CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).
Enric Badia Romero –
“The Greenwood Maid” (1975/76) –
“Take Me To Your Leader” (1974).
19: Story name: Willie the Djinn – 1970 ** Artist: Romero.
Location: A ‘great casino north of Beirut’ – the fictional Gulf State Sheikdom of Shibarahn – the Plain of Mahr, Khiba Ridge, in the Valley of Dheral – Sheik’s palace and harem – outlying mountains and desert.
Villains: Colonel George (English mercenary) and Prince Zuhir, Sheik’s brother.
Body count: 13+
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none (although the ‘Dollyrockers’ are tempting!)
Other characters: Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah of Shibarahn; Jassim (his vizier); 6-year-old daughter Kerima; Prince Zuhir (the Sheik’s brother); Abdul bin Kaleff (leader of the mountain tribes); Bessie (leader of the six-strong ‘Dollyrockers’ Dance Group); Deirdre (the most vocal other ‘Dollyrocker’).
Nudity rating: MB in mini-dress, all six ‘Dollyrockers’ in mini-dresses; MB in undies; MB & ‘Dollyrockers’ bathing nude, and later in skimpy harem outfits. Kerima briefly undressing and nude.
Who kills who? : Aircraft pilot and three others die in crash. Colonel George’s mercenaries massacre Sheik’s bodyguards and surviving crew. Unknown number of besieging soldiers shot (mostly by MB). MB kills Colonel George, using a spanner as a kongo. WG kills Zuhir with a knife.
Summary/theme: Political thriller/rescue caper, set in a small, oil-rich (fictional) Middle East Arab country. MB and WG, together with all-female dance group, ‘The Dollyrockers’ (whose manager had just done a runner), are invited to the Middle East country of Shibarahn (a small Arab state in the Persian Gulf), by Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah, another old friend of MB’s. However, unbeknown to him, his brother, Prince Zuhir – in cohorts with the mercenary Colonel George – plans to blow up the royal plane as it enters Shibarahn air-space. The bomb is hidden in a pocket radio, discovered by WG, and thrown out seconds before it explodes. The plane still crashes, and the surviving crew are then all killed by Colonel George’s men, but MB and the ‘Dollyrockers’ are taken prisoner, while George disobeys Zuhir’s instructions and has the Sheik taken to the small, isolated Fort Khala instead, as an “insurance policy” in cast Zuhir tries to betray him. Meantime, WG and the Sheik’s vizier, Jassim, escape unnoticed. MB and the six girls, led by Bessie, are taken to be part of Zuhir’s harem. WG, when he sneaks into the palace, is mistaken for a good demon (a djinn) by Kerima, the Sheik’s precocious 6 year old daughter. WG raids the armoury and supplies MB and the girls with Sten guns, but Colonel George besieges them in the harem. After giving the girls a quick crash-course in firearms, WG takes the vintage Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to get reinforcements from the Sheik’s oldest friend Abdul Bin Kaleff, together with Jassim and Kerima. MB and the girls hold out, and MB is able to sow seeds of discontent by shouting to Zuhir that his brother is still alive. Eventually WG returns with Bin Kaleff, and MB goes after George, writing him off. Zuhir attempts to use Kerima as hostage to escape, but WG knifes him.
Critical comments: The really dreadful name of the ‘Dollyrockers’ dance group rather dates this, although the idea of a group of women fighting against the villains is used again in the 1988 Romero-illustrated story “Milord”, and previously a reverse theme of a gang of women being the villains in the Colvin-illustrated “The Lady Killers” (1980/81). All of the ‘Dollyrockers’ are depicted as size 8/10 and originally wearing mini-dresses, as is MB in the early panels. While a competent artist (and especially drawing the female figure) Enric Badia Romero has limitations, not least in that his faces often lack subtlety of expression and sometimes started to look alike, as exampled here where the Sheik’s young 6 year old daughter, Kerima, bears considerable resemblance to 10 year old Samantha Brown, who we will get to meet much later in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). And indeed, Romero seemed to have a size problem when drawing children. In the bedroom scene where she first meets WG, Kerima varies in height, and even appearance, inconsistently from panel to panel. Otherwise – story plot apart – certainly in the busy opening strips, Romero is here perhaps at his best, and later with his drawings of the vintage motor cars. But he already shows his flaws in some of the action panels and his depiction of the architecture of the ‘summer palace’ – would there have been a ‘winter palace’ in the Persian Gulf?
This, then, was the first full story illustrated by Romero, and he now quickly adapted to his own, more characteristic style, rather than attempting to copy Holdaway (even if that were possible). In his introduction to the Titan Books reprint, Peter O’Donnell says that he generally worked his scripts about ten weeks ahead of actual publication, but that the Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour had thought his original next intended story to be too complicated for Spanish-speaking Romero’s first strip, and suggested O’Donnell write something more simple. Perhaps this is why, overall, this is not one of his better stories. The two villains are suitably bloodthirsty, if rather two-dimensional, and the setting – indeed, the actual general portrayal – of the Arab country is something of a silly, simplistic caricature, a typical Westerners’ vision of backward, Arab culture – the harem; guards in baggy Turkish-style pantaloons wielding scimitars; fez hats; belief in magical demons; romantic, but basically rather savage, desert Arabs living in tents. Over the comic strip series Peter O’Donnell created a number of fictional countries, most notably in South America. Here is one of his two Middle East imaginary countries, the other being the Sheikdom of Malaurak. We are lead to believe that Sheik Kadhim al-Masfah’s only design on MB is apparently for her to play the boardgame backgammon for either high money stakes, or (at her suggestion) matchsticks. He and his rather hapless, craven Vizier Jassim, would appear again in the equally awfully titled “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976, by Romero). The Sheik is hopeless at gambling, and (from WG) we learnt that MB had already taken “ten grand” from him playing “Chemmy” – Chermin de fer, the quicker version of the card game baccarat, and another couple of thousand already at backgammon. Hence, why in the opening panels of the story, at the crowded Lebanese casino, MB is trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid being seen.
20: Story name: The Green-Eyed Monster – 1970/71 **
Location: Guadalajara, “the playground of Mexico” – the (fictional) South American Republic of Cuarembo – Gil de Serra’s house – the capital (seemingly of the same name – the President’s palace – 100 miles up the Rio Quiano, the rebel’s jungle hideout.
Villain: Gomez, rebel leader.
Other characters: Tarrant; Gil de Serra; Diana Millard, daughter of British envoy Sir Norman Millard; President Luis Machabo (former police chief).
Body count: Between 5 and 8 – all Gomez men.
Modesty’s lover: Gil de Serra (race horse breeder and explorer).
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude and in robe; later bathing and topless; split skirt; bra and panties (jumping on top of kidnapper’s car). Diana in ragged dress, showing her legs.
Who kills who? : MB and WG kill several of Gomez’s underlings. However, rather than kill Gomez, MB humiliates him by cutting off his beard, his macho symbol.
Summary/theme: Kidnap, hostage and rescue caper, set in South American jungle.
Spoilt and jealous Diana is a former girlfriend of MB lover, Gil de Serra, but she soon falls foul of MB, who tosses her into a swimming pool. MB meets the reformist President Machabo, who she knew back in the Network days as a incorruptible cop, then chief of police. A group of thuggish ‘rebels’ kidnap Diana, despite MB’s attempt to intervene, and announce they will hold her hostage for three days in exchange for the release of twenty of their comrades. When the President refuses to comply, MB and WG, together with Gil, go into the jungle to rescue her. Gil & WB kill a huge 30ft anaconda snake about to attack Diane, and they flee with the rebels close on their heels. Diane is still a pain the neck, but WG plays with sympathy. Finally they eliminate some of the rebel sentries and take the rest captive. Rather than kill Gomez, MB humiliates him by cutting his much-prized macho beard. Briefly Diane actually acknowledges MB helped save her life, but soon reverts to character, whereupon, in the last strip, WG throws her into the swimming pool instead – to the amusement of her father!
Critical comment: Again we have a fictitious South American country, and not very intelligent rebels and/or bandits. We also have some quite explicit scenes of MB and her latest lover Gil together, while also being given examples of WG’s jungle expertise, apparently from his days in the French Foreign Legion. We have perhaps our first example of Romero’s curious architectural mismatch, with the president’s South American palace looking more Central European/German castle than Spanish colonist. In his introduction to the Titan Books collection which included this story, Peter O’Donnell remarked how the mass introduction of the mobile phone had made life harder for the writer of thrillers or adventures, and characters being lost or out of reach. Here we see MB and WB communicating by KW200A radios installed in their respective motor vehicles, a feature that continues throughout this period of the stories. MB is driving a Triumph open-top sports car, and WG the Ford Mustang, two-door convertible (manufactured from 1965 onward). Again we have a rather tight time-scale between the story-time and MB still running the Network of four years. In addition to the potential woman-eating snake, we have a river full of ravenous piranhas, to say nothing of the insects! The ‘green-eyed monster’ is, of course, Diane’s jealousy for MB. Casually, whilst visiting a church near the presidential palace, WG compares the interior to St. John’s Cathedral, Valletta, Malta, but we have to wait until 1975 before we see MB’s adventures on that island, which was apparently became a favourite holiday home for Peter O’Donnell also.
Finally, this story raises some typical O’Donnell dilemmas and moral issues. In a fractious, Third World country, the ‘honest cop’ having replaced the previous corrupt regime, points out that, of course, there are ‘political prisoners’, unlike (he implies) in England. But equally, when Diane is kidnapped as a hostage to be killed unless he release those prisoners, the president resists both the pleas of British envoy (Diane’s father) and Sir Gerald of the Foreign Office, and refuses to give into their threats. He argues – as MB was often to do so in similar situations – that by conceding to such terrorist hostage threats, one only increases the likelihood of still further terrorism and demands. Better the hostage (or hostages) die. In this instance, he has MB on hand to help save the day. But it’s an argument we were to see again, and in particular much later in the 1988/89 story “Live Bait”, again illustrated by Romero.
21: Story name: Death of a Jester, 1971 **
Location: Saint-Maur Castle, somewhere in Cornwall – “Treadmill” WG pub – MB’s London penthouse – Tarrant’s office.
Villain: Colonel John (Johnny) Vandeleur Saint-Maur, 9th Earl, ex-Commandos.
Other characters: Hippies Betsy and Sam; Tarrant; Tarrant’s agent Roger Clay.
Body count: 3+
Modesty’s lover: Shares bed with Johnny Saint-Maur.
Willie’s lover: none (though tempted by handmaiden Meg).
Nudity rating: MB nude, in bed, in bath, getting dressed, in bra and pants.
Who kills who? : Saint-Maur kills Roger Clay with lance. WG kills Gibbo, one of Saint-Maur’s men. Saint-Maur killed by lion.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Alerted by a young hippie couple, WG investigates the grounds of Johnny Saint-Maur’s castle to find the dead body of a man dressed as a jester being eaten by lions. It transpires he was Roger Clay, one of Tarrant’s agents, investigating the theft of an experimental torpedo from a nearby research establishment. Saint-Maur is a former British Army Colonel who served in Korea, but later became wild and anti-authority. When he inherited his family estate he created his own medieval feudal fantasy world of knights, jousting, feasting, even hunts and bear-baiting. It was an armoured knight on horseback (Saint-Maur) who killed Clay. MB and WG get themselves invited to one of his expensive, fee-paying weekends, dressing up in period costume. They soon conclude Saint-Maur is mad, but his men are utterly loyal to him. On the second night MB sleeps with Saint-Maur, but later when she and WG are investigating the castle dungeons and the cavern below (finding the stolen torpedo in doing so), they are taken captive – Saint-Maur having seen through their deception. They escape, evade or overcome his men, and are able to radio Tarrant to bring in commandos through an old tin-mine tunnel. Saint-Maur himself is killed by one of his wild lions.
Critical comments: Artistically, this is the first of a number of rather ‘Hollywood movie’-style English medieval castles as depicted by Spanish-based artist Romero. The castle, supposedly (according to WG) built at the time of King John, has fancy turrets and a drawbridge, but the interior seems rather like Doctor Who’s Tardis, just too big with courtyard and grand entrance for when MB and WG arrive by Rolls, and for jousting – to say nothing of the cavern apparently underground! Given the ease the hippie couple, then WG, are able to get into the grounds, one also has to question whether Saint-Maur really could have had wild lions roaming loose, or conducted bear-baiting (isn’t that illegal in the UK?), without some local authority licence or inspection!
The Saint-Maur character rather bizarrely appears as a villain again in the 1987 novel The Night of Morningstar, as ‘Ronald, Major the Earl St. Maur’, a much more sinister fanatic bent on starting World War III. In the novel, he gets killed by WG, leaving an oversexed widow, Victoria, Countess St. Maur. It was one of the oddities of O’Donnell that often used the same names in or between the comic strip and novels. The Bone brothers in “The Girl in the Iron Mask” (1991) and a criminal couple named Bone in “Idaho George” (1978) are another example.
22: Story name: The Stone-Age Caper – 1971 ***
Location: Australia: Bondi Beach – outback “Andamooka”
Villains: Mr Wu Smith; Damion; Korzon
Other characters: David Collins, Aussie zoologist; July Welsh; Jacko, Aborigine ex-Network member
Body count: 2 (+1 pre-story)
Modesty’s lover: David (Davey) Collins (Australian zoologist).
Willie’s lover: none (WG loses out on July to David Collins!)
Nudity rating: MB bra, undies. Judy also bra and pants, goes topless for ‘the nailer’. Aborigine woman topless nude. MB and Judy full frontal nude whilst disguised as native Aborigines.
Who kills who? : Damion did a ‘con job’ on Judy’s husband, who kills himself. WG and Jacko cause Damion and Korzon’s aircraft to crash, using multiple boomerangs.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB is on holiday at Bondi Beach, Sydney, with Aussie David Collins. Mr Wu Smith, a Chinese from Macao, is planning a nickel fraud, but MB assures him she isn’t interested. Meantime WG is looking for black opals in the outback with Mabel the camel, only to find Aussie girl Judy Welsh left to die by her wrecked jeep. With the usual coincidence Wu Smith’s underling, Damion, was responsible for her husband’s death and she had set out to expose his criminality by taking employment (under her maiden name) as a secretary at the fake mine-works where they plan a scam to inflate nickel prices. When her cover is blown they leave her to die. WG calls backup and MB flies to him, together with Collins, whose sarcasm at first Judy doesn’t like. There follows a confrontation with the gang, which goes wrong (in part thanks to Collins screwing up) and MB, Collins and Judy are captured. WG however meets an Aborigine tribe on walkabout, led by ex-Network buddy Jacko. Given the sheer size of the Australian outback, another, rather farfetched, coincidence! MB and companions manage to escape (Collins redeeming himself in the process), hiding first with the tribe, where Judy and MB go ‘native’ and nude. Eventually they force a showdown in the ghost town using boomerangs, and even driving a jeep against one of the buildings (a trick WG used again later in the story “The Wild Boar” (1985, by Colvin)). Damion and Korzon take the aeroplane, intending to retaliate using explosives, but WG and Jacko hurl lots of boomerangs in their flight-path, causing them to stall and crash, killing them both. The story ends with Judy and Collins romancing, much to WG’s disappointment.
Critical comment: This story was notable for actually showing MB’s nipples for the first time, if still a rather shady half-length, full-frontal nude (“baring her bosom to the Evening Standard readers” was how Peter O’Donnell put it later), whilst pretending to a native aborigine, covered with grease and charcoal The strip was number 2596. In 1971 this was ‘horror, shock!’, and editor Charles Wintour was displeased – at first! The strip cartoon editor “got a rocket”, but nothing was said to Peter. Instead there was a lot of “glee and amusement”, and several newspapers and magazines ran short news items about it, and one Sunday broadsheet even printed the picture. Until then a topless MB had been viewed from behind or arms strategically placed. Now it seems “much a-do about nothing” – The Sun newspaper had already begun printing full-page, topless models posing as ‘Page 3 Girls’ irregularly, and within the decade Romero was drawing “Axa”, his blonde from a future, devastated Earth, who but rarely wore clothes, and often went completely nude. This story also sees the first comic strip example of MB’s tactic to create a momentary, vital, several second, distraction known as “the nailer” – to go topless. In this instance (although we still only see her from the back) it is Judy, not MB, who flashes her boobs at the baddies. In fact this idea (suggested by WG) was first introduced in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965), and again in Sabre Tooth (1966), but not then used again. When MB finally uses it herself in the comic strip, in “The Reluctant Chaperon” (1975), against two mafia hoods, she remarked the time-lag of shock seemed to be less now, and blamed there being too many porno magazines! However, it must to be said that what is considered ‘politically correct’ has also changed, and in 2020 a reprint of this story drew wrath and complaints, forcing the strip to be pulled, because several characters use the word “Abo” about the native Aborigines. Again, in the period and context, that was considered everyday Aussie slang, and – a point to note – Jacko uses it himself when he advices the disguised MB to sit, as she doesn’t “walk like an Abo girl”. One thing Peter O’Donnell wasn’t was racist. Indeed, it is obvious he had both a fascination and understanding of the native Australian culture – which featured several times in the comic strip, and in his last ‘Madeleine Brent’ novel, The Golden Urchin, a tour de force where he has the heroine as a young white girl brought up by an Aborigine tribe, written in the first person, and her gradual transformation from seeing the world through Aborigine eyes to that of a white person’s world. Jacko appears in several more comic strip stories, both by Romero, “Highland Witch” (1974) and “Walkabout” (this being also set in Australia, 1990). It is perhaps noteworthy that, although he is ex-Network, he calls MB “Miss Blaise”, not “Mam’selle”.
The villainous Chinese Mr Wu Smith, first introduced here, continued to make further appearances, and progressively each time of an even more directly deadly nature. He appears in both strips and novels: “Fiona” (1990); “The Astro” (1994/95), and “The Special Orders” (1996), and I, Lucifer (1967) and The Silver Mistress. He is the owner of the New Provident and Commercial Bank, sponsoring criminal activities in Asia and the Far East. David Collins has much the same humour and character as MB’s later friend/lovers Gordon Ritchie (“Highland Witch”, 1974), and Stephen Collier, who had first appeared in the novel I, Lucifer (1974), but only in the strip stories, with “Lady in the Dark” (1989) and “Durango” (1996). Again we note Romero’s apparently failure to depict children – his young Aborigine look grotesque! Yet again O’Donnell at this period liked his villains to often have names beginning with the letter ‘K’. We have had Kaverin, (Kossuth), Korzan, Kazin, Kata, and now Korzon.
23: Story name: The Puppet Master – 1971 ***
Location: Positano, Italy – Carpi (Mahmond’s villa, and the Mount Solaro chairlift) – (more briefly) Marseilles – Istanbul – Athens (the Acropolis).
Villains: Mahmoud (ex-vice gang boss); Dr Hans Baun; Selina, Murad, Cossa. Varchi (gang members).
Other characters: Tarrant; Maude Tiller (Tarrant agent) ; Vinezzi (Interpol police officer); Fermi (Mafia boss); Quinet (ex-Network, Marseilles gang boss).
Body count: 2
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none, although Maude does start to emerge as his love interest!
Nudity rating: MB in a open-sided dress; both MB and Maude wear short skirts.
Who kills who? : The gang deliberately murder the jeweller Octavian Jassy. Mahmoud kills Baun in anger. WG gets a grazed forehead, MB having been ‘programmed’ to think him her enemy.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. “Five years” previously MB had put vice trade gang boss Mahmoud out of circulation by having him kidnapped and shipped to an Arab country as a slave himself. Now he is back, seeking vengeance. He has MB kidnapped, faking her apparent ‘death’ when her Jensen car crashes into the sea near Positano. Eccentric, pipe-smoking, German Dr Baun then uses hypno-narcosis to plant false memories convincing her she is a long-term, but minor, member of Mahmoud’s gang, and that WG is her hated enemy, someone who MB must ultimately kill. At the same time they are setting MB up to be framed for a jewellery hoist and murder. While MB struggles with her lingering doubts as to her apparent status, WG (unlike Tarrant and others) refuses to accept she is dead. Together with Maude Tiller, one of Tarrant’s female agents who has been assigned to him to “watch and learn”, WG checks out the European underworld until intercepted by Selina, Mahmoud’s girlfriend, who sets WG up to encounter MB at the Carpi Mount Solaro chairlift. The plan fails – just – when WG calls out “Princess” at the moment MB shoots. Between them MB, WG and Maude neutralise the gang, but evil-tempered Mahmoud kills Dr Baun, still blaming everyone else for his failure, but not before Baun makes a deathbed confession, thereby clearing MB.
Critical Comments: Once again the “five years” time-scale of MB still running the Network is increasingly out of sync, especially with Baun saying MB would have been age 20 at that time – she was already 26 or 27 when we first met her in 1963. This story sees the introduction of blonde Maude Tiller, another of Tarrant’s female agents, a sort of replacement for Jeannie Challon, who appeared briefly, and died prematurely, in “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964). Maude would continue to feature in a number of the comic strip stories illustrated by Romero and Colvin. Here also we begin an on-going theme, to be next seen in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973), of her and WG hoping to have a naughty time together, only to be foiled by unforeseen events each time. Initially, in this story Romero’s depiction of Maude is quite good, with a distinctive hair-style, although in his original pencil sketch (reproduced in the Titan Books edition) her face was actually better than that of the final story image. Unfortunately, in the later stories, she became more an identikit of all of Romero’s ‘Axa’-like blondes. In my opinion, Colvin’s version of her, in “Garvin’s Travels” (1981) and again in “The Double Agent” (1986), are still the best, when she really acquired a characteristic look. The Italian policeman Vinezzi appears again in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83, drawn by Colvin), when MB “calls in the Mount Solaro debt”, and again in “The Last Aristocrat” (1999/2000, by Romero), but in both these later stories he has apparently became head of Italian intelligence. Fair enough; he got promoted. Colvin did at least portray him much as Romero originally draw him in this story (although again, as with Maude Tiller, Colvin’s version is better), but in the much later Romero illustrated story Vinezzi has morphed into a much younger, totally different-looking man! Come on, Romero! As a middle-aged, balding, dark-haired gentlemen, he was your creation in the first place! On the various times when there are flashbacks to MB’s Network days; some definitely work better than others. Here – and again as Mahmoud and Baun go over the details of their plan for MB – it seems rather ‘wordy’ and laboured, breaking the flow of the story. The basic plot has echoes of “The Hell-Makers” (1969, Holdaway), but this time it is MB’s mind being manipulated, rather than WG’s. O’Donnell admitted this was a theme he found fascinating.
Apparently this story was prompted by O’Donnell visiting Capri in 1971 with his wife, and thinking how the up and down chairs of the chairlift passing close to each other “offered a splendid arena for freestyle combat” (quote from Peter O’Donnell’s introduction to the Titan Books edition). It ascends from Anacapri (the principle urban centre, 902ft above sea level) to Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island at 1,932ft. It was built and opened in 1952 by Italian engineer Francesco Ulliscia, and underwent renovation and upgrading in 1998/99. There are 156 chairs, and the journey takes 13 minutes. It is currently maintained by Sacuif Engineering, and the seasonal return fare is 9 or 12 euros. From here there can been enjoyed an “unparalleled view across the island to the sea”. Capri is located within the Bay of Naples. The distance to Naples is 34 kilometres (21 miles).
24: Story name: With Love From Rufus – 1972 **
Location: MB’s London penthouse – Hyde Park – out and about in London – Thames Estuary WW2 sea-forts.
Villain: Mr Preston, gang of six, one named Knuckles Bodie.
Other characters: Scotland Yard Inspector Brook; his nephew Rufus; Rufus’s girlfriend Josie Carter; Weng.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Unnamed blonde female artist in Paris.
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants, getting changed; fishnet tights in action against the attacking hoodlums (see below).
Who kills who? : WG kills Mr Preston. MB suffers an elbow wound.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. MB’s safe in her London penthouse is broken into during the night and a bunch of roses and a note With love from Rufus left there. With WG ‘distracted’ in Paris, MB has a dinner date with Scotland Yard Inspector Brook, who tells her there have been four, very professional, jewel robberies from safes, still unsolved. He then introduces his 20 year-old nephew Rufus, whom Brook thinks a “half-wit”, but who is a big MB fan, collecting news cuttings and studying her Network exploits. MB realises Rufus is the jewel thief and the writer of the with love message. Shortly afterwards, in the car park, she and Rufus are attacked by three hoodlums, one MB recognises as Knuckles Bodie. At her penthouse Rufus confesses to be the safe-breaker; WG is impressed, but also amused by his clumsy attempts to flirt with MB. MB later meets Rufus’s girlfriend Josie Carter – they are a night club music duet.
However, soon after this Rufus disappears, and three men take Josie away also. WG figures Rufus’s inexperienced enquiries into the criminal underworld might have attracted the attention of a fence known as Mr Preston. He and MB track Preston and his gang (with Rufus and Josie) to a cluster of old WW2 forts in the Thames Estuary. In the ensuring showdown they put all six hoodlums out of action and WG tricks Preston into the open. Preston makes a hostile move and WG knifes him. MB uses Preston’s death to show Rufus a life of crime is dangerous and rather sordid. Afterwards they return the stolen jewels to Brook with their usual vague explanation of how they ‘found’ it. MB gets another bunch of roses, but With love from Rufus & Josie.
Critical comments: We are told MB’s Network career was only “five years previous”, so again chronologically this story should be about 1966-67 at the latest. Increasingly the time-frame is starting to become rather silly. At the time of the fracas in the car park, MB says her car is a Jensen – the same as in the previous story “The Puppet Master” (also 1972), but that was written off, pushed over a cliff in Italy! A replacement, maybe? Perhaps MB had it well insured! Romero’s view of a “quiet London square” from the surrounding rooftops looks like a bad stage-set, the chimney-tops are all wrong! In his initial meeting with MB, Rufus is perhaps a bit like O’Donnell’s earlier comic strip character, Romeo Brown. Only much later in the series do we eventually discover Rufus’s surname – Marsh. Rufus dresses very much in the 1970s mode – double-breasted, Regency-style jacket, large patterned flowery bow-tie, flared trousers, long, rather shaggy, hair. In the fight-scene with Preston’s three thugs (actually out to grab Rufus), MB wears a long Velcro skirt over fishnet tights, black panties on top, a lacy floral blouse and fur tunic. Later, at her penthouse, we see her in bra, tights and panties, getting changed into slacks and a broad, dress-like top.
While the plot is a bit light-weight, there are some funny humorous bits, especially early on. Such as when WG phones MB from Paris to say he’s going to be delayed. The conversation goes: MB: “Is she nice?” WG: “She’s a cracker. She wants to paint my ’ead.” MB: “Sounds kinky. What colour?” WG: “No, she’s an artist. She says I ’ave an interesting ’ead.” WG was supposed to meet Inspector Brook, and asks her to make an excuse. MB says: “I’ll make it something plausible, like you’re in Paris with a bird.” In fact she tells Brook, [Willie] “picked up something [in Paris] that’s keeping him in bed for a day or two.” Later, after WG gets to meet lovelorn Rufus at MB’s penthouse, she says she’s not into “baby-snatching” (Rufus is 20) and that it’s “calf-love”. As Rufus leaves (after a clumpy lunge to kiss MB), WG says sarcastically, “Exit Casanova.” MB’s reply is, “Stop laughing or I just might kill you.”
In the story the World War II forts in the Thames Estuary are “three miles off Cressland Point”. However, in appearance they resemble Shivering Sands Fort off Herne Bay, Kent, originally several towers, but one collapsed in 1963. They were used by pirate radio stations between 1964-67. Most of the sea forts were constructed in 1942.
25: Story name: The Bluebeard Affair – 1972 ***
Location: Villa Beaumaris, Provence coast – Cannes, south of France – somewhere near Toulon.
Villains: Baron Felix Rath, his daughters Hortense and Celeste.
Other characters: Rene Vaubois; Rene’s niece Nicole; Chloe the circus elephant.
Body count: 7 (plus two previous wives bumped off earlier).
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Rosa (circus trapeze artist).
Nudity rating: MB in bra and pants swimming underwater.
Who kills who? : MB kills one guard, WG kills three guards. MG kills Baron Rath. Chloe the elephant kills ‘ugly’ daughters Hortense and Celeste. MB is wounded in the arm during her rapier fight with Rath.
Summary/theme: Routine crime caper. MB is in Cannes, living on a rented yacht for a month, when French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois asks her help in a unofficial family matter concerning his 30-year-old, wealthy, but mouse-like, niece Nicole. Three years previous she had married ‘Baron’ Rath, but he had been married three times before – with two (rather ugly) daughters, Hortense and Celeste, from his first, but the next two – one Austrian, one Italian, both rather timid and wealthy – have both died of ‘accidents’. Rath, who purchased his title from a penniless Hungarian, is already planning a drowning accident for Nicole, ably assisted by his hideous daughters. MB uses Rath’s love of épée (duelling with rapiers) to make him think she is also timid and wealthy – so, potentially wife No. 5. Meantime, she visits WG, who is working at a circus just along the coast near Toulon. WG has a problem with trapeze artist Rosa, who insists WG must marry her now he has “dishonoured” her, otherwise she will get her three brothers (the Turkish Aziz “bruzzers” as she calls them) to “chop him up”! MB is amused. However, whilst reconnoitring the villa, WG is caught and the sisters try to drown him at sea, just as MB and Rene are also checking out the villa. MB strips to bra and pants, puts on an aqualung and rescues him. Back at the circus WG asks the manager, Georgi Gogol, to borrow Chloe, one of the elephants, while MB ‘trains’ with the Aziz brothers to help get her over the villa wall. WG and Chloe break in the metal gates to the boathouse and, between them, he and MB eliminate the guards. MB fences with Rath, eventually killing him. The two sisters flee and one tries to shoot Chloe, who tramples them both to death. At the very end MB reveals to WG that Rosa is not the sister to the Aziz brothers, and she was trying to con him into marriage.
Critical Comments: Rene Vaubois, head of French Intelligence (Tarrant’s opposite number) had previously appeared in “The Magnified Man” (1967, drawn by Holdaway), and was to appear again in “The Wild Boar” (1985, drawn by Colvin), and “Our Friend Maude” (1992, Romero again), as well as a cross-over character in many of the novels, he first appeared in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965). At one point in this story MB arranges a secretive rendezvous with Rene, who is floating on a sunbed off the beach of Cannes – did Peter O’Donnell have Hitchcock’s movie To Catch a Thief in mind? On a negative side, Romero’s background depiction of Cannes from the sea is rather unrealistic – and reminiscent of his ‘science fiction’-like skyscraper cities (in “Death Trap”, 1978, for instance). Peter O’Donnell had assumed most people would understand the title, referring to the story of the serial uxoricide (wife-killer) of legend, only to discover a lot of people had no knowledge of the story! WG makes the connection. This story also introduces WG’s connection to Georgi Gogol’s circus, which (until then unbeknown to MB) he was 51% part-owner. Gogol’s Circus would appear again in “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1977); “Death Trap” (1978); “The Return of the Mammoth” (1984, drawn by Colvin, which also again featured Chloe the elephant); “Fiona” (1990, by Romero); and finally “The Zombie” (2001, again with Chloe). O’Donnell also introduces the amusing sub-plot involving Willie’s love-life, with MB teasing him. Twice, however, in the circus scenes featuring MB and WG, Romero depicts on-going, staged outdoor circus performances (strips 2876 and 2924) either in the back- or fore-ground. These actually look too theatrical and rather silly!
26: Story name: The Gallows Bird – 1973 ***
Location: “The Treadmill” (WG pub) – Memphis (briefly) – New Orleans, USA – waterfront wharves – police headquarters – hotel in the French Quarter – General Laporte’s house, ‘Little Big Horn’, in the Garden Quarter – derelict house on the outskirts of the city – General’s houseboat The Custer.
Villains: General Laporte and his younger wife Blanche; gang member Querol.
Other characters: Police Lieutenant Charlie Walsh; Police Captain Burt; Steve Taylor (FBI agent); Sarah Verne (Paul Verne’s widow).
Body count: 7
Modesty’s lover: John Dall (before story); Steve Taylor.
Willie’s lover: Maisie (in the uncensored version, at “The Treadmill”); Blanche tries to seduce him.
Nudity rating: WG in bed with Maisie (he still wore pyjama bottoms, however); MB depicted sleeping nude; Blanche shown in short negligee when trying to seduce WG.
Who kills who? : Laporte’s gang hang the diver Paul Verne, and previously another man who supplied explosives. WG and MB kill two henchman after they try to hang MB. MB kills Querol. WG kills Laporte. Blanche falls from yacht rigging and hangs herself.
Summary/theme: Ransom crime caper. MB is sailing down the Mississippi with Texan millionaire lover John Dall when he is called away on business. At 2 am UK time, she phones WG in England to join her on Dall’s Moonraker motor-yacht. They reach New Orleans three days before the Mardi Gras. The first night, in the docks, they stumble on a gang of men in the processing of hunting and hanging a quarry. The dead man is Paul Verne, a scuba diver. At the police station they met FBI agent Steve Taylor, MB’s lover from “Uncle Happy” (1965. Illustrated by Holdaway). Taylor reveals a blackmail attempt to exhort $2 million or they will blow-up the levees and flood the city, with devastating consequences. MB and WG visit Verne’s widow only to be meet General Laporte and his much younger wife Blanche, who we already know had ordered (and secretly watched) Verne’s murder. WG links Verne, as a diver, to bombs planted underwater on the levees and they start to suspect Laporte and Blanche. Invited to the General’s house, ‘Little Big Horn’, Blanche unsuccessfully tries to seduce WG. Having grown suspicious, the General and Blanche capture MB and arrange a hanging on a makeshift gallows. Unbeknown to them WG has found his way underneath and catches MB as she falls. Blanche likes hanging people in revenge for her murderous father being himself convicted and condemned to death by hanging 20 years previous. MB and WG take on the remainder of the gang on the General’s boat the “Custer”, killing the General, while Blanche falls and hangs herself on a rope ladder. MB and WG leave Steve to clean things up.
Critical Comment: The opening strips of WG at “The Treadmill” have him in bed with his latest girlfriend, Maisie. In some versions of the strip, she was censored out and the dialogue changed. Again in the uncensored Maisie version WG pretends the caller is US President Nixon. Later when Blanche tried to seduce WG she is wearing a quite revealing negligee; this too is heavily censored. Blanche is the crazy one, indulged by her much older husband, with her obsession with hanging. When planning MB’s hanging, they calculated her weight at 130 lbs, so 7ft drop to break her neck. The Home Office ‘Table of Drops’ said about 7ft 8ins. Apparently the last legal hanging in Louisiana was in 1941, after which the electric chair was used until 1991. Capital punishment is now by lethal injection, but no one has been executed since about 2010. Blanche says her ‘pappy’ was hanged “years back”, so over thirty years previous. The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré, is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, dating from 1718. It is defined by the Mississippi on one side, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and Rampart Street. The population in 2010 was 3,813, and the number of households 2,635. The Garden District (11th Ward) is defined by St. Charles Avenue (north), 1st Street (east), Magazine Street (south) and Toledano Street (west). It was developed between 1832 and 1900 and contains some of the best historic mansions in the southern United States. The population in 2010 was 1,926 with 1,023 households. [Source: Wikipedia.] It’s elevation is 3ft., so we presume the General and Blanche weren’t concerned their own house would be flooded also. Much later, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina succeeded in flooding New Orleans in real life, whereas O’Donnell’s villains failed in fiction. 1,833 people lost their lives, and damage was estimated at $125 billion.
27: Story name: The Wicked Gnomes – 1973 **
Location: London (MB swimming in the Serpentine) – Cornwall; local town of ‘Lepstow’ – local inn – the Boote brother’s house – mine workings.
Villains: Brothers Herbert and Stanley Boote; Mr Carter of Salamander Four.
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Tarrant; Jack Frazer (background); the Rev. Harold Bryant (Maude’s uncle); Weng; Pauline Brown (condemned Soviet spy);
Body count: 3
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: More frustrated attempts with Maude.
Nudity rating: MB in panties, getting changed; in tutu skirt as ‘fairy’ in children Magic Grotto.
Who kills who? : Salamander Four agent Mr Carter kills the two Boote brothers. Maude kills Mr Carter.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. Maude Tiller has helped catch traitor/spy Pauline Brown, who is condemned to 15 years in prison. A foreign embassy is prepared to pay Salamander Four to free her. Their plan is to kidnap Maude and force the British government to do an exchange. Meantime Maude is about to spend a night with WG at a Cornish pub/hotel together, when Maude sees her uncle, the Rev. Harold Byrant, the local vicar of Lepstow. WG discovers the room is bugged and finds and ties up the two men responsible, who are, in fact, Tarrant’s agents keeping tabs on Maude. In the meantime Maude is kidnapped by the Boote brothers, contract killers Herbert and Stanley – one thin and tall, one short and fat. The British government refuse the exchange, forcing MB to execute a brilliantly audacious plan to spring Pauline Brown from prison and negotiate direct with Maude’s captors. Pauline Brown thinks MB and Weng are communist agents. MB and WG are subsequently instructed to seek temporary employment with the Rev. Byrant at the Lepstow fairy grotto, to find the Boote brothers there, posing as gnomes. Suspecting a double-cross, the Boote brothers have put Maude in a disused tin-mine which floods at hightide. However, while MB and WG are rescuing Maude, the Boote brothers blow-up the mine shaft. WG is able to escape along the tunnel to the sea in a wooden barrel, returning with scuba gear. In the final showdown at the rendezvous place, Carter kills the Boote brothers, Maude kills Carter, MB and WG take out Carter’s two henchmen. Later, with Maude hoping to still have a holiday with WG, but he has got chickenpox from one of the children in the grotto. Maude is not amused!
Critical comments: Another example of WG as a mimic, impersonating the voice of the Home Secretary early in the prison bust caper. We see MB’s Rolls Royce, but Romero depicts WG driving his black London taxi cab with a lot of smoke or exhaust fumes coming out the back – not good, Willie! Something wrong with your exhaust. The police would stop you! The Boote brothers cottage “along the coast from Lepstow” has certain architectural similarities to the villa in Capri features in “The Puppet Master”, and again in at least two other such exterior views of houses depicted later in the stories. Romero obviously only had one house style! Peter O’Donnell’s description of the Boote brothers to Romero was imagine Laurel and Hardy, turned evil. This was first introduction in the comic strip stories of Salamander Four – a sort of James Bond SPECTRE-like criminal organization, and who were to appear again in “The Green Cobra” (1979), “Plato’s Republic” (drawn by Colvin), and “The Lady in the Dark” (1990). They also appeared in some of the novels/short stories, where O’Donnell killed off the top leadership in “Old Alex” (Cobra Trap, 1996).
This is a middling sort of story, saved by several examples of ingenuity – in the clever originality of MB’s prison coup, and WG improvising to escape the flooded mine. But the overall premise that the British government would surrender a criminal for one of their intelligence agents is questionable – even by certain members within Salamander Four. The comic villains are more silly and grotesque than wicked, rather reminiscent of Friar Tuck, who we meet later in “The Greenwood Maid” (1975/76).
28: Story name: The Iron God – 1974 **
Location: Jungles of Papua New Guinea.
Villain: O’Mara (Macao ex-vice ring boss, murderer escaping Australian justice)
Other characters: Nauga, native Papua nurse.
Body count: 16 at least, including four of Nauga’s companions killed prior to her appearance; Ten heads from tribe’s latest raid; the tribe chief. Only one (O’Mara) is killed in the story itself.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Sue (airhostess); Molly, Joyce, Laura (fellow airhostesses and previous girlfriends); hint of WG perhaps having a subsequent, post-story relationship with Nauga.
Nudity rating: WG’s latest girlfriend Sue in bikini; Nauga initially topless in just skimpy loincloth; several native women topless; MB in shorts.
Who kills who? : Nauga cuts rope, causing the iron safe to crush O’Mara. O’Mara recounts how he earlier killed the tribe chief. MB is nicked in the arm with paralysis poison.
Summary/theme: Survival/crime caper. WG is in Port Moresby, New Guinea, with the latest of a long line of (apparently) air hostess girlfriends, when MB joins him. Later, flying on a photographic survey in a single-engine aeroplane over the wild highlands of the interior, they have a fuel problem and are forced to land in the jungle. Out of radio contact with Port Moresby, one wheel strut needs repairing, but on the second day they rescue a young native woman, Nauga, from three head-hunters. She is a nurse and the only survivor of a medical team – mission doctor, two assistants, a white nurse – killed by the local tribes. A larger party of heavily armed natives arrive, and despite attempts to pacify or intimidate them with talk of the “powerful magic of the white faces” (with WG doing a fire-eating/breathing act), they are taken back to the tribe’s village. There they meet O-Ma-La, their all-powerful white god, who MB and WG recognise as an bearded Irishman named O’Mara, former vice ring boss, and who is wanted for murder back in Australia. Having fled to New Guinea a year previously, O’Mara had killed the tribe’s chief and encouraged them to dominate neighbouring tribes, capturing their women, and taking heads. In fact, he is delighted to see them, wishing to exploit their criminal skills. Until he arrived the tribe had worshipped the Iron God, actually a massive Japanese safe looted from Port Moresby at the end of World War II, the aeroplane having crashed soon afterwards. The tribe had cleared away the wreckage and the place was now sacred, marked with human skulls. Both O’Mara and MB and WG know the story; the safe contained half a million pounds of industrial diamonds. But first WG is forced to fight one of the tribesman who wanted to take Nauga. WG then stalls for time, saying the safe is badly damaged and the only way to open it without a thermal lance is to use intense fire, quickly followed by water to “disintegrate” the internal bolts. O’Mara falls for this and instructs the tribe to built a hoist of timber struts and thick rope, using fear and his persona to overcome their reluctance at this apparent sacrilege of the Iron God. WG then fakes his accidental death (supposedly eaten by a crocodile) to sneak away to the aeroplane and use the radio (and a small transmitter hidden in the rope hauling the safe) to seem like the voice of the Iron God. Nauga had already taught him what to say in the local language. However, O’Mara challenges MB to single combat, as to who is the more powerful god – him or the Iron God. Just when MB looks like winning, he cuts her arm with his knife, the blade of which was soaked in a mild, but effective, paralysing toxin. However, as he is about to kill her, the raised safe crashes down on top of him. Nauga tells the tribesmen the Iron God has spoken – MB is the Iron God’s ‘spirit woman’. In fact Nauga had cut the rope, holding the safe up. As MB and WG fly Nauga out, they make plans to return with equipment to open the safe and donate the money to building a hospital.
Critical comment: WG gives authentic example of Pidgin English, which Peter O’Donnell had researched. WG also demonstrates fire-eating skills, explaining he “had a girlfriend in the circus who was a fire-eater”. There is also a casual mention of a thermal lance to open the ‘Iron God’ safe – which O’Donnell used several times before, as in “The Red Gryphon” (1969). Romero manages to illustrate the New Guinean tribal people quite well, but thankfully there are no hideous children!
The escaped criminal setting himself up as a charismatic leader to a group of followers is used again, if in a slightly different context, in “Durango” (1997).
Coincidences comes particularly thick and fast in this story – they and Nauga crossing paths; they crossing paths with O’Mara, who they knew; him conveniently needing their expertise to open the safe; even him standing in the wrong place under the safe.
In October 2003 the South China Morning Post reported the discovery of 10 tonnes of gold bullion in rotting wooden crates (worth millions of dollars), hidden by the retreating Japanese forces in the dense mountainous jungles of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, about 850 km from Port Moresby.