproduction. Given that neither he nor O’Donnell probably thought of the MB stories as more than a daily strip, to be read and thrown away, such attention to detail rose above the call of duty, and was – sadly – never attained by his successor artists. At times – and not just in this story, but throughout – his illustrations have almost a cinematic quality, especially in views with nameless, but detailed, individuals in the foreground, such as in restaurant scenes.
Freddie (together with his luxury yacht) had already appeared briefly in the previous strip story “The Galley Slaves” (1968). He was docked at Rimini but was summoned by MB to rendezvous off Malamocco, one of the entrances to the Venetian lagoon. Once more, this story illustrates MB’s personal moral code, and how ruthless she could be when her friends have been injured or killed. Max is one of the more good-humoured and funny of her boyfriends, only to end up dead, a fate shared by several other of MB’s lovers in the novels, who also get killed. In the comic strip, the only other boyfriend to be killed is in “Death Trap” (1977/78, illustrated by Romero).
MB’s elegy for Max is “He worked hard, played hard, hurt nobody, he clowned a little, laughed easily, and ready enjoyed being alive. I’m not going to let Alborini put him down like a dog and get away with it.”
This story also introduces the concept of the Thermic lance that O’Donnell was to use in a number of his MB stories, comic strip and novels, with WG pretending to be ‘Mr Shaw’, originally employed by Max – a deception that Alborini quickly see through, having asked a journalist in Rome he knows about MB and WG. In retrospect, one can only wonder if the ‘Roman journalist’ might have been one Guido Biganzoli, who was later to first feature in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83, illustrated by Colvin). Once again we have a revolver fitted with a silencer. Also, this is the first example of MB’s fighting technique using an easily detachable Velcro skirt.
16: Story name: The Hell-Makers – 1969 *****
Location: New York – somewhere in Montana, USA – ‘Glory Heights’, Crazy Mountains, Montana.
Villains: Miriam Stone; Alex Kazin (ex-Soviet KGB agent).
Body Count: 9
Modesty’s lover: (offers dinner date to unnamed CIA agent).
Willie’s lover: (MB mentions a “red-head in Springfield”).
Other characters: Frank Hoyland (CIA); Tarrant; Monson (CIA stunt driver); Gus Fletcher (WW2 ex-GI sniper, now recluse); several unnamed CIA operatives.
Nudity rating: MB in short robe; later in bra.
Who kills who? : Modesty unintentionally kills Miriam. She and Gus take out all of Kazin’s gang. Kazin and the already dead pilot are in the crashed helicopter which falls off the mountainside.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. WG is driving back across the USA, via Idaho and Montana, having visited John Dall in “Sun Valley”. MB, meanwhile is in New York with Hoyland and Tarrant, where she briefly meets Alex Kazin, ex-KGB officer who defected to the West five years previous. Her immediate instinct is “don’t trust him.” Unbeknown to her, Kazin has already arranged to have WG waylaid and kidnapped, using his sidekick, super-methodical Miriam Stone, as lure. Miriam then visits MB at her hotel room and reveals, via a film recording, that they have fed powerful LSD to WG, which will eventually kill him unless MB helps them to blacklist some top key American scientists, whose crucial research work the Soviets wish to curtail. MB kills Miriam in anger (she has a cyanide capsule in her tooth), and then has to quickly set up a cover story for Miriam’s death, if she has any hope of discovering where WG is being held. Hurriedly Hoyland arranges for Miriam’s body to be removed (in a laundry basket) to a nearby hospital, while MB, wearing Miriam’s coat, hood, and spectacles, is supposedly knocked down by a car in the street outside the hotel. Using their system of hand and body signals, WG, before he was too far gone with the LSD drug, was able to name where he was being held – an isolated folly in the Crazy Mountains. MB goes solo to investigate and, together with the help of grumpy, hermit-like, ex-WW2 GI Gus Fletcher, and his two tamed eagles (Solomon and Sheba), they are able to scale Glory Heights and eliminate Kazin and his gang. WG is still suffering the LSD hallucinations, and MB has to use extreme measures to free his mind of the effect of the drugs.
Critical comments: CIA operative Hoyland also appeared in earlier strip story “The Galley Slaves”. This story again emphasises the solid, unbreakable bond existing between MB and WG. It also underlines MB’s ability to quickly think her way out of difficult situations, rather than just gung-ho, brute force, in how she uses Miriam’s death to her own advantage. The Crazy Mountains really do exist in Montana, stretching for 40 miles between the Musselskell and Yellowstone Rivers, and the name may have originated with the native Crow Indians. However, we must assume the 800ft solitary outcrop of ‘Glory Heights’, with its wind-polished upper sides, is purely from O’Donnell’s imagination. A point of interest is that Hoyland offers the use of a desert vehicle for MB to reach Glory Heights peak. Oddly enough it is right-hand drive, rather than US left-hand drive. One possible explanation: it is a Land Rover. MB is able to pacify a female-hostile Gus by naming his WW2 campaign metals and identifying him as an infantryman, sniper, probably with General Patton’s Third Army. Gus uses a Winchester rifle – still with deadly effect.
Perhaps of all the many characters O’Donnell created in the comic strip series, Gus Fletcher has to be one of the best and most enjoyable, in particular the banter between him and MB. Taciturn and eccentric, nevertheless he emerges as being completely believable. O’Donnell apparently considered using Gus Fletcher again, but unfortunately he never did. I would rate this the best of MB’s USA adventures, followed by “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79, by John Burns) and “Uncle Happy” (1965, Holdaway). This features an early mention (although not personal appearance) of Texan millionaire, and MB lover, John Dall, in the comic strips. He does not appear in the comic strip until “Yellowstone Booty”, drawn by Burns, and thereafter only as illustrated by Romero.
In these early Holdaway-illustrated stories – amongst the best of the entire series – it’s rather intriguing that O’Donnell seemed to like (mostly the villains) with names being with ‘K’ – so Kaverin, Kossuth, Korzan, Kazin, Korzon and Kato.
17: Story name: Take Over – 1969/70 ****
Location: ‘Sondracast’ Film Studios, “twenty miles from London” – location in London – Thames riverside pub/restaurant (“The Trafalgar”, Greenwich) – MB’s penthouse apartment – the Ritz – MB’s bank – MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – somewhere on the Yorkshire Moors
Villains: Mafia, “the Chairman”; John Strickland (aka ‘The College Boy’, a thug).
Body Count: 14+
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Other Characters: Weng; Inspector Brook (Scotland Yard); Mr Carter (bank security guard, ex-army type); Mrs Carter; Duffy (UK gangster, Brighton mob);
Nudity rating: Willie stripped off.
Who kills who? : Thugs shoot Mr Carter during foiled bank raid. Two British gang members are hanged by the Mafia as an example to the others. Modesty shoots dead the Mafia ‘Chairman’. All of the Mafia gang are killed by the British criminal gangs, with a loss of two of their own number. MB gets a beating from Strickland.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. The more ruthless American Mafia are making a take-over of the British underworld gangs, executing anyone who objects. They are operating from a film studio somewhere west of London. Despite Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard appealing for her help, MB is indifferent at first until the middle-aged ex-squaddie bank guard is shot dead during an armed robbery, witnessed by her and foiled, as the gang try to escape, by WG. Previous there had been an element of humour, WG inviting MB out to lunch at the Ritz, but (neither the Rolls nor the Jensen being available) WG is driving a vehicle pick-up truck. With no clues to go by, MB pretends to know where a big money stash is hidden from a past robbery, but the Mafia finish up taking both her and WG prisoners, planning to execute them by electric chair as a deterrent to the British gang leaders. With a bare minimum of resources, they attempt to turn the tables, WG blowing the studio fuses, plunging the studio into dark. In the confusion MB shoots dead the mafia leader (named only as ‘the Chairman’), and they successfully turn the British hoods against their new American bosses. In the subsequent shoot-out the British gang leaders emerged victorious, with only two of their own dead. MB then recommends they flee quick, but dump the dead bodies out at sea by helicopter. The police, lead by Inspector Book, arrive too late, having been alerted by a balloon message our two heroes had previously sent from their prison cell. In the final panel WG remarks the studio name is an anagram of ‘Costa Nostra’.
Critical comments: This is MB’s first story encounter with the America Mafia, although a Mafia takeover theme is used again, in Malta (“The Reluctant Chaperon”, 1976), and then in Australia, in “Walkabout” (1990/91). Inspector Brook (‘Brookie’) had first appeared in “Bad Suki” (1968), and continued to appear in later stories, “Love From Rufus” (1972) and “Idaho George” (1978, both by Romero), and “Death in Slow Motion” (1983), “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, both by Colvin) and “The Grim Joker” (1993/94), “Ripper Jax” (1995), and “The Murder Frame” (1997, Romero again). The actual location of the film studio is said to be “20 miles west of London”, but WG says “the new studios near Twickenham”. It is apparently on the Thames, but surrounded by other buildings. There is a ‘Twickenham Studios’, established 1913, actually at St. Margarets, between Twickenham and Isleworth, but perhaps a better possible location (and more about the right distance) is at, or near, Shepperton or Hampton. The Thames riverside pub/restaurant, where MB meets Brook, is identifiable as “The Trafalgar” at Greenwich, just down from the old Royal Naval College.
The identity and significant of the silent female secretary, taking notes at the Mafia top brass meetings is never revealed. Perhaps she was one of the late Gabriel’s ‘superior secretaries’? Holdaway is at his peak, in meticulous detail, in capturing the faces of the various characters – the Mafia hoods, the Britain underworld criminals, ex-soldier-cum-bank guard Mr Carter, even the working-class family in whose garden in Fulham the balloon and its message for Brook happen to fall. My usual minor criticism about check jackets, however, the pattern being the same size whether viewed close-up or more distant (one of MB’s captors and the gangster Duffy). Again we see MB’s Wiltshire cottage, which remains consistent. Having been worked over by Strickland, MB’s bruises are notable, but not quite as gross as Romero would later depict her facial injuries. One small slip, however. At the beginning of the studio battle scene the Mafia Chairman calls out to an underling to get lamps from the vehicle “boot” – as an American he would had said “trunk”.
Finally, this is another good example that MB and WG are not infallible, that even the cleverest plans can – and often do – go wrong. At least one of the Mafia members sees through MB’s fake story of the hidden £750,000 loot, and they find themselves completely outsmarted. This story follows directly on from WG’s misadventures in the USA in the previous story. Unfortunately this is the last instance of such story continuity.
18: Story name: The War-Lords of Phoenix – 1970 ** Artists: Holdaway & Romero
Location: Japan – Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido Island – Tokyo – small island of Kiba, Pacific coast (WW2 underground aircraft factory converted) – Castle Shojiro.
Villains: Kato and Funiya Shojiro (twins).
Body count: 11+
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Japanese girl Tamako (works as masseuse.)
Other characters: Kazumi (master of martial arts); Kimi (his granddaughter); Asada (her fiancé); Umino and Obata (Phoenix underlings); Yukio (Phoenix operative).
Nudity rating: MB nude in bath and later completely nude in shower; also in bra and shorts, showing a lot of leg. WG’s Japanese girlfriend Tamako in bra and briefs.
Who kills who? : Asada unsuccessfully attempted to kill his fiancée. In uncharacteristic anger, Kazumi kills Asada, his granddaughter’s fiancé. Phoenix operative, Obata, is beheaded for failing to successfully secure MB. Another Phoenix assassin Yukio dies from cyanide capsule. MB and WG eliminate a number of Phoenix warriors, both in test training and in their final show-down. Defeated (as they see it) by a woman, Kato and Shojiro ritually kill each other.
Summary/theme: Megalomaniac caper. MB and WG are visiting Japan and the 70-year-old martial arts master Kazumi in Sapporo. Tragedy strikes when his eldest granddaughter Kimi is nearly killed by her fiancé after she accidentally found a badge in his possession with a phoenix symbol. In Tokyo the special police suspect the secretive Phoenix society is already responsible for three mysterious killings. Unbeknown to our heroes, they have been selected to be kidnapped by the Phoenix, whose leaders, the so-called ‘War Lords’ (the two wealthy Japanese businessmen Shijiro twins, Kato and Funiya) wish to use their combat skill to train their recruits. Having been taken captive (by the use of bogus policemen), MB and WG are taken to the twins’ secret underground stronghold beneath the island of Kiba, converted from an old WW2 aircraft factory. The twins (with a tendency to talk as if one person) reveal their long-term plan to use their secret Samurai-style army to take over Japan in the aftermath of (as they predict it) the forthcoming World War III, and eventually, perhaps a generation later, restore order to the rest of the world. Key to the Phoenix Society are loyalty, obedience and secrecy, hence why Asada had to kill Kimi. Failure, as MB and WG have already seen, is a capital offence. First, however, they are forced to undergo a series of deadly combat situations. WG’s Japanese girlfriend Tamako is being held hostage in the brother’s family castle to ensure compliance. In their subsequent training sessions with the Phoenix operatives, both demonstrate the need for unconventional thinking, ‘outside the box’, as we would say now. The twins are impressed, but when they send one of MB’s pupils on his first mission to kill Kazumi, she has hidden a message in the hollow tube-like handle of her kongo, revealing the location of the secret base. Police rescue Tamako, while assault troops storm the island. Meantime, MB and WG gain the initiative at first by telling their Phoenix pupils this is a training exercise, before blowing up the armoury (together with the Phoenix men inside). Defeated, the twins kill each other, Samurai-style.
Critical comments: This was one of the few MB comic strip stories (as opposed to some of the novels) that might have been in the ‘typical’ civilisation-threatening Ian Fleming ‘megalomaniac’ mode of story villain, and which our heroes are forced to act somewhat in akin to James Bond, in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation. One of the virtues of the MB comic strip stories is that the villains are – for the most part – small fry, big only within the confines of the criminal or espionage world. Even here, the Japanese twins are depending on the possibility of a Third World War, rather than anything proactive in trying to seize control of Japan. We see another example of mad or evil twin businessmen with the English Bone brothers in the later story “The Girl in the Iron Mask” (1991, Romero). They also talk as one, and conduct their business interests by telephone whilst at the same time planning their evil deeds. MB’s favourite personal defensive/offensive hand-weapon, the kongo – also known in Japanese martial arts as the vajra or yawara stick – has a special significance in this story, Kazumi recognising it as the weapon being used in the failed Phoenix assassination attempt, and finding the detailed message (written very small) hidden in the hollow handle.
Tragically Jim Holdaway died mid-way through illustrating this story (aged 43), and the Spanish/Catalonian artist Enrique Badio Romero (based in Barcelona) was hurriedly commissioned to take over (from strip number 2099), although seemingly adopting Holdaway’s style at first. Hereafter he continued illustrating the comic strip until 1978, very quickly developing his own, quite distinctive, style. He was then called back into service following the retirement of Neville Colvin in 1986, and continued as the artist until the last strip in 2001. Although he is now often accredited as the Modesty Blaise artist, we contest that. Longevity isn’t everything. We feel the biggest drawback to Romero was that he was not British, nor had he lived in, or had any personal knowledge of, England; unlike Holdaway, or even New Zealand-born Colvin. Indeed, he apparently (certainly at that time) did not even speak English, as all communications had to be translated (by a Spanish lady, Elena Garcia). This lack of knowledge often resulted in quite ridiculous images, many of which we will examine below. We also believe that, in time, this lack of personal knowledge or research was to have a negative effect on the stories themselves. The ultra-realism of Holdaway’s artistic style had helped make the characters and stories more credible, no matter the crazy villains, plots or coincidences. I would also suggest that Holdaway, who already had a personal as well as professional relationship with O’Donnell, may have perhaps helped in story plot suggestions. Given that MB was as much Holdaway’s creation as O’Donnell’s, I would be surprised if the two didn’t discuss ideas, or improvements. It certainly seems that many of the Romero period stories were inferior in plotting or ingenuity to the Holdaway era, and – personal opinion as this may be – the Colvin period stories were again of a more superior, enjoyable quality, before dropping off away with the second Romero period. Holdaway’s untimely death, so young, was a tragedy, comparable to that of Frank Bellamy, who was at the time of his death was illustrating the “Garth” comic strip. Bellamy would have been a magnificent alternative artist to the first Romero period – what kind of Modesty Blaise would he have illustrated one can, sadly, only speculate, just as we can only lament the irreplaceable loss, thereafter, of Holdaway’s artistic genius in the subsequent stories from 1970 onward.
Before we continued with the first Romero period of artwork, let us briefly examine two short additional Holdaway-illustrated MB stories, numbered in the Titan Books collection as story 8A and story 14A, respectively dated 1966 and 1968.
8A: Story name: In The Beginning – 1966.
Summary/theme: Short MB backstory in twelve strips. Sometime during World War II, the young girl who was later to be named Modesty Blaise, escapes under the barbed wire of a German refugee camp in Greece. Her mother is dead, her mind a blank. She has no memory of her real name. She is a skinny, dark-haired child. She makes her way south through Turkey and into Persia (Iran), working, begging or stealing to survive, often moving with nomadic tribes from place to place. In a displaced persons’ camp, she defends and protects an old man, Lob, a university professor originally from Budapest. It is he who gives her the name Modesty (with a certain irony) and she names herself Blaise, after Merlin’s tutor in the stories of King Arthur. He helps educate her. She even steals books to help him. Over the next four years they moved through the Middle East, eventually to North Africa, heading to Tangier. Lob dies, however, and she buries him in the desert. She is about sixteen. Three months later she is working in a casino owned by a small-time crime gang boss Henri Louche. Two years later he is killed in a gang battle and she took over his operation, moulding it into the Network, with branches almost worldwide. By twenty she was wealthy and successful, but she never dealt with drugs or vice, and, indeed, sometimes took terminal action against crime rivals who did. In Saigon she sees WG, in a Thai-style boxing ring, He was “gutter-bred with a mind clouded by unreasoning hatred.” Despite that, she saw his potential, and soon after she bought him out of jail. In gratitude he called her ‘princess’, and very soon puts his intelligence and criminal skills to become her right-hand man. Finally, ambition seemingly fulfilled, MB retired, spit the Network amongst her section chiefs, and she and WG moved to England, he buying the “Treadmill” pub by the River Thames, MB her London penthouse. The strip ends with the appearance in their life of Sir Gerald Tarrant.
Critical comments: In the above story, when MB meets Lob at a displaced persons camp in Persia, she is aged about twelve, and depicted as such. More detail about these early years is given in the novel the Xanadu Talisman and more briefly in the short story “The Dark Angels”, from Cobra Trap. In the latter story, MB says she was age seven or eight (not twelve), and implies that Lob was only the name she knew him by, and he was Jewish, and from Budapest.
In 2002 Peter O’Donnell wrote an article (later reproduced in Titan Books), “Girl Walking”, about his encounter with the young girl who eventually became the inspiration for Modesty, whilst serving as a NCO in a British Army radio detachment in northern Iran (Persia) in 1942. She was described as a young girl in a sun-bleached shirt that reached to her knees, carrying a bundle on her head, wrapped in a blanket. She had black hair, but did not appear to be an Arab. He speculated she might have been one of the many refugees from the Balkans who were fleeing the German advance into Russia, trickling down between the Black Sea and the Caspian. In his article he remarks, if she had survived, she would be 70 now (e.g, in 2002), so we estimate her age then to be 10, hence she was born about 1932. He further remarked that the character ‘Lob’ to his imaginary fictional Modesty was a “Jewish professor from Bucharest in his mid-fifties”, so from Romania, whereas perhaps Modesty was from Hungary.
However, this confusion between Bucharest and Budapest may have been a mis-memory on Peter O’Donnell’s part, so many years later. Lob is said to have spoken five languages and had died when she was seventeen. In the original comic strip story (see above, “La Machine”, 1963), we are told MB is “about 26” with “Eurasian features”, so this would have her born in 1937, five years later than her real “girl walking”. This would have moved her time as a displaced person into the post-war world, being twelve in 1949, and Lob dying in 1954. The first MB novel, Modesty Blaise, with its much less dramatic and satisfying first meeting between MB and Sir Gerald and Fraser, is also much less informative, merely saying British Intelligence believed she “came from a D.P. camp in the Middle East”, and there being no way to check her exact age, but again estimating she is about 26. This backstory remains the basis of MB throughout both comic strip and novels, but, alas, as we advanced from the 1960s into the 70s, 80s and 90s, without MB apparently getting any older, it became more difficult to reconcile to its original time and place. Again, what a pity O’Donnell didn’t let MB age gratefully into her thirties and kept the stories still within a 1963 to (say) late-1970s/early 80s time-frame.
The only flashback to the young MB and Lob in the comic strip, comes very late in the series, in 1997/98, “Tribute of the Pharoah”, illustrated by Romero. His Lob is perhaps not quite as Jim Holdaway had depicted him, although still bald on top and with long, straggly hair, but the young MB reminds us too much of Samantha Brown, the young 10 year old who first appeared in 1987, in the story “Samantha and the Cherub”. We quickly learn this ‘flashback’ is actually just a dream-cum-nightmare about when they had once stayed overnight at an ancient Egyptian tomb in Sudan. This story – which also features WG’s orphanage childhood memories – belongs to the final phase of the MB comic strip cycle; darker, more strained, without the humour or ingenuity of the earlier stories. However, at one point in her recollection, MB remarks that Lob was then aged 65 (with heart problems), and “today he would have been eighty-one.” – so the incident she recollects was 16 year earlier. Given her age as being 17 when Lob died, as they trekked across North Africa, one might assume she to have still been at least 14 or 15 when they were in Sudan – if so, in the actual real-time story she was age as between 30 and 32, a progress on her usual, almost permanent age of between 26 and 28 throughout all this time! However, Romero depicts MB as quite young, perhaps 10 or 12, but this again doesn’t seem to fit with what else we know of the backstory, nor Lob’s increasing ‘dicky’ health situation.
14A: Story name: The Killing Ground – 1968 ***
Location: Unnamed, uninhabited Scottish island.
Other characters: Charlie Brightstar (Choctaw Indian); Opperman (big game hunter); Dempster (American professional mercenary); Unnamed trawler captain; Weng.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Unnamed girl, picked up after watching a title fight.
Nudity rating: MB in cut-away skirt.
Who kills who? : Bellman dies of heart failure.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. MB and WG regain consciousness in the cabin of a trawler ship at sea off an uninhibited island on the west coast of Scotland. They discover they have been taken captive by orders of Bellman, a former drug racketeer they had put out of business during the Network period. Now, after five years working in the Peruvian mines, he is aged almost beyond recognition, and determined on extracting revenge. They are put on the island, armed only with a Colt revolver, knife, and with a water canteen, to be hunted by the three bounty hunters, paid £3,000 each, with £2,000 per kill. They quickly realise the water is salted, the gun barrel blocked so it would explode, and the knife handle contains a miniature radio transmitter for detection. WG is able to take out Opperman and Dempster, but Brightstar nearly gets the better of MB. Leaving the three men marooned on the island, they return to the ship to find Bellman has died, thinking the hunt was successful. They radio for Weng and Dave Claythorp to come collect them by helicopter.
Critical comments: Midway through “The Galley Slaves” there was an industrial strike that prevented the London Evening Standard for being published for 6 weeks. But the Scottish syndicated newspapers continued publication. So as to prevent the two getting out of step, Peter O’Donnell was commissioned to write a one-off shorter story of just 36 strips (about one-third the normal comic strip story length), which only appeared in Scotland. Much later, he took this story and re-wrote it into a full-length novella entitled “Bellman”, which was published in the collection of short stories Cobra Trap. The written version features aspects of WG’s early days in the Network, as well as the origins of their conflict with Bellman, and much of the first half of the story details the MB and WG operation against him. MB holds him indirectly responsible for the death of her North African manservant Moulay’s daughter Lisette. It is now six years since they put Bellman away. Of the bounty hunters, only Charlie Brightstar retains his name. The mercenary (now South African rather than American) is renamed Van Rutte, and the big-game hunter is named as Paul Crichton (“from Kenya”), who is now elevated to being one of MB’s casual lovers, visiting her at her Wiltshire cottage. WG’s girl-bait is named as Sandra Thorne, who Bellman has adopted, and who naively thinks of him as a kindly ‘uncle’ almost, ignorant that he was a drug gang boss. The ship’s captain is Ricco Burrera, and the ship is the Ambato. After Crichton hits MB on the ship, WG takes his revenge later, remarking afterwards he “might need a bit of dentistry sometime.” In addition to several individuals from the Network, this story also includes Tarrant, who never figured in the original comic strip. Otherwise, the ending is much the same.