*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist – Afterword

Aside from our five artists, Holdaway, Romero, Burns, Wright and Colvin, several other artists illustrated the MB stories, whilst still keeping very much to within the long-established style of the characters. Below are several examples.

American/Colombian cartoon and comic book artist Al [Alfonso] Williamson (1931-2010), illustrated the early story “Uncle Happy”, originally by Jim Holdaway. From the one page example available, his interpretation was quite different, but here his depiction of WG and MB are very much in the Holdaway style – more so than Colvin or Romero. As far as I’m aware this was a one-off, which is perhaps a pity. It might have been interesting to see how he might to have illustrated the Romero stories.

Another American, this time DC Comics Dick (Richard Joseph) Giardino (1932-2010), and his comic version of the first MB novel Modesty Blaise. Competent, but perhaps (inevitably) very much in the DC/Marvel Comics style – WG especially.

We have already looked at the all-too-brief John M. Burns period at the Evening Standard, before his rather abrupt and mysterious termination. Burns (English, born 1938) also illustrated newspaper comic strip “The Seekers”, which featured a MB and WG-style of sassy heroine and her male sidekick, plus he provided illustrations to the Pieces of Modesty short stories, as well as – again – illustrations to the novel Modesty Blaise, in a style quite different and distinct from Dick Giordano. Like Romero, Burns was a master at depicting sexy, often unclad or semi-clad, females, as this illustration of MB in action mode shows. Again one can only regret his exclusion from the comic strips themselves, especially in this final Romero period we have examined in Part 2.

Jim Holdaway’s very sexy nude depiction of MB, somehow still more erotic and interesting than Romero’s black and white nudes.

Finally, Peter O’Donnell’s template for WG was the young early-1960s, pre-fame Michael Caine – seen here to compare.

I rather imagine, for most MB fans, their preference is whichever of the two they read first – comic strip or books. It is, of course, not unusual for fictional characters to exist in more than one genre, although normally the transition is from book (or, latterly, comic strip) to movie or television drama. There are numerous examples within crime/spy thriller fiction – from Sherlock Holmes, to the Agatha Christie stories, Leslie Charteris’s “The Saint” stories, Colin Dexter’s “Inspector Morse”, Erie Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason”, Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer’ early spy novels (whose first person narrator anti-hero was actually not named in the books), even to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the first half dozen movies (with Sean Connery and Lazenby) which did at least still try to keep to the basic book plots. However, all of the above examples – even when the author was still alive – inevitably meant the principal character (or characters) underwent some change from that originally envisaged by their creator. The transition from printed paper to visual moving image involves too many other minds contributing to the adaption – starting (as Peter O’Donnell found with the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie version) with scriptwriters, often with their agenda, to costume designers, time constraints, or finding the right locations or studio-created backdrops. All of which will, more often than not, be at odds with the perception of the reader, or even that of the author.
The transition from comic strip or graphic novel, to that of movie or television drama can potentially be less jarring, both genre already being visual, but again it is still easier to create an image on a page, depicting an historic period, place or fantasy world, and more difficult to replicate that image as a movie or TV drama – even with the widespread use now of CGI. Each genre still has its own medium, strengths or weaknesses, style and approach that don’t always easily translate from one to the other. The movie/television version, by its very nature, is inevitably more pacey, and gives less insight into plot or location backgrounds, or the thoughts or emotions of characters (even with a ‘voice-over’), than a book or comic strip can. But again, almost always the creative outcome has moved from that of the original author. By contrast, the MB comic strip and books has a continuity that both are the sole creation of just the one author – Peter O’Donnell.
If we leave aside the ‘hidden’ influences – input from the newspaper editors, self-awareness of what the all-important readers will deem acceptable, the different interpretations of the five MB artists; suggestions perhaps, and/or minor textual editing by the book publisher – perhaps the only other source of disharmony between the two – or, indeed, as we have illustrated, between the comic strips themselves – is that of time, a period of writing of nearly forty years, from a comparatively young 43 year old in 1963, to in his seventies, and pushing eighty, by the time he wrote the last comic strip story. Even in the introductions to the early Titan Books editions, written in the years after retirement, but before his death in 2010, Peter O’Donnell admitted he barely remembered the story plots, or even why some were titled as they were.
However, even with both written by Peter O’Donnell, and, granted what we have said, the difference in style and approach of a pictorial comic strip and words on a page of a book, the two versions of Modesty are still distinct and different. In the books O’Donnell could expand the characters more, linger longer, fill in more backstory, indulge in more complex plots, or situations that might not be possible – or even allowed, given the newspaper comic strip was still meant for a ‘family friendly’ audience of readers. In the book, O’Donnell had more freedom – MB could go full-on naked for fight scenes, as with Mr Sexton in The Silver Mistress, or indulge in bedroom romps – but the martial art combat scenes necessitated more description. The novels, however, are brilliantly written and researched, I think far superior to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books – in character, imagination, ingenuity or complexity. On the other hand, even within the limited format of a three-panel, daily comic strip, O’Donnell was able to achieve something that few other newspaper or comic stories were able to do – create a vivid, complex, believable, multifarious, three-dimensional heroine and hero. Indeed, I could argue that few of the British or American newspaper (or comic/pulp magazine) comic strip characters ever rise above being shallow and two-dimensional caricatures. In my initial introduction I mention a number of predecessors and/or contemporaries. The long-running “Jane” in the Daily Mirror, was essentially humorous, only developing into plot-driven stories during the Second World War. Fellow Daily Mirror British gumshoe “Buck Ryan” (by Don Freeman, who also worked, like Peter O’Donnell, on the “Garth” strip), certainly had some interesting and clever story plots, as well as fascinating collection of villains or regular characters on the fringes of criminality, but Buck Ryan himself remained a rather shadowy character, lacking roots or backstory, and his relationship with his blonde assistant Zola, and later Twilight – first as his criminal opponent, then apparently his girlfriend – never quite seemed very credible. Sydney Jordan’s “Jeff Hawke” too (in the Daily Express) was little more than a convenient cypher about which Jordan and his co-writer, Willie Patterson, waived clever and ingenious science fiction stories, ideas and themes. He went from spaceman to “gentleman adventurer” to Royal Air Force Wing Commander and astronaut/space explorer, having an on-going girlfriend named Laura in the earlier stories (later abruptly and unceremoniously dropped), and his Canadian sidekick Mac Maclean, but again we only get very brief glimpses of his history or background, while many of the stories actually deliberately contradicted or cancelled each other out.
The same could be said for the other long-running Mirror comic strip “Garth”, running from 1943 to 1997. At least Buck Ryan and Jeff Hawke were scripted by the same writer – Freeman and Jordan respectively – whereas Garth underwent several different incarnations, as well as various different writers. He started out essentially something of a fantasy character, existing in a rather timeless, location-less world, before briefly evolving into a rather feeble British version of the typical American ‘superhero’ character, with a flying helmet and invisibility cloak, before becoming more grounded in the ‘real’ world, but still mixed with space adventures on other planets. When Peter O’Donnell took over, he dumped Garth’s two conflicting good/bad girlfriends, and introduced the Goddess Astra as his sometime companion and lover, in addition to already long-standing French scientist, Professor Lumiere. Thereafter, Garth stories alternated between being space-bound science fiction and/or good vs. evil fantasy (Astra vs. various demons); Garth’s trips back into the past, either as himself or as some earlier Garth-like incarnation; or contemporary crime or The Avengers-style of earth-based science fiction stories. After O’Donnell’s stint as script-writer, and although there were a few one-off scripted stories still (until Martin Asbury took over both story and artwork in the final phase), it was Jim Edgar who wrote most of the best-known Garth stories, certainly the ones illustrated by Frank Bellamy (until his premature death), and Martin Asbury. Garth continued to find himself transported back into the past, or living his previous incarnations (sometimes under different names), while occasionally being carried off to other planets (“in another galaxy” – Edgar’s grasp of cosmology was rather child-like), and, once in a while, a trip to the near or far future. Stories tended to bustle with ideas, good intentions, but weak or illogical plots. Both Bellamy and Asbury also got to illustrate earth-bound crime, espionage or terrorism stories – plot-lines that the artist Bellamy especially obviously felt most comfortable with. It is these non-space fiction, non-historical stories that might be considered to nearest direct comparison to the MB comic strips. Alas, while both Bellamy and Asbury (certainly when at his best), were both far better artists than Romero, the stories were, for the most part, simplistic and inferior, and the villains – indeed, almost all Garth villains, without exception – were rather stupid, and, by comparison to MB villains, easy enough to defeat. More important to our argument, Garth himself was again a totally two-dimensional character, his backstory already too fantastic, yet somehow existing in a London flat, driving fancy, flash motor vehicles, but with no visible means of where his finances came from, or what he actually did – never mind how he managed to commit complete mayhem at times, without any apparent consequences. Yes, he has a few “Scotland Yard” friends, but no one at the level of Sir Gerald Tarrant to cover his tracks as MB had, nor does he seem to have any other interests or talent other then entertaining a succession of chick-bait into his bed, and using brawn rather than brain to get out of difficult situations. On several occasions Garth blunders into the villain’s hideout relying only on his fists and not much else. He has little ingenuity and no subtly. Perhaps equally damning to a MB fan, he is an un-reconstructed male chauvinist. He regards intelligent women with a mixture of contempt and disdain, only worthy of his interest when they apparently fall, starry-eyed, into his bed. He has no time for matriarchies, and indeed, manages to help overthrow a few. If some of MB’s boyfriends are luckless enough to end up dead, that is certainly a frequent occurrence with Garth’s bed-fellows. If they’re lucky, they a get a brief epitaph, but little else. His relationship with Astra – his so-called “soul-mate” – was more about lust. She herself, flitting about the cosmos, was barely even an two-dimensional character. Often her purpose was nothing more than a convenient plot device – a deus ex machina – to extract him from some dire predicament at the last minute – like, cheating! Under Asbury’s pen she became this ridiculous nude fantasy blonde with the most extraordinary ‘fly-away’ hair, and she and Garth spending several strips romping naked together by way of ‘celebrating’ their latest victory. Again, boring! Neither were particularly likeable or inspirational. The only female character in the Edgar/Asbury stories who proved to be something of a challenges to Garth (at least at first) was Inspector Eloise Grunier “of the Sureté and Interpol” (again, as if Interpol was a proactive police agency). She first appeared in the Garth Story “Sapphire” (1977), followed soon after by “Power Game” (1978). In the first (which did, at times, have a MB feel to it) Garth was really quite rude and condescending to her. MB would have smacked him. At the end of the second, things had melted a bit, but she still deliberately refused to go to bed with him. An unusual ending for Garth! But a snub he justly deserved for his male arrogance. Alas, we only have the Mirror reprints (abruptly terminated incomplete), coloured by Martin Baines (who gave Eloise orange hair that rather suited her), so I know she appeared in a double story – a Moon-based science fiction, “Dark Side” (1990), and a history/Greek mythology story “Treasure of Colchis” (1990/91), and certainly by this second story Garth had his wicked way with her, indeed, at one point in the story she deflected a would-be female rival by declaring Garth was her “husband”. From a few stray internet downloaded strips I know she appeared at least one more time, in “Railhead” (1995/96), back in her Inspector Grunier of the Sureté role, but, this time, happy to go off for a naughty vacation together with Garth at the story’s end.
Some people in the Garth fan fraternity, have speculated what if Garth had met Modesty? Better for Garth it didn’t happen! She would regard him as a boorish, oversexed dinosaur and numbskull. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. She would have outsmarted him, and outfought him, pricking his self-inflated ego.
Which brings me to another oversexed male chauvinist, but one MB often gets compared to. I really take issue with the lazy-man’s description that MB is “a female James Bond”. She is not. I suspect that O’Donnell’s preferred spy story author was the early Len Deighton. Given that, in the 1960s, the Ian Fleming “James Bond” novels were being serialised as a comic strip in the Standard’s then sister newspaper, the Daily Express, I don’t know O’Donnell’s thoughts on Fleming’s snobbish, womanizing, utterly ruthless spy and professional 007 killer. Again, I don’t think MB would have regarded him very favourably. O’Donnell’s Modesty certainly could be ruthless at time, especially towards enemies who have threatened her or those nearest or dearest to her. But she often erred on the side of caution when it came to underlings merely employed or being used by a villain. Whereas, in both book and movies, Bond would happily wipe everyone out. Sometimes, this reluctance – what WG called “sleeps rather than for keeps” – to kill their enemies came back to haunt her, including putting herself, WG or other innocents in danger. So, straightway, the ruthless killer instinct of Bond, as opposed to MB’s only kill if and when she really had to. Many of the MB comic strip stories do not feature espionage, as my essays above make clear. The actual number that are in the espionage/spy category are quite limited. The greater majority are small time crime capers, or personal conflicts.
The next point to make, of course, is that Bond is, not only a serving member of the British armed forces, ranked as a Commander in the Royal Navy, but a government employee. ‘M’ gives him his orders; he has to obey them, like the proverbial Nazi concentration camp guard. MB makes quite clear, right from the very first story, she is under no such constraint. As she remarked very early on to Tarrant, “Nobody uses me, Sir Gerald, I decided that in a refugee camp when I was twelve.” She and WG are always in control of their destiny as far as taking or refusing anything Tarrant asks of them. This is dramatically illustrated in the second comic strip story, “The Long Lever”, where MB walks away from the mission in hand. This gives MB the freedom that Bond does not have. She is truly independent, much like a private investigator is to a police officer.
Bond is a dreary snob, very much reflecting his creator, Ian Fleming. He likes gambling and womanizing. In that he might be compared to WG, but the latter has respect for women, and not just his girlfriends. Although the later movie Bond has a female ‘M’ (as happened in real life, with a woman chief of MI6), one suspects that the original Fleming book James Bond would not have approved of, or easily accepted, a woman boss. WG has no problem with that, as he frequently points out. And even the other former Network members knew to treat MB with respect, as “Mam’selle’, the boss. Both the book and movie Bonds treat women as playthings, bed-buddies to be enjoyed, then dumped – if they didn’t get brutally killed first! Fleming himself was another one of those male writers who could not really create credible female characters, much like Hemingway or Georges Simenon. His one attempt, in the book The Spy Who Loved Me, got panned by his readers and critics alike, and he, in effect, disowned it. This alone, puts O’Donnell in complete contrast to Ian Fleming, who, not only having created MB, as well as (within the comic strips) other wonderful, strong female characters like Maude Tiller and Sam Brown, but he also wrote the ‘Madeleine Brent’ books under that pen-name. These were novels written in the first person, featuring young heroines battling against disadvantage and villains. For twenty years none but a handful of people – notably O’Donnell’s British publisher and his secretary – knew that the true identity of the very reclusive ‘Ms Brent’ was really male, middle-aged Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise.
Very early on in the comic strip, we see MB engaged in other hobbies or interests, such as engraving previous stones, going off climbing mountains or trekking in the wilderness, going ‘walk-about’ with Australian aborigines, hang-guiding, perfecting foreign languages, cooking, horse-riding, archery, going to amateur dance classes, scuba-diving, skiing, enjoying ballet or music concerts. She has varied acquaintances and friends, from American multi-millionaires to Indian princes, to penniless doctors and indigenous peoples, to young aspiring architects, lady spies, police officers or crime bosses. Loyalty to friends, and debts of honour meant a lot to her, even if they might bring danger or disadvantage. Again, unlike Bond, she has a moral compass. Certain things are right. Dealing in drugs or vice are wrong. Even Tarrant sometimes fails on this moral plane, when he is prepared to use individuals in the white slave trade to extract information, or sacrifice his own agents rather than try to rescue them. But again, MB would never give in to blackmail or hostage ransoms or threats. Her argument – which, alas, even now, many democratic governments still only pay lip-service to – is if you give the terrorist or hostage-taker what they ask, you only encourage them to do it again and again.
Aside from the harsh lessons of her orphaned childhood, MB had acquired other skills, especially achieving mental powers of the mind over body. Bond is the macho man. MB, as a woman, has learnt how to overwhelm her physical disadvantages and suppress memories of unpleasant experiences, including rape. In addition to martial arts, she practises meditation and yoga. Unaware of her own nationality or family, she is at home in many difficult countries and cultures. She chooses to be English (or British) only for convenience and perhaps the stability (as it once was) of the country, compared with North Africa or parts of Europe or Asia. Peter O’Donnell only hints at her true origins – perhaps from somewhere in the Balkans or then war-torn Central Europe. Although she lived, spoke, knew, shared aspects of the Arab world, she herself was not an Arab. Again, what might have been, it might have been interesting in the latter comic strip stories, to – not only let MB get older, into her thirties and early forties – but perhaps to have given her – and us – a possible glimpse to her origins, some fellow refugee in the displaced persons camp perhaps, some lost memory. That might have helped give the final stories more direction towards a proper ending.
And then – perhaps the biggest contrast between MB and Bond – can you imagine James Bond having a donkey sanctuary? Giving dumb animals names, risking his own life for theirs – as MB does with the donkey in “The Inca Trail”, or a horse from the roaming lions in “Death of a Jester”, or the wounded dolphin in “Dossier on Pluto”…No, please do not compare the thuggish, rather two-dimensional, Bond of book or movie, with Modesty Blaise of comic strip and book.
I make no apology that my own preference is the comic strips, and in particular from the Holdaway and Colvin illustrated periods. The short stories from Pieces of Modesty are also most enjoyable, and “A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck” and “I had a Date with Lady Janet” would have translated well into comic strip, if drawn by Holdaway, the master, or Colvin, or John Burns. O’Donnell gave Romero permission to illustrated the short story “The Dark Angels” from Cobra Trap, but this, alas, was not included in the Titan reprints.


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