CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).
59: Story name: Kali’s Disciples – 1985/86 ****
Location: India, the “princely state of Kadhabad” – the village of Nagura, Thar Desert, north of Jodhpur (Rajasthan) – mountainous region where the tomb is located.
Villain: Major George Sangner; his associate Simon Blake and others.
Other characters: Mr Chatterji (Indian police inspector); Prince Videghia; Ranjit (his son); Sivaji (fakir or holy man of unknown age, Chatterji thinks 120, MB thinks 150).
Body count: Uncertain, at least 6.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB bathing nude in an onyx marble bath.
Who kills who? : Sangner kills at least two of the Thugee gang to silence them, as well as a ‘true believer’ Thugee who objects to him shooting MB and WG rather than ritual strangling. Sangner is then himself killed by the enraged Thugees.
Summary/theme: Routine crime caper mixed with occult fantasy. MB and WG are staying at the palace of the former Indian Prince Videgha, whose son MB once rescued from a beating in Oxford Street, London. The story opens with her playing polo, and we are introduced to expat Englishmen Simon Blake and ex-British army Major George Sangster, now the estate manager. There is talk of a revival of the Thugee cult, native disciples of the Hindu goddess Kali, who kill by ritual strangulation. That night there is a raid on the palace by a cloaked and hooded gang armed with knives and the rumal, the ritual strangling cloth. MG and WG thwart the raid, although one servant has his neck broken, and two Thugees finish up dead, one while apparently in police custody. However, the main purpose of MB’s stay is to visit Sivaji, the ancient holy man who she first met as a 14 year old child, during her wandering alone from the Far East into Rajasthan. She had later returned, aged 20, to spent time with him, and again with WG. Now he charges them to deliver a huge emerald (the size of a duck’s egg) to the shrine/tomb of Tagore, his master who had died 90 years before. For him the value of the jewel is only that it contains the combination of their two long lives of spiritual merit, and that Tagore might find release from earthly rebirth and ascend to Nirvana. They are to carry nothing metal and no weapons other than WG’s favourite quarterstaff. They realised that Sivaji himself will die soon, but at a time of his own choosing. The shrine is four days distant, with a final narrow path to the summit. They soon discover the Thugee gang knows of their mission, and that the leader is none other than Major Sangner, who is using loyal revivalist believers as cover for robbery. On the way MB and WG outwit and incapacitate their pursuers (observing non-lethal means), until they finally reach the cave shrine, where they find, to their surprise, that Tagore’s body is apparently undecayed. They place the emerald into a crystal bowl as requested, only to emerge and be confronted by Sangner. However, when he enters the shrine there is no body, just a worthless stone in a clay pot! Sangner is incredulous and angry and the Thugees prepare to kill MG and WG. Having discharged their moral obligation to Sivaji, MB and WG use the quarterstaff with less restraint. Major Sangner is himself strangled, neck broken, by a ‘true believer’ Thugee as, having threatened to shoot MB and WG, and – in anger – then shooting one of the Kali’s disciples. Armed now with a revolver and knives, MB and WG face off the survivors. Just then Inspector Chatterji arrives in a helicopter with armed police. The remaining Thugees are arrested. In addition, Chatterji has Sivaji’s body to be placed (by his final request) in the shine. MB and WG decide to go their own way, still puzzled by the mystery of what they did and saw.
Critical comments: Sivaji is one of two Indian holy men who feature in MB’s backstory, both in the novels and comic strips. O’Donnell was obviously fascinated by aspects of yoga, Hindu mysticism and elements bordering on the supernatural. Although coincidences and convenience feature in a lot of the MB stories, here we have perhaps the most blatant example of the supernatural, an event unexplained. “The Black Pearl” (1966/67, with the holy man Lal) could be another example, if not quite as extreme. One possible interpretation (as with the beetle in the amber in the earlier story) is that we are seeing our perceptions of the material world, rather than what they might actually be. Sivaji himself hints at such an explanation when he remarks about MB and WG still being attached to the “world which is an illusion”. O’Donnell, however. teases us with the unresolved mystery.
Despite that Sivaji is a key element in both MB and WG’s ability to achieve mental control over their physical bodies, he only actually appears in three comic strip stories – the other two times being very briefly, in flashbacks: “Idaho George” (panels 4404 and 4424, by Romero, 1978) and “Death Symbol” (1999, again drawn by Romero.) On both occasions he looked totally different. In the “Idaho George” flashbacks he is depicted as beardless, skinny but pale-skinned, with his head in a sort of turban, sitting under a palm tree – so distinctly un-Indian. Much later – long after Colvin’s version – in “Death Symbol”, Romero again illustrated him, but now he has a long straggly beard and hair, though bald on top, but again apparently with pale skin and facial features that are more Western European, or like some Ancient Greek philosopher, than Colvin’s much more authentic Indian guru. Of the three – completely different – versions, Colvin’s remains the most credible and aesthetically correct, even down to the tree itself. In the novels he is mentioned only in The Impossible Virgin (1971). MB’s story of how she meet Sivaji is recounted here in some detail. Apparently aged about 14, she was wondering through Rajasthan, stopping at the village of Nagura, near the Thar Desert, when a severe sandstorm occurred. The villagers declined to venture out to take food and water to Sivaji, so MB – used as she was from living with the Bedouin (and with their “laws of hospitality”) – did so instead, staying with him – words unspoken – for two days until the storm abated. Only upon her departure did he speak – in English (he was rumoured to have attended a mission school when young) – instructing her to return “in the year of the fire bird”. By the Buddhist Tibetan calendar this was 1957, so when she was about 20. Later she visited for two months with WG. She was then requested to return “in the year of the wood dragon”, which is February 1964 to February 1965 – so we must presume, therefore, the date of this story’s events. The calendar is a system of animals or mythical creatures like the dragon, matched with elements – earth, fire, iron, water, wood. The next latest “fire bird” year was 2017.
This is interesting in that it put MB back into the original time-frame of when Tarrant first contacting and ‘recruiting’ her services in 1964, something which, unfortunately, Peter O’Donnell had increasingly ignored and stretched out in the subsequent – especially post-Holdaway illustrated – stories. However, again there is a slight problem to MB’s version of events, namely – give her supposed age – where was Lob? We were told she meet him in the displaced persons camp in Greece when she was about twelve, and he died in the North African desert, on their way to Morocco, when she was about sixteen. Given that he was dependant on her for his own survival, there was no way she would have deserted him to go wandering off in northern India.
The George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had been released in 1984, with its own exaggerated and highly inaccurate version of a Thugee revision. One aspect of the original Thugee cult was that, as worshippers of the goddess Kali, they did not kill women. They certainly did not undertake human sacrifice, as Spielberg implied! O’Donnell’s version is, therefore, a lot more believable, especially being used as a cover for the more mundane, if rather murderous crime-spree of robbery. The quarterstaff had featured as a defensive weapon in other MB stories and the novels. MB again uses the Bedouin ‘sand trick’, as previously seen in “Death in Slow Motion” (1983).
60: Story name: The Double Agent – 1986 *****
Location: Unnamed ‘Iron Curtain’ country – MB’s Wiltshire cottage – Chamonix, France – ‘Farleigh Grange’ country house near ‘Calsinghurst’ – ‘Wickfield’ golf course, somewhere in the ‘Home Counties’.
Villain: Hakil (old MB adversary, director Bureau of Covert Operations Overseas); ‘Gemini’ (MB lookalike); ‘Alpha’ group (Stefan; Grigor; Ferenc, getaway motorcyclist Zygmunt); ‘Beta; group (Valda, Sandor, unnamed leader).
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Tarrant; Fraser; Weng; Daneby (aka ‘Nimrod’, Foreign Office double agent); unnamed ‘Iron Curtain’ country Ambassador; Voynikov (Gemini’s trainer).
Body count: 2
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Maude Tiller.
Nudity rating: Maude in negligee (with hint of nipples); Both MB and Gemini displaying plenty of leg whilst fighting.
Who kills who? : MB kills Gemini. Hakil (attempting to defect) ‘liquidated’ by Iron Curtain agents. MB shoots, and badly wounds, two of the Alpha team. The getaway driver has his leg broken.
Summary/theme: Espionage/revenge caper. In an unnamed country “behind the Iron Curtain”, Comrade Controller Hakil of the Bureau of Covert Operations Overseas, has planned a revenge sting to assassinate Sir Gerald Tarrant and set up MB to be arrested as his killer. Two years of planning, plastic surgery, voice training, prolonged study of video recordings, perfecting combat skills, has produced an authentic lookalike of MB, a replica known only as Gemini, ‘The Twins’. Important to the success of Operation Replica is the elimination of WG, and to put the real MB through a series of bizarre, totally unbelievable, experiences prior to her being found in the vicinity of the golf course where Gemini – wearing her identical clothes – will shoot Tarrant. Blissfully unaware, MB is at her Wiltshire cottage with Maude Tiller, Tarrant’s agent, who is back from a “sticky job in Oman” and hoping for the company of WG. MB straightway contacts him in Chamonix, France, where he is “climbing mountains”, suggesting he “climb Maude instead”. MB offers to vacate her cottage for her penthouse, and leave them together. However, that night, and over in France, Halik’s ‘Beta Team’ set up a fake newly-married couple whose ‘diabetic’ husband has collapsed. WG is suspicious and is able to swap the hypodermic of potentially lethal insulin for water. The team leader intervenes and knocks WG out, injecting him with the insulin (so he thinks), which would induce a fatal heart attack. They leave, thinking WG will be dead by morning. Meantime, the ‘Alpha Team’ are in England, Halik at the embassy in London. On her way from Wiltshire to London, MB encounters what is apparently a circus clown and escaped bear named Tibor, before coming face to face with her replica, who takes full advantage of her shock to overpower her. Upon waking, MB finds herself first in a hall of mirrors, then experiences, including confronting a tiger (which she realises is a holograph), and one of gang dressed as an axe-man. All this takes place in a flimsy, wooden-wall maze in a country mansion. WG, with a headache and short-term amnesia, arrives at MB’s cottage to find Maude in bed, in just a negligee, looking extremely seductive, waiting him. WG: “Sorry, Maude, I’ve got a headache.” Maude: “Only married women have headaches at a time like this!” Later, between them, they soon restore his recollection of the previous night at the hotel in France. They call Weng in London, who confirms MB has not arrived, and WG recollects his attackers mentioning Tarrant. Tarrant’s assistant, Jack Fraser, tells them Tarrant is playing golf with a “Foreign Office bigwig” named Daneby at Wickfield golf course. We already know Daneby is ‘Nimrod’, a sleeper agent to the foreign power. Over at the mansion MB, however, has turned the tables of the three-man Alpha team, Stefan, Grigor and Ferenc, and, having found her clothes and car, radios Weng for a situation update. She, too, then heads for Wickfield. WG and Maude get there first, just as (at the twelfth green) Gemini appears. WG immediately recognises her as not being the real MB, and his intervention prevents Tarrant being shot. Gemini flees on the getaway motorcycle, only to crash into MB’s car in the woods, her driver’s leg is broken. By the time WG and Maude catch up, she and MB are fighting to the death, Maude unable to tell who is who. A “mule kick” kills Gemini, and Maude uses the injured driver’s radio to tell Halik the team “wasn’t betrayed, just not good enough.” The next day Halik attempts to defect, but is himself killed, although not before revealing that Daneby as a traitor. Tarrant tells MB they will simply feed him misinformation, then set him up so his foreign controllers think he is a double agent and arrange an ‘accident’. MB pretends to be shocked. Meantime WG and Maude are looking forward to two weeks of unbridled passion together!
Critical comments: This was Colvin’s swansong, having decided to take voluntary retirement. It also perhaps marked the high point of the entire MB comic strip series. After this, few stories managed to reach to quite such brilliance in ingenious plots, complexity, or humour. It has to be said that, even now, Colvin still had his limitations compared to Holdaway. MB’s car, for instance, is rather bland and the make unrecognizable. Romero, especially, in his first period, was good at drawing cars; MB’s vehicles nearly always being swanky affairs – Jensen or a Rolls, or flash sports convertibles. The British Foreign Office sleeper agent, Daneby, aka Nimrod, is portrayed as a rather upper class, chinless twerp (I always think of Chillcott Oakes, in the early Len Deighton spy stories.) At one point MB is driving whilst talking on the radio – but perhaps still not a motoring offense at that time! Glimpses of MB’s Wiltshire cottage are rather scrappy – only the Holdaway and Burns versions were really good. Again, arch-villain Hakil comes with a backstory – six years previous he was trying to flood the UK with drugs, and Tarrant and MB retaliated, causing his downfall and time spent in a communist labour camp. Again this then puts a time-line as being at least 6 years after 1964, in theory then with MB being about 32. For Hakil, only “the change of leadership” saw his political rehabilitation. However, neither the comic strips or the novels make any previous mention of him. So yet again, rather like MB and WG’s previous interaction with Soviet Army Colonel Greb, or Italian journalist Guido, or the vengeful millionaire Bone brothers (where MB had saved John Dall from one of their ruinous financial scams), this story is unrecorded, which seems rather strange. What a pity Peter O’Donnell didn’t go back and write them. At least with Hakil and the Bone brothers there was the potential for a great story.
Colvin’s character studies continued to be outstanding, from the arrogant and ruthless Halik, to the seediness of Gemini’s handlers and her fellow team members. The story itself is busy and complicated, moving back and forth between the various cast and locations – MB, WG/Maude, Halik/Gemini. In retrospect, it is a fitting finale to Colvin’s period as MB artist. One story concerning his departure is that Colvin had tired of drawing “women’s anatomy”, another he asked for a pay-rise and was refused, and third strand implying that Romero wanted his old job back. Whatever reason, Colvin retired, aged 68, first to the Dordogne in France, then apparently back to his native New Zealand, although he also had a property at Hampstead. He died in 1991, age 72. During that time since retirement it was said he never draw again, except once for his grandson. In retrospect, this was a great pity. From here on there were another thirty-five stories, which will be looked at in Part 2, but the magical element of the Modesty world gradually dimmed, together with the quality of Romero’s art. Out of that number, there were perhaps only half a dozen stories which rose above the mundane.
Colvin was a modest man, but – together with Holdaway – he draw some of the best Modesty Blaise stories. A letter from Peter O’Donnell, dated August 1980, perhaps sums up best what it was he contributed. “It’s a joy to be working with an artist who’s got a sense of humour and picks up the little nuances of the story. You’re doing a smashing job, mate. Hope you’re enjoying it. That’s certainly what comes over when I look at the strip.”
CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 2 (1986-2001).
The year is 1986. Although no one could have predicted at the time, we are almost two-thirds through the comic strip stories, which were still to go from story 61 through to 95. Following Neville Colvin’s retirement, there really was a perfect opportunity for a new, untried Modesty Blaise artist. Alas Frank Bellamy was already no longer with us, having died in 1974, and Martin Asbury was busy drawing the “Garth” comic strip in the Daily Mirror. The brief should have specified someone with intimate knowledge of Britain, and London in particular, but being equally good at depicting faces and places (in particular foreign locations), and especially action scenes, but who would be faithful to the appearance of the principal characters – Modesty and Willie, but also Sir Gerald, Jack Fraser, Maude Tiller, and others. Instead the editor of the London Evening Standard opted for the return of tried and tested Enric Badia Romero. His science fiction “Axa” comic strip (which was published in The Sun newspaper in the UK) was coming to its conclusion that year, and the Spanish artist picked up his pen again to draw Modesty. This tenure lasted until Peter O’Donnell’s last story “The Zombie” in 2000/01, as well as illustrated MB comic book covers or illustrating his own imaginative stand-alone features. Thereafter, on longevity alone, he became the artist most associated with Modesty Blaise. Romero’s forte was the female figure, notably nude. Unlike “Axa” in The Sun, he was more restrained with Modesty in the Standard, and there were few opportunities for the kind of full nudity O’Donnell could indulge in the novels. Strangely, one of Romero’s illustrations for The Silver Mistress, with its infamous episode of a nude, greased-up MB fighting Mr Sexton, was surprisingly chaste and long distance. However, while Romero continued to entertain us with his vision of Modesty, in general his artistic style continued to became more mechanical and rather lifeless, varying from the bland to the downright bad. In this last phase, too, the quality of the stories seem to lose their originality and humour. They became darker in tone, while at the same time the time-line, in both novels and comic strip, became increasingly disconnected from MB’s origins and past.
For character check listing in the novels/short stories, I have consulted The Complete Modesty Blaise Dossier ‘Concordance Guide’, compiled by Jim Pattison, who resides in Canada. Website: www3.sympathico.ca/jim.pattison/modesty
Modesty and Willie, by Romero, “The Girl from the Future” (1988)
61 : Story name: Butch Cassidy Rides Again – 1986/87 *** Artist: Romero
Location: Wyoming, USA – the ‘Outlaw Trail’ – Cordite (Wild West ‘ghost town’) – Lazy H ranch – Shoshone Peak – Sheraton Hotel, Denver.
Villain: ‘The Preacher’ (English sharp-shooter and killer), Mort Bailey.
Other characters: Sheriff Cy Hart (from Red Rock); Matt Parker; Annie Freeman; grandparents Jake and Martha Freeman (of the Lazy H ranch); John Dall; Joe Walk-Alone (Shoshone Indian); Marty (one of the Preacher gang).
Body count: 0
Modesty’s lover: John Dall.
Willie’s lover: None.
Nudity rating: MB nude (rear view) bathing in river.
Who kills who? : Matt Parker is shot and wounded by the fake ‘Cassidy’ gang to put him out of action.
Summary/theme: Routine crime caper, attempted extortion. MB and WG are riding the 1,000 mile ‘Outlaw trail’ from Montana to the Mexican border, enjoying the isolation of no radio, motor traffic or tourists – until they reach the ‘ghost town’ of Cordite to find a coachload of tourists (with ‘Western Tours Inc.’), and a re-enactment of a Butch Cassidy gang shootout. One of members of the local Colt .45 Society, Matt Parker, is shot for real, through the thigh, and only MB’s intervention saves him from bleeding to death. While a doctor from the coach tour attends to him, WG investigates and encounters two men, one who uses a mace spray on him. The local sheriff, already rather hostile to “two limeys”, is further alienated when WG says one of the men look like one of the old-time Butch Cassidy gang, whose ‘Wanted’ poster is on display. Rather disheartened, they ride on, camp by a river, and in the early morning see the entire ‘Cassidy’ gang ride by, followed by gunshots. Soon after they are approached by 17 year old Annie Freeman, whose grandparents own the nearby Lazy H ranch, being terrorised by the gang. Invited to stay over, MB single-handedly takes out three of the gang (included one named Marty) during a deliberate confrontation. Not long after Sheriff Hart appears, accusing her of being the aggressor. Annie points out the incident was witnessed by recluse Shoshone Indian Joe Walk-Alone, who is “incapable of lying”, and challenges going to a court of law. When local worthy Mort Bailey appears, offering to buy the ranch, MB becomes suspicious, especially as Joe has already said some men had been “drilling holes” on Lazy H land near Shoshone Peak. MB breaks into Bailey’s office and finds incriminating documents, before contacting her billionaire American lover John Dall, confirming there are high grade manganese deposits. She and Dall return just in time to intervene in a confrontation between the hired Preacher’s gang, and WG and Annie. The gang had used Butch Cassidy gang masks. Dall contacts the police in Lansdown. MB and WG ride on, but WG is rather upset Annie had likened him to a “father” – her own father was serving in the US military in Europe.
Critical comments: It starts off so mundane, especially compared to previous excursions in the USA, many of which number amongst some of the best of the Modesty Blaise stories. The Trail really exists, but the aptly-named ghost town of ‘Cordite’ is an O’Donnell fiction. WG remarks that riding the Trail is “Better than when we sailed down the Mississippi, more peaceful,” thereby referring to “The Gallows Bird” story, 1973. The actual Butch Cassidy gang, also known as ‘The Wild Bunch’ or the ‘Fort Worth Five’, were not especially romantic, and all were outlaws both preceding and after their association together. They were Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy, 1866-1908), Harry A. Longabough (aka the Sundance Kid, 1867-1908), William ‘News’ Carver (1868-1901), Harvey Logan (aka Kid Curry, 1867-1904), and Ben Kilpatrick (aka the ‘Tall Texan’, 1871-1912). All ultimately died violently, three (including Cassidy and Sundance) by their own hand.
Compared to later illustrations, Romero’s illustrations of the Wild West landscape, the township and the gang’s mountain shack hideout are quite good. We witness MB’s ability with a handgun, but when challenged to a gun-fight with the Preacher, WG – notorious for his personal dislike of guns – throws his gun instead, knocking the Preacher out cold. One of the Preacher’s underlings, Marty (who, rather foolishly, says he dislikes Brits, given the Preacher was British), was to appear again in the story “The Girl from the Future” (1989). Again we have a Shoshone Indian (like Lucy in “Yellowstone Booty”, 1978/79), but also reminiscent of another Shoshone, Charlie Long Arrow, in the novel Last Day In Limbo (1976). The Preacher, too, rather recollects handgun killer, the Reverent Uriah Crisp, in Dragon’s Claw (1978). Despite bathing nude in the river, MB sleeps in their tent in a nightdress – most unusual for her! On strip 6569 there is a spelling error, “Me two” should have read “Me too.”
62: Story name: Million Dollar Game – 1987 ***
Location: MB’s house ‘Pendragon’, in Tangier, Morocco – Tarrant’s “Whitehall Club” in London (see below) – the Shalmar Hotel, near Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania – WG’s “Treadmill” pub – Unnamed East African game reserve.
Villain: Harry Scoutar, Jacko, and other gang members; their leader John Carslake, (president of the local conservation society).
Other characters: American vet Greg Lawton (from Missouri); Tarrant; game warden Sam Catto; Ranjit (WG friend and fellow radio ham).
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: Greg Lawton.
Willie’s lover: Lady Janet Gillam (mentioned only in passing); WG mentions former girlfriend who was a hymenopterist (wasp expert).
Nudity rating: MB nude in both bed and bath; MB in briefs, having removed her Velcro skirt, fighting the three ‘heavies’ who attack Lawton; in bra and jeans fleeing from the rhino; MB topless in just jeans (mostly back view), performing the ‘nailer’.
Who kills who? : Greg is wounded in the thigh. The rhino ‘Milly’ kills Carslake.
Summary/theme: Poaching crime caper. In Tangier, back at the time she had just wound up the Network, MB’s initial relationship with American vet Greg Lawton starts badly when he assumes she is mistreating the donkey she has just rescued. Not long after, when the donkey contracts African Horse Sickness, they bond whilst caring for her, and finish up as lovers, before she takes up more permanent residence in England. The action then moves to “some years later”, and WG is in London with Tarrant, while MB is climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa, having flown there by single-engine Comanche. At her hotel she had been receiving strange love notes. Soon after she prevents a bearded American from being beaten up by three thugs, only to find it is Greg, now working for the World Wildlife Fund, on the lookout for poachers. At first she doesn’t recognise him (his hair is cropped and he has a beard), but it was he who kept sending the notes. Two nights later (MB is already sharing his bed) Greg’s plane is wrecked, and MB offers to fly him instead for a two week air patrol. Carslake tips off the poachers, led by Harry Scoutar, who have several trucks with $30,000 worth of elephant and rhino tusks. When MB and Greg fly over, automatic rifle fire damages the aileron and Greg is wounded in the thigh. MB lands and they flee down river in a dingy, eventually finding shelter in a cave, where MB operates on Greg, removing the bullet. Meantime WG is in Africa, and soon at the game reserve. MB is able to use the amateur radio in the plane to contact him via another radio ham. On the way back MB encounters ‘Milly’ the rhino, and is forced to abandon her shirt. Once WG joins them, the fight-back begins, with the aid of a wasp-nest, and MB’s distraction technique, the ‘Nailer’ – going topless – they pick off the men one by one. When Carslake tried to shoot MB and Greg, Milly the rhino charges and kills him. Apparently she had a hostile reaction to guns, and Carslake was carrying a rifle. MB offers to stay a month with Greg, helping ‘nurse him back to health’.
Critical comments: The story begins with another flashback of MB, in Tangiers, Morocco, at just about the time she wound up the Network, prior to moving to England. On the basis of the original time-line, therefore, this is about circa 1963. This early introductory sub-plot also features MB’s affiliation for donkeys (which we have seen already in “The Inca Trail” (1976), and will again in “The Vampire of Malvescu” (1987). The donkey sanctuary gets mentioned in several other stories. On this occasion she rescues a beaten, malnourished donkey she names ‘Sally’, from a local Arab peasant, and we learn she had another nine donkeys in a paddock. Casual cruelty to animals is “normal here”, she remarks philosophically. The ‘million dollar game’ is poaching, and Lawton quotes the kind of (then contemporary) prices the poachers could get – $1,000 for ivory tusk, $500 an ounce for rhino horn; $10,000 for a bluebonnet parakeet. The game reserve in question is “half the size of Wales” (so, about 4,000 sq. miles), with just 50 rangers, two of whom were killed by poachers the “previous year”. As an American, it is rather unlikely Lawton would make the comparison to Wales, more likely one of the smaller US East Coast States – Rhode Island, perhaps, which is only 3,100 sq. miles. Greg Lawton appears again in the story “Black Queen’s Pawn” (1993), set in Madagascar.
WG and Tarrant are dining at “Tarrant’s Whitehall Club”, but as originally portrayed by Holdaway, this was probably in the St. James’ area, near St. James’s Palace. WG’s regular lover from the novels, Lady Janet Gillam, only made two appearances in the comic strip – briefly in “Idaho George” (1978) and as a key character in “The Murder Frame (1997). Here she is casually mentioned in passing, WG being “at Lady Janet’s”. One of the leaders of the poachers, Scoular, later gets a mention in “The Killing Game” (2000), as being a friend of the South African big game hunter, Pienaar. However, Pienaar says Scoular tangled with MB and is now dead, when actually he was taken captive – it was poacher boss-man Carslake who was killed. Had Peter O’Donnell forgotten that when he wrote the much later story?
63: Story name: The Vampire of Malvescu – 1987 ***
Location: Transylvania (so, north-west Romania) – village and castle of Malvescu – Tarrant’s club in London – MB’s London penthouse in the Bayswater Road.
Villain: ‘Europe’s Fist’ – Greff, Pienaar, Selby, Larouche, Bellanca, Sebastian Clegg.
Other characters: Hans Braun (ex-Network technician and inventor); Hilda, his wife; Vasili (village elder); Tarrant; Weng.
Body count: 7
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bath, in towel, and getting dressed; Hilde completely nude and bathing from a bucket; lying unconscious, side view and full frontal (although her towel somehow jumped to cover her midriff).
Who kills who?: Unknown girl, “drained of blood”, as a warning to Hans. MB kills Sebastian Clegg after he attacks her. WG kills Pienaar and Laroche when they attempt to ‘vamp’ Hilde. MB shoots Selby with his own gun when he parachutes onto the castle battlements, and Hans uses the ‘bat-bomb’ to kill the already wounded Bellanca. The leader, Greff, plans to use a hang-glider to retaliate, but is shot with a silver bullet by the villagers, who think he is the vampire! WG suffered torn flesh and a broken rib when the soft-point dum-dum bullet went through his metal coffee mug first.
Summary/theme: Terrorist crime caper. MB and WG are indulging their usual ‘champagne challenge’ as to who can reach the isolated castle of Malvescu first, the home of retired ex-Network tech-man Han Braun. To WG’s surprise – he being first – loner Hans is now married to Hilde, who is already expecting their baby. Her German father was a doctor, mother a nurse, but both died in a plane crash. She moved from Brazil to Europe and met Hans in Hamburg two years previous. She practises animal rescue. MB, meanwhile is travelling by donkey, who she has named ‘Mr Bones’. She gets delayed in the nearby village by a wedding feast, where she also meets Englishman Sebastian Clegg, who warns her against travelling through the forest at night. Recently a young woman was found dead, naked and drained of blood. MB ignores his warning and is subsequently attacked by Clegg, dressed as a vampire. In the fight that follows he died when the needle he intended to use to suck his victim’s blood, pierces him instead. Hans confesses he is being blackmailed by a terror gang named Europe’s Fist into constructing flying bombs (one in the form of a giant bat), otherwise they will kill Hilde, vampire-style. WG and MB use Clegg’s death to lure the gang to attempt to carry out their threat, but MB will be wearing a blonde wig to look like Hilde, and Hilde and WG camp in the forest, supposedly safe. However, two of the gang stumble across Hilde bathing and use a tranquilliser dart to subdue her, the other shooting WG, but, despite being wounded, he kills both. The other two parachute onto the castle battlements where MB kills one, Hans the other. Hilde tends to WG’s wound and they return to the castle, but WG still senses danger – actually from the leader, Greff, who is camped nearby and has a hang-glider. He, however, is mistaken for the vampire, and shot by the local superstitious villagers.
Critical comments: Hans Braun featured in the novel The Night of Morningstar (1982). Although we are told Hilde is pregnant, Romeo depicts her throughout as slim-waisted, with no visible sign of a tummy bulge! We see this again with another pregnant lady, in “Durango” (1996/97), who we are told is three months’ pregnant, but still slim-waisted! Silly! We are, of course, in ‘Dracula’ territory, and the general timelessness of the village is like something out of a Hammer horror movie – all fake village façades, desolate forest, brooding castle on its hilltop. Viewed from afar, Hans’ “small” or “miniature” castle has four corner turrets and a central keep, again nothing like Central or East European domestic castle architecture, and, indeed, it looks quite theatrical. The interior rooms, however (complete with suits of armour), are huge, and – not for the first time – the two do not match up. When MB contacts Tarrant, he is at his “London club”, however, again Romeo’s depiction of the club exterior is that of a modern 1970s period glass building, with similar modern architecture in the background and with a pointed tower (strip 6781) – nothing like Holdaway’s club exterior, which we knew then to have been in the Pall Mall/St. James’ Square area, between Piccadilly and St. James’ Palace. Instead, at first, I thought we have another non-descript, Romeo fantasy city! But then a chance look back at “The Gabriel Set-Up”, by Jim Holdaway (1964), and there was his depiction of a hotel in Tremont, Ontario, Canada (strip 289), and, although angled slightly, and in Romero’s more black and white comic drawing style, it is the same building, the same background and tower, the same motor vehicle in the foreground! Romero had ‘lifted’ from a 23 year older MB comic strip by another artist and given it a new, completely inappropriate, location! Clegg’s cottage, on the outskirts of the village, again looks like the ‘witch’s house’ from a Victorian book of fairy tales, and the exterior is also much too small for the interior rooms! We learn that the next village is Salini, and the nearest police ten miles away. At the time of this story (even if we take the late 1980s date, rather than earlier), Transylvania/Romania was still under communist/Ceau?escu rule. Would the authorities have allowed two ‘westerners’ to wander around the countryside?
Also again, we have Weng speaking by radio to MB in Cantonese, the speech bubble script looking vaguely oriental, which is a clever touch, while the conversation between Clegg and the village elder – one presumes in Romanian – is also scripted more stylishly. When shot, WG uses a “Sivaji mantra” to “stay alive” long enough to retaliate. MB also uses yoga to stay awake whilst guarding Hilde’s room. Hilde is depicted as yet another blonde ‘Axa’ lookalike.
64: Story name: Samantha and the Cherub – 1987/88 ***
Location: St. Swithin’s Youth Club, London’s East End – Festival Hall, London’s Southbank – derelict areas in the East End/Wapping area – MB’s London penthouse, Bayswater Road – Sam’s house, somewhere in the East End – Lamarette’s West End Fashion House – derelict house near Parnwell (in the country, outside of London).
Villain: ‘Contrax’ group; Charlie Gravett, aka Lamarette.
Other characters: Tarrant; Stefan Kolin (Tarrant’s ‘godson’, concert pianist and fled dissenter from Eastern Bloc); Lucy (Stefan’s Hong Kong Chinese wife, also known as Mrs Wu); Samantha (Sam) Brown; Tyrone (her biker, Hell’s Angel, brother known as the ‘Cherub’); Weng is mentioned, though not seen.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in undies, getting dressed; MB in a long night-robe with a fluffy hem, showing her legs and cleavage; MB minus skirt, in just top and black panties (WG calls it her “chorus girl costume”), breaking out through the ceiling and fighting the bad guys.
Who kills who? : One of Lamarett’s henchmen, already wounded by WG, get shot dead by his own side. WG gets a gunshot nick in the arm.
Summary/theme: Espionage caper. MB and WG have different appointments. She to the Festival Hall with Sir Gerald Tarrant, to attend the performance of concert pianist Stefan Koln, an East European who had defected to the West, and who is now Tarrant’s ‘godson’. WG, meanwhile, goes to an East End Youth Club to teach martial arts, all being boys except 10 year old Samantha Brown, his favourite pupil, and self-appointed leader. The tea lady, Hong Kong Chinese ‘Mrs Wu’, disapproves, arguing it promotes violence. WG argues otherwise, that it encourages well-being, and should only be use for defence, as a last resort. As he leaves, Samantha gives him a letter, to read later, she says. Mrs Wu’s car is waylaid by a gang of Hell’s Angels bikers, and WG intervenes to rescue her. However, soon after they are flagged down by two fake policemen, and he is knocked out. Mrs Wu – who is really Stefan’s wife, Lucy – has been kidnapped. Stefan’s Iron Curtain country want him back, and are prepared to use Lucy to blackmail him into appearing to go back voluntarily. Tarrant believes the kidnappers to be a new group called Contrax, non-political mercenaries. WG thinks Samantha could help identify the Hell’s Angels – the letter (inviting him to Sunday tea) giving her address. When he and MB visit, they discover the chief biker of the gang is Samantha’s own brother, Tyrone, aka ‘The Cherub’. Samantha promptly punishes him with martial arts kicks. A chastised Cherub can’t help other than a label “Lamarette”, which MB and WG recognise as Stepney-born fashion pirate and vicious crook, Charlie Gravett, who has a posh fashion house in the West End. During a fashion show, a disguised WG creates a diversion, and MB slips upstairs, encountering (and only just overcoming) the ‘Bone Breaker Brothers’, before she and Lucy are taken captive again. But they have set up Samantha’s gang of BMX bike riders to trail the van leaving the address, together with motorcyclists and WG in a car. Eventually the van arrives at a desolate house in the countryside, where Samantha (having hitched a ride with the Cherub) joins WG. Pretending to having lost her pet rabbit, she gets the front door opened, and WG storms in. Meantime, MB has broken out of the room into the loft, and together they start to take down Lamarette’s henchman. There is a brief stalemate when one thug grabs Samantha, but MB distracts them, WG knifes Samantha’s captor in the hand, and Samantha promptly bites Lamarette’s gun hand. Initially frantic with worry, WG can’t be mad at her for long, however, while MB admires her gutsiness and intelligence.
Critical comments: In his introduction to the Titan Books edition, MB expert Lawrence Blackmore, examples the case of musician/composer Maxim Dmitrievich Shostakovich (born 1938), son of the famous pianist/composer Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), who defected to the West in 1981, and only returned to post-Soviet Union St. Petersburg in about 1992. In this story MB seems to be driving a DMC DeLorean, with the gull-wing doors. They were manufactured 1981-82, original price $25,000 (another $650 for automatic transmission), rising to $34,000 by 1983. Lucy is driving a mini car. MB drops WG off near Tower Bridge, and he ‘jogs’ to Sam’s Youth Club within 10 minutes. Stefan and Lucy have a house in Wapping, and MB remarks it is now a mixed neighbourhood of both “rich and poor”. The location where Lucy encounters the Cherub Hells’ Angels gang is next to a derelict building being demolished. However, could WB have been able to operate the demolition crane so easily, without an ignition key or access to the cabin? Later he and Lucy are stopped by fake police officers (one seems to be wearing dark glasses – at night!), reminiscent of when another East European defector’s daughter, Julie, was kidnapped, in the story “The Moon Man” (1981/82). Indeed, this gets a bit frequent – MB and WG separately being conned by fake Japanese police in “The War-Lords of Phoenix” (1970), WG and Maude by fake police in “Galvin’s Travels” (1981), MB by fake cops in “The Lady in the Dark” (1989/90)…
Sam’s gang use BMX bikes and throat-mikes, supposedly to ‘trail’ the van MB and Lucy are prisoners in, as it progresses out of London, into the rural countryside. One has to wonder: could they anticipate all the possible routes? Also, we are told the van is black, but Romero repeatedly depicted it as light, not black! We knew WG had a gym at the ‘Treadmill’, but here we see our heroes in a gym “in the basement” of the block where MB has her penthouse. In “Idaho George” we learnt the rest of the block beneath the penthouse is a hotel, with an underground car-park – is the gym exclusive to MB? In later stories this apparently morphed into a full size swimming pool also. We begin to see less attention to background details in Romero’s art, for instance when WG is getting out of the car near Tower Bridge. The ‘countryside’ roads look a bit unrealistic, although the boarded-up house is quite authentic – typical, stand-alone, 1920s/30s mock-Tudor. Some touches of humour, with Tarrant confessing that he does not use the Contrax criminal group (“non-political, sabotage, kidnapping, assassinations”) for intelligence information, but only because they are too expensive for his departmental budget! And WG (wearing spectacles) disrupting the Lamarette beachwear fashion show by pretending to be the ‘President of the Cleaner Britain Society’ (a sort of Mary Whitehouse type of organization), protesting against ‘indecency’ in fashion. The interior of Sam’s house – given she is working class and living in the East End of London – seems rather large and a bit too posh – her mum is dead, “dad away a lot”, presumably the breadwinner, but he never gets mentioned again in any of the stories. Again, one can only reflect that Holdaway or Colvin would have been more authentic – a terraced house, front door onto the street, perhaps? In discussing their file on Lamarette, MB quite casually mentions the former Network intelligence officer, Lensk, although we never see him. He did, however, feature in the novel The Night of Morningstar (1982), as an ex-KGB man with his previous identity disguised by plastic surgery and a false name. Romero’s depiction of Mrs Wu, aka Lucy Koln, makes her very glamorous, but perhaps not distinctively Chinese enough. The other frequent criticism is his depiction of Sam – the face, for the most part, is quite good and distinctive (although she comes across almost as a younger version of MB), but – given that her age is stated as 10 – she often varies in height, and in at least one of Romero’s coloured comic magazine covers, she looks more like a 5 or 6 year old! Sam featured in two more comic strip stories – “Ivory Dancer” (1992), where she is age 13, and “The Special Orders” (1998), where she is now 15.
65: Story name: Milord – 1988 **
Location: Pan-American Highway – the (fictional) South American Republic of ‘Guarengo’ (within the ancient territory of the Inca Empire) – village of Yacu – capital city of San Felipe – Chimu Peak (old Inca palace or temple).
Villain: ‘Milord’; ‘Father’ Lamont; Kane.
Other characters: Villagers Manco and blacksmith Roca, and his daughter Mikay; Guido Biganzoli (Italian journalist); Aniela (Guido’s girlfriend); Bandit leader Miguel; Ula, the longest of the twenty surviving girl prisoners kept for porno SMBD sniff movies.
Body count: 17 at least.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Aniela (after story has finished).
Nudity rating: Aniela and the captive native South American Indian girls are depicted in bra and panties, or skimpy loin-cloths.
Who kills who? : Kane shoots dead two of Miguel’s bandits, wounding a third (who plays dead). WG kills Kane, fighting in the arena, Roman gladiator-style. WG kills at least one other Milord henchmen. Aniela, Ula and another girl strangle Lamont with their chains. Ula and the other girls throw Milord and his henchmen off the clifftop to their deaths. The village girl Luca (kidnapped from the village of Yacu the previous year) was later killed as “an Inca sacrifice” in one of the snuff movies. There is a colour Romero illustration which seems to depict MB as the sacrificial victim instead. Such bloody sacrifices were more associated with the Central American cultures, Aztecs and Maya.
Summary/theme: Porno/snuff movie crime caper. MB is flying through the South American Republic of Guarengo when she is forced to land at the small village of Yacu to make repairs. Whilst there, a helicopter lands with a man dressed as a Catholic priest, ‘Father Lamont’, who is going to take one of the young village girls to work for a “rich Yanqui lady” in California. MB is immediately suspicious and makes up the names of two non-existent ‘local’ bishops, one recently retired, to unmask him as a fake. Briefly the fake priest and henchman Kane still attempt to take the young girl by force, but MB threatens Lamont with his own gun (which only she knew had jammed) and the villains escape empty-handed. MB warns the villagers to spread the word, but one girl, Luca, had been taken the year before and not heard of since. Later, at her hotel in San Felipe, Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli appears, having been banished here from Rome after he had seduced the editor’s daughter. Guido plans to set-up a fake terrorist kidnap scam, from which he can emerge the hero, and wants MB as the female interest, as his regular girlfriend, Aniela, has refused. MB also refuses, but meantime WG arrives in town and encounters Aniela, who tells him all about Guido’s scheme, and suggests she and WG go back to their house and make love to “punish” Guido. WG is quite happy with that idea, but the bandits hired to carry out the kidnapping have already spiked the champagne and take them captive, thinking WG is Guido. Unfortunately, on their way to the bandit hideout, they are seen by Lamont in the helicopter, who lands, shoots the bandits, and takes WG and Aniela prisoner instead. WG plays the craven coward, and soon realises their captors are using young women for sex, torture and ‘snuff’ (live murder) porn movies. Meantime, MB and Guido make contact with the bandits’ leader, Miguel, and MB too realises WG and Aniela are in the hands of the fake priest’s gang. The helicopter is the give-away – they are based at a ‘mesa’ in the jungle, a raised plateau rented from the government as an American film studio. She and Guido get there by canoe and climb to the top. During this time WG has continued his pretence of a cowardly misogynist named ‘Henry Bligh’, who the chief villain, known only as ‘Milord’, plans with his henchmen to have killed on camera in the mock-up Roman arena. That night WG is easily able to pick the lock of his room and makes contact with Aniela, imprisoned with twenty other local Indian girls. While WG is next checking the two helicopters, MB appears and they make plans together. The following day WG plays his role in the arena, with Aniela and two other girls due to be orgy fodder after Kane has killed him. Except WG kills Kane first, and MB intervenes, taking out the guards, while Guido shouts out to surrender, they are surrounded. In the subsequent skirmish, Aniela and the two girls throttle Lamont to death. While MB is looking through the evidence of videos and papers, the enraged, vengeful girls take the tied-up gang survivors and start throwing them off the cliff-top. When MB tries to intervene, WG knocks her out. MB forgives him, of course, especially having seen the rape and torture movie WG had been forced to witness being filmed. Leaving in the two helicopters, they plan to fly the girls to the convent in San Felipe, but Aniela tells WG she has still not forgiven Guido, and offers to help WG “to forget”.
Critical comments: Up until now, while many MB enemies were ruthless, unpleasant killers (some decisively more sinister, others perhaps simply rather stupid), few of these in the comic strip villains were totally nasty, and even the drug dealers, like Gertie in “Bad Suki” (1968), or “The Junk Men” (1977), or the poachers in “Million Dollar Game” (1987), much as MB hated their criminal trade, were merely unpleasant. Here, however, the otherwise unnamed “Milord” and his henchmen prey on innocent, vulnerable women, for pornography and gore, what are called ‘snuff movies’. From here on, the stories grow darker, the crimes increasing more brutal and nasty – the vice trade again in “The Astro” (1994/95), and “The Special Orders” (1998); a young child in peril in “Live Bait” (1988/89); murderous terrorists with a houseful of potentially doomed women hostages in “The Big Mole” (1989); historic mass slaughter in “The Girl in the Dark” (1989/90), and “Black Queen’s Pawn” (1993); potential nuclear or bio-chemical weapons of mass destruction in “Guido the Jinx” (1994) and “The Last Aristocrat” (1999/2000); and MB herself being brutally raped in “Death Symbol” (1999).
Romero’s artwork is again workable, although the very first story panel, of WG pulling over on the Pan-American Highway, the road in the background forms a Z, in which vehicles apparently have to turn two impossible 90º angles! Ridiculous! MB is flying a Piper Tomahawk, two-seat, single-engine monoplane, of which (according to Wikipedia) 2484 were built between 1979 and 1982. Later the bad guys use two AS350 ‘Squirrel’ helicopters, aka ‘Écureuil’, manufactured in France from 1974 on. MB says they have a range of 200 miles, but perhaps she means one way, as the range given is just over 400 miles, although WG saying they can take 12 people, the manufacturing spec says only 5 to 6, although it has a 2,240kg max weight at take-off. In the final strip they are lifting 10 girls in each, plus MB and Guido in one and WG and Aniela in the other. Again Romero’s native South American girls don’t really have very authentic facial features or darker skin. The interior of the ‘Inca’ palace (or temple) on the jungle plateau seemed to be a strange mix – a huge elaborate palace ‘throne room’ almost; another part Moorish; another again like the dungeons of a medieval castle. Given that the Roman arena was obviously film-set fake (made of wood), perhaps much else was also, including an exterior view of a stepped temple pyramid that looked more Aztec or Maya than Inca. The hotel in ‘San Felipe’, where MB was staying, also has a strange exterior, 7 or 8-storeys high, but with not enough depth, and again – as is Romero’s style now – rather like a cheap stage-set, unreal. This is the second of four appearances of Guido, who is here introduced as “rogue, lecher, conman, scoundrel, journalist.”
66: Story name: Live Bait – 1988/89 ***
Location: Venice – the Palazzo Chiavari – the Villa Fasoli on the small island of Lucca in the lagoon – Grand Canal area – Piazzale Roma – Campo San Maria – Tangier (Network flash-back).
Other characters: Alan Gurney (successful and wealthy musician/song-writer); Rosina (Alan’s wife, former courier for the Network); Francesca (their 8 year old daughter); Inspector Hassan Birot of Tangier police; Krolli; Sammy Wan; Hans Braun (all ex-Network operatives); Lacroix (ex-Farzi gang member, now with Malik).
Body count: At least 3.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in a bra.
Who kills who? : MB mule-kicks one Malik underling (breaking his neck). MB shoots another. Malik dies of heart attack from raging at captive MB. MB has head wound from flying stone fragment.
Summary/theme: Revenge/kidnap caper. MB and WG are in Venice, two days before the carnival, to visit ex-Network courier Rosina and her husband, millionaire song-writer Alan Gurney. Rosina, who had a photographic memory, was only 18 when recruited by MB, before WG’s time, and MB tells him of how she was kidnapped by brutal, rival gang boss Malik. MB retaliated by taking out Malik and his gang, together with enough incriminating evidence to have him sent to prison. However, Malik is free again, and out for revenge. He has kidnapped Rosina and Alan’s 8 year old daughter, Francesca, and wants half a million dollars in exchange for her freedom, but which must be delivered only by MB. Alan wants to pay the money, but MB (supported by Rosina) refuses to sanction extortion, and knows Malik’s objective is to kill her, and probably the child also. Knowing they will be watched, MB sets WG up for a traffic ‘accident’ in the Piazzale Roma car park, and his apparent hospitalisation and flight out back to England with broken legs. Together they discover the location of Malik’s hideout, the Villa Fasoli, on its own island in the lagoon, which the gang has taken over while the owners are away. When MB makes her rendezvous with Malik’s ocean-going motor-cruiser, at the last minute a frogman emerges from the sea and ‘shoots’ her with a sub-machine gun. Both she and the bag containing the money disappear underwater. When Malik learns what has happened, he goes ballistic, and needs medication for his heart condition. Of course, the frogman is WG, and has spare air-tanks and other equipment on the shallow sea-bed. Together they swim to the island and WG is able to locate Francesca, but he is overheard, and MB is forced to cover his subsequent escape. He takes the cruiser, while MB engages in a shootout, but is wounded in the head by a fragment of stone. By then Malik is frantic with rage and suffers a fatal heart attack. The gang decide to kill MB, but – despite having her wrists bound behind her back – she fights back, killing two, knocking out two more. One of the more intelligent and reluctant of the gang, Lacroix, who has had a previous encounter with MB in her Network days, intervenes, frees her, and they take the smaller motorboat. Meantime, WG has dropped Francesca off at the Palazzo Chiavari, and is on the way back, when they intercept him. On her previous encounter with Lacroix (he was in the ‘Farzi gang’), MB had let him go free, and this was him repaying his debt. Again, in gratitude, she allows him to depart unhindered. Afterwards MB and WG too depart, as Alan is still angry, thinking MB put his daughter’s life needlessly in peril.
Critical comments: A second adventure in Venice, and interesting to compare Holdaway’s illustrations from “The Red Gryphon” (1968/69) with Romero’s artwork. The first looks more authentic, capturing the ordinary back streets and underbelly of the ancient city – Romero’s version, on the other hand, is more ‘picture postcard views’ and rather theatrical, like the backdrop of an stage opera. The Gurney’s Palazzo Chiavari faces onto the Grand Canal (WG is able to pilot a large motor-cruiser up to it; no way would that have gone down one of the side canals), but in one exterior view there is a tree in the foreground, which seems rather strange. On the plus side, the carnival costumes and scenes are good. When the story opens, we are told that the carnival is in two days’ time. The carnival originally was said to honour a crucial battle fought by the then Venetian Republic in 1162, but it became to greater prominence in the 18th century, before being outlawed in 1797 following the Republic’s demise, first by the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austrians. Finally it was revived in 1979, taking place after Lent, forty days before Easter, Shrove Tuesday and before Ash Wednesday. The mask WG is wearing is the traditional volto, or Larva mask, covering the upper face only. In addition, he wore a tricorn hat. In the Network flashback, we see again Krolli, Garcia, Sammy Wan, and Hans Braun, who featured in the Story “The Vampire of Malvescu” (1987). There is also, in the current story, a passing reference to Vinezzi, of Italian Intelligence, who we previous got to meet in person in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72, by Romero), and again in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83, but drawn by Colvin). Inspector Birot of the Tangier police, also seen in the Network period flashback, appeared again in “The Killing Distance” (1994). He was also in several of the novels. Lacroix mentions the “Farzi gang”, but neither they, nor he, feature in the novels/short stories, nor in the comic strip. Another piece of back-story without detail. Again Romero is inconsistent in his depiction of the child Francesca, who is supposed to be age 8, but much of the time looks younger, more like 5 or 6. Again – as with the Venice setting itself – compare to Holdaway’s illustration of the street-wise girl beggar of the same name in the earlier story. Although the ending is rather downbeat, with MB convinced Alan is still angry at her for endangering his daughter’s life, in the later story “Guido the Jinx” (1994), it would seem all is forgiven, with Alan praising MB to his Italian movie-making friend, who was also in Venice at that time.
67: Story name: The Girl from the Future – 1989 ****
Location: Multi-millionaire tycoon John Dall’s Texas ranch, in the USA – Alex Grant’s place “in a remote pine forest” in New Mexico – Texas/New Mexico diner and dirt-road – gang’s hideout in an “old Mexican fort”, again still in New Mexico.
Villain: Dino Quinn; Marty; Herbie; Fats; Earl.
Other characters: John Dall; Dall’s manservant, Sam; Alex Grant (science fiction publisher and authority on UFOs); Maisie Brent (Grant’s “secretary, house keeper, trouble shooter, bedfellow”); Doc Miller (Grant’s psychologist and Maisie’s secret lover); Emma (Miller’s niece).
Body count: 0
Modesty’s lover: John Dall.
Willie’s lover: Emma (when she plans to visit relatives in Devon later that year, so after the story ends).
Nudity rating: MB in very skimpy, backless, halter-neck swimming costume; MB with top ripped, exposing one breast; Emma completely nude, as ‘the girl from the future’.
Who kills who? : Not applicable.
Summary/theme: Con trick and crime caper. MB and WG have been staying three weeks at the Texas ranch of MB’s lover, John Dall, when, almost on the last day, he reveals he has been commissioned to secretly create and sell two solid gold 12” diameter spheres to wealthy science fiction publisher Alex Grant for $9 million. Dall is to personally fly the crated consignment by helicopter to Grant’s remote and heavily fortified homestead in New Mexico. MB is alternatively annoyed Dall never told her sooner, intrigued, but also pretends to be indifferent. However, on their way to visit Steve and Dinah Collier in Mexico, they are spotted and recognised at a roadside diner by Marty, formerly of the Preacher’s mob, now part of a gang, led by Dino Quinn, who know about the gold spheres. The gang subsequent arrange a fake rendezvous, supposedly with Dall, to take MB and WG out, but get beaten up instead. MB contacts Dall and reports the secret of the gold spheres is blown. Dall insists they join him at Grant’s place, where they meet Maisie, Grant’s much put-upon factotum and mistress, and Grant’s psychologist, Doc Miller. After initial reluctance, Grant introduces them to Emma, a “wacky haired” girl who claims to be aged 102 and who was born in the year 2386 – from the future. Emma has been sent back into the past to tell Grant about the ideal future world of her time, following the intervention on Earth of the “Teachers”, benevolent alien humanoids tasked with helping intelligent races achieve maturity. Under critical questioning, she describes something of the future world, but Grant is to write more in a book, which will, one day, 200 years later, pave the way for humankind’s acceptance of the ‘Teachers’. It is, therefore, a kind of time loop – a future intervention into the past which will make that future world come into existence. But time-travel involves huge amounts of energy, and the gold spheres are necessary as part of the transmission possess. However, Dall, MB and WG must leave before her departure. MB is convinced the story is a brilliant, elaborate con, but who are the tricksters? Unbeknown to Grant or the others, they observe events from a mile away, seeing Emma standing naked between the spheres – then nothing. Grant stands unmoved while Emma and Maisie go to the house. MB realises Miller is using hypnotherapy – actually with the trigger words “Rip Van Winkle” – to make Grant think he has seen Emma appear and disappear. The spheres are then collected by Dino’s gang, whom Maisie, Miller and Emma have naively hired. The con is part revenge by Maisie for the years of Grant’s indifference to her, part to donate the $8 million for famine relief, and Maisie to then marry Miller, and only after Grant has written and published his book, reveal the truth. Emma is Miller’s niece. But now Dino and the gang take Maisie and Emma prisoner and tell Doc Miller to join them – obviously planning to kill all three. With WG ‘disguised’ as Miller, saying MB had crashed her car and WG was dead, our heroes soon overpower the gang, but not before Marty does a runner, knowing not to tangle with MB a second time! While WG dumps the rest of Dino’s gang over the border in Mexico, MB gives Maisie the go-ahead with her original plan, dump Grant, marry Miller, then refuse to confirm the girl from the future story. WG is left smug that Emma plans to visit England – and him at the ‘Treadmill’ – in the near future.
Critical comments: One of the few really good stories from this late period, and again emphasising Peter O’Donnell’s love of science fiction. We witness WG’s wide-ranging knowledge of gold prices and complex mathematics, as he calculates the cubic capacity and then current value of the two 12” gold spheres. Gold prices vary over the years, from as little as $35 per oz. in 1970, to between $100 and £142 in 1976, to highs of $1,180 to $1,360 in 2018, and $1,520-plus in 2020. WG’s calculation of the total value of the two solid gold spheres ($4million each) was on the gold rate of $450 per oz. This would seem to put the story as taking place between March and July of 1988. MB and WG had stayed “20 days” with John Dall (she “sharing his bed”), and were then planning to visit “the Colliers in Guadalajara”, the capital of the west Mexican state of Jalisco. We see the reappearance of Marty, one of the Preacher’s mob in the story “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986), although it is unclear how he alone, apparently, had evaded justice and was still free. Interestingly, he remarks that he has “ran up against them [MB and WG] two years back”, so in actual real time! Early in the story MB and WG are “practising underwater combat” in Dall’s swimming pool. We learn that WG reads a lot of science fiction, MB less so. They are driving a left-hand-drive open-top unidentifiable sports car – perhaps hired. While Romero’s clouds of dust can be applicable when driving on dirt-roads, the last panel would appear to be a proper highway, although perhaps they are already across the border into Mexico.
68: Story name: The Big Mole – 1989 *
Location: Morocco, Tangier Kasbah (in flashback) – Sussex, around the village of ‘Beckleton’ – ‘Tanmere Manor House’, dating from at least the 1640s or early 17th century.
Villain: Kestrel, leader of terrorist group the ‘Paladins’; Sir Clive Meyrick (senior civil servant and traitor, the ‘Big Mole’).
Other characters: British Army Lieutenant, later Captain Michael Kerr; Krolli; Sammy; Ahmed (all Network operatives); Doctor Howie (Network doctor); Tarrant: Mrs Fothergill (busybody Sir Gerald neighbour); Doctor Moore (kidnapped local Sussex, lady doctor); Sophie (one of the nurses).
Body count: At least 6 or more.
Modesty’s lover: Michael Kerr (after story is over).
Willie’s lover: Sophie (after story is over).
Nudity rating: MB stripped for action down to bra and panties as she takes out the Big Mole’s guards.
Who kills who? : The Paladins kill police escorts and security guards. WG kills terrorist threatening Sophie. WG and the SAS take out a number of terrorists. MB shoots Kestrel dead.
Summary/theme: Espionage/spy/terrorist rescue caper. During the Network time, in Morocco, MB had just put Lobel’s vice mob out of business – Lobel himself to be dumped penniless in Calcutta – when she gets a radio message that a British soldier is wounded and being hunted by Polisario followers on the rooftops of the Kasbah. WG, Krolli and Sammy knock-out the men in the alleyways, while MB goes for the wounded soldier, Lieutenant Michael Kerr, knocking out two more enemies with the ‘butterfly kick’, before carrying him to safety, and into the care of a doctor at the Network’s hospital. The story then moves to the ‘present’ and MB and WG are visiting Tarrant at his Sussex country cottage/farmhouse near the village of Beckleton. Neighbour Mrs Fothergill is trying to recruit participants for the re-enactment of a Civil War skirmish at Beckleton Hill. Meantime, the news is all about the escape from custody of the ‘Big Mole’, Sir Clive Meyrick, a top civil servant and convicted traitor, following a murderous ambush in which police and security guards were killed. Later a stolen car was found crashed, and a woman doctor, Dr Moore, has disappeared. The Big Mole’s Eastern Bloc controllers are using an eight-man terrorist group known as ‘The Paladins’, but now the trail has seemingly gone cold. However, at first unbeknown to MB and co., they are holed up in nearby Tanmere Manor House, now a holiday home for nurses’, just a mile away. Meyrick was injured in the crash and needed medical attention before the group can rendezvous with the submarine intended to spirit him out of the country. Responsibility for hunting the terrorists is with Tarrant’s Foreign Office rival, Boulton. In the house one of the nurses, Sophie, manages to throw a message in a plastic bottle into the nearby small stream. Not long after Tarrant and WG are fishing and find the message. When Tarrant reports to London, he is immediate put in charge of operations (as “the man on the spot”), and a SAS squad sent down, based out of his barn. They are mindful of both the lives of the 14 women hostages, plus knowing the Paladins will immediately kill Meyrick rather than let him be recaptured – something he is resigned to. However, the officer in charge is Captain Kerr, remembers MB and is open to her suggestion of the SAS team using the Civil War re-enactment skirmish as cover to get close access to the Manor House. Meantime MB manages to get into the house pretending to be a nurse, ‘Jenny Lane’, claiming that her vacation was pre-booked. Confiding at first only with Sophie and Dr Moore, she is able to plant the notion that the nurses always crowd the house balcony to watch the annual skirmish as it passes immediately by the house. The Paladin leader, Kestrel, falls for it, and – not wishing to arouse suspicions – instructs the hostage nurses to all be assembled on the balcony, except Sophie, who is held at knife-point. It is then down to WG to vault onto the balcony and take out the terrorist guards, to be quickly followed by Kerr’s men storming the house, and MB take out the Big Mole guards. Only Kestrel escapes the initial attack, but he is shot dead by MB. ‘Bossy old bat’ Mrs Fothergill is also in on the plan, recruiting spectators to add to the authenticity, confiding that she was Wren in Naval Intelligence during the War, and could recognise a military operation. Afterwards MB is on a promise with Michael Kerr, and WG with Sophie.
Critical comments: In the text of the story, no explanation is given of who the ‘Polisario’ are. In fact, the Frente Polisario (Polisario Front) are a Salnrawi rebel liberation movement dedicated to ending what they see as Moroccan occupation of West Sahara. They were founded in 1973, and mostly supported by Algeria and Libya. So, yet again, the original time-line is totally out of sync as, in the early stories, we are told MB disbanded the Network in 1961 – so 12 years before the Polisario rebels were formed. The “Polisario rebels” are mentioned in several other MB comic strip stories – again never with explanations or motives, and in “Death Symbol” (1999) they are responsible for a deadly ambush on WG’s French Foreign Legion colleagues, apparently on ‘training exercises’ in post-colonial Algeria! So given WG was supposedly serving in the Foreign Legion 1950-54, and Algeria got its independence in 1962, yet again the inclusion of the ‘Polisario’ makes no sense. Why not just have Tuareg instead – more the traditional enemies of French colonial rule, and better known? Increasingly MB’s origins get completely out of step, making nonsense of the crucial, character-forming aspects of her past. If only Peter O’Donnell had kept the MB stories within the 1960s/70/early 80s time-frame, allowed her to age by, say, fifteen years, whilst still keeping her as a fighting-fit thirty to early-forty year old.
That said, this is definitely not one of Peter O’Donnell’s better stories. Coincidences are a frequent occurrence in the MB world, and this story is no exception, but here we witness several such coincidences too many, to the point of being just absurd. We can just about believe that young British Army Lieutenant Kerr, rescued by MB in Morocco some years earlier, reappears as the SAS Captain charged with ‘mission impossible’ under Sir Gerald’s command. But the terrorists with the top traitor being located just a mile from Tarrant’s cottage, stretches creditability just a bit too far perhaps, and especially for a story in which the plot is already full of holes. The McGuffin – the ‘big mole’ – a top civil service traitor (really? Another one?) lacks any character or background. If MI5 had already exposed him, then they would likely know which Eastern Bloc country he was working for. One would have thought in this long-time pre-Putin era, that the last thing they (the bad guys) would then do would be to a stage a clumsy terrorist-instigated massacre, and anything so blatant and foolish as a submarine pick-up on the English South Coast! Come on! Not only would this constitute a major diplomatic incident (for one miserable little spy), but it’s 1950s Moonraker James Bond stuff. Better just to arranged to bump the top traitor off anyway, one would have thought. Is he expendable or not? That said, we have a murderous terror gang let loose in the Home Counties – would Tarrant really have been allowed to go off for a spot of weekend leave? Highly unlikely – another plot flaw. Likewise, surely the countryside would be crawling with armed police and military, helicopters in the sky, road-blocks, curfews, restrictions…Yet we see nothing of the sort – how credible is that? Even a D-notice to shut down media reports couldn’t (and hasn’t) silenced stories of crashed cars, dead policemen, a missing doctor. Would life really be going on as normal, with Mrs Fothergill having her Roundheads and Cavaliers mock battle? We’re told Tarrant’s departmental rival, Boulter, is “in command”, but see no sign of any activity, and, next thing, he is apparently demoted, cut out of the action, in favour of Tarrant. Boulter, in the novels, is a “colleague” of Tarrant’s in Foreign Office Intelligence (in Modesty Blaise, 1965), but rather uncooperative (in I, Lucifer, 1967), to the extent that Jack Fraser indulges in some interdepartmental espionage. Finally MB deliberately sets him up for embarrassment in The Xanadu Talisman (1981). It would seem he remains only a name in the background. We never get to actually see him in the comic strips.
Another apparently gaping hole – the terrorist gang numbers eight, plus top traitor, plus a kidnapped doctor – ten. That requires at least two cars to be hijacked, but how did the gang get from the crash site to Dr Moore’s house and then to the manor house? Did they walk? Really? If not, then where are the vehicles now? We will come back to Romero’s ridiculous illustration of the manor house itself below. Finally – yet another coincidence too many – Tarrant and WG have gone fishing – come on, there’s a terrorist crisis going on! Sir G. goes fishing? But they just happen to be the ones who find the ‘message in the bottle’ thrown out the bathroom window by nurse Sophie. Sorry, but even allowing for the usual MB story extremes, all this smacks of poor plotting – something comparatively rare up to now with Peter O’Donnell. Generally he holds things together just enough for the reader to suspend disbelief, but here there are just too many ‘WTF?’ moments, all adding up.
Nor is the story helped by the abysmal failure of Romero’s artwork. Key to the credibility of MB’s world of exotic crime and espionage is for it to appear to operate in the ‘real’ world, rather than a theatrical or ‘cartoon’ world. With Jim Holdaway this was never a problem, and indeed, was probably – next to good stories and the characters themselves – the great strength that made MB stand head and shoulders above other crime or spy comic strips at the time. Locations and places were painstakingly authentic. People looked, for the most part, recognisably like real people, if occasionally a bit exaggerated. More important, street scenes, vehicles, interiors, landscapes were detailed and vivid. Although not as meticulous as Holdaway, Neville Colvin continued this tradition. He did, at least, strive to be as authentic as possible, when depicting both Britain or foreign countries. Based entirely in Barcelona, not having any experience of Britain, or even speaking English, Romero was a strange selection for an artist drawing a comic strip of which a third of whose stories were based either partly or wholly within the UK, another twenty within Europe, but none in Spain! We have already criticised some of Romero’s more bizarre images in the preceding stories, but, as we plunge deeper into this final period, we see increasingly the backgrounds became more vague, non-existent or lacking realism. Such detail is sacrificed for faces, while angles are often wrong, out of sync, and what street scenes or interiors there are seem theatrical, two-dimensional almost, if not just completely wrong.
Romero’s depiction of the Sussex countryside around Tarrant’s cottage/farmhouse and the ‘old’ manor house, is simply awful – not only scrappily drawn, but a bleak landscape, without even proper hedgerow. Even more ridiculous is the manor house, a key component to the entire story. We are told it is at least 17th century (it was supposedly a “headquarters for Royalists during the Civil War”), yet the exterior of the house as depicted by Romero, is not only much too small to house 10 nurses and three staff, but in no way resembles a 1600s, or even 18th century, period English country house. Instead it is a rectangular, two-storey house with additional wings, more like a small French or Italian farmhouse perhaps, with Romero’s much-loved tiny-panel glass windows (apparently his concession to anything ‘oldie worldie’ English) – and shutters! – plus a wooden veranda-like balcony on at least three sides. Everything – roofline, lack of chimneys, actual façade, materials, windows – the continental-style shutters and louvre balcony doors, for goodness sake! – the external balcony itself (which it important to the story), size, style, immediately surroundings, even its isolated location (with a meandering river, again apparently running immediately beneath one side (the toilet facility on the second floor from where Sophie throws the plastic bottle)….Everything is WRONG. It no more resembles a 17th century English ‘Home Counties’ manor house than if Romero had drawn a Hindu temple. Along with his bizarre Hollywood-style English castles, and his German Gothic ‘English’ villages, this is utterly dismal, really not worthy of any artist. Even the different views of the house seem to vary in the number and style of the wings or perhaps extensions. In addition, of course, again the manor’s interior is bland and basically 20th century, even the staircase. Again, there is nothing authentic to what an ancient manor house from the time of the 1640s would look like. My point still stands: the MB stories stand and fall by at least appearing to be rooted into the real world. If London doesn’t look like London, or English architecture looks more like Italy, or Modesty’s or Sir Gerald’s country cottages keep changing their appearance, then it becomes harder, to near impossible, to maintain the credibility necessary to make that step from fiction to semi-belief.
Vice gang boss Lobel doesn’t seem to feature elsewhere – certainly not in the novels – so again apparently we have a story end without any beginnings. Also in the Morocco interlude, Krolli looks a bit like John Dall (not much like the Krolli as depicted by Colvin, who did at least look Greek), while the other Network member, Sammy, seems to look rather like Weng! Sophie is another Romero blonde, while the (unnamed) house warden, in a couple of panels, actually looked like Holdaway’s Gertie from “Bad Suki”, back in 1968! At least one of the Paladins, Conder, is apparently female, referred to by the hostage nurses as ‘Butch Betsy’, yet this has absolutely no significance in the story, nor does her apparent gender even get emphasised again, either by Romero or O’Donnell. One has to ask why then? All of the nurses are young and glamorous – typical Romero-style eye-candy – surely a few might have been more mature or perhaps bigger than dress size 8?
A real disappointment of a story, the only real highlight being several action panels of MB prancing about in her skimpy undies – which is Romero’s forte!