Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 3


When I last left off, Joe Orlando’s triumphal revival of House of Mystery into a full-blown, albeit still mainstream horror comic was now some four years old and the bloom appeared to be off the rose. The initial enthusiasm, and the art by luminaries such as Alex Toth, Neal Adams and Berni Wrightson were no longer so prevalent. Was this a temporary drop in standards or a permanent falling-off? After all, the Seventies was a time for some pretty crap comics, and the conditions in the industry seemed designed to make it impossible for the more individual artists to give of their best, not if they wanted to eat as well. And the series had been monthly since issue 194, doubling up the demand.
So let’s now take a look at what happened once HoM started its third century.
The first issue was not propitious: five stories, three of them reprints and one fairly recent as it was drawn by Jim Aparo and neither of the originals very interesting. That drawn by Sam Glanzman had the better art but a formulaic story that could have been done at any time in the past twenty years.
Indeed, between formula and two stories with appallingly paced endings, issue 202 fared no better. On the other hand, it did include the famous Steve Skeates/Sergio Aragones story, ‘The Poster Plague’, of rich reputation, an award-winning tale that also led directly to the creation of DC’s comedy title, Plop! I’d heard of it but never read it before. Fifty years after the fact, almost, it doesn’t hold up so good, but the humour is decidedly black, and Aragones is Aragones.
The 48 page, 25c experiment ended next issue, a long time after Martin Goodman had shafted DC by reverting to 20c after just one month. Now, issue 204 was to take the same route, back to all-original material, and superficially an upgrade, with Wrightson’s first story for several issues and another drawn by Alex Nino, the first of his I’ve ever seen that was legible and not over-decorated to death. But both suffered from the same fault, an abrupt final panel that in one case left the visual sting out completely and in the other confined it to a corner of a larger panel. Both were painfully amateur.
At least Wrightson’s story, plotted as well as drawn by him, was good practice for Swamp Thing 8.

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You’ll forgive me if I sound tetchy at this development. Having suffered, literally the lack of imagination or verve of over 170 issues of this series to finally see it come alive – even ghoulish life – and then so swiftly slump into routine again is dispiriting to say the least.
It doesn’t help that so much of the art is so familiar, and so characteristic of the time. Alex Nino, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chua, E.R. Cruz: I may be slightly ahead of my return to comics but these were the artists I saw so much of when I did pick things up in 1974: DC’s Filipino phase, art plundered from the islands because the artists were beautiful pencillers but mainly because, in comparison to the homegrown artists, they were dirt cheap, and cheapness counted in that era of inflationary price increases.
I remember it well: don’t do it better, do it as cheap as possible, do it worse and not to stave off the price increases but to keep them as far apart as you could. I might have not seen these specific pages but they look boringly familiar, and though the Filipinos drew superbly they were, to a man, utterly static. Not one could make their art move, and I’m seeing that here all over again.
An increasing number of stories were being written by Jack Oleck, and here and there the notorious name of Michael Fleisher was being seen, Fleisher of The Spectre infamy, with his black imagination and his relish for cruelty. It’s not there in full force yet, not in him, but an element of nastiness was developing in several stories, endings no longer about comeuppance for the evil but the torture of the innocent. I can’t say I enjoy that.
That couldn’t be said of the first story in issue 217, a ghost story whose twist should perhaps have been foreseeable, of a ghost of a lost man saving his own great grand-daughter, unknowing, but it was a sweet story and an admirable corrective, enough so that the comeuppance tale that followed gave me a belly laugh.
And the lead story in issue 222 ended with a twist I didn’t see coming and greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, it was paired with a Michael Fleisher story that was, as usual, filled with sadistic nastiness. And I thought The Spectre was bad.
Incidentally, though this has nothing to do with HoM itself, we’re now up to the time I unexpectedly got back into comics: the house ads are now featuring issues I bought at the time.

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And this was the year DC tried to escape from the prison of the 32 page comic by jumping to squarebound 100 pagers, though with only the same 20 pages of original work. Several titles had already made the leap before House of Mystery joined then with issue 224, though it seemed to have a better balance of original to reprint, or was I merely looking at relatively recent stories that had appeared in any of the other horror books? There was a Phantom Stranger from the Fifties and a rather more recent Spectre drawn by Wrightson, from his late Sixties series. The leap in pages was accompanied by an abrupt reversion to bi-monthly.
The question of how much was new was comprehensively answered next issue with a superb Wrightson splash page checklisting eight stories, four of them billed as new. They added up to 32 pages: you didn’t get that in Detective Comics or Justice League of America. And it was 43 pages in issue 226, with Orlando open about his intention to get to all-new.
He never got there. Indeed, the reprints were the ones that kept accumulating, and in any event the Super-Spectacular era was only brief, a year at most, six issues for HoM and back to 32 pages with issue 230, but monthly once more.
But still the stories followed predictable paths, and no amount of tweaks could disguise the repetitive templates being used. Things from Michael Fleisher’s singularly unpleasant brain. Some of the editing was mystifying too, like the story in issue 234 about a girl escaped from an asylum, a girl with dark hair, a girl coloured blonde in every panel.
Steve Ditko turned up to draw the lead story in issue 236, which was saddled with a hack ending that I must have read three dozen times in this series already, the one where a hoax appears to have been played except that the hoaxer didn’t get into position in time… ooh, spooky. Not. And Orlando claiming HoM was better than for many years. When he could only get Berni Wrightson for occasional covers, not stories, or Neal Adams to do occasional inks, not pencils?
In fact, sales were quite clearly falling because the title was abruptly dropped to bi-monthly again with issue 238. And there was a serious downturn in the horror market generally, for Cain the Caretaker was soon boasting of being the only host left with a series to call his own. It was 1976, the year of the Bi-Centennial, and people had other things on their minds.
And then HoM was back at monthly status with issue 241, just as House of Secrets, as we’ll see, only missed six months in its ‘cancellation’.
The readers were happy. They always had been but here they were, cheering in the stories of this new phase, seeing them as absolute winners. Now I know I’m not a horror buff, but I couldn’t see any of the ‘spark’ they claimed to detect. Instead, what I saw was shoddily constructed stories, their pacing awry, their endings falling flat, amateurishly so. And with genuine respect to an artist who I enjoyed at that time, Ernie Chua covers do not hold a candle to Berni Wrightson or Neal Adams.
But the course of comics was never straight in the Seventies and once again DC were trying to beat the curve with bigger packages. Starting with issue 251, House of Mystery was just one of a number of titles jumping to an 80 page length, with all new material. I was very much in two minds about this.
More pages, more stories. There were changes in the background: Jeanette Kahn had arrived as DC’s new Publisher, the Dollar Comics were her idea, change was coming. Joe Orlando was suddenly Managing Editor and Paul Levitz Editorial Coordinator. So who was now in charge? Cain was host in the front half of the book and now Abel came on board, pending House of Secrets‘s next and final cancellation, to host the back half. But nothing new, nothing fresh, wormed its way into the stories, though one gently silly one was drawn by Wally Wood.
And, of course, it was back to bi-monthly.
On the other hand, there was a change in issue 252, which featured the supposed demolition of the House of Mystery. Cain related the House’s ‘Origin’, Abel cowered in the House (of Secrets) next door whilst Ms Kahn and Mr Orlando measured up for a post-demolition expansion, with Cain taking over, even Destiny dropped in to use up a tale I have no doubt had been created from his now-cancelled title, Weird Mystery Tales and in the end the House just shifts out of the way of the wrecking ball, causing everyone to run off.
There were near-nostalgic covers by Neal Adams on the next two issues, with a pleasant surprise in issue 254 in the form of a story drawn by Marshall Rogers, whose Batman series with Steve Engelhart was my favourite ever incarnation of the Caped Crusader before Tom King’s recent and controversial run.
By issue 255, Levitz had stepped up to the role of Editor, after an eighty issue run by Orlando. But the profusion of stories in so short a space, even if so many of them were simply unused inventory for the cancelled horror titles, was very wearying. The brief spell of enthusiasm when Orlando took over was long since dissipated and few stories rose above their various formulae to give me much entertainment.
All sorts of names, writers, artists, pass through the pages, so many of them new. Some were familiar, but some I never saw elsewhere. There was little from the old regulars. My guess is that HoM was being used as a try-out for new talent, no doubt at rock-bottom rates. The odd Michael Golden art was neat, but none of the others looked capable of ripping up trees.
But none of DC’s big comics ever last. After nine issues, eighteen months, House of Mystery was cut back and put on monthly status again. But issue 260, for all the good intentions, was 44 pages for 50c, for this was the month of the much-vaunted but doomed DC Explosion. A few titles managed two issues at this size: HoM was granted three. I’d never heard before of any series lasting that long at that size.

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But the stories were getting worse. They were barely making sense, the twists were being pulled out of thin air, the endings abrupt. The new crop of writers had no idea of pacing, though in the thirst for twist endings since 1951, the series had always suffered from this.
And the return to the good old 32 page floppy format in issue 263 brought two seriously ripe examples of these wholly inadequate, and in one case just ugly, pieces of work, for I will not call them art.
Yet in issue 266, Steve Clement and Maurice Whitman produced a wholly unhorrific story that was wonderful in its sweetness and its determination not to dabble in anything but the mildest of evil that I personally found worth all the miserable and pathetic stuff I’ve been ploughing through for I don’t know how long.
Issue 271 dealt with two famous figures, one real – a Professor at Princeton, not named but drawn to be unmistakable – and the other a Sherlock Holmes analogue. The one story was scientific, the other involving a vampire and a cynical ending that the vast majority of Sherlockians would frankly spit on.
At least progress through the scans was swift. This was the depressing era of reduced story pages, only 17, the tiniest possible number to keep the content over 50%. Stories were shorter than ever: three stories in seventeen pages, all with their own fall-flat endings.
Marshall Rogers turned up on art again in issue 274. As I said already, I love his Batman run with Steve Engelhart, and turn fondly to anything else he did., but by now, and saving his presence, I have to admit that outside that brief but brilliant run, his work was terrible. His background lay in architecture, making him perfect for Gotham City, but without Terry Austin’s inks to solidify and lend body to his art, his facial and figure work simply was not adequate. I hate saying that.
Time for a change in issue 276 as Jack C Harris replaced Paul Levitz as editor, a fact he chose to play up on the contents page: very modest. As to whether Harris would change the course of the series, we’d have to see but nothing I read that Harris edited impressed me back then so I’m not holding up my hopes.
I know, I know, why am I continuing to read House of Mystery since I’m clearly not getting anything from it, but let’s get to the end of this run and I’ll explain then.
One thing Harris did do was drop the long-running Twilight Zone knock-off introduction that had run throughout Levitz’s reign and which had long outlasted its welcome.
Over the first five issues of Harris’s tenure, my fears were rapidly proven. In a way I found difficult to explain, the stories themselves became completely pointless. There was no justification for them, no perspective. They were less than cardboard cut-outs whose point was nothing more than set-up for a twist ending that, by having nothing of any substance to twist against, became pallid and ineffectual.
But Harris only lasted six months before being replaced by Len Wein in issue 282, another change in control celebrated on the splash page, although to be fair I ought to acknowledge that the entire comic since Orlando’s advent was built on the principle of Cain the Caretaker as the storyteller. Cain was the fixture, irrespective of the editor, a game played out more often in the Letters’ pages, hence the calling out as here.
Wein’s debut hosted a completely incongruous book-sized insert effectively plugging Radio Shack in the form of a history of computers coupled with an action adventure. It was dull and bland and the best thing in the issue. Well, certainly no worse.
Two issues later it was format-change time, again. The DC Implosion had not deterred Jeanette Kahn from looking at ways to improve the basic 32 page floppy, and the latest move was to increase the cover price from 40c to 50c, but compensate by adding another eight story pages, increasing content from the nadir of 17 to 25 pages. The move was sneered at by Jim Shooter at Marvel, who suggested it was probably due to DC not being able to attract advertising, and that he didn’t think the readers were bothered whether or not they got an almost 50% uplift in continuity or not. And I have a bridge in Brooklyn for Jim, if he’s got the money.
Though it wasn’t the increase in story pages that rescued DC from the disaster of the Implosion in 1980, but rather the debut of The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, something indirectly caused by Shooter, so the joke was on him ultimately.
The odd story is still nicely drawn, most often by Filipino artist E.R. Cruz, whose work I only otherwise knew was on the last three issues of The Shadow, though I’m bound to say that I love the odd little coincidences, like the villain of Cruz’s piece in issue 288 being one Liam Gallagher. Nobody of the name Noel appeared in this story.
There were a lot of Joe Kubert covers in this period, and not a few J.M. De Matteis scripts, increasingly marking his taste for the spiritual. Former editor George Kashdan was another regular scripter and even Sheldon Mayer contributed a story.

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And then a change, a much-needed change in my eyes. House of Mystery gained a recurring character again, in the form of Andrew Bennett, ‘I, Vampire’. It was by Jerry De Matteis, with somewhat distorted art by Tom Sutton, and it did not impress at first sight.
Neither did Wein last long, being replaced in issue 292 by a joint editorship between the returning Paul Levitz and DC’s newest young editor, one who would go on to build an enviable reputation, Karen Berger (a very nice lady, I met her once).
The first thing to happen was that ‘I, Vampire’ was dropped, but that was only for an issue, with Berger taking over as sole editor next issue and running the series as the cover feature and back-up story. The only I, Vampire I’d read before was the Brian Azzarello version in his Dr Thirteen story, published as half of the latterday Countdown to Mystery. I can see now that the original was rotten stuff, horrendously over-written by de Matteis.
The series was certainly not going to run in every issue. For issue 294, Berger got the legendary Carmine Infantino to draw a story that had nothing else going for it, whilst Bruce Jones and Tom Yeates produced a touching and sweet tale of a ghost that proved the constant nastiness inherent in horror as practiced in HoM was not the only approach.
De Matteis left DC but Berger promised I, Vampire would continue, now written by Bruce Jones, whose first step was to write out Andrew Bennett’s two human helpers. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer, the latter without ever having her back-story told. The same issue saw an early three pager from Steve Bissette.
And then House of Mystery became one of the rare comics to hit 300 issues. It got the kind of special-but-without-being-any-bigger treatment. There was a mix of stories, one of them a two-pager by Marv Wolfman and Joe Staton that toyed with the horror of the death of a young baby before veering off into an all together sweeter ending that touched the heart.
House of Mystery had now been going for 31 years. I’ve ended previous instalments at the 100 issue mark but to do that here would be to make a fourth part very short. So stay with me for what’s now left. This included an ever-increasing number of stories written by the team of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn, who would create Blue Devil, and art by Dan Spiegle. I, Vampire became a monthly series from issue 302, but I can’t say that Karen Berger was producing the level or work she would soon be extracting.
For instance, in issue 302, Andrew Bennett got a wooden stake through the heart from his evil ex-mistress and target, Mary, except that the next issue, with art from Ernie Chua, stakes through the heart don’t kill vampires. And only one issue later, we had Bennett musing that it’s impossible to kill a vampire without driving a stake through its heart, an inconsistency that no editor should be permitting. Nor, in any day or age, should an editor allow Jack the Ripper to be used in a vampire series, as occurred in issue 306.
Even with Tom Sutton restored after two issues absence, the series continued to plumb new depths every month, especially when Bennett and Mary started bouncing around in time, all coherent narrative thread lost. Not even the Martian Manhunter’s run was as bad as this.
Would a comprehensive creative clear-out make any difference? Mishkin and Cohn as writers, Gonzalez and Sutton as artists? Not on first evidence. Dmitri Mishkin and Deborah Dancer were brought back, the latter with an ‘origin’ that started as a hippie chick at Woodstock. But no, I, Vampire continued to be just as empty, repetitive and dull as ever. But all things must pass, unless they’re Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Andrew Bennett’s stories followed on, one from another, but a ‘multi-part’ story was promised to begin in issue 316. And at that point, House of Mystery had only half a year left.
If you look at the Statement of Ownership published in issue 316, and squint up your eyes to decipher the sales figures, you can see that HoM was selling an average of below 75,000 copies a month, and just over 72,000 in the most recent month. In 2021, those would be killer figures. In 1983, they weren’t. They were killing figures.
Bennett’s aged sidekick, Dmitri Mishkin, was killed off in issue 317. Next issue, Bennett took a powder that reverted him to human, human with human needs, such as food and sex – why do you think Deborah Dancer has been dragged round all these months? – but a vampire’s powers. That is, until age started catching up on him.
And then the end of the series in issue 319. Yes, Mary Queen of Blood had won the day. Bennett’s body was crumbling and decaying and the final torment was Mary turning Deborah into a vampire – why do you think she’s been dragged round all these months? – and her personal slave. But, in another example of the Frodo-principle in operation, it turns out that dear Debbie may have been a vampire but, because she took the other dose of the Russian preparation, she was one of these living vampires, fully human, and with dawn rising, was well able to drag Mary out into the sunlight, with inevitable results. So Andrew, who she loved, could die knowing his mission had been fulfilled.
Needless to say, death didn’t take, though it really should have, but that’s a story for other comics, which I don’t intend to read.

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There was no hint of it in issue 320, but House of Mystery was cancelled with issue 321, after thirty-two years. Though there were a couple of last fright stories, these were wrapped into a story about the House of Mystery being scheduled for demolition by order of Karen Berger, who then ushers Cain into a doorway he’s never found before, which leads into DC’s offices. Berger was being a good sport, allowing herself to firstly be portrayed as an airhead planning to replace the mag with ‘Condo of Fun’, or re-purpose Cain as a couple of demeaning storytellers, then allow Cain to get the better of her – or so he thinks – by getting to keep the House, which promptly collapses. It was at least decent fun.
So that was the end of it. Needless to say DC have tried a couple of times to revive HoM, once by yoking it to the temporary fad of Elvira, aka busty Cassandra Peterson, who made a schtick out of introducing horror movies on late-night TV. I have those issues too, on the DVD, but I doubt I’ll ever bother reading them. One 320 issue series is enough.
I promised to explain why I persisted to the end, when I manifestly wasn’t enjoying myself. That I wasn’t. The comic was tedious at its very best, and I couldn’t understand why most of its stories were regarded as even fit to print with their combination of frequently obvious twist endings thrown in so close to the end as to have no impact.
But the reason I persisted was a combination of completism, and a thirst to know. The completism is a key factor with me. I want to read it all. There are 321 issues, therefore I have to read all 321 issues. It frustrates me to miss even one out, the more so when I have that one issue and can so easily read it. Finish, always finish.
And there’s the urge to know, which is prevalent in any form of serial. I started reading American comics in the early Sixties, the early days of the Silver Age, roughly at the same time Julius Schwartz was starting to revive the Golden Age characters. They fascinated me, but I knew so little about them, and what was told about them in their revivals wasn’t always accurate to the degree I wanted to know.
There was near enough twenty-five years of these comics that I knew nothing about, and would never read. I couldn’t buy them because they weren’t there to be bought, and I couldn’t buy what I did see around me, because my parents disliked me buying American comics and they controlled my monetary supply. Not until the Seventies, when I was at University, was I free to buy what I wanted (and could afford).
So now I can read what I couldn’t, and my curiosity overwhelms me. I’ve found that a lot of it isn’t worth my time, but once I start reading something, even if it’s only out of curiosity, I have to finish. I have to know.
At the same time I bought the House of Mystery DVD, I bought one for its companion title, House of Secrets. That one’s only 160 issues long. I was going to go straight on to that but I need a breather from that sort of story. So next up will be something I’m looking forward to reading a lot more. Something about which I expect to be a lot more positive…

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Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 2


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Back to see if the middle hundred of DC’s long-running House of Mystery show any signs of improvement or if I’m just in for more hours of inveterately dull reading.
At first sight, no. It’s practically all aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens, intermingled with the occasional monsters who look like aliens but who aren’t aliens. Aliens. Have you got it yet? Not once in these issues was there anything to write home about. Not until issue 143 (June, 1964) would the formula change and not until then would there be anything to write about but, repeat after me, aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens.
Alien invaders. Alien monsters. Aliens from different planets, aliens from different dimensions. Alien criminals. Alien policemen chasing alien criminals. Issue after issue after issue.
Things in suspended animation in caves, preserved for centuries by mysterious gases that vanish the moment the cave is breached, without causing any ill-effects.
From issue 126, Messrs Schiff and Boltinoff dropped out of the picture and George Kashdan was promoted to Editor. Again there was no discernible difference, but then was it wanted on a monthly title enjoying an average circulation of 224,000? But if that circulation dropped to an average of 175,000, as it had according to issue 131, might that indicate a need for a shake-up?
Whilst we wait for it, I was afforded a moment of amusement by issue 134, when the name of the villain in the opening story turned out to be that of one of my oldest mates.
The first sign of a shake-up came very quickly, with effect from issue 136, with the series reduced to eight-times-a-year frequency, on a two months on, one month off basis.

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Finally, and it only took until issue 143, House of Mystery achieved a serial character, in the form of J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, arriving alongside new series editor Jack Schiff, taking a much more hands-on interest than before.
The story is complex, both on and off the page. The Manhunter had been the back-up feature in Detective since his debut in 1955 in issue 225. The series had changed in minor details down the years, the most significant being J’Onzz’s abandonment of his secret existence as a result of his involvement as the Superman-substitute in the early Justice League adventures.
Jack Schiff was the editor on Batman at this time. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Batman titles were encouraged to follow the example of the Superman stable, as managed by Mort Weisinger. The deeply unpleasant Weisinger was responsible for bringing Schiff to DC and had a hold over him. Weisinger was well in with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, a power in the company. Schiff was a liberal, politically, which made him, in Weisinger-speak, a Pinko, the House Red. Weisinger liked having people under his thumb.
So we had the alien era of Batman, the silly, stupid, SF stories that were so unsuited to the characteristics of Batman. Schiff was doing as he was told, giving management what it wanted. Was he cynically showing them he could toe the line,or had he given up, blindly following orders? Either way, it might be what the management wanted, what the Superman fans wanted, but it wasn’t what the Batman fans wanted. Sales were falling away. Impossible as it is to imagine today, when every second comic DC publishes seems to be about him, in 1964, Batman was facing cancellation.
Julius Schwartz was good with superheroes, as his revivals had already demonstrated. Batman was given over into his care, with the results we are aware of today. Jack Schiff was given House of Mystery. Schwartz’s ideas for Batman did not include the Martian Manhunter so Schiff took the character with him.
There had very recently been a dramatic change in the series. Detective John Jones, the Manhunter’s assumed Earth-identity, had been ‘killed’ by the Idol-Head of Diabolu, a supernatural entity that generates monsters every full moon. Since tackling the Idol-Head is going to take up all of his time, J’Onzz decides not to establish a secret identity but set himself, and his alien pal Zook in a secret cave headquarters and try to locate the Idol-Head but in the meantime save everyone from the monthly monsters.
There are times when, just from the names alone, you can tell that something is a crappy idea. The best you can say for this set-up is that at least it’s thematically consistent with the rest of House of Mystery (the Martian Manhunter gets the cover and the prestigious back of the book story but the rest of the title is business-as-boringly-usual).
Apart from those early Justice League appearances, I am almost completely ignorant of J’Onn J’Onzz’s history or adventures. Zook was an unwelcome concept that I had known of but forgotten for a very long time. He’s that perennially bad idea, the cute-seeming alien sidekick and comic relief, unable to master anything but the most basic English. His cartoon face, for some reason, reminded me of nothing so much as Marlon, as drawn by Dennis Collins, in The Perishers. He’s small, orange furred, bare-bum naked, has powers that didn’t get used in this first story and I’m sure I’m going to be sick to the back teeth of him by the end of the next story.
As for the Idol-Head, it’s an obvious cheap idea – someone was following a subconscious prompting when they set it up in a junkyard – to start a procedural: when you create a Monster of the month you really don’t have to start thinking about your stories.
But look at that: I’ve written more about this one eight page story than the entire 42 preceding issues put together. At least I have something to write about now, even if I suspect it’s all going to be negative. Let’s move on.
Within two issues, the Manhunter’s role had doubled in length, a two-part story, upfront, with just one one-shot to back it up, or be ignored completely according to the reader’s preference. This, however, was an experiment Schiff was not immediately eager to repeat with the Manhunter back in the back, only to be found after digging through the two schtumers. The double-length story was repeated in issue 148. The Idol-Head was already boring me.
But the transplant was clearly in difficulties because the next issue chose to give its cover to one of the traditional stories, only flagging J’Onn above the title. He still stayed upfront, with the cover story going to the back – I can only conclude that this positioning was to et the kids to read all the way through to the end to find the story that has got them to buy the comic in the first place – and sandwiched between was a story with art by Alex Toth, a fine bonus.
On the other hand, the only thing significant about issue 150 was a story in which, for the first time in years, not just one but two women had speaking roles. Banal speaking roles, to be sure, but it was one hell of a shock nevertheless.
A two-parter in 151, a one-parter in 152: the latter didn’t feature Zook, which was some relief but also omitted the blasted Idol-Head, leaving it to be assumed to be the source of the monster that turned up. Add a new and slightly more simplistic artist and the only conclusion to be drawn is that this is one of the worst Silver Age superhero series ever.
Perhaps this was registering? Neither Zook nor Diabolu turned up next issue, just one of the Manhunter’s old enemies, evil scientist Professor Hugo. And in issue 154 Diabolu wasn’t even mentioned. Oh come now, they’re not just going to leave this one dangling, are they? Stop featuring Zook, let the Idol-Head just vanish, presumably spewing out its monster-of-the-month and nobody gives a toss?
Maybe so for Zook but not Diabolu, back next issue. It’s still the most tedious evil object in existence. It just drifts around, meaningless and motionless until, at full moon, the top of its head opens like a toilet seat and debouches a new evil monster, just as motiveless as all the others. Why? What does it get out of it? Is it just bored?

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But the Martian Manhunter was once again due to become a back-up character, with Diabolu and the return of Zook. Issue 156 introduced a brand new idea, out of the blue, unforeshadowed, unwarned. In the final part of my series on Adventure Comics I dealt with the Marv Wolfman/Carmine Infantino revival of ‘Dial ‘H’ for Hero’, and now it was time for the original.
Robby Reed is an ordinary, brainy, All-American kid in one of those sleepy, out of the way, slowpoke Mid-Western communities, this one called Littleville (because Smallville was already taken, we presume) that nevertheless hosts scientific plants just ripe for raiding by a super-scientific independent spy group called the Thunderbolt Syndicate, led by the red-hooded Mr Thunder.
But Robby, who has a habit of saying or thinking ‘Sockamagee!’ every second or third panel, falls through a cave roof and discovers an alien artefact that just happens to be shaped like a telephone dial without a telephone around it. All Robby has to do is dial the alien equivalent letters to H-E-R-O (aww! You guessed) and he is transformed into a super-powered hero. The catch, or the hook, is that it’s a different one every time. How long will imagination last?
It’s another of those mid-Sixties series I never actually picked up when I had the chance in the Sixties, like The Doom Patrol and the Challengers of the Unknown, or The Sea Devils for that matter. They were about. I saw such things in the spinner rack at the newsagents at Fiveways, or the flat racks near school, but my chances for purchases were limited, and I was not supposed to buy them full price (so I found a sneaky way round that prohibition), but if choice were limited, choice went with more favoured series, or any Justice Society character I saw.
The DC ‘Go-Go’ checks era started with issue 157. Robby Reed transformed into another trio of heroes, making his strip seem full and busy with the Martian Manhunter demonstrated the limited nature of his series by going back to Professor Hugo when Diabolu wasn’t around.
It only took three issues to get to the obvious story of a crook dialling V for VILLAIN, with an added touch of a suggestion that Robby’s gramps knew very well why he was continually late for meals. And in the back up, J’Onn J’Onzz finally caught up with the Idol-Head and smashed it for good… unless the readers wanted it back. Yes, they openly said that they’d bring it back if enough readers wrote in asking for it. Yeesh!
A letter column appeared for the first time in issue 159, full of praise from Robby Reed as the most original character ever in comics, whilst the Manhunter had another nondescript adventure, with aliens, before embarking upon a new direction. This involved pursuing the mysterious criminal organisation, Vulture, headed by a faceless man who J’Onn immediately dubbed Faceless. To do so, the Manhunter adopted the identity of the recently deceased playboy Marco Xavier (so recently his body hadn’t stopped burning).
Meanwhile Robby Reed paved the way for the short-lived return of a comic book legend by turning into Plastic Man in his story. He also turned into King Kandy, a hero whose powers were based in candy and sweets. It’s 1966. If I wanted to be charitable, I would describe this as goofy. On the other hand, if I really wanted to be charitable, I would not even have mentioned King Kandy.
But this ridiculous excuse for a superhero is just the beginning, and I should have known. 1966, the go-go checks, the Batman TV era, Marvel’s increasing and misunderstood popularity. It’s the Camp era and ‘The most original character in comics history’ is another exponent. The heroes Robby Reed inexplicably turns into are silly, the inventions of a writer who has lost all confidence in what he is doing, encouraged by an editor who gave up caring years ago, and who can sanction villains like Baron Bug and weapons like extra-strength flypaper. Goofy is not in it. It’s silly at best.
With this is mind, the Martian Manhunter’s back-up series, being played a little more straight, should be much better than it it but somehow it’s dull and predictable, in the same way that the Idol-Head business was. Vulture and Faceless are just an excuse for thinking, producing the same story every issue. Though just as I said that, issue 165 varied the formula in the only way they seem to know how, by bringing back Professor Hugo.
And this issue’s heroes were Whoozis, Whatzis and Howzis, which is beyond comment, save that the kids like this stuff: the current Statement of Circulation read 325,000 average, and this for a title still only pushing eight issues a year.
A stupid letter in issue 166 praised Dial H before saying that what it needed to be more ‘realistic’ was for Robby to get a girlfriend and have secret identity problems. In short, the series would be more fresh and different if it was identical to every other one. Comics audiences are like that: I remember sighing disgustedly at similar letters in Blue Devil and Wonder Woman in the late Eighties. What is wrong with them? They even want Zook back in Martian Manhunter, and sure enough he appeared the same issue.
That Suzy was going to Dial H for H-E-R-O-I-N-E in issue 169, becoming another Gem Girl after one had turned up in the 1967 JLA/JSA team-up, should have placed me on dickishness alert, because we sure got it. First, our likeable young lady sees Robby use his dial to become the Hoopster then, when he demonstrates to her how to use it, she becomes a superheroine. But instead of just enjoying it for thirty seconds like Robby plans she gets involved in battling the Toymaster. He doesn’t want her doing that so what happens? Two blows to the head, amnesia for the last hour or so and swearing to make sure it damned well never happens again. What is it with these creeps? Can’t blame Schiff for this one as the editorial reins were returned to George Kashdan as of this issue.
All this complaining, however, belies a new reality coming to transform the series into the one we fans who remember the business in the Seventies will always think of as House of Mystery. It was 1968. Joe Orlando, one of EC’s excellent stable of horror artists was free. New DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was interested in promoting more artists into editorships. And both DC and Marvel, after over a decade of strict restrictions, were chafing at the Comics Code Authority, pushing for relaxations, relaxations that would allow the companies to be both more realistic and more fantastic than before.
There was no sign of the forthcoming changes in issue 171, though the Robby Reed story should have been seen as a siren cry for cancellation. Sure, Robby and the H-Dial are popular, so much so that he and his logo dominate the masthead, with House of Mystery decidedly diminished, but the story involved one serious superhero and two disasters who weren’t even given a name. And the first one was near enough a rip-off of The Phantom Viking (maybe Jerry Siegel, writing the Spider and Gadgetman for Lion wasn’t so cut off from his former colleagues as he seems to have been, and clued Dave Wood in about Valiant).
But when one of Robby’s identities turned out to have the superpowers of a Go Go dancer, it’s time for a change.
And the circumstances were ripe. With issue 173, the series dropped to bi-monthly publication and, despite Robby’s presence above the title, it was the Martian Manhunter who led up the issue, whilst in the back a ton of ugly, ill-proportioned art was wasted on a dull story that demonstrated that, once the idea of three new superheroes per issue started scraping the bottom of the barrel, there really weren’t any ideas behind Dial H for Hero. And Suzy had become a non-speaking cypher.
The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.

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The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.
The change must have come as a shock, right from the cover and the new masthead: Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery, with Mystery drawn in that jagged style reserved for horror. Inside were four short stories, all reprints though not from House of Mystery itself, and one was a Mark Merlin story, drawn in an Alex Toth style. Merlin was a regular in House of Secrets so I’ll be able to tell when I get to that title but this story may have been touched up because Merlin’s girl companion Elsa was wearing a skirt significantly shorter than any ever seen in this title to date: my god, the girl’s showing her knees!
Though the next issue started with a genuine HoM reprint, after a one page introduction to our new Host and story-teller, Cain, the Caretaker, it was dominated by a new story, drawn in a contemporary, quasi-comic style, about a little town, a little kid, two stone gargoyles and a sculptor under a curse. House of Mystery may well have reverted to its original format but with one crucial difference: this story was fresh. It was alive, it was undercut by a splendidly dark humour, in short it was fun. It didn’t slide out of the mind like water the moment you scrolled down to the next page. In short, this was something different.
And having Sergio Aragones draw Page 13 for you (it had been page 17 last issue) was a veritable giggle.
The comic looked better than it had ever done, with Neal Adams hauled in to do appropriately spooky covers. The formula of one reprint and one longer, new story was repeated in issue 176 and looked to be here to stay, though next issue’s was retouched to insert Cain at top and bottom. That also contained the first new letters page and judging by some of the comments, crayons all over America were being worn down.
Adams wasn’t just employed in drawing covers, he was drawing stories inside, at least one with Orlando inks. And whilst vampires, werewolves and ghouls were still not part of the fare, except on Aragones’ gag pages, the tales were now fully in the swing of ghost stories and curses, and even I, so not a horror fan, was being impressed by some of these.
Issue 180 was notorious for printing the infamous Mike Friedrich story, “His Name is Kane”, seven pages of nonstop mocking, sneering and ridicule of artist Gil Kane. The whole thing is vicious from start to finish, but it’s also pencilled by Kane himself. How much of a spoof it is has been debated down the years, but it is accurate to Kane’s known ambitions interests and opinions. Even if he was in on the gag, there’s something about the story that makes me look at it decidedly askance. Kane later confirmed that he was on the outs with Infantino at the time and realised, when he got the assignment, what it was intended to do. What can you say? Was the comic book industry ever free from pettiness, childishness and spite?
Even the first appearance in HoM of a story drawn by the great Berni Wrightson isn’t enough to dispel that.
On the other hand, a gorgeous piece of work from Wrightson illuminated issue 181, justifying all by itself the increase in cover price to 15c. I am not, and never have been, a horror buff, but Wrightson, even in this early phase, was an artist of genius and atmosphere and everything I’ve undergone getting to this point has ben worth it to feast my eyes on his work. It was Alex Toth’s turn next issue with a plug for House of Secrets being revived to set up opposite HoM, but without any Sergio Aragones, not even Page 13.
That was only one issue however. Wrightson again decorated issue 183 but the best story was a goofy little spook story with a twist I should have foreseen, which has been used since. This was drawn in splendidly OTT fashion by Jerry Grandenetti, whose work contains strong elements of cartoonish exaggeration. I thought it was great.
So why is House of Mystery so great now at the kind of story I was practically sleep-reading through in Part 1? The answer is obvious and simple, the difference between the staid and tied-down Fifties and the late Sixties. There’s no rigidity to HoM now. It’s not being held back by fear of fear. It’s being drawn by artists with differing styles, and written with imagination and flair, only lightly-inhibited (there’s still a CCA certificate on every cover, for a reason). But it’s being produced by people who like that they are doing, not merely doing a job.
There’s also the question of space. Two stories per issue allow room to breathe, do not rely on formulas. Toth and Gil Kane. Al Williamson. More Wrightson. A superb Neal Adams job to go with the covers he’s supplying every issue.
There was a mis-step, Orlando’s first, in issue 189, featuring a reprint I recognised immediately. Given the 48 page period is not too far ahead, I suspect I’m just going to have to live with these things.
There was only a fun-twist three pager from Wrightson in issue 191, but what was significant was the writer he was working with for the first time: Len Wein. Another name that would be associated with Wein made his HoM debut next issue, Jim Aparo, already drawing for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
The 25c 48 page era began with issue 194 and an elevation to monthly status for the first time. Two new stories, one drawn by Toth, the other a debut for Filipino artist Nestor Redondo, and two old, though I have my doubts about the provenance of one, which looked nothing like an Orlando-era art job but nevertheless featured an attractive black-haired woman in very abbreviated shorts.
More and more figures kept emerging. Mike Kaluta drew a two-page twist-ending tale for issue 195, which also featured Berni Wrightson drawing Moss Men: you know, sort of swamp things. Toth was one of the reprints next time out whilst Gerry Conway was the latest new contributor grossly overwriting and overwraughting a story to make Len Wein’s purplest vein look like a Janet and John Reader.
Suddenly though, the well seemed to run dry. Adams, Wrightson, Toth, this trio were replaced by blander artists, and the stories lost that manic sparkle. House of Mystery reached issue 200 cover-dated March 1972, with nothing special about its stories. Hopefully, this was just a phase. But it’s also the point where we end part 2. The answer will be available next time.

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Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 1


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Once more unto a DC anthology series, a long-running series that stretches over three decades of existence, 321 issues in unbroken order, but a series that went through many and varying themes in its lifetime. It’s a series that straddled the entire Silver Age, indeed first appearing in that early Fifties period I’ve chosen to call the In-between Age. It’s a title that belies DC’s history of failure in that period, by being a title created between the end of the Golden Age and the first appearance of Showcase, and being a success. I speak, of course, of House of Mystery. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
The first issue, cover-dated November-December 1951, edited by Whitney Ellsworth, positioned itself as a horror anthology, with stories about marrying a witch, a female werewolf, and a frankensteinian murderous monster. Horror was big, especially from market leaders EC Comics, and House of Mystery was clearly an attempt to cash in on the market. But whereas EC were whole-hearted blood and gore producers, whose deep understanding of horror and their refusal to compromise would lead, in the near future, to their destruction, DC were mainstream. They were clean and wholesome. The witch wasn’t a witch, it was all coincidence that every boyfriend she kissed died. The female werewolf was also human, being drugged as part of an attempt to steal her fortune.
As for the monster, that was down to a chemical formula unleashing inhibitions, whilst the guy in the fourth story was scared of something he saw in the haunted house but died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to switch his car engine off.
Was this going to be the pattern? Spookiness undercut by rational explanations without any genuine supernatural elements? Very much so. A rational explanation was to be provided, though usually accompanied by enough maybe-maybe to suggest that something more was indeed going on.
It makes for weak stories that have no conviction in them, but horror was big and House of Mystery was an instant success, going from bi-monthly to monthly in just six issues. None of the one-off tales displayed any distinction, until the final story of issue 8, which was not out of the ordinary in any way except one: it was narrated by Mr Thirteen. Yes, Terry Thirteen, accompanied by his secretary Marie Leroux. Dr 13 had run in the last nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics and transferred here after that series was cancelled.
Though apparently it was only to use up one outstanding story, as his next appearance was in 1968, alongside The Phantom Stranger in Showcase.

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Already, by issue 10, the trappings of horror were falling by the wayside. EC were provoking controversy, DC wanted nothing to do with it. Mysteries were mysteries, and nothing but elaborate hoaxes. History would prove them right, aesthetics would turn its back on them.
Having said all that, issue 11 partially refuted me in the story ‘The Bewitched Clock’, which I’d read before as a reprint back-up in, I think, The Phantom Stranger, with a genuinely supernatural theme, a clock that allowed its owner to manipulate time only to trap him in a Groundhog Day 24 hour loop, only in total, unchangeable isolation.
It was the same in issue 12, three stories with over-complicated explanations for the supposedly supernatural circumstances, one without any rational explanation. That appeared to be just a one-off, or rather a two-off.
As an aside, in common with the other series of this era, this Inbetween Age, that I’ve read, there are half-pages devoted to DC’s Editorial Approval Board, that little panel of experts in children and their psychology that, in those pre-Comics Code Authority days, were the guarantee to the parents that their cute little monsters wouldn’t develop any psychoses as a result of reading a DC comic.It all sounds so quaint now. But each little reassurance was coupled with a complete list of all DC’s comics. I find these fascinating, as a picture of an era that’s scorned because it isn’t dominated by superheroes. Western, War, Funny Animals. Funny Teenagers. Mystery titles. Radio/TV show adaptations. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Just once I would love to read this panoply, all the issues for one month, to get an impression of the range. What DC were in, say, November 1953, two years before I was born. Just to gain an insight into what was thought entertainment for Americas children. How much might that explain?

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Back on point. Issue 20 included a story, ‘Mr Mortem’ that rips off Somerset Maugham’s famous epigraph, ‘Appointment in Samarra’ but was otherwise undistinguished.
Twenty issues is enough to pass a judgement on this early phase, and it’s not a positive one. There are four stories per issue, each setting up supernatural situations, some of which are led genuinely unexplained, but must of which end up being elaborate hoaxes, usually by the Police, to get murderers to confess, or with concrete explanations that try to leave open that sliver of doubt, that what-if-it-wasn’t-coincidence nod. Several of these hoaxes are impossibly complicated but the endless repetition of such outcomes makes the series dull: no sooner does a story start than you’re looking for the trick ending.
The one superstition theme the series hasn’t dealt with yet is vampires, but that’s hardly surprising: no vorvulka would have been seen dead around stories so bloodless.
Nor is the art anything special yet. It’s dull and drab and even the ghosts and demons are lacking in inspiration. Of the artists, I recognised one story drawn by a young Gil Kane, but the only artist signing their work was Ruben Moreira. What surprised me most was that, in a comic aimed at children, the overwhelming majority of the male characters were middle-aged or older, and looking like it. The women, of course, were young and fair.
Issue 26 made me think. It was cover-dated May 1954, the year of publication of Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent and the convening of Senator Kefauver’s Committee examining juvenile Delinquency, which combined to put the blame on comics and shift it off everyone else’s shoulders. I don’t know when in the year the book actually appeared, or what was known about it in advance, but the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority would censor anything out of the horror tradition out of existence, crashing EC (whose owner, William Gaines, had proposed the self-regulation of the CCA in the first place) almost completely.
And House of Mystery, which padded its pages with short features on ‘real-life’ ghosts and mysterious goings on, suddenly ran a one-page cartoon featuring Professor Eureka. A scientist, with no irrationality involved (except among those who thought it was funny). Hmm.
Though if Eureka’s arrival was foreshadowing anything, it wasn’t soon in coming as the series continued unchanged. It wasn’t until the end of 1955, early 1956, issues 46-48, that a couple of SF stories started to get slipped in, amongst the fake mystical and the was it reallys to draw away from the horror style. And issue 49 had no mystical stories whatsoever, just pure science from start to finish.

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But after fifty issues, at four stories an issue, House of Mystery had failed to produce even one story that was memorable. So far, this is not turning out to be worth my time. And as I read on, it seemed like the stories without even a suggestion of the supernatural were even blander than before. There isn’t even any kind of quantifiable categories to which stories can be assigned, which could at least be said of the non-series stories in Mystery in Space.
However, issue 61 bucked the trend by reverting to the mystical, with not a single rational explanation in sight, though the most (only) interesting thing about it was that the last story was drawn by Jack Kirby.
Kirby was back in issue 63 and again in 65, lending an air of distinction to the magazine. It’s not prime Kirby, and the stories are too restrained and plain to be his writing, but it’s Kirby and that’s enough. He was next seen in issue 70.
It took until issue 82 to get a change of pace, when the series switched from four six-page stories per issue to three eight-pagers. There was no immediate difference to the content from a thirty-three percent increase in length. We’re definitely a Science Fiction anthology now, with very little pretence otherwise and though Whitney Ellsworth is still credited as editor, I suspect the hand of an assistant with the initials JS. Incidentally, I was amused to see that the star of the first story was Detective Martin Crane, though there was no suggestion that he spoke with a Droylsden accent.
However, my assumption looks to have been terribly wrong for, with effect from issue 83, editorship passed to Jack Schiff, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan listed as Associate Editors.
Kirby was back with the cover story for issue 84, about a ‘Negative Man’, an energy being, emerging from a scientist’s body in a manner that suggested a possible source of inspiration for the Doom Patrol. And he had the same spot next issue with a story about ancient stone sentinels that foreshadowed his forthcoming departure to Martin Goodman’s unnamed company to work on Stanley Leiberman’s monster tales.
And the change in editorial control made no discernible difference to the content or quality of the stories.

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House of Mystery‘s 100th had a cover date of July 1960. Nearly one-third of the full run is an appropriate point to end Part 1 and consider what we’ve had to date. Which, in my eyes, is not much at all. The stories featured a giant Aztec warrior who was really an American using ‘old’ science to steal Aztec gold, the rationalist Mayor of a superstitious Mexico town exposing its legends of a curse by hiring an illusionist to create and explode them and a monstrous beast from an alien planet temporarily running ravage on Earth.
Is this really only me? There’s not a worthwhile idea in any of those three tales, and the hundredth issue is no better or worse than the ninety-nine that came before it. After one hundred issues, the only thing I’ve found of significance is less than half a dozen stories drawn by Jack Kirby. Yet this is a very successful title, appearing monthly. Nor am I unfamiliar with the Fifties and with its entertainment. So why has nothing been remotely satisfying?
Is it really as simple as there being no serial characters? No returning figures about whom further stories can be told? Every single story has no consequence beyond its final page, it’s sixth, eighth, ninth. In such limited spaces, with a gimmick or twist ending to be set up, executed and rationally explained, there is no room for the least personality trait. What cannot think or feel cannot inspire the empathy that lies behind every successful story.
What I’ve seen so far is an anthology title that tried to piggy-back off the horror boom initiated by EC Comics, but crippled both by DC’s self-sought image as the most mainstream of mainstream comics, the company whose titles guaranteed you could leave Little Johnny alone with them without reading them first, and by the company’s inbuilt instinct for science-oriented rationalism that refused to allow anything stronger than a well-maybe ending.
Then, in mid-decade, with EC destroyed for wanting to be serious, with the Comics Code Authority hamstringing the business, the title slid into being a cheap, unimaginative SF series paying the lippest of lip service to any supernatural explanations, with pot-boiler shorts that live or more usually die by their ‘twist’ endings. The series was merely primus inter pares with stable-mates such as Strange Adventures, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and its own shadow, House of Secrets.
There are two more parts of this to follow, and House of Secrets after that. Aren’t you glad I’m doing this, not you?

*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.

AFTERWORD
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.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist – Part 10


89: Story name: The Special Orders – 1998 ***
Location: East coast of Thailand – Rosie Ling’s Yang Shan cargo boat – MB’s London penthouse – WG’s “Treadmill” pub – Min Feng (small island 20 miles from Bua Nan).
Villain: Rosie Ling; James Nagle-Green.
Other characters: Pira (cocky Thai employee of Rosie Ling); Captain Rocha (of the Yang Shan); Samantha (Sam) Brown; Saragam (MB’s mentor, originally from Cambodia, now living in Thailand); Fain (Saragam’s granddaughter, a young nurse); Del (Tarrant’s man in Bangkok); Mei Lu (Thai girl captive whom Sam befriends); Mr Hata (wealthy business man whose daughter had been snatched three years before); Mr Wu Smith; Mark and Hannah Turner (husband and wife overseeing the judo club visit to Thailand); Weng.
Body count: 1, possibly 2
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed; MB wearing a crop-top, bare shoulders.
Who kills who? : Rosie shoots Pira, her Thai employee who is cheating by taking his own 50% extra cut when selling girls to clients. The body is dumped at sea as a warning to others in her entourage. One of Rosie’s crew tried to stop the girls’ escape from the ship, only to be drop-kicked by Sam into the sea, when the girls battered him with an oar. We presume he drowned.
Summary/theme
: Vice ring caper. Based on her ship Yang Shan, Rosie Ling and her English personal assistant, Nagle-Green, deal in ‘special orders’, young girls of various nationalities specific to the requests of her wealthy clients. She has two very young Indian girls, others from Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong or Macau, but her latest request, from a man named Sumartra, is for a young English girl. Nagle-Green selects 15 year old Sam Brown, in Bangkok with the London East End judo club, to meet MB’s martial arts mentor Saragam, and his granddaughter Fain. Sam is kidnapped and knocked out with chloroform, following a fake ‘drowning accident’. Rosie Ling then pretends to have ‘rescued’ her, which Sam realises is a ruse, but she, in turn, pretends to act dumb, and grateful. Meantime, MB and WG, alerted to Sam’s disappearance, fly to Thailand, where they met Del, Tarrant’s local agent, and are offered help from Mr Hata (a rich businessman and friend of Saragam), whose daughter was taken three years previous, and has vowed revenge. When Rosie Ling’s ship moors off a small island to pick up another young girl, Sam is able to access the ship’s radio and get a message to Weng in London, then speak to MB and WG, giving her location. Despite MB’s objection, she then planned to take the captive girls (all young, and of various nationalities) with her by dinghy to the island. MB and WG parachute down to the island, and, when Rosie’s men come ashore to re-capture the runaway girls, WG blows up their boat. After that MB and WG take out the men, one by one, but before they can make the next move against remaining crew onboard the ship, Mr Hata arrives by helicopter and uses tear-gas to subdue Rosie and Nagle-Green, and the remaining crew. Rosie still tries to buy her freedom by offering money or a partnership, but Hata tells her he is already rich, and she had better start to remember where his daughter is. At best, she faces 30 years in a Thai jail. MB and WG find Sam and the girls holed up in a fortified abandoned temple. Given how grown-up she now is, WG is suddenly apprehensive about hugging Sam. MB and Sam have a laugh and Sam has a weep on her shoulder instead, before calling WG “daft”.
Critical comments: This is Sam Brown’s third and final appearance, after “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88) and “Ivory Dancer” (1992). She is no longer a young child, but aged 15, and a very competent, feisty teenager. When MB mentions Sam to Sir Gerald, following her disappearance in Thailand, he immediately associates her with “helping save my godson’s wife”, Stefan Kolin’s wife Lucy in the 1987/88 story. However, later in the story, when our heroes land on the island where Sam has taken the girls, MB is concerned about the ”aggressive” monkeys, but then remarked about WG’s ability with animals, giving the example of “Ethel the elephant” and the “Himalayan bear in Tibet”…Except, although one of the Gogol circus elephants was named Ethel, it was Chloe the elephant who was WG’s favourite, as featured in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73), “The Return of the Mammoth” (1984), and finally “The Zombie” (2000/01). Old foe Mr Wu Smith also puts in his last appearance, in a funk when MB phones him from Bangkok, recollecting his previous attempt to have her and WG ‘signed off’ in the story “The Aristo” (1994/95). He is again accompanied by a nameless young Chinese female in a very short mini-skirt. He was always a Romero creation, but, when, towards the end of the story, we meet Mr Hata, the rich businessman friend of Saragam, he looks almost identical to Wu Smith – same facial features, hair-line, moustache! We also briefly meet MB’s Cambodian martial arts mentor, Saragam, and his granddaughter, Fain, still working as a nurse, but now living in Thailand. They appeared in the comic strip story “The Golden Frog” (1978, also illustrated by Romero), as well as Saragam featured in the novels The Silver Mistress (1973), The Night of Morningstar (1982), and Dead Man’s Handle (1985). When Sam first phones MB and WG from Singapore she pretends to be the ‘speaking clock’. As usual Weng is on ‘radio duty’ at the penthouse. Anglo-Thai Rosie Ling is cruel, ruthless, without any moral compass. As such, she is rather similar to Miss Tseh Suan, head of a Hong Kong-based vice ring in the Jim Edgar “Garth” comic strip story “The Fishermen” (1979) – equally ruthless in disposing of enemies or failed employees, but Garth (always a sucker for anything in a skirt) calls her “An amazing woman” – not an opinion that MB would have expressed! Garth actually intervenes and saves her from the self-appointed vigilante’s attempt to assassinate her – thereby allowing her to continue to ply her trade. Worth comparing the Martin Asbury artwork of Hong Kong with that of Romero, however – who was the better artist!

90: Story name: The Hanging Judge – 1998/9 ***
Location: Bridestone Prison (18 years previous) – Benildon village, Wiltshire – London’s East End, house of George Leyman – cottage in Lancashire – St. Oswald’s Isle, off the south coast of the Republic of Ireland – The “Treadmill”, WG’s riverside pub near Maidenhead.
Villain: Simon Vance (egomaniac master criminal). Henchmen Fenton, Calder, Lambert and Downey.
Other characters: Jimmy Merton (movie director, Hokum Movies); Sir Robert and Lady Martha Beaumont; Hannah Leslie Beaumont (daughter, 28, qualified nurse); George Leyman’s daughter Daisy and her thuggish husband Len; Billy, another of Vance’s former gang; Dave Craythorpe (pilot).
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Hannah Beaumont (at the end of story).
Nudity rating: MB in undies, changing into skimpy ‘Boadicea’ outfit; MB semi-nude and in undies; nude in bed; MB and WG sharing a small caravan on the movie unit site in Ireland, MB, as usual, sleeping nude; Hannah nude (rear view).
Who kills who? : WG kills Fenton up on the monastery roof, while MB kills another two more of Vance’s henchmen. WG swaps bombs into Vance’s speedboat, which, when Vance then activates, blows himself up instead. WG gets a cracked rib from a crossbow bolt.
Summary/theme: Mad criminal seeking revenge caper. Evil killer Vance is sent down for 20 years, a decision made upon appeal at the leniency of the original 12 years, by then Home Secretary Sir Robert Beaumont. Once out, after 15 years, Vance goes abroad with the money from the bullion robbery, changes his appearance, even his finger-prints, but determined to extract revenge. He kidnaps Beaumont’s daughter Hannah, and taking the persona of the ‘Judge’, intends keep her half-starved for 20 days – one day for each year of the prison sentence – before hanging her on a wooden gallows. In the meantime, he torments her parents with videos recordings showing her condition and ill-treatment. MB realises she is tapping out the location in morse code, that of a silent order monastery off the Irish coast. Under cover of a movie unit making wacky ‘parallel universe’ science fiction movies, MB (dressed in a Viking outfit) mounts a rescue, while WG parachutes in, although he gets wounded by a crossbow bolt. However, together they kill three of Vance’s henchmen and knock out the fourth, but Vance escapes in a fast motor-boat. However, he is blown-up by his own bomb, intended for his hapless henchmen, which WG (knowing about it from Hannah) had swapped over. Afterwards Hannah visits the “Treadmill” to show WG her gratitude.
Critical comments: This is the third time in the comic strips Peter O’Donnell has the bad guys take over a monastery – the first time being “La Machine”, the first MB story (1963), then “Plato’s Republic” (1985) by Salamander Four. But he also used this theme in the original novel, Modesty Blaise (1965), by the Gabriel gang, that time located on a remote Turkish island in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the last two instances (both, therefore, Greek Orthodox monks), it seemed most likely the unfortunate monks would have been murdered afterwards. Here they are a silent order of Catholic monks, being detained in the west wing, while Vance and his four henchmen hold Hannah in the south-east corner. Vance wears different face-masks so only Hannah knew what he now actually looked like, and he planned she would eventually be dead. Afterwards he intended to go back abroad again.
Meantime, Romero’s image of MB’s cottage in Wiltshire has changed yet again! It is now a small, two-storey house with tile roof and French-style window shutters, built into the hill-slope. Nothing like the stand-alone thatched cottage in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92) or “The Grim Joker” (1993/94). Also, MB visits George Leyman, former member of the Vance bullion robbery gang, supposedly living in London’s East End, again, an un-English, stand-alone house with trees in the background! The face of Leyman’s obnoxious son-in-law, Len, as illustrated in strip 9573, has been directed ‘lifted’ from a short science fiction comic strip story entitled “Paradise Lost”, written by Victor Mora, and illustrated by Spanish artist Carlos Giménez, which appeared in the August 1981 edition of the U.S. fantasy magazine Heavy Metal. The two faces are almost identical! Meantime, Vance’s other criminal ex-associate, Billy, lives in a very nice large house (rather than a ‘cottage’) in Lancashire – at least comparatively authentic in appearance. Again, Peter O’Donnell has fun with wacky science fiction (“parallel world”) movies, this time involving hand to hand fighting, followed by a bedroom romp, between Julius Caesar and Boadicea – WG remarks “Posh people call her Boudicca.” The next movie in production is – coincidentally – in Ireland, although by MB’s suggestion relocated to opposite the remote island monastery, where Vance holds Hannah prisoner. It was originally to feature Vikings fighting “aquatic invaders from another galaxy”. However, the aliens “were wanted on another movie” so the plot was changed to a Viking fleet, led by ‘Erica the Red’, battling against a “fleet of Apache Redskins led by Pocahontas, wife of Sitting Bull”. WG tries to point out it was Eric the Red, while Pocahontas lived 600 years later, and wasn’t an Apache, but from the Powhatan tribe, and Sitting Bull lived another 200 years after that. The movie director merely says “That was this world perhaps…not in the Hokum Films Inc., parallel worlds.” At one point, preparing for her Boadicea action scene, MB debates “Did Boadicea wear knickers?” under the loose, split skirt, then deciding director Jimmy wants a U-certificate (unrestricted), so better to do so! Both have Union cards for doing acting or stunt work. WG jokes he still has nightmares after seeing the movie “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial”, which was released in 1982.
Former Home Secretary Sir Robert Beaumont, briefly became Shadow Home Secretary after his party lost the general election, but was later crippled in a riding accident, and retired to MB’s Wiltshire village of Benilton, where Lady Beaumont had a reputation of complaining a lot. Sir Robert knows of MB’s association with Sir Gerald Tarrant at the Foreign Office. Their 28 year old daughter Hannah is a qualified nurse, who worked in Third World countries, of strong character. Three years previous she was the nurse (under middle name of Hannah Leslie) on an Antarctic expedition, when radio contact was lost, she used morse code. MB realised that, on the video tape Vance has sent the Beaumonts, she is tapping out the name Saint Oswald’s, off the south coast of Ireland, monastery built in 1687, with just fifteen monks. It would a matter for the Irish police, who would treat it as a hostage situation, by which time Hannah would be dead. Hannah herself is another Romero blonde, looking rather like Maude Tiller.

91: Story name: Children of Lucifer (1999) **
Location: “Northern ranges of Sierra Nevada” (California/Nevada border) – Township of ‘Eagle Fork’ – ‘Blackwings’, a folly built by ‘forty-niner’ goldrush ‘overnight millionaire’ Harry Lee – ‘The Cabin’, Winter sports house owned by John Dall – ‘Skagg’s Crest’ ski slopes – logging camp and river.
Villain: Luke Blenkinsop (real name Luke Farley); ‘hatchet-man’ Max; the Masaryk brothers, Rudi and Klem.
Other characters: Joanna Martin; Giles Pennyfeather; Steve Taylor.
Body count: 3
Modesty’s lover: Giles Pennyfeather.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed; in just panties, getting dressed.
Who kills who? : Max kills Luke when he threatens to shut down their drug empire. WB kills Max with a peavey (pole used by loggers), and another henchman with his knife.
Summary/theme: Drug gang criminal caper. Blenkinsop’s daughter Nicola died of overdose in New York, but he saved, and kept, her best friend Joanna as a prisoner and sex-slave in his Satanic cult front, when really he’s dealing drugs to three US mafia gangs. They use the forest logging trucks as cover to move the drugs overland. Blenkinsop’s plan, however, is to entice and kill the mafiosi bigwigs (and their minders) in revenge. To this end he intended to show them home movies of his dead wife and daughter, having trapped them in a strongroom, then using poison gas. After that, he planned to shut down his own racket, and burn the house down. However, unbeknown to him, his chief lieutenant and strong-arm man, Max, has other ideas, which is to save the mafia bosses and continue getting rich from the drug trade. Joanna, meantime, manages to escapes on skis, but is knocked unconscious, drugged, and left to freeze to death, by the Czech Masaryk brothers. They then, rather too forcefully, try to stop MB skiing that way, only to be knocked out just as WG and Giles appear. WG has been working with the local loggers, while MB and Giles are spending time together at ‘The Cabin’, owned by another of MB’s lovers, multi-millionaire John Dall. Joanna is discovered and rescued when Giles skis the wrong way, and she tells them about Blenkinsop. Despite MB tipping off another of her ex-boyfriend, FBI agent Steve Taylor, Giles persuades her and WG to still save the lives of the mafia hoods. MB and WG use the ruse of being radio reporters, sent to investigate the Satanist cult, but Max is still able to kill Luke before he can carry out his threat to kill the mafia bosses. The finale is a fight, between WG and MB and Max’s gang, which takes place on logs as they float down the river. Only when Steve Taylor and his “posse” arrive, does WG realise they haven’t seen the Masaryk brothers. They hurry back to the Cabin to find Giles used a trick to give them a knockout drug.
Critical comments: This story brings together three of MB’s regular boyfriends, all making what was to be their final appearances. So, we have Dr Giles Pennyfeather (originally a crossover from the novels), making his fourth appearance; MB’s FBI boyfriend, Steve Taylor, also making his fourth appearance; and a brief ‘cameo’ from Texas tycoon John Dall, who owns ‘The Cabin’. Steve Taylor again has his FBI ‘hat’ on, as from his first appearance in “Uncle Happy” (1965, illustrated by Holdaway), then “The Gallows Bird” (1973, by Romero), but in “Dosser on Pluto” (1980, illustrated by Colvin) he was apparently retired from the FBI. Not anymore! He is now based at San Diego, CA, rather than New Orleans. MB declines his suggestion of renewing their relationship, only for Giles to finish up ‘comforting’ Joanna instead. Steve Taylor only ever featured in the comic strips. Giles first featured in the novel The Impossible Virgin, while in the comic strips he featured in “The Wild Boar” (1986, drawn by Neville Colvin), “The Young Mistress” (1992, by Romero), and “Honeygun” (1996).
Eagle Fork is described as a ‘village’, but most Americans would probably call it a township. The word ‘village’ is rarely, if ever, now used in the USA. Romero’s one illustration of ‘Main Street’ is very crude, especially compared to his earlier work. Also Blenkinsop often looks rather the fake priest ‘Father’ Lamont, in the story “Milord” (1988). Whilst being interviewed for television, and as part of his fake Satanic cult, Blenkinsop gives an almost Gnostic interpretation of the world really being ruled by the “fallen angel” Lucifer. Although both MB and WG remark on aspects of Satanism, neither allude to their own ‘close encounter’ with Lucifer – or the mentally gifted young man who thought of himself as Lucifer – in the early novel I, Lucifer (1967). There are frequent references to the ‘Temple of Asmodeus’, within the Blackwing complex. He was another fallen angel from the Bible, who featured in Jewish, Christian and Moslem beliefs, sometimes regards as the King of Earthly Spirits, a Prince of Demons.
MB, of course, hates drug-dealers, but this is also another example where the villain goes bad after his daughter died from drug addiction, as we first saw in the early story “The Alternative Man” (1983, illustrated by Colvin), where the grieved father became so jealous of young women still alive and healthy, that he masterminded a Caribbean drug trade. Giles, as ever, continues to alternatively evoke MB’s affection for his doctor’s skills and foibles, but tempered with his ability to annoy and wind her up by his “lunatic” contradictory logic. When he appeals to her to prevent the mafia bosses and their minders being “slaughtered” by “bad-mad” Blenkinsop, MB responses by saying that her and WG aren’t the “Caped Crusaders or the Four Just Men”. This latter refers to a novel of that name by Edgar Wallace (1905), and a British television series from 1959-60. When she remarks she hopes the mafia men will “spend the next fifty years in gaol”, Giles shows no sympathy for them, saying, “Fine, they deserve it.” However, when he and Joanna are faced with the Masaryk brothers alone, Giles pretends he can see symptoms of the totally fictitious ‘Purple Death Fever’ and he only had two ampoules of the vaccine, which was really a knock-out barbiturate. Joanna, of course, thinks him “marvellous”, while MB says she is “proud” of him. Giles goes out on a high. WG and MB use a clever scam as a means to get into Blackwings, of being radio reporters tasked with a follow-up item on the Satanists, MB having an asthma attack, WG supposedly on the mobile phone to a bitchy, unsympathetic female producer.

92: Story name: Death Symbol (1999) *
Location: Patan hospital, Kathmandu, Nepal – “The Treadmill” pub – Buddhist temple at Swayambhu (the ‘monkey temple’) at Kathmandu – Tibet, and the camp community of Djut – ‘Tsam-La’, remote Tibetan valley, village (of some 200 inhabitants) and abandoned monastery.
Villain: Yen Kang, Chinese renegade.
Other characters: Irishman Paddy Boyd (ex-French Foreign Legion colleague of WG); Maureen Boyd (his daughter); Dr. Banerjea; Sushilla (his nurse); Weng; Djut (Tibetan Khambas leader); Tibetan brothers Tsering and Norbor; Tibetan Ten-Dal.
Body count
: In total probably between 12 and 15.
Modesty’s lover: MB is brutally raped by Yen Kang.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in and out of bed at the “Treadmill”; MB nude in Kang’s bedroom; full nude ‘nailer’ to distract and overwhelm guards.
Who kills who? : At least 10 Legionnaires killed in ambush, from which only Paddy and WG escape; several of the Polisario rebels. One of the renegade Chinese soldiers, trying to escape with the Thai woman Chia. Yen Kang is killed by the twenty or so women sex-slave prisoners. MB has her face badly bruised by Yen Kang. Paddy, in his failed attempted to rescue his daughter, is shot twice in the leg. In the French Foreign Legion flash-back WG is wounded in the leg.
Summary/theme
: Rescue caper. Two years previous, Maureen, the daughter of an old French Foreign Legion friend of WG, Paddy Boyd (who once saved WG’s life), had been kidnapped whilst visiting her Thai grandparents. Through another Thai woman, Chia, Paddy learns she is in Tibet, in a secluded valley and the village and former monastery of Tsam La, now a hideout for fifty renegade Chinese deserters under the command of sadistic Yen Kang, who have set up their own little self-contained mini-‘kingdom’. Paddy’s own attempt to rescue her is thwarted, and he is badly wounded, leaving him helpless in a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal. In a state of semi-delirium, Paddy talks about WG, whose name his doctor, Banerjeo, recognises, having himself once been a pupil of the Indian guru Sivaji. By means of dream images Banerjeo is able to ‘communicate’ images – of Paddy, of the ‘death symbol’ (the bullet taken from WG’s leg when they were ambushed in Algeria), of the monkeys in the Buddhist temple of Swayambhu that WG might recognise. His attempt at mental telepathy worked, and, having learnt Paddy’s story, MB and WG fly to Nepal, then cross into Tibet, where they enlist their old Khambas friends to mount a rescue of Maureen (now aged 18) and the other girls, twenty in all, who are procured by Thai vice gangs to be used as sex-slaves. Again MB volunteers to put herself at most risk by allowing herself to be taken captive by Yen Kung, then use the ‘nailer’ to distract the guards, allowing WG and Djut’s men to attack. MB is brutally beaten and raped, but WG is able to blow up the armoury, and two of the Tibetans free and guard the girls. When Yen Kung appears, he is disarmed and the girls collectively kill him. MB and WG secure the supply helicopter to fly the girls out, back to Kathmandu. Maureen is reunited with Paddy. MB and WG fly home.
Critical Comments: Again, the time-scale is totally all over the place. WG’s time in the French Foreign Legion was originally said to be 1950-54 (as per Jack Fraser’s intelligence dossier in “La Machine” (1963), but now WG says he was in the Legion after the French had left Africa, but were still allowed to train there, helping fight the “Polisario rebels”. In fact Algeria gained independence in 1962. The Polisario ‘rebels’ were mostly confine to the West Sahara, fighting against Morocco, and Algeria (and Libya) actually supported them. WG says he joined the Legion at 18 and the incident in Algeria with Irishman Paddy Boyd was two years later, so when WG was 20. WG also says his “best mate” Paddy was “nearly twice his age”, so already late thirties to forty. Paddy later married a Thai girl, Chula, who “he met out East”, and they had a daughter, Maureen, now 18, so at least 20 years on again. Given that WG is older than MB (already 30 to her 26, again according to Fraser’s original 1960s dossier), Paddy must, therefore (even in the tight, unrealistic time scale of the story, but also going by the dates of his marriage and fatherhood) already be in his late-fifties/early sixties at least. Romero, however, depicts him still as comparative young – perhaps forty at most, looking not unlike Steve Collier, certainly not a near- or plus-60-something-year-old, and – we must presume – he has blonde hair, unless (given the strip is in black and white) he is supposed to be grey, but this seems unlikely. Somehow the Paddy of WG’s flashback of being the only two survivors of a 12-strong Legion patrol, doesn’t match up with this Paddy (20 years at least later) in the hospital bed. It is perhaps worth noting that, although both he and WG are wearing the Legion kepi in the flashback, Paddy carrying a wounded WG through the desert is shown with dark stubble. Chula, Paddy tells WG and MB, died three years previous, “in Pattaya” – located on the east coast of Thailand, a fishing village until the 1960s, but took off as a tourist destination and resort following the Vietnam War. According to Wikipedia, it is now a city, with a population (registered residents) in 2019 of over 119,500.
In addition to this glimpse of WG’s (pre-MB period) time in the French Foreign Legion, we also get to meet Djut again, who featured in “The Black Pearl” (1967), but which – even more bizarrely – WG says was “only a year or two ago”! Again, this is totally ridiculous. O’Donnell could have at least said ‘eight to ten’ years. And apparently, in that short time MB (“Mostiblaise”) has become a much exaggerated legendary ‘giant’ (“like an elephant”). MB has already mentioned knowing the monkey temple of Swayambhu in Kathmandu from the aftermath of the “Black Pearl caper”. Also known as Swayambhunath (the name means ‘self-created’, although in Tibetan it also means ‘subtle trees’), this is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Nepal, and perhaps the second most sacred in the Tibetan Buddhist world after Boudha, also located in the Kathmandu valley. It dates to about the 5th century AD, and is famed for its ‘holy monkeys’. Again, as MB was in the Black Pearl story, WG is ‘summoned’ to Nepal by paranormal means, in this instance a transferred dream from Doctor Banerjea. If Paddy Boyd is depicted as looking too young, and (either Nepalese or Indian) Doctor Banerjea looking a bit like the bearded version of Greg Lawton (from “Million Dollar Game”, 1987), then the nurse Sushilla looks just like any of Romero’s dark-haired females – neither authentic Nepalese, Indian or even especially Asian. But worse is to come. In Benerijea’s flashback we see him with Indian guru Sivaji, who we saw (briefly) in “Idaho George” (1978), and later featuring as a pivotal character in “Kali’s Disciples” (1985/86, drawn by Neville Colvin). Romero’s original version of Sivaji (sitting under a palm tree! This is in India!) bore no resemblance to his own later version, and certainly not to Colvin’s more authentic depiction. So, not only has the “solitary tree”, under which he lived (possibly a banyan tree), transformed into a weird – almost science fiction – growth, but Sivaji himself is utterly unrecognisable. Yes, he is bald (as Colvin draw him; previously Romero had him wearing a sort of turban)), with a long beard and wearing a loincloth (again Romero originally depicted him without a beard or long hair), but Colvin’s version of him was an authentically Indian – dark-skinned, thin and scrawny, dishevelled matted beard and straggly hair. Romero’s version, by contrast, depicts someone with classical Western (almost noble Greek) features and pale skin – wrong, wrong, wrong!
Once again we have a similar story of girls as sex-slaves, as we have seen in “Milord” (1988), and even to the bad guy being ‘executed’ by the liberated and revengeful women, this time without MB’s protests. WG remarks that Sivaji is dead – which we saw in the story “Kali’s Disciples”. There is also a mention of Rosie Ling (from “Special Orders”, 1998), putting this story chronologically later – again making no sense to WG’s pronounced time-scale since their last Tibetan visit, given that Samantha Brown in “Special Orders” was age 15, so at least 5 years older than her first appearance in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). During their activity in Tibet, they also pull much the same ‘truck over the ledge’ stunt to cover their presence to the Chinese, as was used in the earlier “The Black Pearl” story. However, given the ever greater Chinese control over Tibet, one must question would the Chinese authorities have permitted army deserter Yen Kang to have operated apparently so independently, but also just how easy MB and WG would be able to cross into Tibetan territory, or even a helicopter flying supplies in and out to the valley community from Nepal. The helicopter is an SA 330J Puma, of which (according to Wikipedia), 697 were manufactured by Sud Aviation Aérospatiale, from 1968 to 1987, used primary as troop carriers by various air forces around the world, the seat capacity was 16, although the ‘J’ model was upgraded for civilian use, with higher maximum take-off weight capacity. Issued with an ultimatum by MB, the two crew prefer to fly them, rather than remain with the ever-vengeful Tibetans. The rest of Yen Kung’s men are disarmed and expelled from the valley. If the Chinese army find them, they will be shot as deserters. When Djut remarks, “kinder to kill then now”, MB’s reply is “Tomorrow is always a better to die.”
Again, in retrospect, while this is the usual, quite complicated, O’Donnell story, alas overall, this story is seriously flawed in its ridiculous time-scale and a number of plot holes, while also being much nastier and more brutal, with little humour or originality to redeem it.

93: Story name: The Last Aristocrat – 1999/2000 **
Location: Greek island of Corfu (Krolli’s ‘cottage’) – the small (fictional) island of Asiago, “south of Brindisi” – the fictional village of Caglienda (where Aniela was born).
Villain: ‘Granny’ Smythe (Lettia Smythe, daughter of an Earl); Henry, her butler.
Other characters: Tarrant; Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli; his girlfriend Aniela; Italian intelligence chief Vinezzi;
Body count: At least 13.
Modesty’s lover: None.
Willie’s lover: Aniela.
Nudity rating: MG in shorts and top; Aniela nude (mostly rear view) in bed with WG, and getting dressed; MB briefly topless (front view) when WG wishes to ‘borrow’ her bra.
Who kills who? : Three of ‘Granny’ Smythe’s assassins are killed by WG throwing the two hand-grenades back at them, in the Network period flashback. The Soviet plague warfare expert Pavel Chernov (who we never see) is killed by Smythe’s henchmen. MB and WG kill a number of ‘Granny’ Smythe’s heavies, with spearguns or knives. Henry the butler shoots ‘Granny’ Smythe, then himself.
Summary/theme: Espionage/crime caper. Tarrant is on another vacation with MB and WG, this time on Corfu, at a house belonging to one of her former Network chiefs, Krolli, and on her yacht, anchored in the bay. However, Tarrant’s motive is in part to investigate a criminal English aristocrat, Lady Lettia ‘Granny’ Smythe, whose is currently dealing in illegal arms sales – notable by former Red Army factions (thereby dating the story to the post-Soviet period). MB tells him she has already had a direct confrontation with ‘Granny’ Smythe four years before winding down the Network, when WG’s sense of impending danger ( his “ears prickling”) saves her and her section chiefs from an assassination attempt. MB retaliated by giving Smythe 30 days to get out of North Africa, or her mansion and string of brothels would be burnt down. Unexpectedly, whilst Tarrant and MB are talking, Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and girlfriend Aniela parachute down into the sea, supposedly to invite MB and WG to their forthcoming wedding. Really the wedding is a sham, so Guido can continue investigating Smythe’s latest arms sale, which turns out to be deadly plague-bombs (encased in flat metal disks), sold for $15 million to a terror group, the Dark Sable. Furious at being stood up at the altar, Aniela decides to ‘honeymoon’ with WG instead, but then speculates where she thinks Guido is – in the secret sea-water cave under Smythe’s mansion on the small, nearby island of Asiago. MB and WG investigate, sending Guido back with a tape recording for Tarrant and Vinezzi, head of Italian intelligence. Having got the two plague-bombs, MB and WG wear them about their necks as ‘protection’ – if damaged, the deadly bacteria will kill everyone within the vicinity. Unable to escape in the helicopter, WG uses MB’s bra as a bolas to set fire to the sail of a yacht, which, in turn, ignites an explosion. With police patrol boats approaching, ‘Granny’ Smythe’s butler, Henry, kills the two Dark Sable men, then Smythe, then himself. A week later Guido and Aniela get married.
Critical comments: This is the final appearance of lying, womanizing Italian gutter journalist Guido Biganzoli, who we first met in “The Balloonatic” (1982/83), and his blonde, beautiful, long-suffering girlfriend Aniela. Again we have a Network flashback, and also yet another attempt to murder MB, together with WG and all her section chiefs, this time by order of ‘Granny’ Smythe, the English aristocrat of the title, who was then living in a large house near Casablanca, and running a chain of brothels throughout North Africa. Given that MB is telling the story to Tarrant, it is apparent he was previously unaware of the failed assassination attempt. As we have remarked before, Jack Fraser’s original dossier on MB back in the first story (“La Machine”, 1963) obviously greatly underestimated the number of attempts on her life, and MB, at the time, made little attempt to correct him! MB explains that the ‘cottage’ (surely a quaint term, given the location and style) on the Island of Corfu, actually belongs to the Greek Krolli, one of her most loyal former section chiefs. He gets regular mention and appearances in both comic strips and novels, but featured in particular, with his mature teenage daughter, in “Plato’s Republic” (1983/84). Here he is only glimpsed in the flashback. The main two-storey section of the house itself seemed to be constructed of timber panels, and, in appearance, is vaguely similar to the New Zealand house in “The Maori Contract”, rather then a Greek-style house one might associate with Corfu. In fact, yet again, Romero’s architecture throughout this story seems completely wrong. ‘Granny’ Smythe’s house (or mansion) on the nearby Italian island of Asiago (strip 9904), two storey with roof windows and front portico, actually looks more like a plantation mansion in the southern states of the USA – again, neither Italian nor Greek in appearance. And why does he depict it tilted at an angle? While the ‘cottage’ (that rather English word again) “ in the hills behind the village of Caglienda”, where WG and Aniela consummate what was supposed to be her honeymoon (strip 9912), is almost identical in appearance to Australia lady lawyer’s house “in Sydney”, New South Wales (strip 7555), in the story “Walkabout” (1990/91), even to the positions of the trees, roadway in front, and the dark exterior walls and white roof, despite it being only mid-afternoon! A further example of lazy art is the one view of the Greek village itself – which again does not look in the slightest bit Greek; and, indeed, it is almost identical (roadside trees, parked cars) to a view, supposedly of London, in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92). Vinezzi, who first appeared in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72, by Romero), and later “The Balloonatic” (illustrated by Colvin), was originally older, probably in his late fifties, bald, with dark hair. Here, again rather bizarrely, Romero re-depicts him as much younger, with fair hair, more like his French colleague. Entertaining Tarrant on the yacht, drinks are served by a young, bikini-clad female who WG names as “Aliki”, but she appears in two panels only, without any explanation. She is actually from Crete, and featured in the novel I. Lucifer (1967). MB remarks that WG’s singing is even worse than hers. WG comments that the helicopter used by ‘Granny’ Smythe is a Hughes 500. We never learn Aniela’s surname, or, indeed, much about her – what did she see in Guido to want to marry him? Surely it would all end in tears?

94: Story name: The Killing Game – 2000 **
Location: Benildon, Wilts. – ‘Redmont’, nearby cottage – Singapore – ‘Rigel’ settlement, Orion’s Field, New Guinea.
Villain: Sebastian Kromm; McNab; Pienaar (big game hunter from South Africa); Da Costa (hunter from Portugal); Ms Roper (hunter from USA); Lord Whitram (from England).
Other characters: Unnamed vicar of Benildon; Mrs Maloney; Keri (16 year old New Guinea native girl and her baby Matilda); Tarrant; Fraser; Weng.
Body count: 4
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: At the village fête MB wears a very low-cut, slinky dress. In the set-up to trap WG, the younger foreign woman has her dress torn, exposing her breast and panties. Both MB and WG are kitted out in ‘Tarzan-like’ tiger-skin outfits, in MB’s case showing off her back, legs and buttocks. The young native girl wears only a grass skirt, breasts bare.
Who kills who? : MB drags McNab out of the helicopter when she jumps (he, however, is without a parachute). WG kills Pienaar with spear. Ms Roper kills Da Costa in a fit of feminist rage. MB kills Kromm in a shootout. MB wounds Whitram in the shoulder with an arrow, but let him go afterwards.
Summary/theme: Game hunting caper. MB is at a charity fête at Benildon, where she is introduced to the ‘Reverent Sebastian Kromm’ by her vicar, but quickly realises he is a phoney. He, in turn, claimed to have a detailed dossier on her and WG, and offers adventure in the form of a big game hunt of “lions or tigers” at his 20 sq. mile estate of Orion’s Field in the Far East. She refuses outright, saying she does not kill animals for pleasure, and is about to leave when her vicar delays her to assist the Punch and Judy man. She then gets tricked into helping drive two foreign women – apparently mother and daughter – to their rented cottage nearby, only to find Kromm waiting for them, before being knocked out. Soon after WG is walking to visit his girlfriend Lady Janet and the younger woman pretends she is being sexually attacked, again he is knocked out. Both MB and WG are then separately transported by private jet to New Guinea, at the Rigel settlement at Orion’s Field, where they are still kept separate in windowless accommodation, but with access to gym facilities, library, etc. MB is under the custody of an elderly and rather severe Mrs Maloney; WG – having already encountered and wound up Kromm – under a man named McNab. Each are told that any resistance will result in the other being flogged by a sjambok, a whip made from rhino hide. To their guards’ bemusement, both respond almost the same, exercising, reading, mediating, performing yoga. MB is unsurprised when told she and WG are to be the hunted quarry, saying that always was obvious. She shows equal disdain when paraded before her hunters – Kromm, Pienaar, Da Costa, Ms Roper and Lord Whitram, vowing she and WG will compete to personally kill Kromm. WG is already in the secluded, enclosed jungle hunting grounds, but when MB is to be parachuted down, she takes McNab with her – him plunging to his death. She lets WG take his boots – size 10! WG has prepared primitive weapons – sling, spear, bow and arrow – and hunted for food. However, in their cave hideaway is Keri and her baby (still suckling), a young native girl, used and abused and rejected by her tribe, who had wandered into the reserve and now cannot escape. WG and MB promise to protect her. WG has already discovered they have radio bugs stitched into the hem of their outfits. Also the hunters are using bolt action Jeffreys .404 rifles, which take a second to reload and fire again. When the hunt begins, WG takes out Pienaar, then finds Da Costa shot by Ms Roper, who he knocks out. MB meanwhile wounds Whitram in the shoulder with an arrow. He concedes defeat, being the least enthusiastic at the man and woman hunt, and MB patches him up, taking his rifle and throwing away his boots. Finally MB and Kromm shoot it out at close range. MB then uses Ms Roper’s outfit and a chunk of her blonde hair to briefly fool the settlement guards, long enough for them to seize the helicopter and fly out, together with Keri and her baby. Keri says she will rename her baby ‘Willie’.
Critical comments: Yet another charity fête, again at MB’s Wiltshire village of Benildon! Kromm is introduced as the vicar of the Church of St. Blaise, in the Indonesian city of Surabaja, capital of East Java. St. Blaise was a martyred 4th century bishop of Sebustea, in Armenia, revered by both Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, his feast day 3rd February (11th February, Orthodox calendar).
MB asks herself why she can say ‘no’ to any man except a “small, fat vicar”.
Again, WG is off to visit Lady Janet Gillam when intercepted and knocked out.
At a meeting of Kromm’s big game hunting group, the Orion’s Field Big-Game Club, they briefly lament Pienaar’s predecessor, the late Mr Laborde, who had “recently deceased following a dispute with Mrs Laborde”, Kromm adding, “At least he had the honour of being shot with his own rifle.” The South African Pienaar (who shares his name with one of the members of Europe’s Fist, in the story “The Vampire of Malvescu”, 1987), remarks he was friends with “Scoular, ivory poacher – He tried to kill them. He’s dead.” This was from the story “Million Dollar Game” (1987), but actually Scoular was captured alive – it was the gang leader, Carslake, who was killed by Milly the rhino. In many ways – even in the story title – this echoes the short comic strip story “the Killing Ground” (1968), later reworked as the short story “Bellman”. Again MB and WG are being hunted by big game professionals, but who cheat by using a radio bug to track their intended quarry. WG cannot bring himself to actually kill Ms Roper, a potential fatal flaw we have witnessed in other comic strip stories. MB says she is 40 metres away from Kromm, but is actually drawn as being a lot closer, not even 40ft distance. Was that deliberate, or simply Romero forced to contract the distance due to the comic strip panel size. At the end, they contact Larry Houston, the Australian Intelligence chief – a friend of Tarrant – who first featured in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw, and appeared as a key crossover character to the comic strip in the story “Walk-About” (1990/91).

95: Story name: The Zombie – 2000/01 **
Location: ‘Apollyon’, Cornwall, near village of Brownloe – London to Brighton vintage car rally – Brighton hotel – Friston Forest, South Downs, Sussex – Tarrant’s office, London – MB’s penthouse, Bayswater Road, London – WG’s pub, the “Treadmill”.
Villain: Professor Nicomede Katris (paraplegic and computer genius); Sir Edgar Holstead (head of Future Computers Ltd).
Other characters: Leda (Katris’s daughter); Tarrant; Danny Chavasse (from the Network); Dave Goss (northern-based crime boss and MB friend); Jack Fraser; Rt. Hon. Viscount Bunty Maycroft (school friend of Tarrant’s); Georgi Gogol (circus co-owner); Rosa and the Aziz Brothers.
Body count: 1 (at least 10 others mentioned in text).
Modesty’s lover
: Danny Chavasse.
Willie’s lover
: none.
Nudity rating: MB in undies, getting changed; briefly wearing clinging dress with low-cut cleavage and double side-splits; backless swimsuit; changing, topless in circus caravan; skimpy bikini (front and rear view).
Who kills who? : Professor Katris commits suicide with cyanide capsule. His underlings, using cut-outs, had previous eliminated various gang bosses in South America and the USA, and fellow crime boss Robbie Dunbar in Glasgow. Two of Tarrant’s agents had also died.
Summary/theme: Crazy megalomaniac caper. Professor Nicomede Katris, “the world’s greatest authority on computers”, and his associate, Sir Edgar Holstead, head of Future Computers Ltd., have a grandiose plan to develop the ‘Ultimate Computer’ which would replace ordinary governments globally. For this lofty aim, they need a massive and constant source of finance, and have no scruples in the takeover of criminal networks in South America, USA and the UK to sell drugs. Latest in their sights is the crime syndicate run by northerner Dave Goss, an old friend of MB’s. He, however, refuses to deal in drugs, and so the plan is to assassinate him and have him replaced. Meantime WG is accompanying Sir Gerald Tarrant in the London to Brighton vintage car race, where they are joined by MB and Danny Chavasse, one of her former Network members. Tarrant confides the US Drug Enforcement Agency has requested his assistance in combating foreign drug dealers expanding into the UK, and MB suggests speaking to Goss, when she meets him to evaluate a race-horse at Friston Forest, East Sussex. MB and Danny are, therefore, present when the two hired hooded thugs attempted to garrotte Dave Goss. MB having knocked them unconscious, Goss recognises them as Lennie the Limp’s boys and vows to put pressure on Lennie to reveal his contact until eventually he knows who ordered the would-be killing. Meantime, Katris has ordered his daughter Leda, long brainwashed into serving ‘the cause’, to kidnap Danny, who is to be held as hostage to prevent MB from continuing to protect Goss. Instead Goss has discovered, not only Katris’s name, but the location of his hideaway in rural Cornwall, actually a house on the estate owned by Viscount Bunty Maycroft, an old schoolfriend of Tarrant’s. To get into the house WG and MB set up a diversion – Georgi Gogol’s circus to camp next door for winter quarters. When Sir Edgar protests, Maycroft coldly says not to tell him what he can or can’t do on his own land. While WG (disguised as an Indian mahout) uses Chloe the elephant to ‘accidentally’ break down the gate (“She can smell bamboo”, he says), followed by the circus acrobats, MB swims in from the sea and climbs up the well in the house basement, just as Katris has ordered Leda to dispose of Danny down the said well! But Danny’s talent is his charm with women, and he has already melted Leda. She refuses her instructions. WG takes out the exterior guards, MB – having assessed the situation with Leda and Danny – takes the rest. Katris commits suicide. Tarrant is able to move the police in, and Danny slips away with Leda to America.
Later MB and WG decide they are tired of fighting villains, and plan to retrieve the hidden Roman treasure buried in the Sahara Desert, chronicled in the novel A Taste for Death, and – rather bizarrely – donate it to the Salvation Army! The strip ends with them walking into the sunset.
Critical comments: Once again we have either Romero’s total disregard for the architectural integrity of the story text, or total misunderstanding. Both the opening panel (strip 10070), and several later external, aerial illustrations of ‘Apollyon’ (example strip 10121), show that Professor Katris’s headquarters is, quite clearly, to be a house in the 20th century Modernist style, with a tiled or flagstone roof-terrace, and front and side balconies, and a modern style patio, close-set single panel glass windows, jutting roof eaves, and located within a large square walled enclosure, with what is presumably a lawn on all sides. Yet, later in the story, Tarrant describes it as an “18th century mansion”, at one time used by practising Satanists (hence the name – ‘Apollyon’, or Abaddon in Hebrew, being a demon angel of the abyss), and with the ‘Great Well’ in the basement, which was connected to the nearby sea – hence, not really a drinking well, one would have thought! The mismatch between the supposed ancient mansion and the house as illustrated, is even greater than we saw in the story “The Big Mole” (1989) of the supposed 17th century ‘manor house’ near Tarrant’s cottage/farmstead. Here it is glaring, and totally incongruous. Equally absurd, perhaps, is the Professor’s master computer. He sits before a series of giant screens, flanked in front and on either side by a vast array of control panels, flashing lights, and what are supposed to be keyboards (we presume), the whole thing looking like the bridge of the star-ship Enterprise, or, actually it is a near-duplicate of French comic strip artist Jean-Claude Mézières’ depiction of the Space-Time Services Supervisor’s control room at Galaxity, as seen in the Pierre Christin “Valerian and Laureline” story The Ghosts of Inverloch (1984), except that Mézières was a better artist, and his version was in colour. The totally immoral Professor – a classic James Bond-style mad villain – ultimately plans to develop and impose self-replicating super-computers (or ‘Ultimate Computer’), which will govern the world, instead of flawed, emotional humans. When Tarrant questions, could he have done that?, WG (an avid reader of science fiction) remarks perhaps “in another fifty years”. We would call this AI, or artificial intelligence, while the world-wide web was already up and running when this story was written.
Aside from these pictorial quirks, Romero’s images of Brighton are very crude, as are his motor vehicles (vintage and modern) – something he was once very good at. The London to Brighton vintage car race is held on the first Sunday of November, starting at Hyde Park Corner, and finishing at Maderia Drive, Brighton, although the official finishing line is Preston Park, a Brighton suburb. The distance is 54 miles, and vehicles must be from 1905 or before. Apparently it is Tarrant’s third attempt, in a 1904 Renault, the previous times he had broken down at Bolney (a Mid-Sussex village on the junction of the A23 and A272, 11 miles from Brighton), and Albourne, again on the A23, 3 miles from Henfield. This time he had WG with him, “a master of the internal combustion engine”, to make on-road repairs. Meantime, MB and her ex-Network colleague and lover, Danny Chavasse, hang-glide overhead. Another little mistake – despite this being the first week of November, all the trees depicted are still in full leaf. Dave Goss is the Liverpool-based crime boss, and MB friend, who first appeared in “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, illustrated by Neville Colvin). Colvin’s Dave Goss is a ruddy-faced, rather podgy, man with slightly receding hair, who sports a huge bow-tie and smokes cigars. Romero had previously illustrated him in “Ripper Jax” (1995), at least vaguely similar, but his version here is just another overweight, middle-aged fat-faced bloke – neither have the authenticity of Colvin’s image. Dave Goss was another comic to novel crossover, featuring in the novel Dead Man’s Handle (1985). Previously, when WG mentions Danny to Tarrant, Sir Gerald recollects “he teamed up with Maude Tiller” in the search for WG and MB, again from this novel. Danny Chavasse, a non-combat Network member, who used his seductive charm with the ladies to extract information, had featured in the novels and short stories – Last Day in Limbo (1976), which also featured Maude Tiller crossing over to printed page, she and Danny finished up romancing in the Caribbean (at WG’s suggestion). Danny also featured in Dragon’s Claw (1978), and the short stories “Dark Angels” and “Bellman”, both in the collection Cobra Trap (1996). This was his first, and last, appearance in the comic strips, initially as MB’s lover (as he was at one time in the novels), before disappearing to America with Leda. MB displays her equine expertise, advising Dave Goss on whether to purchase a race-horse, ‘Handsome Harry’, and Chavasse remarks that, while, she has great rapport with animals, “plants die, they don’t like her aura”. In addition to the final appearance of Georgi Gogol and his circus, we again meet Chloe the elephant, and acrobats Rosa and “her bruzzers” (the Turkish Aziz brothers), from “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73). Katris’s daughter Leda, whose mother died in childbirth, is the ‘zombie’ of the title, completely brainwashed to ‘the cause’ – Katris even remarks he has “manufactured a perfect daughter”.
How do you end a 38 year story? Peter O’Donnell had already done so over a decade earlier in “Cobra Trap” (1995), his ‘final’ Modesty short story, a fifty-something MB, dying from an incurable brain tumour, waging her last hopeless battle against the bad guys, and going down fighting. Dramatic – some might say satisfying (especially in finally acknowledging she might actually age beyond 30), but hardly uplifting. On the other hand, the ending to the comic strip isn’t really an ending at all….just another silly caper, and a final crossover idea from the novel A Taste for Death. MB and WG make plans to retrieve the Roman treasure hidden at the old Foreign Legion fort in the Sahara, and denote it to the Salvation Army, before they disappear together into the sunset – actually a final panel in a number of comic strip stories going back decades – but somehow reminded me of the ending to the original version of that other, long-lasting, but never-aging heroine, The Daily Mirror’s Jane, as she finally marries wet, unless boyfriend, Georgie Podgy. It’s a let-down, an anti-climax. 40 years of Evening Standard readers perhaps deserved something better, more original. Apart from the potty idea of gifting huge quantities of ancient treasure (gold, silver, jewels, coin, plate) to the Sally Army (wouldn’t it be declared treasure trove?), anyone who hadn’t read the novels (and that novel in particular) probably missed the point. Again, it might have been better if Peter O’Donnell had gradually aged MB in these later stories, into her forties at least, and especially in this finale. At least then their ‘final retirement’ might have made more sense. So, a workaday story, but a rubbish conclusion. What a pity.

They’re Open Again…


Though I haven’t bothered to check the website yet, the relaxation of lockdown conditions with effect from today means that comics shops can open again. That should mean that I can, if I wish, drop into the Manchester branch of Forbidden Planet next Saturday, for the first time this year. Manchester was one of the branches that has been shut completely, not even allowing collection of online orders on the pavement outside. I suspect I won’t be doing that, however.

It’s been coming on for a very long time, and now I think the break shall be made. Being unable to go to a comics shop for a year or so, save for short breaks when I’ve had to queue ages to get inside, and have felt constrained to only pick up what I know I want and not linger, because of the queues outside, has been the tipping point for something that has been building up for quite some time.
When we went into the most recent lockdown, there were only three series that I was collecting. Tom King’s Strange Adventures had already issued 7 of its 12 issues, his Batman/Catwoman one of its intended 12. The last, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s Moonshine was due to start its fifth ‘season’ in March 2021.
It’s not much to represent a life of comics collecting that goes back sixty years. Not that I haven’t been busy in the interim, expanding my collection of old comics on DVD. That has been part of the pattern.
Strange Adventures is a disappointment. I was interested in what King would do with the character, the good old American know-how scientist hero, but it’s not to my taste. It’s of a muchness that has affected comics increasingly, year on year, for more years than I care to remember, and which no longer enthuses me. Like several series of the recent past, I am continuing to collect it until it is complete, for what chance have I of securing a sale at any decent figure on eBay of an incomplete set?
Batman/Catwoman is another thing. It was King’s long run on Batman that first attracted my attention to his writing. For the first time in, literally, over forty years, I found myself buying a regular Batman series: not since Steve Engelgart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin in Detective Comics in 1977. This limited series is a substitute for what should have been issues 86-105 of the current Batman title before King was dropped. Its conclusion is an obvious dropping off point for me.
And Moonshine? I can’t begin to count how many series I’ve bought in monthly issues, only to replace the floppies with a Graphic Novel collection as soon as it became available. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to only buy the story once, when it is collected. At the age of 65, I fear that I may finally be growing up.
What are the chances of future series that I want to read? The Justice Society will come back, eventually, and this time it might be the original JSA again. Won’t I want to read those? Honest answer? I don’t know. I suspect, probably not.
Why?

The New 52.
Dark Knights: Metal. The Dark Multiverse. DCeased. Dark Knights: Death Metal. The Batman Who Laughs. The Robin King.
I didn’t read any of these things. I read about them on one or other or both of two comics news-sites I visit every day: Bleeding Cool and CBR.com. I read about them because I have been a comic book fan for over fifty years and I remain curious as to what happens. I don’t read them because I have been a comic book fan for over fifty years. The kids that these gaudy pamphlets were created for have been abandoned a long time ago, and now I feel as if I have been abandoned too.
After half a century, I have no grounds for complaint. But I think an explanation is in order, if only to myself.
What do all the above series have in common? Death. Destruction. Degradation. Despair. Darkness. Dissipation. In all heroes there must be a shadow, something evil. Power not only corrupts, it must corrupt.

This growing impression has been exacerbated by all the comics I’ve read on DVD this past three years. Golden Age, Silver Age, there are different approaches and priorities but the titles I’ve read, including the ones where blogs have yet to appear and those still yet to be read, have one thing in common. They are all examples of the era when comics were supposed to be fun. Where all these silly costumes, ridiculous ideas and impossible powers were meant to excite and entertain, and feed into and out of dreams of being able to do things that other people around you cannot.
I’ve recently managed to acquire the extremely rare and expensive Animal Man Omnibus, the Grant Morrison run. There’s a line in the last issue, the one where Morrison as writer talks to Buddy Baker as character. He says: Someone else creates you to be perfect and innocent and then I step in and spoil everything.
It didn’t start with Grant Morrison. If anyone, it started with Alan Moore. I love Alan Moore’s work. I bought him avidly. Deconstructionism: that was what he practiced, and I relished it. Note that it’s another D word, however. And Deconstruction is not a million miles away, philologically and philosophically, from Destruction. And the problem with adding depth is that there’s always something deeper, and eventually you pass a point beyond which there’s no return. Him. Grant Morrison. Tom King. A spectrum. Tom King is anatomising the reality behind Adam Strange but I want to read an Adam Strange story behind which there is no shadow, only the clear light of Rann’s skies and human ingenuity foiling yet another menace with cleverness and wit and intelligence, instead of a ray gun. I can’t get that any more. No-one does it.
So, Forbidden Planet‘s doors may now be open but I have lost all reason to go within them. I lost that reason a month ago, when I cracked and ordered the issues of Batman/Catwoman and Strange Adventures I’d missed off eBay. Say Goodbye, because I have.

Retroactive Fandom: The Starman Dynasty


Nearly twenty years ago, for no better reason than it amused me, and without thought of publication for there was nowhere to publish it then, I wrote the following piece about Starman, as things stood about 2001. It’s sat on my laptop(s) ever since, taking up pixels. I recently rediscovered it, and, realising I’d never posted it anywhere, decided to repair that omission. I have neither updated nor ‘improved’ it in any way, the latter of which may be fairly easy to tell, but it has been very mildly revised, but not in any way as to make me look any cleverer than I was then.

When, in 1956, editor Julius Schwartz agreed to revive The Flash, on condition he was allowed to start afresh with the character, it marked a subtle but signal change in the nature of superhero comics. Since that date, primarily at DC but throughout the superhero industry, characters have become virtual franchises, secret identities coming and going, with only the name eternal.
The development was inevitable, in retrospect. If the mask is the face, what then the importance of the face behind the mask? Soon, even those characters who lack a mask, who are nothing but themselves, and their own name, become only the progenitor of a tradition.
When, in 1996, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake introduced the new Mr Terrific in the pages of The Spectre, they completed a cycle that, surprisingly, had taken fully 40 years. Michael Holt’s appropriation of the long-gone identity of the late Terry Sloane marked the point at which an entire shadow Justice Society of America, composed entirely of the heirs in the mask of its members, could have been compiled.
If some of those successors were no longer able to play their roles at that time, it is of little matter: each JSA member had had his or her second.
Of those fifteen acknowledged JSA members from the Golden Age, none has had more successors than Starman: the Astral Avenger may have come late to the game, lasting almost 20 years after Showcase 4 before spawning an attempt to flesh out the name, but he has been busy ever since, especially in the last half dozen years.
Writer James Robinson and artist Tony Harris produced a new Starman series which commenced in 1994, in the wake of Zero Hour. It not only drew the four existing Starmen into one single, comprehensible mythos, but added no less than four others to the lineage. Indeed, it’s not too far to go to suggest that Robinson added two more names, future bearers of the line. Though it’s not usual to count future-versions as part of the canon, unless and until the current holder leaves his post, on this occasion it’s appropriate to say that Starman has reached double figures in identities.
Or is it?

Starman 1

The beauty of Robinson’s run has been the elegance with which a mythos has been created. So, paying parallel attention to narrative chronology and the official history as woven together by Robinson, let us examine the Starman dynasty.
The first Starman was Ted Knight, who made his debut in Adventure in 1940, and who was created by writer Gardner Fox and artist Jack Burnley. Starman appeared in Adventure until 1946 when his series was dropped. He became a member of the Justice Society of America in unknown circumstances prior to All Star 8, and left, again in unknown circumstances, following All Star 23.
Ted Knight was a socialite, scientist and amateur astronomer, who discovered a source of energy emanating from the stars. Working with Professor Davies, Ted built a device to trap, contain and direct the energy, which he named the Gravity Rod. Using the Gravity Rod, Ted could fly, and could project force fields and force beams, comprised of light and heat. He used these powers to fight evil as Starman.
Needless to say, the bare bones of this origin have been fleshed out down the years. It has been established that Ted built the Gravity Rod on his own, having allowed the claim that Professor Davies was the inventor to disseminate in order to draw attention away from Ted Knight. He had no reason, as such, for becoming a costumed mystery-man, no deaths to avenge etc: he simply did it because it was right.
In the Forties, Ted used to pose as a bored hypochondriac, to accentuate the difference between himself and Starman, in case his absence was remarked upon when the latter was around. His long-term girl-friend, Doris Lee, was the niece of famous G-Man Woodley Allen, who was able to contact Starman with a flare pistol. Starman was given no home base but, in Robinson’s series, it has been clearly established that he lived and fought in Opal City, where his father had been a successful industrialist.
Starman joined the JSA as replacement for Hourman, who had taken ‘leave of absence’. For decades it was assumed that the changeover reflected the cancellation of the latter’s series in Adventure when he was actually forced out by the demand to give Starman – who was expected to be as popular as Superman and Batman – as much exposure as possible. No contemporaneous explanation for the change was given, and it was left to Roy Thomas in All Star Squadron Annual 3 (1984), to provide an account.
In that story, Starman was shown as brash, self-confident, convinced he deserved to be a JSA member, but unable to contact them. Whilst patrolling, he sees, and trails, Hourman, and is thus on hand to pull the latter’s chestnuts out of the fire when his powers fail in battle. Starman accompanies Hourman on the rest of the mission, and is thus showered with Ian Karkull’s chronal radiation, which has the effect of slowing his ageing processes. When Hourman seeks leave of absence to work on the problems with his Miraclo pill, he nominates Starman as his replacement.
Starman was a JSA member for 16 issues, departing abruptly after issue 23, along with the Spectre. This change was enforced by the decision of All-American Publications to sever relations with Detective Comics, Inc., and go it alone. Starman, a Detective Comics character, had thus to be dropped: at least two stories had already been completed featuring him, and Green Lantern was drawn in over Starman (except that in two panels of All Star 26, by an oversight, Green Lantern is shown wielding Starman’s Gravity Rod instead of his own Power Ring!)
No internal explanation was given, and this was again left to Thomas, in the 1985 America versus the Justice Society mini-series to have Starman claim that he retired at that time because of a promise made to his (unidentified) wife, who feared for his life: his return to action in later years was said to have been after her death.
The first Starman returned to action in 1964, in the second JLA/JSA team-up, in Justice League of America 29/30, before going on the following year to share two issues of Brave & Bold, teaming up with Black Canary: their first meeting had, apparently, been in the JLA team-up, she having started her career after Starman’s retirement from comics.
Little was done with Starman after his return in the Sixties. He had up-graded his Gravity Rod, and re-named it the Cosmic Rod: it was now, in effect, a more scientific version of Green Lantern’s Power Ring. There was no sign of Doris Lee, and no personal development for Ted Knight until James Robinson first wrote about him in the mini-series The Golden Age in 1993.
By then, no less than three other Starmen had been tried out by DC. Before carrying on with Ted Knight’s story, let’s briefly review each of these three.

Starman 3

The second Starman had the briefest of careers, appearing and disappearing in a single issue: First Issue Special 12 in 1975. This title was a latter day Showcase equivalent, presenting one-off concepts which (despite the implications of the title) were never seriously intended as on-going series, but instead a series of No. 1 issues.
This Starman was Mikaal Tomas, a blue-skinned alien who fired power blasts from a crystal on a chain around his neck. He was part of an alien force massing on the dark side of the Moon, intent on invasion and conquest but, touched by a conscience alien to his race, Mikaal chose to use his powers to defend Earth, and turned renegade.
The third Starman followed in 1980, the creation of writer Paul Levitz and artist Steve Ditko. Like Ted Knight, he appeared in Adventure, debuting in 467 as one of two new series created when the title slimmed down from Dollar size to the ordinary 32 pages.
Prince Gavyn, an indolent young man, was one of two heirs to a Galactic Empire whose custom was to put surplus heirs to death. Gavyn assumed he would take the throne and commute the sentence on his sister: she was chosen and refused to tamper with tradition. Gavyn was thrown from a spacecraft, but somehow survived and was vested with cosmic powers, which he projected by means of a wooden staff.
Eventually, Gavyn saved his sister’s life and took over the Empire, but in Crisis on Infinite Earths, when his planet faced the wave of anti-matter, he went out to battle it and perished.
The fourth Starman was created in 1988 by writer Roger Stern and artist Tom Lyle in his own series, the first to bear the title Starman. He was Arizonan Will Payton, a long-haired young man who was struck by a bolt of energy accidentally projected from a satellite which had been built to attract that energy. Peyton derived tremendous energy powers, enabling him to fly, project power blasts and also change his features.
His series was, frankly, pretty ropey, and though it sold well enough to last four years, it was never a particularly good seller. In issues 26 and 27, Stern addressed the fact that Peyton had, effectively, stolen the Starman name without having any right to it, by introducing David Knight, son of Ted.
David Knight had supposedly been in Europe and was planning to launch his career as Starman, in succession to his father (who had now died, apparently, of natural causes, which was at odds with the fact that Starman was, as we will see, supposedly alive in limbo with the exiled JSA), when he learned of Peyton’s use of the name. Encouraged by his personal trainer Murph, David challenged Peyton to a duel for the right to the name. Peyton didn’t want to fight: he hadn’t chosen the name Starman, it had been given him by the Press (again), and he hadn’t known there’d been a previous Starman – or even a JSA! But the fight was engineered by Murph, who was really Ted Knight’s old enemy the Mist in disguise, out to steal both Starman’s power in order to become Nimbus, a sort of thinking cloud.
Both Starmen, but principally Payton, defeated the Mist, and David withdrew his claim, on the twin grounds that Payton clearly deserved it more and that his one and only Star Sceptre – as Stern unnecessarily and inexplicably renamed the Cosmic Rod – had been destroyed.
Peyton’s series was cancelled in 1992 and the fourth Starman sacrificed his life to take down Eclipso, God of Rage, in that year’s crossover series, Eclipso: The Darkness Within.
Before turning to Robinson’s long efforts to draw every aspect of Starman into a seamless whole, let us bring Ted Knight’s pre Zero Hour appearances up to date.
The Crisis on Infinite Earths crushed the former Multiverse into a single Universe, in which the JSA had been the heroes of another generation, not another world. In its immediate wake, DC made the first of several efforts to dispose of the JSA for good: in the course of a badly-written and even more badly-drawn adventure, they were drawn into a limbo dimension where, magically rejuvenated, they took on the roles of the Teutonic Gods in staving off Gotterdammerung, forever.
It is this that occupied the first Starman’s time whilst the Will Payton Starman was active: the advice David Knight had that his father was dead could well have been official disinformation about his true fate, which was not properly known to the outside world, but that’s not how it was presented.
A 1990 mini-series set in the previously unexplored era of 1950 showed the JSA facing up against Vandal Savage: Ted Knight, Director of a New Mexico Observatory, is injured and seemingly crippled in the first issue, after which he forced to work for Savage: in the final issue of eight, he returns to action as Starman, to defeat the villain, after which he proposes a return to active duty and the JSA, though this never comes about.
This was followed by a 10 issue series in 1992, ended by possibly premature cancellation. The JSA, released from limbo by a swap with the Crisis leftover Harbinger, retain some but not all of their mystical rejuvenation, and return to action. Ted Knight sits it out, returning to his Observatory, until the last two issues, when his scientific Cosmic Rod is required to defeat the magics of Kulak.

Starman 4

Starman next appeared in 1993’s The Golden Age, a four issue prestige format series written by James Robinson and drawn by Paul Smith. Originally intended as a revision of DC’s post-War continuity, the series was shifted to an Elseworlds project – an intermittent series where familiar heroes are set in a different context – though Robinson chose to stay very close to the ‘real’ world. The effect was that anything ‘established’ in The Golden Age would not have an effect in the mainstream continuity.
The story covered the period from 1946 to January 1950. The War is over and the troops are coming home. Costumed mystery-men, kept out of the War by first Roosevelt’s Presidential Decree, then Truman’s reservations about them, are eclipsed, many of them going into retirement. One previously second rate hero, Tex Thompson, aka Mr America, the Americommando, is lionised: he had gone underground in the SS, and killed Hitler in his bunker in the final days of the War in Europe.
Thompson parlays his popularity into a political career, entering the Senate as a virulent Red-baiter. He heads a project to create a new superhero, one going unmasked, unlike the others, who he attacks, one who will be an American figurehead: Dynaman.
Eventually, the heroes discover Thompson to be the Ultra-Humanite, an evil scientist and old Superman foe, whose technique is to transplant his brain into different bodies. Dynaman is also a transplant – he has Hitler’s brain. In a climactic battle in Washington at the very dawn of the Fifties, Thompson and Dynaman are killed, but several heroes die.
Starman comes into the story in the first and final issues. In the first, he is in a sanatorium. Before the war, Ted Knight had corresponded with Einstein on various theories: some of Einstein’s calculations had gone into creating the Gravity Rod, some of Ted’s into creating the Atom Bomb. Unable to bear the weight of guilt for his part in that, Ted suffered a nervous breakdown. By day he is old before his time, apologetic, weeping, broken: at night, under starlight, he feverishly computes and calculates.
By the final part, he has recovered his reason, and is brought to the final battle as a would-be saviour, physically out of condition but wielding the first, quarter-staff sized Cosmic Rod: it is broken easily, and Starman knocked out, but the shard of the Cosmic Rod is used to kill Dynaman at the end.
In a final sweep-up, Ted is shown to have fully recovered, to have married a plain girl with a great sense of humour.
Lastly came Zero Hour itself, DC’s final serious attempt to dispose of its septuagenarian heroes. Extant kills two members of the JSA and ages the rest, removing all their immunities to the passage of time. Starman remains hale and healthy, but lacks the reactions, physical or mental, to intervene. Recognising the end of his career, at the Hospital waiting for word on two more friends (one dead, one recovering), he greets his two sons. He hands his Cosmic Rod to the elder, David: the younger, Jack, wants nothing to do with it.
Thus we reach James Robinson’s Starman series.

Starman 5

The second Starman series ran for 81 issues (0-80), written by James Robinson and drawn by Tony Harris (approx. 40 issues) and Peter Snejberg (approx. 30 issues). It began immediately after Zero Hour, with the fifth Starman, David Knight, about to go on patrol less than a week into his career, being mocked by his younger brother Jack. David Knight is shot and killed that night, as the prelude to a crimewave sponsored by Ted Knight’s arch-enemy, the Mist: Jack Knight, despite his disdain for the Starman tradition, finds himself forced to take up the Cosmic Rod, first to avenge his brother’s death and then on a full-time basis as the sixth Starman.
The remainder of the series dealt with Jack’s career: his growth, reluctant but sure, into the role, his understanding of the Starman tradition and, finally, his retirement when he becomes responsible for his own son, and his forthcoming daughter.
Early in the series, we learn of another Starman, a mystery figure generally referred to as the Starman of 1951, who appeared in Opal, wearing an orange and yellow costume, fighting crime during one of Ted’s absences through break-down, and who was last seen on New Year’s Day 1952. This Starman is therefore the second Starman, moving everyone else but Ted up a place, and making Jack the seventh.
No-one knows anything about the second Starman, although Ted, in issue 62, admits to knowing more than he’s let on, thanks to Jack: Jack’s final adventure, in issues 77-79, takes him back to 1951 to learn the mystery Starman’s identity: he discovers that there were actually two 1951 Starmen, bumping the line up even further! Thus Jack is the eighth.
In addition, Robinson introduces two new figures to the lineage. The first is the Starman to come, Danny Blaine. Blaine is established as Jack’s successor, not immediately, but very soon after Jack ceases to be Starman: he will go on to be one of the legendary holders of the name, spoken of with similar reverence to Ted.
He is, in fact, Thom Kallor of the 30th Century, aka Star Boy of the Legion of Super Heroes. Jack, displaced in time, meets Thom in the future in issues 49-50. The Shade, an immortal villain who plays a connecting role in much of Robinson’s series, reveals to Thom that, after Jack has ended his duties, Thom will go back in time to become Starman, adopting the name Danny Blaine to hide his true identity from his younger future self until the time came for him to learn it. Thom is afraid of his future: he knows Danny Blaine’s career, including when and how he will die.
When the series ends, Blaine has still not materialised, but he appears in issues 79-80 when he arrives to retrieve Jack from 1951 and return him to his present day: it is Blaine’s last duty after a long, hard life. When he returns to his own time, it will be the day before his death.
This future Starman was Robinson’s present to the DC universe, to be taken up as and when someone wished to do their own Starman series: because of his association with a long-standing DC character, and his intrusion into this time period, he should be regarded as the ninth Starman.
Or should that be tenth? In issue 80, Jack left his role, for good, handing over his Cosmic Rod to, of all people, teenager Courtney Whitmore, the new Star-Spangled Kid. Courtney, created by Geoff Johns and Lee Moder, had had her own short-lived series between 1999-2000 (15 issues) and was a member of the new JSA. She had the Cosmic Converter Belt of the original Star-Spangled Kid, Sylvester Pemberton Jr, who had been transplanted from the Forties to modern times. The Belt had been created by Ted Knight as a another way of using his Cosmic power, and indeed at one point Pemberton had briefly considered adopting the name Starman, before recognising the need for it to stay in the Knight family. Instead, he had become Skyman, and subsequently been killed.
Courtney had been joined by Jack in her debut adventure, and was nominated for JSA membership by him when his own commitments prevented him from being more than a reservist. During the Sins of Youth crossover, all the adult JSAer’s became children and Courtney an adult, using the Cosmic Rod as Starwoman until the crisis was over.
With the clearest possible intimation that Courtney will become Starwoman when she reaches adulthood, Jack bequeathed her the Rod. On this ground, we would perhaps recognise Courtney’s future role as being the ninth Starman, so to speak.
Thus we at last begin…

Starman 6

In 1938 or 1939, Ted Knight, son of Henry Knight, of Knight Industries, Opal City, discovers a source of cosmic energy emanating from the stars, and sets to work trying to contain and use it. In late 1939, after the outbreak of war in Europe, he applies for a military grant to pursue his work, but despite advice and support from New York Industrialist Wes Dodds (his future JSA colleague, Sandman), is unsuccessful.
The following year, he succeeds in building the first Gravity Rod. Excited by the number of costumed mystery men springing up all across America, he designs a striking red and green costume and takes to the night skies of Opal as Starman. He will be Opal City’s protector for the next 45 years, with intervals.
During the Forties, Ted conceals his secret identity by posing as a bored hypochondriac. Despite this, he forms a long-term relationship with Doris Lee. As Starman, Ted establishes a close working relationship with Opal City’s Police, in particular Inspector (later Commissioner) “Red” Bailey, and Patrolman Billy O’Dare.
In 1941, Starman joins the JSA, replacing Hourman, presumably in similar circumstances to those previously established. It is assumed he gains longevity courtesy of Karkull’s radiation, as before.
Starman serves as an active member of the JSA until 1944. As a scientific rationalist, he is one of the few people to deny that his colleagues Dr Fate and the Spectre use magic: Ted believes that they manipulate a form of energy as yet undiscovered by science, but subject to discoverable principles. In 1944, he encounters Etrigan the Demon when battling Nazi saboteurs: Ted’s inability to account for the demon makes the first crack in his belief system.
The following year, Starman witnesses the power of the Atom Bomb for the first time. Unable to bear the weight of knowing that he has contributed, in some small part, to creating this immense, barely controllable form of energy, Ted suffers a nervous breakdown in 1946. He leaves the JSA and is in and out of sanatoria for the next five years. In between times, he continues to serve in Opal.
It is not known whether the encounter with Vandal Savage in 1950 now takes place. The battle against Thompson and Dynaman in Washington is not an official part of Starman’s history, but early in Robinson’s series, Ted alludes briefly to the January 1950 battle, suggesting that some version of it took place.
Early in 1951, Ted’s long-term girlfriend Doris Lee uncovers his secret identity. Shortly thereafter, she is murdered by an unknown assailant. Ted suffers a further breakdown, this time exacerbated by a hatred of Starman and his costume.
Dr Charles McNider removes to Opal and creates the identity of the second Starman. McNider is better known as Ted Knight’s JSA colleague Dr Mid-Nite: his own home city having been calmed, McNider transfers his attentions to Opal to fill-in for his fallen comrade. Out of respect for Knight’s condition, he adopts a radically different orange and yellow costume, and enlists the assistance of minor superheroes to create technology that hides the fact he is blind, which would give his identity away to Ted.
McNider operates as “the Starman of 1951” for between nine and ten months of that year. In or about October, he meets a stranger dressed in Starman’s costume: this is David Knight, displaced in time from 1994. David is unaware of his death, or that he has been transferred to 1951 by the late Kent (Dr Fate) Nelson (who is able to take advantage of Jon Valor’s curse, which has prevented the soul of anyone dying in Opal City from going to its rest).
Shortly thereafter, McNider leaves, to return to his home city to deal with issues arising there. (These issues are not identified but are believed to arise from Dr Mid-Nite having been identified as having brought down, and killed, the Spider, a supposed superhero in Keystone City exposed as a crimelord: the Shade was responsible for the Spider’s demise, having acted to protect his friendly foe, the Flash, and deal with a member of a family pursuing a vendetta against him: to conceal his involvement from the remainder of the super-villain community he left clues suggesting Mid-Nite’s responsibility).
David Knight takes over as Starman, becoming the third Starman.
Between Christmas and New Year, Jack Knight, having recently determined to retire as Starman, is sent back in time by the late Kent Nelson, for purposes unknown. He encounters David, learning his and McNider’s secret, and assists David and Hourman against a plot by The Mist. Jack tells David of his future death. Both conceal their parentage from Ted: however, Ted sees a clue overlooked by the boys, which requires him to resume his Starman costume, to prevent the Mist escaping. The Mist is revealed as responsible for Doris Lee’s death.
On New Year’s Day, 1952, Jack persuades Ted to go to a party, unaware that this is where Ted meets Adele Doris Drew – David and Jack’s mother – who would otherwise have left Opal City for good. David disappears, his time up, the Starman of 1951 disappearing as mysteriously as he appeared. Jack leaves Ted a lengthy secreted note explaining everything: by inference from comments made by Ted a short time before his death, we are led to believe Ted did discover the note.
Jack is returned to his present by the Starman to come, Danny Blaine, aka Thom Kallor. Blaine is much older than when Jack met him as Kallor: he is performing his last act in returning Jack to 2001: when he returns to his own time, it will be to the day before his death.
Ted resumes his career as Starman, but does not return to the JSA: in 1951 they face a Congressional Committee manipulated behind the scenes by Vandal Savage, who uses the Red Menace to cast suspicion upon costumed and masked heroes. Affronted by the demand that they unmask to allow themselves to be investigated, the Justice Society retires and disappears into private life.
With very few exceptions, costumed heroes disappear. Some, like the Jester, who assists Starman in Opal City on one occasion, simply retire having grown too old. Many are forced into retirement by Congress fuelled public opinion.
Ted Knight continues to act. In Opal, he has the support of the Police and the public, and can ride out most storms in public opinion.
In the 1960’s, he teams up with Black Canary, one of the later heroes. The association becomes personal and the heroes have a brief affair, which ends because both love their spouses. The decision is very timely in Ted’s case: the following day Adele announces she is pregnant with David.
Four years later, Jack is born, taking more after his mother. Adele falls ill however, early in Jack’s life and, after a spell in a nursing home, dies when he is still a young child. Ted is left to bring both boys up alone whilst continuing his career. At some point, his identity becomes generally known in Opal.

Starman 7

In or about 1974, Mikaal Tomas arrives on the dark side of the Moon as part of an alien invasion fleet from Talok IV. Mikaal is selected to wield an energy crystal, which is tuned to his nervous system. Affected by the pacifist instincts of his girl-friend, he turns against his people and descends to Earth to defend the planet against attack. After a few forays, the attacks cease. Later, Mikaal learns that a threat to the home planet, which was destroyed, forced the fleet to scatter.
Deprived of any purpose, Mikaal begins to battle crime, meeting both the JSA’s Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter. Some people call him Starman: he is the fourth. He drifts, satisfying himself with discos, casual sex and drugs, until he barely knows his own purpose. Half attracted by another Starman, he arrives in Opal City in 1976. There he confronts the last survivor of his race: in mental battle he kills his attacker, only to find that the crystal is now seared into his flesh.
After the battle, he is kidnapped and drugged. He spends the next twenty years or so in captivity, a freak exhibit passed between eccentric collectors, until he is taken by Bliss, an incubus posing as a circus owner, feeding off pain and terror. Mikaal, his memory lost, is exhibited as the Cosmic Geek.
At some unknown point in the Seventies, Prince Gavyn becomes the fifth Starman, enjoying an identical career as previously shown. Becoming Emperor, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Merria, and proves to be a wise and beloved ruler.
Approximately ten years before the current day, the new age of heroes begins with the appearance of Superman. The period from 1951 and the effective end of the first superheroic generation has never been adequately defined: indeed, with every year it gets longer! There have been suggestions of other groups of heroes at different times, but officially, the canonical current day DC Universe has occurred in the last ten years.
A new generation of heroes arises, some – Flash, Green Lantern, Black Canary – adopting the names of heroes of the past. A new team, the Justice League of America, the first of several incarnations, emerges. The JSA emerges formally from its long retirement, although some of its members have been active for longer or shorter periods in the interval.
Faced with a threat that requires a weapon devised by a member of the Seven Soldiers of Justice, the JLA and JSA team up to rescue its members, cast into time and lost in the late Forties. Sylvester Pemberton Jr, the Star Spangled Kid, still a teenager, resumes his heroic career. At approximately the same time, Ted breaks his leg in battle against The British Bat: whilst recuperating, he loans his Cosmic Rod to the Kid, who later works with him to apply the technology to a Cosmic Converter Belt.
Ted is dissatisfied with both his sons: David, away at College, has little contact with home, Jack, still at home, is a surly and unfriendly rebel. Whilst Sylvester’s belt is being repaired, the new Icicle attacks Opal and he borrows the Cosmic Rod to defeat him. Ted asks him to keep the Rod, and take the name Starman but though Sylvester is tempted, he recognises the potential within Jack and refuses. He becomes Skyman, thanks to a chance remark by Jack. Sylvester dies in action without Ted seeing him again.
About five years ago, the Earth is attacked from the Anti-Matter dimension by a powerful being called the Anti-Monitor, an event that is known as ‘The Crisis’. In its wake, the JSA, including Starman, are called upon to enter Limbo to prevent an attack by mystical beings. They are mystically rejuvenated. Meanwhile, on Earth, only Dr Fate is aware of the true fate of the JSA: the member’s families are given no news and are led to believe the heroes are dead. Jack remains convinced his father is still alive.
As the Crisis reaches its peak, the wall of antimatter approaches Throneworld. Gavyn prepares to face it, rejecting Merria’s attempts to persuade him to flee with her. He is afraid of death, but his duty is to his people, who cannot flee. He faces the anti-matter and is destroyed by it: scant seconds later, thanks to the efforts of the heroes on distant Earth, the anti-matter disperses. Gavyn is hailed as a hero by his people, who believe his sacrifice to have been the cause when, if he had delayed even a half minute longer with Merria, he would have survived.
Shortly after the Crisis, Arizonan Will Payton is struck by a bolt of energy that transforms him into a cosmically powered hero. The press give him the name of Starman, making him the sixth. Payton operates mainly in the South West for two or three years. He fights mainly costumed villains, and does well, but is very little regarded.
David Knight, returning from Europe accompanied by personal trainer Andy ‘Murph’ Murphy, prepares to take Ted’s place as Starman. He is enraged to discover Payton already has the name and challenges him to a duel over the right to be Starman. But David is under the hypnotic influence of Murph, who is secretly the Mist: the clash generates energy that the Mist attempts to use for himself, but the two Starmen defeat him. David is clearly inadequate against Payton and concedes. Seemingly resigned, he secretly seethes.
Three years ago, the JSA return from Limbo. They retain some, but not all of the vigour of their rejuvenation, and some return to action. Ted returns to duty in Opal, but doesn’t take account of the wider picture until the JSA are called together during the “Zero Hour” crisis. They confront Extant, who defeats them easily, stripping their rejuvenations from them. Recognising that he is now too old to act as Starman, Ted resigns his role to David, who becomes the seventh Starman.
David is active as Starman for less than a week before he is shot and killed. Unknown to anyone at that time, his soul is caught by an ages old curse made by Jon Valor, when Opal was still Port O’Souls: the curse traps all souls dying in Opal, until proof of Valor’s innocence be found. This enables the late Kent Nelson to use his magics to grant David two favours: the first sends him back to Opal in 1951, where he meets McNider and enjoys his own brief spell of duty as the third Starman, the second enables him to contact Jack, or later Mikaal once a year.
David’s death, and an attack that injures Ted, forces the unwilling, disdainful Jack to take up the Cosmic Rod, although his is the quarter staff length Rod developed by Ted in 1950: he feels an affinity for that. Having ended the crimewave and avenged David’s death by killing his murderer – Kyle, son of the Mist – Jack agrees to become Starman on condition Ted begins developing his cosmic energy for general and public uses.
Though Jack becomes the eighth Starman, he plans not to actually do anything unless it’s forced on him. Ted, however, knows that the life forces itself on you.

Starman 8

Jack discovers Mikaal in a circus and frees him, bringing him home to Ted to study. At the same time, he bumps into an aggressive woman, Sadie Falk, who later becomes his girlfriend.
The Mist’s daughter Nash, initially stammering and hesitant, becomes harsh and purposeful, blaming Jack for her brother’s death. She sponsors a crime wave during which Jack and Mikaal are captured. Mikaal rescues himself by what seems to be a final, cathartic use of his powers: they restore his pre-1976 memories. Jack is raped whilst drugged: Nash becomes pregnant and uses the knowledge of the baby boy against Jack.
Jack grows steadily more confident and used to being, and thinking of himself as Starman. Each year, in an unexplained fashion, he meets David. (It should be noted that two timescales are at work here: Robinson treats each year Starman is published as being a year of time in the story, although that is an impossibility in the overall timescale supposed to apply to the DC Universe).
He gradually forms an uneasy alliance with the Shade, a former villain. The Shade, whose real name is Richard Swift, was born in England in the early Nineteenth Century, and gained dark powers and immortality in about 1841. He has been amoral, and a supervillain, but he has lived in Opal since the late Nineteenth Century, loves the City and is scrupulous not to commit crimes there.
The Shade was a close friend of the late Opal Sheriff Brian ‘Scalphunter’ Savage, who promised on his death to return. The Shade initially considers Jack as a reincarnate Savage, but later identifies Savage with Matt O’Dare, third son of the late Billy, and like his father and his four siblings, an Opal cop. Matt is a dirty cop, until his recognition of his past life as Savage: the Shade assists him in recreating his life.
Eventually, Sadie reveals herself to be Jane Sadie Payton, sister of Will, who she believes still to be alive. She originally got close to Jack to ask him to search for Payton, but surprised herself by falling in love with him, and Jack with her. Jack agrees and, with Mikaal, sets off into space.
En route, the Starmen are transported 1,000 years into the future, to the Thirtieth Century, where they meet Thom Kallor, Star Boy of the Legion. They assist him to penetrate and disperse a cloud of blackness which is the Shade’s shadow, out of control as a result of something done in the late Twentieth Century. The Shade explains that this meeting was fated to be the moment at which he reveals to Thom that, after Jack ceases to be Starman, Thom will go back in time and become Jack’s successor, calling himself Danny Blaine to conceal his identity until it is time for Thom to find out.
Thom is unnerved: he has studied Danny Blaine’s life, knows how – and when – it ends. Jack promises to do everything he can, on his return, to change fate, by curing the Shade: this may free Thom from his inevitable future…
Eventually, Jack and Mikaal trace Payton’s energy signal to Prince Gavyn’s planet. They find Gavyn’s former friend Jediah Rikane acting as Regent, married to Merria but, in practice, ruling the Empire and determined not to relinquish his rule. Payton was found in space and has been kept imprisoned as his energy signature is identical to that of Gavyn.
Gavyn’s old ally M’ntorr avers Gavyn and Payton are one, that Gavyn’s energy, dispersed in the Crisis, reformed and was drawn to Earth because of its resemblance to Ted Knight’s cosmic force. It descended on Peyton, killing him, but adopting his face, form and memories. Payton resists the idea, believing that the memories of Gavyn that insistently break through have been planted in him by M’ntorr, but after Rikane is overthrown, he meets Merria and decides to stay, to explore possibilities.
Jack returns to Earth. He pays his respects at Wes Dodds’ funeral and joins the new JSA, which forms to ensure the proper rebirth of the new Dr Fate, but his concern at missing persons in Opal lead him to go on the reserve list and nominate the new Star Spangled Kid, Courtney Whitmore, in his place.
Opal is racked by a series of explosions as part of the endgame in a long battle between the Shade and his enemy Culp, which employs Jon Valor’s curse. When the dust clears, Valor and the other imprisoned souls have been released, Matt O’Dare lies dying, his traitorous brother Barry is dead, and so too is Nash, killed by her father: her son, who she has named Kyle, has come to his father Jack. The battle climaxes when Ted, dying of phosphorus poisoning, uses a super Rod to lift a bomb-impregnated building, and the aged Mist into orbit, where it will explode without harming Opal: Ted and his archenemy die in the blast.
Matt dies the following day. On his death bed he has a vision of the future, both near and distant. He will return as someone named Tom: Jack identifies him as rather Thom: Thom Kallor, Star Boy of the far future, Danny Blaine of the near.
Jack learns that Sadie has left him, and left Opal: she is pregnant with his daughter and, whilst she can share a superhero’s life, she won’t involve a baby. Now that his Dad is dead, Jack feels his time is over, and he prepares to retire and follow Sadie to Seattle.

Starwoman

He has certain final adventures whilst he is settling his affairs: another outing with the JSA in the Sins of Youth crisis, during which Jack is reduced to bratty boyhood, and Courtney becomes an adult Starwoman, wielding the Cosmic Rod.
He meets David one last time, with Ted now, and learns of Kent Nelson’s magics that have permitted these after-death meetings. He is sent home via 1951, where he uncovers David’s moment of glory as the Starman of 1951, and McNider’s before him, and ensures his and David’s birth. Danny Blaine brings him home from the future and departs to the end of his career.
Jack’s final task is to dispose of the Cosmic Rod: knowing that her future will be glorious, he gives it to Courtney before leaving Opal.
Currently, there is no Starman. Mikaal will remain in Opal for some years, though not adopting the name again, before returning to his home galaxy as a Hero. Danny Blaine will appear, sooner rather than later, but that will be for another writer to depict, in his own way. And Starwoman will have her turn, in time.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise checklist – Part 9


79: Story name: Guido the Jinx – 1994 ***
Location: Somewhere along the old Silk Road, west of Samarkand, Turkmanistan.
Villain: Kung-Li.
Other characters: Tarrant; Weng; Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli; Aniela (his girlfriend); Mario Teringo (movie director); Russian Army Colonel Greb.
Body count: At least 26
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Aniela (on a mountain-top in the penultimate strip).
Nudity rating: MB in fur ‘bikini’ Stone-Age woman outfit. WG also stripped down.
Who kills who? : Kung-Li’s mercenaries slaughter 15 of Greb’s soldiers. MB and WG take out Kung-Li’s guards (MB using a ‘home-made’ bow and arrows). WG throws a grenade back, kills six more. MB breaks Kung-Li’s neck. Greb is wounded in leg. MB has her rib broken fighting Kung-Li. Guido gets wounded in the shoulder.
Summary/theme: Uranium heist caper. MB and WG are riding part of the ancient Silk Road through Turkmenistan, when WG sees a party of Stone Age men carrying a dead sabre-toothed tiger carcass. By the time MB joins him, they have gone. But, not long after – much to their surprise and shock – they encounter Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his girlfriend Aniela astride a motorbike. Guido has been sent as ‘trouble-shooter’ for a movie entitled The Day of the Dinosaur, funded by his newspaper’s tycoon owner, and they have a problem in that the stunt man and girl have both been injured whilst filming a sequence with a raft on the nearby fast-flowing river. Having seen WG in the distance, Guido had already ‘volunteered’ them as replacement. MB is none too pleased, but Aniela manages to persuade her, pleading if the movie failed, Guido might lose his job, and continue to renege on his promises to marry her. Suitably dressed in caveman furs, MB and WG ride the raft towards a raging waterfall, beyond which the river disappears beneath the mountain for several miles. Guido, however, has improvised his own knot to the submerged cable meant to stop the raft, and they are swept over the falls and underwater, first into a watery cul-de-sac of a cave, before making the attempt to swim back and eventually emerge the other side of the mountain. Guido and Aniela race by motorbike to find them, Aniela (who has been flirting outrageously with WG throughout, to “make Guido jealous”) threatens to “keel” Guido if anything happens to WG. Meantime, having recovered from their ordeal, MB and WG stumble across old friend, Russian Colonel Greb, wounded in the leg, armed only with an automatic pistol. He had been on a mission with a contingent of 15 men to decommission a stock of enriched uranium stored at an old, long-abandoned, Buddhist monastery. However, his men were wiped out by a team of international mercenaries led by the ruthless Kung-Li. Having been joined by Guido and Aniela, MB and WG plan a ‘mission impossible’ to stop the uranium being flown away and sold to some dangerous dictatorial third country. Rather in the mode of the old TV series The A-Team, WG is able to improvise bits of Guido’s motor-bike kit into mini-bombs and a bow with arrows, while MB uses one of the mercenaries’ parachutes to land on the roof, WG waiting with Guido, ready to move in. In the fight that follows, MB kills two guards with the makeshift arrows, and WG kills six of the enemy in one go by lobbing back a grenade. Finally MB and Kung-Li fight, but not helped by Guido’s hapless intervention. Soon after they are able to capture the helicopter when it arrived to transport the uranium. With the mercenaries all either dead or captive, WG volunteers to fly to film unit so as to radio Moscow, Aniela going with him. On the way back they stop to “make love” on a mountain top.
Critical comments: This brings together two (or should we say three?) of Neville Colvin’s most memorable creations, Guido and his beautiful blonde girlfriend Aniela, originally from “The Balloonatic” (1982/83), and who we have already seen in “Milord” (1988, illustrated by Romero), and Russian Army Colonel Greb, from “The Return of the Mammoth” (1984). While Romero’s version of Guido – described here as an “Italian journalist, chronic liar, shameless braggart, life-long lecher, always in trouble” – remains workable and comparatively true to the original, Greb unfortunately lacks Colvin’s subtlety, and is another of Romero’s fat, middle-aged men (looking a bit like Boris Yeltsin perhaps), but not helped in that the quality of the Titan Books reproduction is rather poor. With Aniela again evoking various Catholic saints, there is more humour in this story than in “Milord”, despite the high body-count, and another nasty, rather two-dimensional, MB-hating villain – not unlike Gautz, in the story “Cry Wolf” (1974/75). Fortunately the story location – in MB’s words, “in the middle of nowhere”, just mountains and a fast-flowing river – did not require any architecture other than the abandoned Buddhist monastery, so we are spared Romero’s sometimes more bizarre illustrations. Both Guido and Greb reminisce about their previous adventures, with Novikov or the international terrorists. Aniela says Guido has been promising to marry her for five years. Seeing the Stone Age men, is rather reminiscent of the time MB and WG first saw the Roman trireme in “The Galley Slaves” (1968). The movie director, Mario, is also a friend of musician/song writer Alan Gurney, and aware of how MB and WG saved Alan’s young daughter in “Live Bait” (1988/89) – so, hopefully, Alan has got over his anger at MB’s refusal to pay ransom money to murderous kidnappers. Greb’s mission of collecting stores of enriched uranium (which could be used for nuclear weapons) to be decommissioned and destroyed, puts this story into the contemporary post-Soviet Union era, so again taking our apparently ageless heroes into what ought to be their fifties!

80: Story name: The Killing Distance – 1994 **
Location: ‘Zariba’, fortified township in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco – Sir Gerald’s cottage in Beckleton, Sussex – Paris, Linique’s office – MB’s Parisian flat in Montmartre – Malta, Spiteri’s villa – ‘Pendragon’, Tangier.
Villain: Charles B. Delaney, aka Ivan Brodsky, aka The Red Admiral.
Other characters: Tarrant; Mrs Fothergill; Linique (Brodsky’s lawyer in Paris); Rod Dean (Brodsky’s Chief Exec in Zariba); Jack Fraser; Dave Craythorpe (pilot); Eddie Spiteri (Maltese crime boss); Moulay (MB’s house servant in Tangier); Moroccan Police Inspector Hassan Birot.
Body count
: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover
: none.
Nudity rating: MB in undies getting changed with Mrs Fothergill; MB in undies getting changed into blonde (’bimbo’) wig.
Who kills who? : Tarrant hitman killed by fake ‘Chief Inspector Rogers’ in police station cell.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. Charles B. Delaney, the alias of former KGB chief Ivan Brodsky, is now – thanks to the CIA – the fourth or fifth richest man in the world, head of a huge business empire, but living at ‘Zariba’, a fortified citadel in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. There he plots revenge against Sir Gerald Tarrant, who was once instrumental in his downfall during the time of the Soviet Union. Meantime MB and WG have been invited to spent time with Tarrant at his cottage in Beckleton, Sussex, where village busybody, Mrs Fothergill, is organizing the annual commemoration of the visit of King William III and Queen Mary 300 years ago. Tarrant is to be King William, and has asked MB to be Queen Mary. During the parade through the village, Tarrant is shot by a marksman hidden on the church tower, but a medal on his outfit deflected the bullet. WG apprehends the would-be assassin, but, not long after, he is murdered whilst in police custody by a man pretending to be a chief inspector from Special Branch. In hospital Tarrant confirms he had been receiving death-threats from ‘The Red Admiral’ – a code name Brodsky used. Only MB knows that Brodsky is now Delaney, through a CIA contact before he died. Against Tarrant’s wishes, she contacts Linique, Delaney’s lawyer (and fixer) in Paris, and informs him she knows who Delaney really is, and that Tarrant is under her protection. Brodsky orders a hit on her and WG, which they easily thwart. WG informs Linique should there be another attempt, they will kill him first. Brodsky offers a deal, for MB to come within arm’s length of him – the ‘killing distance’ – within 30 days, knowing he is safe in his mini-fortress. However, MB knows his weakness for bimbo girls, supplied by a Maltese fixer, who she knows. She arranges to be the next girl – disguised in a blonde wig. Having got over his surprise, Brodsky attempts to renege on the deal, only to see what he thinks are mercenaries parachuting out of an aeroplane. They are exploding dummies that omit a smoke cover, allowing WG to land and seize a helicopter, pick up MB and a (by now) drugged Brodsky, and fly out. MB has arranged with her old friend, police Inspector Hassan Birot, to have three magistrates as witnesses while ‘Delaney’ is forced to sign a confession as to his real identity, and have his fingerprints taken. Any further action against Tarrant or MB will mean the recording and confession are published, with the possible retaliation against him by his former colleagues in Moscow.
Critical comments: Tarrant tells MB that Brodsky was a “KGB chief” “fifteen years ago, long before your time”, when he, Tarrant, was department deputy. Tarrant’s part in undermining Brodsky’s position with fake accusations of him being a Western double agent, was unknown until the ‘recent’ publication of a book “Spymaster” – Tarrant says a “mish-mash of fact or fiction” – but which so named him. He was still under the impression Brodsky, aka the Red Admiral, was dead, until MB informs him the American CIA had employed him, changed his appearance, and given him a new identity, as well as finance for his capitalist ventures.
Once again Romero’s depiction of an English, Sussex county, village is weirdly off-beam, the upper-storeys and rooflines of the village High Street still looking more Bavarian medieval German! At least one panel shows a street with parked cars and evenly planted trees, which is later repeated, almost identically, as a village in Italy, in the story “The Last Aristocrat” (1999/2000). The uniform of the local police sergeant also looks wrong, with a badge on the upper arm, more like police officers in Europe.
Tarrant is in “intensive care”, yet is sitting up in bed, able to move about, without any attachments or monitors, nor (despite what Tarrant says) apparently any obvious guards. Also the exterior of the hospital looks more like an old mansion house – even for a possible ‘country hospital’, nothing to indicate what it really is! And the external windows do not match those of the windows in his private room. Another Romero inconsistency is Tarrant’s cottage. In the story “The Big Mole” it is more like a farmstead, standing in isolation, with a barn at the rear. Now it is a cosy two-storey house with steps at the front, and closely surrounded by trees, actually more authentic for a large bourgeois house in the Home Counties! Again the images of Paris are bad, ‘postcard’ views, although, in fairness, the overall quality of the Titan Books reproduction of this story is quite poor anyway. Why is WG driving a right-hand drive car in Paris? While the brief cameo of Rene Vaubois makes sense, as chief of French intelligence, his agent Henri, who we previous met in the story “Our Friend Maude” (1992), seemed to serve no purpose. In one panel, Maltese Eddie Spiteri, who supplies Brodsky with girls, looks like a bearded, black haired version of Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli. Another crossover character, ex-Network courier Claudine, gets a brief cameo also, made up to look like MB, travelling around Europe to throw Linique’s spies off-scent. MB uses the name ‘Marlene’ for her blonde bimbo act, and is apparently listening to her ‘Walkman’ – this the Sony portable media player first marketed from 1979 onwards. The helicopter used is a US Bell 222 (also 230), manufactured from 1979 to 1991. Inspector Hassan Birot subsequently appeared in “Honeygun” (1996), and also featured in the short story “Bellman” (Cobra Trap, 1996) and The Xanadu Talisman (1981). MB remarks that ‘Zariba’ is Arabic for fortress or stockade. At the end of the story Delaney/Brodsky is effectively trapped there, with the possibility of a KGB (or rather, Russian FBS) contract against him, rather like Prince Rahim Mohajeri Azhari (also in his Atlas Mountains redoubt) is left in The Xanadu Talisman.

81: Story name: The Aristo – 1994/95 ***
Location: Hong Kong – South China Sea – ‘Porto Alegre’, Portuguese-registered freighter – ‘The Etonian’, the Aristo’s pirate ship – deserted island of ‘Lueba’.
Villain: Mr Wu Smith; the ‘Aristo’ (aka Guy de Rafford).
Other characters: Sammy Wan (Hong king-based, ex-Network member); Captain Miguel Camacho; wife Joaquina (‘Jo’); Inspector Richard Daunton (Hong Kong police); Major Denbigh (British Army, Hong Kong).
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover
: none.
Willie’s lover: Susie in Hong Kong.
Nudity rating: MB getting undressed, taking a shower on the ‘Porto Alegre’.
Who kills who? : MB surprises and breaks the Aristo’s neck with ‘mule-kick’.
Summary/theme: Piracy caper. MB and WG are departing from Hong Kong, where they have been the guest of ex-Network member Sammy Wan, who had had them under discreet protection, knowing that their old adversary, Mr Wu Smith, was plotting revenge. They hire a private plane to fly to Manila, MB as pilot. When the radio cuts out, WG discovers a ‘RIP Condolences’ card, and they realise the plane has been sabotaged – a bomb in the tail. MB has already dropped altitude and they ditch into the sea, taking to the dingy. After five days they are picked up by the Porto Alegre, a Portuguese freighter en route from Manila to Singapore, under Captain Miguel Camacho. His wife Joaquina is just days away from giving birth to their first child, but both are in fear and panic of the ruthless British-born pirate known as ‘The Aristo’, who often slaughters the crews of his victim ships, and sells any women into the South East Asian brothels. MB and WG devise plans, and when the Aristo’s armed ship, The Etonian, intercepts them, they tell Miguel not to resist, and say that MB and his pregnant wife are warring, but wealthy, aristocratic sisters whose plane had crashed. Meantime WG secretly hides in The Etonian’s lifeboat. The Aristo takes the two women for ransom, and lets Miguel go, but disables their radio and steering gear. That night MB and WG go into action, taking out the crew, destroying the armoury, and running the ship aground on Luebe, a small deserted island. They then flee with Joaquina ashore, soon finding a cave. However, Joaquina has gone into labour, about to give birth. Meantime, the Aristo (crazy for revenge at MB’s humiliation of him) has rallied his crew and they organize a search party. WG swims back to the ship and uses the radio to contact Sammy Wan in Hong Kong, who, in turn, alerts the British authorities. He returns in time to help Joaquina deliver a baby boy, with MB systematically picking off the Aristo’s men, eventually killing him, while WG holds off the rest of crew from the cave with the treat of rocks or the knife. Gurkhas arrive by helicopter and the surviving crew are all taken prisoner. Back in Hong Kong, MB decides not to take any action against Wu Smith, knowing he will, thereafter, live in fear of their retaliation. WG confesses to have helped birth three other mothers-to-be in various circumstances in Africa, Thailand, and on Exmoor!
Critical comments: Another appearance of Mr Wu Smith, out for revenge against MB and WG for foiling his drug operation in the story “Fiona” (1990). He and the ‘Aristo’ are in cahoots together, in that Wu Smith sells on the stolen goods from the pirate raids, but the Aristo seems to be the dominant partner, as he remarks if Wu Smith tried to cheat, he (the Aristo) would kill him. Sammy Wan is a half-Chinese ex-Network member, who was “Krolli’s second-in-command”. In the novels/short stories he appeared in The Night of Morningstar (1982) and “Bellman” (1996). He also appeared in the Network period flashback in “The Big Mole” (1989).
The ‘Aristo’ is Guy de Rafford, former English aristocrat, Eton-educated, cashiered ex-Guards Brigade – another bad apple like Johnny Saint-Maur in “Death of a Jester” (1971). His 30-strong crew are said to be Cambodians, although, as usual, Romero’s depiction of them is nondescript. Another unexpected re-appearance is that of Inspector (Richard) Daunton of the Hong Kong police (pre-1997 Chinese colonial handover), who we last saw way back in “Mr Sun” (1964, illustrated by Jim Holdaway). Not only is he a friend of Miguel’s, but he is able to put in a good word with his (unnamed) chief – someone high up in the British colonial administration – to get the rescue wheels rolling. Typically, Romero’s version of his appearance is nothing like Holdaway’s. Obviously no one at the time thought anyone would compare the two!
As usual we have MB’s clever, elaborate ‘cover story’ to explain her appearance on the Porto Alegre, as the bad-tempered ‘Countess of Whitney’, whose husband is worth £15 million, and Joaquina introduced as her sister ‘Jo, Lady Rance, wife of Sir Bernard’, the two sisters apparently hating each other – this in the vain hope the Aristo might only take MB for a ransom. Joaquina is in the last days of her pregnancy, but Romero somehow manages to almost complete avoid depicting her swollen belly-bump, instead using either discreet angles, bunched-up dresses, or convenient speech bubbles! Quite happy to depict size 8/10 perfect model females, Romero baulks at illustrating pregnant women. Of course, there may have been Evening Standard editorial intervention here, but the two other pregnant ladies in the comic strip stories (both apparently still being in only their first trimester) – Heidi in “The Vampire of Malvescu” (1987), and Consuela in “Durango” (1996/97) – somehow still show no signs of their condition, Romero depicting both with ultra-slim waists!
Although adrift for five days at sea, WG has no sign of a beard – maybe he had the battery shaver (we later see him using) already in their emergency kit! But Romero still depicts him with that silly (blonde) ‘powder-puff’ chest hair – one of his regular artistic quirks! Too late WG and MB realise the Kalashnikovs taken from the Aristo’s armoury are without firing-pins, hence they have to improvise with an acquitted machete, ‘home-made’ quarterstaff, knife and rocks as ammunition. When one of the besieging crewmen says the Aristo will be here soon with his hand pistol, WG replies a revolver is useless beyond 10 paces, whereas his knives have a range of 30 paces. MB remarks she has helped deliver babies in a mission hospital in Africa – obvious a reference to her doctor friend, Giles Pennyfeather.

82: Story name: Ripper Jax – 1995 **
Location: Liskean Castle, on Lough Liskean, near the village of Liskean, in the Irish Republic – golf course, somewhere in Surrey – The ‘Treadmill’ pub – MB’s penthouse, London – swimming pool, presumably in the basement.
Villain: Harry ‘Ripper’ Jax.
Other characters: Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard; Weng; Mr Haley; Annie Haley, his 17 year old daughter; Dave Goss (Liverpool-based crime boss); Paddy O’Connor (former Network quartermaster); Garda Constable Flynn; Felix (Jax minder).
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: WG was in Paris with Claudine.
Nudity rating: MB in shorts, and a clinging dress; MB in a backless, one-piece swimsuit.
Who kills who? : WG hits Jax with sling-shot, causing him to crash his motor-boat into the jetty, where it explodes.
Summary/theme: Routine crime caper. ‘Ripper’ Jax – “gang boss, ladies’ man, knife expert” – now resides in a castle somewhere in the Republic of Ireland, after London became ‘too hot’ for him, but still controls a networks of criminals. His latest scam is to uncover where fellow criminal Sandy Luff (doing a seven year stretch in Blackstone high security prison) hid the £2 million in used banknotes, from the “Kensington job”. As luck would have it, the latest would-be recruit to his ‘harem’ is not-very bright, rebellious teenage Annie Haley, whose “dull and ordinary” bookseller father, Mr Haley, has the ESP ability to get psychic impressions from inanimate objects. Jax uses his contacts to obtain a lock of Sandy Luff’s hair, which he then gets his regular girlfriend to take to Mr Haley, pretending it belongs to her dead uncle, who has hidden his inheritance. Haley quickly sees through the deception, while his impressions naturally are confused and ambiguous, unclear even to himself. Soon afterwards he gets a phone call threatening his daughter unless he keep quiet. Remembering her promise if he ever needed help, he went to MB with his story. MB immediately makes the association of the “criminal money” with the Luff robbery, and together she and WG work out from Haley’s impressions that the loot is hidden in a church belfry opposite a pub called ‘The Unicorn’. Having informed her friend, Scotland Yard Inspector Brook, she cautions him a girl’s life might be at stake, and goes to confront Jax direct – saying she will explain Haley’s impressions if he lets Annie go free. However, Annie announces she is there by her own free will, because Jax is more “exciting” company. Meantime, MB has told Jax that WG is in Brazil. That night Jax has MB taken captive and intends to have both her and Annie “put down” in a fake car accident. MB has come prepared with hidden devices, while WG gains entrance to the castle via a fictitious local historical ceremony, staged by their Irish, ex-Network contact, Paddy O’Connor. Together they easily take out Jax’s henchmen, and WG humiliates and knocks Jax out in a knife duel. As MB and Annie escape by boat across the lough, a maddened vengeful Jax tries to run them down, but he is knocked out by WG, and crashes into the jetty. Although reunited with her parents, Annie remains ungrateful, thinking MB and WG more interesting company instead, but MB rejects her, calling her “selfish, immature and unkind”.
Critical comments: The plot McGuffin is again £2 million of used banknotes (from the “Kensington job”), hidden away, this time by Sandy Luff, serving seven years in Blackstone Prison. So not unlike in the story “The Greenwood Maid” (1975/76), where other crooks are hoping to get their hands on the loot before Luff gets out. While not as bizarre as ‘Friar’ Tuck, in that earlier story, Ripper Jax is equally ruthless, discussing drug and tobacco gangster boss Toe-cap Eddie, doing time for “knocking off the Frayne brothers”, but that he, Jax, rubbed out the “squealer” who helped put him there. MB’s friend Dave Goss calls Jax “a nutter and killer”, and Jax likes to think he is the better knife-thrower than WG. Jax had learnt of Mr Haley’s psychometrist talent through Haley’s daughter, Annie. Mr Haley had previous featured in “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964/65, drawn by Holdaway), and “A Present for the Princess” (1992/93, illustrated by Romero). It is after this last story, where he helped MB to find WG in South America, that she told him if he ever needed help, just call. However, Haley’s daughter is an unlikeable, spoilt little brat. Unusual for Peter O’Donnell, there is no happy ending as far as she is concerned.
Again Romero’s images of London are off. Although his view of the upper storeys of MB’s penthouse block are consistent, even to the Holdaway illustrations, his ‘long distance’ external views seemed to show a back street, whereas the penthouse block is on the Bayswater Road, a main London thoroughfare – the continuation of Oxford Street, and the main road going west. Later MB visits Inspector Brook – so, although not stated, obviously at New Scotland Yard, in Victoria Street, but again Romero depicts a long, non-descript London street-scene, more like Bloomsbury, neither Victoria Street, nor the exterior of the well-known Metropolitan Police Headquarters. The various views of Liskean Castle are equally inconsistent – night-time silhouettes with fantasy turrets, or Hollywood-style gatehouses complete with a portcullis, or a tower-like keep, looking more like a monastery. Again, this is supposed to be a castle with a history going back to the 15th century (see below), yet it looks nothing like a typical medieval Irish (or Anglo-Irish) castle. Another little oddity is that in one frame Jax’s chief henchman, Felix, looks remarkably like the East European security chief, Comrade Brosni, in “Death Trap” (1977/78) – almost the same face and angle!
Yet another example of Peter O’Donnell’s clever combination of imagination and reality in the MB comic strips (compare to, say, the two-dimensional simplicity of the Jim Edgar “Garth” comic strip), is Paddy O’Connor’s piece of ingenious fantasy to get access to the outer entrance of the castle. A dozen local villagers arrive, with Paddy dressed as a Catholic priest, bearing a coffin (with WG hiding inside), claiming to be fulfilling the annual covenant known as the ‘Day of the Great Perkin’, honouring the ‘true King’, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, “slain by the Tudor Henry VII”. And, indeed, even though ‘the Perkin’s’ visit to Liskean Castle in 1491 is complete fiction, there really was such an individual, born c.1474, died (hanged at Tyburn, London) 1499, who had claimed to be Richard, one of the “princes in the Tower”, son of Edward IV, and who certainly campaigned in Ireland (at the Siege of Waterford) in 1497.

83: Story name: The Maori Contract – 1995/96 ***
Location: New Zealand, South Island – ‘Carver’s Lodge’ (Jason and Carol’s seaside home) – nearby town of Melrose – London (unspecified luxury restaurant) – air flight London to Karachi, Hong Kong, New Zealand – Sunbury Hotel, Christchurch – ‘Maori trails’ through mountains.
Villain: Martin Hayne; Salem and gang (the ‘Levantine Group’), includes Luki and Daudi.
Other characters: Jason Nash (Tarrant’s nephew); Carol Nash, née McAndrew (Jason’s wife); Tarrant; Diaz (Colombian mobster) – his gang Ramon and Julio; Maoris, Koro and Winemu, unnamed doctor and police sergeant.
Body count
: 3
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover
: WG had been hoping to look up an ex-girlfriend, a Kiwi air-hostess, only to find she was now married. He had to pretend to the husband he was “selling insurance”.
Nudity rating: MB in double split dress, flashing both legs.
Who kills who? : One of Diaz’s mobsters, Ramon, gets shoot dead by Jason. Salem accidentally puts a meat-hook into Hayne’s neck. Hayne, in turn, shoots Salem dead. Jason gets bullet wound in leg.
Summary/theme: Another inheritance crime caper. WG has been vacationing several weeks in New Zealand, with Sir Gerald Tarrant’s nephew, Jason, who is married to half-Maori local girl Carol. Jason has just completed the year-long construction of a huge, 100-crew Maori war-canoe – a ‘waka’. As if on cue, Carol is chloroformed and kidnapped by a gang led by Colombian ‘fixer’ Diaz (known to both WG and MB), who planned to arrange an ‘accident’ to look like Carol drove their van over the cliff into the sea. WG – alerted by his ears prickling, a signal of danger – and Jason chase after them, cutting across country so as to intercept Diaz and his gang. In the subsequent confrontation, Jason thinks Diaz’s driver is about to pull a gun, and blasts him with a shotgun. WG subsequently scares Diaz off, telling him to dump the body and disappear. Not wanting to tangle with MB and WG, Diaz refuses to continue the contract with London-based gambler Martin Haynes. Instead Haynes – through a third party – employs the ‘Levantine Group’, led by Salem, to still eliminate Carol, but MB and WG also. Meantime MB is flying to New Zealand with Tarrant, and en route encounters one of Salem’s gang planning to stab her. She issues a face to face warning to Salem to back off, or else. Tarrant reveals that Carol is the granddaughter of James McAndrew, a recently deceased, multi-millionaire, eccentric Scot who died intestate. She is the daughter of McAndrew’s only surviving (but estranged) son Donald, who emigrated to New Zealand, married a Maori girl, and later died in a ferry accident. The only other traceable relative of McAndrew is grand-nephew, Martin Haynes, who will obviously not even stop at murder to get the inheritance instead. MB decides to set them up for Salem by pretending a ‘Brits/Kiwi’ walking competition along the nearby Maori trails, except she will be with Jason, WG with Carol. Haynes, meanwhile, arrives in New Zealand and recruits a bunch of thieves and junkies as backup. Our heroes successfully take out both of Salem’s teams, while Tarrant has been joined a group of Maoris to launch the war-canoe, and they intervene against Haynes’ gang of hapless drug-addicts. However, in the confrontation, Salem and Haynes kill each other.
Critical comments: Virtually a repeat of the plot of “The Sword of the Bruce” (1985, illustrated by Neville Colvin), except set in New Zealand instead of Scotland, and the outcome more brutal, without much humour. Again, however, we have an elderly, eccentric, mega-wealthy Scot who dies, leaving a huge fortune, to be inherited solely by either – in this case – his granddaughter Carol, the orphaned only daughter of his estranged son Donald (who had emigrated to New Zealand), or his great-nephew, the nasty, vicious, gambler, Martin Haynes, residing in London. And again MB uses the wilderness ramble of two couples, with her protecting Jason, and WG protecting Carol, to lure the villains into attack. But, whereas the earlier story had merely involved preventing a repeat of a historic walk through the Highlands, this later story is about having Carol murdered, but to make it look like an accident.
WG recognises Colombian fixer, Diaz, “who went freelance from the Ortiz mob”, and puts the squeeze on him to dump his pal’s dead body and back off. Despite Diaz telling WG the hit was set up through ‘cut-outs’, a few strips later Diaz is phoning Haynes direct to London (for once Romero depicts a creditable-looking London street (complete with parking meter!) and telling him (having got half his pay-off), he wants out. Haynes then phones Diaz’s ‘agent’ in Cannes (seen at some villa poolside with the obligatory blonde girlfriend next to him) to find out who MB and WG are. Rather odd that in Cannes it appeared to be night-time, but in London it is daylight. More odd still Haynes is next seen in a long view, apparently phoning from somewhere opposite the Houses of Parliament, in the general vicinity of Whitehall, as seen from Lambeth’s Albert Embankment! Another ‘own goal’ by Romero in his rather wacky version of London. The unnamed ‘agent’ then suggested the ‘Levantine Group’ for £80,000 – big money! Concerning MB, one of the Salem gang remarks that “Lougan tried to blow her away” but got knifed by WG. This, then, would apparently be another assassination attempt, but Lougan does not appear in the novels, nor in the previous comic strip stories! MB mentions contacting Ben Hollinton in Wellington – a former Network member in charge of the boat section, who previously featured in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw. Melrose does exist – but it is a suburb of Wellington, which is on the North Island. Here it is said to be “half an hour north” of where Jason and Carol live, which is on the South Island. Haynes stays at the ‘Sunbury Hotel’ in Christchurch, capital of the South Island. WG again displays his snake-handling skills (from the ‘Pasteur snake farm’, as previously mentioned in the story “Fiona”, 1990), when one of Salem’s gang, Daudi, plans to use a deadly black mamba snake (named ‘Belial’) to kill him and (they think) MB. We are told this was smuggled into New Zealand in a typewriter case – when did New Zealand start x-ray scanning air passengers’ baggage? Haynes becomes increasingly unhinged, and Jason is shot and wounded in the leg by him, but MB is able to “plug the wound” and gave him a ‘fireman’s lift’, carrying him down to the beach, where one of the Maori canoe crew is a doctor – another is a police sergeant. MG is much amused that the Maoris call Sir Gerald “Gerry”.

84: Story name: Honeygun – 1996 **
Location: Tangier, Morocco – ‘Hotel Zerna’, north of Larache, 30 miles from Tangier – ‘Pendragon’, MB’s villa in Tangier – ‘Hotel Chambord’, on the edge of the Kasbah – Children’s Hospital – Almed’s place (MB agent in the Kasbah) – Wadi Bedrou, old French Legion fort, in the foothills of the Rif Mountains.
Villain: Raoul Kiffis (in flashback); Honeygun.
Other characters: MB’s Network lieutenants (in flashback), Hans Braun; Krolli; Sammy Wan; Claudine; Inspector Hassan Birot of the Tangier police; Moulay (MB’s housekeeper at ‘Pendragon’, her Tangier villa); Dr Giles Pennyfeather; Sheik Abu-Tahir; Honeygun’s gang: Victor, Boris, Nestor, Galka.
Body count: 9
Modesty’s lover: Giles Pennyfeather.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in swimsuit.
Who kills who? : (In flashback) MB kills one of Kiffis’s men, Honeygun kills the other, and Raoul Kiffis. MB is slightly wounded in the temple. In the main story, Honeygun kills an Israeli diplomat and his female chauffeur in cold blood. Honeygun shoots Victor, when he annoys her. The flash-flood coming down the wadi kills Honeygun, Nestor and Galka.
Summary/theme: Crime/assassination caper. The story opens back in the Network days when MB decides on a ‘no profit project’ to take out drug boss Suleiman. She arranges to meet local tycoon, Raoul Kiffis at his hotel outside Tangier, but it is a trap to kill her. With her French courier, Claudine, as hostage, MB kills one of Kiffis’s gang, but, to her surprise, mercenary hitwoman Honeygun switches sides, shooting the other thug and Kiffis before WG, Krolli and Sammy Wan can intervene. Honeygun thinks to join the Network, and even suggests they take over Suleiman’s profitable vice ring, but, to her disgust, MB declines. Nevertheless, MB is “in debt” to her for saving her life. Fast forward to MB in retirement, and Giles Pennyfeather is on leave from his medical duties in Chad, staying with MB at her Tangier villa, but still insists on working night-shifts at the local Children’s Hospital. Meantime, Honeygun is trapped in the Kasbah, which is surrounded by police, and calls in MB’s debt to get her out. MB does so, but insists Honeygun ‘retires’, as of then. However, within hours Honeygun assassinates an Israeli diplomat and his chauffeur, but one of her terrorist gang, Boris, is badly wounded. Boris’s brother, Victor, abducts Giles from the Children’s Hospital at gun-point, and they flee to a long-abandoned Foreign Legion fort in a wadi (dry riverbed) out in the desert. WG is able to identify exactly where, because one of the men wore a yellow rose in his buttonhole, a desert flower found only in one specific place – Wadi Bedrou. MB and WG go there by camel, disguised as Arabs. Meantime Giles operates on Boris, removing the bullet, but does not hesitate to tell Honeygun to “stick to assassinations, I’ll make the medical decisions.” When MB intervenes to rescue him, Giles, much to her annoyance, insists they take his ‘patient’ with them on a stretcher. WG hoped to use a helicopter to getaway, but one of the gang shoots the tail rotor. As they flee on foot, hoping to use Honeygun’s Land Rover instead, WG realises a massive flash-flood is bearing down on them. Honeygun and the rest of the gang members are swept away. WG radios Moulay to alert the police. When told that Boris – the only surviving gang member – will be tried and probably shot, Giles’ response is “good…I’ve got no time for people who kill people.”
Critical comments: This is the penultimate appearance of MB’s bumbling, penniless, unconventional Dr Giles Pennyfeather in the comic strip stories, whose first appearance was in the novel The Impossible Virgin. He finally appears, one last time, in “Children of Lucifer” (1999). Despite remarking in “The Highland Witch” that she wasn’t “too keen on doctors”, MB made rather a habit of having lovers in the medical profession – from Gordon Ritchie, in that story (1974, illustrated by Romero), Swiss Conrad Weber, in “Those About to Die” (1976), who is her post-Network favourite surgeon/physician, to veterinary doctor Greg Lawton, in “Million Dollar Game” (1987) and “Black Queen’s Pawn” (1993), to Giles, in “The Wild Boar” (1985, illustrated by Colvin), and “The Young Mistress” (1991/92, by Romero). After Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli, Giles is one of O’Donnell’s more outstanding and amusing characters, if both (in different ways) are equally irritating sometimes to MB. Again, we see a Network period flashback, and yet another attempt to assassinate MB, this time by Moroccan tycoon, and financier of notorious vice-boss Suleiman. The text says it is five years before the Network was wound up.
Appreciating a double-cross with Kiffis, MB had a bug in her bra, and used casual, but coded, phrases to indicate where she was in the hotel meeting-place. She also had a WG-designed single-action gun concealed in her handbag, operated by the clasp. Honeygun, when we first meet her, is age 30, and of Anglo-Korean parentage. Her non de guerre is a corruption of her birth-place, Hun-Yung. Completely amoral, she remarks with approval that Suleiman controlled “brothel-fodder from Cairo to Casablanca”, and it was very profitable. Almed, MB’s ‘agent in the Kasbah’, also briefly appeared in “The Big Mole” (1989), although he does not feature in the novels, unlike Moulay, her Tangier housekeeper, who features in both. Here, Moulay rather is like London-based Vietnamese ‘houseboy’ Weng, appreciating the preparation of their equipment ready for a caper. Romero’s depiction of him is very commendable. Again we meet Tangier police Inspector Hassan Birot, who featured in “The Killing Distance” (1994).
In her retirement, we again glimpse her Tangier donkey sanctuary, which we first saw in “Million Dollar Game”. We also meet oil-rich Sheik Abu-Tahir of Malaurak (a small sheikdom located between Syria and Iraq), another crossover character from the novels, first seen in the 1965 novel Modesty Blaise. He gets mentioned in Last Day in Limbo, The Night of Morningstar, and The Xanadu Talisman. When talking, much to WG’s amusement, he indulges in Americanisms. WG again displays his North African desert knowledge from the time he was serving in the French Foreign Legion. The Wadi Bedrou fort was formerly a Roman staging post into “black Africa”, washed away by the infrequent flash-floods, restored by the French in the 19th century. In retrospect, building a fort in a dry river bed, prone to periodic flooding, doesn’t seem a very good idea! WG remarks that Honeygun’s getaway helicopter is a Aerospatiale Squirrel, which he says he hasn’t flown before, but he and MB flew the two AS-350 Squirrel helicopters in “Milord” (1988). MB’s moral compass can often led them into needless trouble – the times she refrains from killing the bad guys, only for them to have no such scruples about killing her or others. Too late, she feels guilt that by repaying her ‘debt’ to save Honeygun from being gunned down by the Moroccan police – although afterwards telling her to stop her murderous contract killings – she let Honeygun go on to kill the Israeli diplomat and his innocent girl chauffeur. WG points out the rest of four-strong hit-man team would still have done it, with or without Honeygun.

85: Story name: Durango – 1996/97 ***
Location: The ‘Treadmill’, WG’s pub – Guatemala, east side of the Usumacinto River, which is border between Guatemala and Mexico – MB penthouse, London – the ‘Oil Seekers’ company base.
Villain: Durango, aka Lazaya (Mexican-born, ex-drug and vice racket boss in North Africa, shut down by MB during the Network period.)
Other characters: John Dall; Doris (‘Treadmill’ barmaid); Dinah and Steve Collier; Harry Lee (helicopter pilot); Sandy (John Dall’s man at ‘Oil Seekers’ in Guatemala); Consuela; Jaun (young, hapless rebel and Consuela’s paramour).
Body count
: 2
Modesty’s lover: John Dall.
Willie’s lover: Laura (girl sharing his bed, who he stands up to fly off with MB.)
Nudity rating: MB in bed with Dall, and later in shower; MB topless in just tight jeans, pretending to be drunk (rear view only), performing the ‘nailer’.
Who kills who? : Durango shoots dead Harry Lee. MB Shoots dead Durango.
Summary/theme
: Bandit ransom caper. American billionaire John Dall is visiting England, playing darts at the ‘Treadmill’ and sleeping with MB at her London penthouse. To MB’s immediate concern, Dall has employed her best friend, Canadian-born, blind girl Dinah Collier, married to Professor Steve Collier, to ‘dowse’ for oil deposits from a helicopter flying over the Guatemalan jungle. MB’s worse fears are confirmed when the helicopter is forced to land after a stray shot from a twitchy rebel ruptures the fuel flow. They are quickly taken captive by the rebels and brought before the leader, Durango, who – having interrogated them – decides to ransom the Colliers for a quarter of a million dollars, shooting Harry the pilot, to send his body downstream on a raft as a warning. Like MB, John Dall won’t pay ransoms, arguing that will only encourage copycat hostage-taking, but – having flown out to Guatemala with MB and WG, he stalls for time, having to raise the ransom in used bills. Meantime MB and WG drive into the jungle, pretending to be a timid naturalist and wife, looking for a rare parrot. However, when they, in turn, are taken before Durango, they recognise each other – he is really Lazaya, a wanted Mexican murderer and former drugs and vice gang leader who was based in North Africa, and whose racket MB had smashed. He immediately radioed Dall, setting out a new ransom, a million dollars each, or Dinah dies next. Again MB instructs Dall to contact Weng, knowing he will play for time. Meanwhile, they make friends with Consuela, the woman of one of the younger rebels, Juan. However, Juan is injured and suffers a pneumothorax, air trapped between lungs and chest wall, fatal if pressure acts on the heart. Remembering seeing Giles Pennyfeather preform this surgery, MB cuts an incision and uses a tube to release the air, saving Juan’s life. Durango was all for just shooting him – one reason being he wanted to sleep with Consuela himself. Consuela confides that Durango will take Dinah to his bed, then probably kill her to speed up MB and WG’s ransom payment. Consuela offers herself instead, but vows never to tell Juan. MB, meanwhile, uses the ‘nailer’ (pretending to be drunk on tequila, and topless) so she and WG can take out the men guarding the Colliers. However, their escape is quickly discovered. Dinah and WG between them are able to navigate their way to the jeep, leaving a crazed Durango hunting MB. He already has Consuela and Juan tied up on the raft, ready to be shot. Turning away for a split-second, MB draws and shoots him in the head. His SMG fire severs the mooring-rope, which curls about his foot. MB manages to get on-board, and Durango’s body acts like an sea-anchor over the rapids. Consuela confesses she is already three months pregnant with Juan’s child. Afterwards Dall offers Juan accommodation and a job. WG remarks Durango “committed suicide” by thinking he could outgun MB.
Critical comments: Another comic strip appearance of novel/short story crossover characters, American billionaire John Dall (now noticeably with a distinctive streak of grey hair at the sides), and husband and wife Dinah and Steve Collier, who we last saw in “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90). We also see Doris, the barmaid at WG’s pub, the ’Treadmill’, despite in the novels she emigrated to Australia, and – guess what? – she’s another young, Romero blonde look-alike! We also catch WG in bed with ‘Laura’, although other than him telling her (at 4 am) he’s off to Guatemala, she is just another name on the bedpost, dumped when MB calls for backup. Overall, however, Romero’s artwork in this story is quite strong, especially the faces of Durango and his fellow rebels. Perhaps this is because the story plot and locality plays to Romero’s strengths – sexy women (MB going topless or nude in bed), faces, and a jungle background. Other than the ‘Treadmill’ interior (and exterior), both handled quite well, there are no buildings or architecture of any significance, no urban townships, and only a helicopter and jeep. As his stint illustrating the science fiction comic strip “Axa” showed, Romero excelled best at depicting wilderness. However, one of his regular quirks is illustrating sweat or water cascading over naked bodies in the shower. It always looks less like natural water droplets and more like being dropped into liquid paint! Again, we have Consuela announcing she is three months’ pregnant, yet Romero illustrates her with a trim waist, not a hint at being at the end of her first trimester! Come on! Romero women never really had babies.
The MB and WG cover story of being ‘Henry and Virginia Markham’, ornithologists looking for a rare parrot, is soon blown when Lazaya/Durango recognises them, but not before one of the rebels remarks, “He is English…All English are mad.” Again, rather like O’Mara in “The Iron God” (1975/76), Durango is only using the not very intelligent rebels as a means to accumulate money, before taking off with the loot!

86: Story name: The Murder Frame (1997) ***
Location: WG pub “The Treadmill” – London – Janet Gillam’s farmhouse (somewhere in Berkshire, near to the “Treadmill”).
Villain: Jake Brockley (WG enemy from Network days).
Other characters: Chief Inspector Brook and daughter Lynn: Sir Arthur Brockley (self-made tycoon, local squire, and Jake’s father); Lady Janet Gillam; Maude Tiller; Leo (Jake’s partner in crime); police Inspector Lewin.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: None.
Willie’s lover: Lady Janet, Maude Tiller.
Nudity rating: MB in undies and towel; MB in panties: nude (back view) changing out of wet clothes on the ‘rescue’ boat.
Who kills who?
: Jake murders his father and frames WG.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. WG has already fallen foul of Jake’s unpleasant father and local ‘squire’, having blocked a development in the village. Brockley’s criminal son Jake plots to bump off his father for his inheritance, while cleverly incriminating WG as the killer. The police at first believe this, and WG has to go into hiding with Maude Tiller, while Inspector Brook takes a career risk to inform MB. Eventually MB (with Brook’s help) sets up a sting for Jake co-conspirator Leo who grasses on Jake. However Jake takes Lady Janet hostage, still planning to escape. MB intervenes and knocks him out.
Critical comments: This sees only the second appearance of WG’s ‘regular’ girlfriend from the novels, Lady Janet, in the comic strip, although she often featured in a number of MB novels and the short stories. Although she is mentioned in the comic strip a few times, her only previous actual appearance was brief, in “With Love From Rufus” (1972). Here, intriguingly, WG also spends time with his ‘other’ regular Maude Tiller, who originally first featured in “The Puppet Master” (1972), then “Garvin’s Travels” (1981), “The Double Agent” (1986) and “Our Friend Maude” (1992). She appeared in the novel Last Day in Limbo. Inspector Brook was another ‘regular’, and reference is made in this story to when MB and WG rescued him and his daughter, in “Death in Slow Motion” (1983, drawn by Colvin). Here Brook is able to pay back his debt by warning MB that WG is facing a murder rap, while daughter Lynn also appears, but a bit older now, at university and with a boyfriend, who even Brook approves of!
The murder rap is ingenious, involving getting an impression of WG’s fingerprints onto a lump of Leo’s modelling clay, which could then make a mould of gel to transfer onto the murder knife. In retaliation, WG and Weng, wearing Chinese face-masks and wigs, kidnap Leo and drop him into the Thames, but first saying that they were acting on Jake’s orders to rub him out. MB then dives to ‘rescue’ him, taking him onboard her boat, piloted (unknown to Leo) by Brook. The relationship between Jake and Leo is rather ambiguous, given that Leo is obviously homosexual with the way he talks. Distractions within the story includes night-time observation of ‘Whitmore’s Comet’ (which last “appeared back in 1826” – Jake says a hundred and seventy years ago – so again almost contemporary to the story publication – 1996 – MB would be nearly 60!); and MB, WG and Maude taking part in a mass sky-diving at ‘Bridesbury’. Whitmore’s Comet would appear to be another O’Donnell fiction. Romero’s artwork is now very scrappy, not just of London – the usual views of the Thames Embankment, and Jake’s flat located somewhere beyond St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields (Nelson’s Column in the foreground) – but of Sir Arthur’s manor and grounds, and even of vehicles, something which Romero used to be very good at.

87: Story name: Fraser’s Story – 1997 **
Location: Maude Tiller’s flat – Tarrant’s office – MB’s London penthouse – the Casa Estrella, former Spanish colonial house in the Cocla province of Panama.
Villain: Victor Randle; Doctor Yago.
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Tarrant; Jack Fraser; Mary Dainton (aka Sonia Kotchak); Rene Vaubois; Paul Casanova; Herbert (‘Soapy) Carter.
Body count
: At least 9
Modesty’s love
r: none.
Willie’s lover
: Maude Tiller.
Nudity rating: Maude taking off her nightie.
Who kills who? : Soapy Carter terminated after being blown by WG. Jack Fraser kills Randle’s ‘heavy’, Conrad, before breaking Doctor Yago’s neck. MB crashes her jeep in the car of four more ‘heavies’. Mary/Sonia kills Randle with ‘Borgia ring’. Randle shoots Mary.
Summary/theme: Espionage revenge caper. WG is staying over at Maude Tiller’s place when she receives a registered letter from Jack Fraser, supposedly on leave in Spain. Instead he is heading to Panama to kill British traitor Victor Randle, who had defected to the KGB fifteen years previous, and was responsible for the deaths of over a hundred agents, including – so Fraser thinks – a close colleague, Mary Daunton. WG discovers Tarrant’s office is bugged, but the person listening in, ‘Soapy’ Carter, drives away. His body is later fished out of the Thames. Tarrant confides in MB and WG, who decide to fly to Panama, to either waylay Fraser or help him. On the way they encounter the usual inept gang of thugs trying to stop them, easily dealt with. Randle, an ex-KGB Colonel who has fled Moscow, is now a member of the Russian mafia, living in a rural Spanish colonial house, together with Sonia Kolchak, his mistress, and Doctor Yago, a specialist in brainwashing techniques. Randle’s next attempt to assassinate them is to use the French-Corsican mafia, Union Corse. However, the Corsican boss owes MB a favour, and agrees to fake their murder. Meantime Fraser, having travelled to Panama on fake ID, deliberately allows himself to be caught. He is subject to beatings, but when confronted by Sonia, recognises her as Mary Dainton, brainwashed by Yago into a new Russian persona. Fraser kills his guard and Doctor Yago, knocks out Mary, and escapes just as MB and WG arrive. Randle catches up with him and Mary, however, only for her to use Fraser’s fast-action poison ‘Borgia ring’ (which was disguised as a pace-maker) to kill Randle, before he, in turn, kills her. MB uses her high level Panama contacts to get them back to the UK, where Mary is buried, to be grieved a second time by Fraser, while MB lays it on the line that Tarrant is to take no disciplinary action against Fraser.
Critical comment: Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser appears on a regular basis throughout the comic strip series and novel/short stories, but he only really features as a key character in three of the former stories – “Top Traitor” (1965/66), where he risks his career to recruit MB’s help in proving Tarrant hadn’t defected, and revealing who the department traitor really was; “Green Cobra” (1979), where he is kidnapped by Salamander Four; and finally this story, where he sets out on a solo mission to kill one-time double agent Victor Randle, and – so he thinks – avenge the death of his former lover and fellow agent, Mary Dainton. He was, despite being drawn by Holdaway, Romero, Burns and Colvin, consistently recognisable, playing the part of the meek and bumbling civil servant, but really a steely former field-agent, still ruthless and prepared to kill, as he does both here, and in the “Green Cobra” story. That said, this story has at least two crossover characters from the novels – one being Paul Casanova, “head of the Union Corse”, who appeared in The Xanadu Talisman (1981), and the circumstances of that novel is mentioned here. The real Union Corse, a Corsican version of the mafia, was founded in the 1920s, and centred mostly on Corsica, Marseille and the South of France. During the Second World War, and after, it had a ambiguous relationship with the various French governments, being partly sympathetic to Vichy, as well sometimes being used as post-war strike-breakers. By the 1970s there were said to be fifteen clans operating on the French mainland. It featured in the Ian Fleming James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), where the head was Marc-Ange Draco, whose daughter, Teresa (Tracy) di Vicenzo, Bond briefly married, before she was killed by Blofeld and Irma Bunt. The other crossover character is only mentioned by name, Miguel Sagasta, one-time Police Captain in Panama at the time of the Network, later Chief of Police (and one of MB’s lovers) in A Taste for Death (1969), and Minister of Defence in “The Soo Girl Charity” (1996, Cobra Trap).
This comic strip story also sees the last appearance of Maude Tiller (with WG still sharing her bed), and French Intelligence chief, Rene Vaubois. Finally, we see the return of one of MB’s previous villains, the manipulative Doctor Yago, who we met in “Garvin’s Travels” (1981, created and drawn by Colvin). In that story he was more of a comic character, who finally defected to the Americans, preferring, he said (along with his colleague, the female Comrade Doctor Vole), to be “live capitalist pigs than dead communist heroes”. Here, while Romero’s depiction of him is comparatively faithful, if a lot less playful, he has reverted to the bad guys, taking great pleasure in inflicting, or watching others inflict, pain. He still calls Randle ‘Comrade Colonel’, despite Randle being ex-KGB, and now Russian mafia. However, yet again Peter O’Donnell rather lets us down concerning his apparent understanding of computers. Several times, in the comic strips, we have villains using them – Gilbert Bone as far back as “Idaho George” (1973), and again in the final story “The Zombie” (2000/01). However, computers do not have emotions, and don’t lose their tempers. One really would need a lot of variables and facts to “compute” individual human behaviour or success. As with Gilbert Bone planning his crime sprees, the inclusion of a computer is both unnecessary and rather silly. More curious is that Doctor Vago claims he spent three years brainwashing Mary Dainton into her new persona of Russian KGB operative Sonia Kolchak, but, almost in the same strip, Randle says she has worked for the KGB 12 years and been his bed partner for the last ten. We know from Fraser that Mary was thought to have been dead for 15 years, having been captured in Hungary and moved to Moscow, supposedly dying under interrogation. That meant that Vago first knew her all those years ago, yet apparently neither he nor Randle were aware of her link, professionally or emotionally, to Jack Fraser, who was then also a field agent. This would seem rather strange. Surely, part of her being brainwashed would have been to de-brief her on her knowledge of fellow agents and operations. She knew Jack Fraser, who Randle also knew, and of Fraser’s later position within British Intelligence. Also, given that Mary was an experienced agent, at the time of her capture she was probably already in her mid-twenties, so would now be in her late thirties or forty, yet Romero (as usual) depicts her as almost ageless. There are plot holes gaping here! Again, we have an echo of the final, 1966, James Bond novel The Man With the Golden Gun, where Bond is similarly brainwashed by the Russians and reappears in London, on a mission to assassinate ‘M’.
Overall, a weaker story.

88: Story name: Tribute of the Pharaoh – 1997/98 **
Location: MB’s penthouse, London – Sudan, Bayouda Desert, north of Khartoum – Hotel Rama, Haraz, near Jebel Barkal – former 19th century military fort – Taharqa’s tomb.
Villain: Jezzar (aka ‘Mr J.’); sidekick Murad.
Other characters: Lob (Hungarian Jewish Professor in MB flashback dream); Weng; Mrs Prendergast; Fiama (14 year old Arab girl); Uthman (gang leader); Sudanese Army Captain Kafur.
Body count: 5
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed, in robe. MB in shorts, at one point in bra.
Who kills who? : Mr J’s henchmen shoot Uthman first, then two of his gang, whose bodies are deposited down a well. MB shoots Jezzar. Murad dies when part of the tomb wall and statue falls on him.
Summary/theme: Treasure hunting caper. MB has a dream-cum-nightmare about when she was a child with her mentor, the old man Lob, in a tomb they once slept in in Sudan, near Jebel Barkall. Almost on impulse she decides to go back there with WG, flying to Khartoum. Driving in the desert, they meet elderly Miss Prendergast, actually an expert on ancient Kushite hieroglyphics, but who WG knew as the rather terrifying governess at his childhood orphanage. To MB’s surprise, she still intimidates him at first, insisting on calling him ‘William’. They tow her broken-down vehicle, but are attacked by four thugs led by Uthman, who MB and WG easily defeat, later leaving them to walk. Anglo-Sudanese crime boss, Jezzar – known as ‘Mr J’ – subsequently has Uthman shot and two of his men interrogated, then killed. Although Miss Prendergast was sceptical, the belief is the burial tomb (supposedly that of the 1st millennia B.C. Kush King Taharqa) contains hidden treasure. Mr J easily takes captive the still rather haughty Miss Prendergast, and MB and WG have to rescue her from his oasis hideaway, an old 19th century converted military fort – presumably (given where we are) built by the British. Finally MB and WG confront Mr J and Murad in the tomb of Taharqa, where the Amun god statue is. There is a shootout in which Mr J is killed, and when Murad tried to attack MB with a pick-axe, WG drop-kicks him from behind and he crashes into a false wall and is crushed by the statue. Hidden behind is the Kush royal gold. A detachment from the Sudanese Army arrives and takes over.
Critical comments: Yet again we have a nonsensical time-line, much as we will see later in “Death Symbol” (1999). MB says that the rationale for her nightmare/dream, is Lob had just had his 65th birthday while they were sheltering in the Amun statue tomb somewhere on the Upper Nile, while the previous day to her dream, he would have been 81, had he lived. Hence, the time between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ is just 16 years. If MB was 12/13 years old at the time (as Romero illustrates her – she looks very much like Sam Brown in the “Ivory Dancer” story), then she would be only about 28/29 ‘now’. Leaving aside the original backstory origins in World War II, and MB meeting Lob in a displaced persons camp in what would have been immediate post-war Greece, again this story is operating in a tight time-scale that completely ignores all their previous adventures. At no point does it make any rational sense, even in the comic strip world. But then, coupled with this, MB and WG goes chasing off to Khartoum, only for WG to meet his own ‘ghost’ from the past – in the middle of a Sudanese desert, no less! – Miss Prendergast, formidable governess of the orphanage from when he was age 14. Somehow we are expected to believe this woman can still terrify WG years later. Sorry, but it doesn’t really ring true. Even the name ‘Miss Prendergast’, is the same as ‘Nannie’ Prendergast, in the novel The Xanadu Talisman, the rather ruthless criminal leader of ‘El Mico’, evil brothers Jeremy and Dominic Silk. Would not WG, in the novel, have remarked upon this coincidence of names? That said, she is a rather tiresome character, both haughty and vulnerable. In another nod to MB’s past, they encounter a young orphaned Arab girl, another ‘desert gypsy’ like MB once was. However, she seems to serve no other purpose than a ‘information dump’ to move the plot on, telling them about the fort.
We are in Sudan, and told that the chief villain himself is half-Sudanese, even claiming to be “the blood of Taharqa’s race”, yet neither he or anyone else has dark skin or any obvious negro/African/native Sudanese features. As ever, Romero draws everyone like white Westerners. Mr J’s sidekick, Murad, actually looks and dresses like a cowboy. The young Arab girl Fiama looks like any British or American teenager. The Amun statue looks most peculiar, and again, not in the authentic first millennium B.C. Egyptian style. Even the army officer, Captain Kafur, has hair too long at the back, I thought, and again Western features, not even Arab.
Jebel Barkal does exist, 400 kilometres north of Khartoum. It is a sacred ‘mountain’ 98 metres high, and there are 13 temples and three palaces within the immediate locality. The Kush King Taharqa (or Taharka) mentioned by Miss Prendergast, we presume to be the son of Pye of Nubia, who ruled 690 to 664 B.C., so not then in the eighth century B.C. as she says.
Again, not one of the better stories.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist: Part 8


CHECK-LIST OF MODESTY BLAISE COMIC STRIP STORIES – PART 1 (1963-1986).

69: Story name: Lady in the Dark – 1989/90 ****
Location: MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – Austria, Castle Edlitz, Carinthia – Kingsbrook airfield, somewhere in Wiltshire.
Villain: Kassel (Salamander Four); Maria Feist.
Other characters: Canadian-born Dinah, and statistician/psychic investigator husband Steve Collier; Weng; Countess Edlitz; the Countess’s loyal butler Hans.
Body count: 0.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB changing, in the shower; Dinah in bra and panties, getting dressed.
Who kills who? : Not applicable.
Summary/theme: Crime caper – treasure hunt. Early in the 1800s the wicked Count Edlitz of Carinthia, Austria, arranged to hid his collection of Thrace and Roman gold, silver and jewels (discovered in a well) in the maze of caves beneath his castle, blowing up the exterior entrance with his men and horses still inside. The only other person who knew the secret was father confessor Karl, but, such is their greed and distrust, they kill each other, and hence the location of the treasure – if not the legend – dies with them. Fast forward to the 20th century, and Dinah Collier, the blind psychic wife of MB’s ex-lover Professor Steve Collier, is helping MB locate underground water and power pipes in preparation for a swimming pool at her Wiltshire cottage. Dinah and Steve are booked to fly to Edlitz Castle at the request of the Countess Edlitz, Canadian-born widow of the last Count, hoping to finally find the lost treasure. However, Steve injures his back and WG volunteers to go instead. Unbeknown to them, Maria Feist, descendent of Father Karl, has employed Salamander Four to help her secure the treasure, still using Dinah, and with Maria impersonating the real Countess, who is locked up in the castle dungeon. Salamander Four’s plans start to fall apart when Dinah notices Maria’s voice isn’t that of the real Countess, with whom she had previously spoken by telephone. Dinah and WG are quickly taken captive and the gang use the threat of flogging the real Countess to get Dinah’s cooperation. When MB phones (she is still in Wiltshire, nursing Steve) WG calls her “Modesty” rather than “Princess”, thereby alerting her to their plight. Salamander Four make two attempts to intercept her, in England and Austria, but as she reaches the castle she meets Hans, the Countess’s faithful butler. Meantime, WG and Dinah have worked out the old Count had a secret passage from the dungeon (the very cell they are in!) to the treasure caves, which Dinah had already located above ground – the psychic impression of the dying men being too much for her to conceal. They are just planning how to escape the now short distance out when MB appears, coming from the opposite direction! Kassel, desperate to recapture his ‘lost’ prisoners, asks his controller for a helicopter, but MB and WG use darkness to overwhelm the entire gang and Maria, tying them up just as the telephone rings. MB answers and announces who she is. The controller merely says the longer Kassel stays in prison, the longer he gets to live. The Countess decided to denote the treasure to the Austrian Ministry of Art.
Critical comments: A workable story, and improvement on “The Big Mole”. However, in comic strip 7394A, MB’s ‘cottage’ has been transformed by Romeo into a two-storey mock-Tudor, 1920s/30s suburban-style house with a turret-like chimney. Nothing like the Holdaway or Burns house, and nothing like Romero’s later depiction of MB’s cottage in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), or it’s later transformation yet again in “The Hanging Judge” (1998/99), back into an two-storey house built into an slight hillside! While Romero remained consistent to Holdaway’s version of MB’s penthouse and WG’s ‘Treadmill’, he was all over the place with MB’s cottage. Even more baffling, here her cottage quite closely resembles Romero’s later depiction of Lady Janet Gillam’s ‘farm house’ as seen in “The Murder Frame” (1997).
This is the first comic strip story to feature Canadian-born Dinah Collier (née Pilgrim), although husband Steve Collier had briefly featured in “With Love From Rufus” (1972). Steve had first appeared in the novels in I, Lucifer, while Dinah (then unmarried and still under her maiden name), first appeared in A Taste for Death (1969), when arch-villain Gabriel had her sister Judy murdered. Dinah had been blind since eight, and lived in a world of sound, senses and smells. She was also psychic, able to using dowsing techniques to detect objects, or even fluids, hidden beneath the ground. In both this story, and the original novel, this ability attracts the attention of villains seeking treasure. In the comic strips, they subsequently appeared again in “A Present for the Princess” (1992/93) and “Durango” (1996/97). Romero’s depiction of Dinah is workaday – at least she isn’t the usual lookalike, Axa-type blonde. The novels describe her as being “between beautiful and pretty”, and “small” in stature, but with a quality about her that is notable. Alas, we can only speculate how Holdaway or Colvin might have illustrated her. At the beginning of this story MB is employing her dowsing skills to determine the location of any underground pipes or cables in the grounds of the Wiltshire cottage, so that MB might construct a swimming pool. However, in the novels parallel world, MB had already asked Dinah to do this quite early on their friendship, in A Taste for Death, not long after realising the Canadian girl’s abilities. Thus the rather annoying divide between the MB comic strip and novels/short stories. In the novels, Steve Collier was initially MB’s lover in the first two books, and Dinah was intimate with WG, in part because he had saved her from being kidnapped by Gabriel’s thugs, and she needed comforting after they had murdered her sister. However, an emotional bond develops between her and Steve Collier as the novel progressed, as much because of their shared captivity by the Delicta/Gabriel gang. MB especially never insists on exclusivity with her lovers, as we see with Giles Pennyfeather, in both the novels and the comic strips. It is quite normal for lovers to become merely very close good friends. Thereafter – especially in the novel/short stories – Steve and Dinah are a couple, having quickly got married to each other rather than MB or WG. In the closing pages of A Taste for Death our two heroes discuss their reaction at being given the “heave-ho” (as MB put it), but without displaying a great deal of emotional upset. In the final MB short story, “Cobra Trap”, the Colliers eventually have two children, Dan and Sue, already grown-up teenagers, Dan being a student.
Yet again Romero’s rendering of the Edlitz Castle in the Austrian province of Carinthia, perches atop an exaggerated steep hill, resembling more a fantasy fairy-tale castle, rather than one in real life, and with impossible soaring steeple-turrets and central keep. The grim historical introduction to the Edlitz treasure at the very beginning of the story is supposedly set “two hundred years ago”, although the costume of the then Count Edlitz seemed to date earlier – WG himself later says “three hundred years”. In fact, the characters dialogue, and the Lawrence Blackmore Titan Books story introduction mentions the “upstart Napoleon” and “Emperor Francis”, the latter being the Holy Roman Emperor, so Blackmore dates events to prior to the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz. Again Blackmore reports there is a small town of Edlitz, but in Neunkirchen, not Carinthia, with (in 2011) a population just under 1,000. Carinthia (Kárnten in German) borders Italy and Slovenia, and was a Habsburg Duchy from medieval times, incorporated into the Austrian Empire in 1806, then the Kingdom of Illyria until 1849, and crown lands from 1867 until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918.
Again, we have MB and WG up against Salamander Four, who, in the comic strip, we had previously met in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973, Romero), “Green Cobra” (1979, Burns), and “Pluto’s Republic” (1984/85, Colvin). At one point, when WG and Dinah are first attempting to escape, Kassel threatens to shoot Dinah unless WG surrenders – but, given that they needed Dinah’s psychic/dowsing skills to still find the buried treasure cave, the threat was surely bluff only. And, indeed, Dinah then says their threat to shoot WG instead, as likely to disrupt her psychic ability, so better to keep him alive! When WG and Dinah flew to Salzburg they were met by another, sinister Salamander Four man pretending to be the Countess’s chauffeur, and the car would appear to be a 1950s Citroen, rather like the French police used at that earlier period. When MG flies out to Austria in her Piper Comanche (plane registration G-ATOY, the same as used in “Million Dollar Game”, 1987), from ‘the small airfield at Kingsbrook’, what we glimpse of the airfield as she takes off would appear to be more extensive, with at least three hangers, an impressive control tower, and two of Romero’s strange ‘science fiction’ pinnacle towers! Again the villains use the fake police trick to intercept her – no wonder MB was immediately suspicious after all the times this has happened in the past, either to her or WG!
And we have another villain with a surname beginning with ‘K’ – see my comments in Part 1.

70: Story name: Fiona – 1990 ***
Location: ‘Tanarachi’, in the Chittagoon Hills, Bengal, India – Gogol’s circus, somewhere in India (perhaps near Calcutta) – MG and Tarrant en route through Dacca.
Villain: Mr Wu Smith; chief henchman Maung.
Other characters: ‘Fiona’ (circus chimpanzee); Mr Rance (Wu Smith laboratory underling); Tarrant; Dr Sumitra Latham (Bengali parents, originally from Uganda); Dr David Latham (Sumitra’s husband); Gopal (blind Bengali hermit and holy man); Georgi Gogol (WG co-partner and circus owner); Kropski (circus animal trainer, supposedly in charge of the chimpanzees); Sharon (girl in WG knife-throwing act, who throws a wobbly at Fiona’s infatuation for WG).
Body count
: 1 (2, if you count Fiona the chimp).
Modesty’s lover
: none.
Willie’s lover: WG had his hopes dashed with Sharon, from his knife-throwing act.
Nudity rating: MB in very skimpy shorts and crop top.
Who kills who?
: MB shoots Maung just as he shoots Fiona, who is attacking him.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. The story initially splits into three strands – the first has former Network nurse, now Bengali medical doctor Sumitra Latham, consulting with blind holy man Gopal. Her British husband, Doctor David Latham, has been naïvely acquiring much-needed drugs and medical supplies for their remote hospital in the Chittagoon Hills, from the underlings of Mr Wu Smith, who she realises are ‘evil men’ processing opium into heroin. They are using an abandoned jungle temple to the Hindi snake goddess Manasa as their laboratory/factory. Gopal foresees the intervention of MB (“once your benefactor…dark…strong…a princess…”) but that she will die “unless another dies for her”. Meantime MB is indeed planning a surprise visit, but is accompanied by Sir Gerald Tarrant, who is on a personal family pilgrimage to his brother’s wartime grave. On the third strand, WG is touring in India with Gogol’s Circus, and performing his knife-throwing act (the “Great El Cozador”), only to be interrupted by circus female chimpanzee Fiona, who is infatuated with him. Upon learning MB is visiting Bengal, he decides to join her, but Fiona stows away with him, forcing him to go overland rather than fly. Sumitra tells David she thinks MB is coming and he, in turn, blurts this out to Mr Wu Smith, who thereupon arranges for MB to be waylaid and put out of action long enough for them to finish their drug preparation. MB and Tarrant, driving up by jeep, easily overcome Maung and his henchmen (she using an improvised quarterstaff), as does WG (with help from Fiona) a little later. MB quickly realises something is amiss, and when Fiona retrieves a packet of heroin with the temple, Sumitra confesses to the situation – David, desperate to keep the hospital running after the latest, devastating cyclone – is being ‘bought off’ to keep quiet about Wu Smith’s drug producing enterprise. However, when David goes alone to confront Maung, he is tied to the goddess statue, and threatened with a live cobra. When MB and WG intervene (in the absence of Wu Smith, who prefers subtlety), they are put down a snake pit with another cobra. Again Fiona helps them escape, but in the ensuing taking out of the gang, Maung is about to shoot MB when Fiona (who already associates him as WG’s enemy) attacks him, getting shot instead – thus fulfilling Gopal’s prophecy! By the time Wu Smith arrives by plane, the gang (except for the dead Maung, shot by MB) are down the snake pit, and the drugs and equipment destroyed. MB offers Smith’s freedom for $200 million in Krugerrands (to go to David’s hospital), and a signed confession she could use against him with any British officials, should he try to retaliate. The threat of him and his underlings remaining down the pit with a few cobra snakes, gets a quick compliance. Afterwards WG buries Fiona near the hospital.
Critical comments: On first read I rather took against this story, but then initially I also didn’t appreciate Colvin’s artistic mastery over Romero either. On re-reading it, it is not, by any means, amongst the best of the MB comic strip stories, but not the worst either. That said, Romero’s art is mostly workable, but with a few odd glitches. Here the main criticism is again his apparent inability to effectively depict non-European cultures or characters. Colvin was especially good at this. Instead Romero’s illustration of the Bengali holy man Gopel looks more Oriental (south-east Asiatic perhaps, Indo-Chinese) than authentic Indian/Bengali. Despite MB and Tarrant flying to, and through, India, the fellow passengers on the aeroplane and at the airports, are mostly European, few native Indians as one might expect, and as I think both Holdaway and Colvin would have included. Even WG’s friend Yasin could be of almost any nationality. Only the Indian with the London taxi cab has a turban, rather a token gesture, perhaps! More crucial – given its importance within the story – is Romero’s depiction of the statue of the goddess Manasa, also known as Manasa Devi, goddess of snakes. Worshipped mostly in Bengal, Jharkhand and north-east India, she traditionally was said to be the daughter of the sage Kashyap and the sister of (Naga, half-snake/half-human) King Vasuki. She was reputed to be “kind to her devotees”, but harsh to non-believers. Although not all temples contained her image (instead sometimes a branch of a tree, a pot or snake was the focal point), Wikipedia gives a vivid description of what her statue would look like. She was depicted as being covered with snakes, either sitting on a lotus or standing on a snake, “sheltered by a canopy of the hoods of seven cobra snakes,” and often with a child on her lap, apparently her son, Astika. What has to be stressed here is that she would be depicted very much in the Hindu/Indian artistic mode: facial features; round, almost globe-like breasts; headdress; girdle; elaborate jewellery; and multiple arms. Instead Romero’s statue – quite bizarrely – is entirely in the Western/Classical Greek/European mode, completely nude, apparently fair-haired, with Caucasian facial features, and a few snakes entwined about her arms (only two, not four!) Completely and utterly wrong in every way! We are in an Bengali/Indian temple, not a Greek or Roman one!
Again we meet the villain Mr Wu Smith, banker and crook, “of the New Provident and Commercial Bank” of Macao, who became the most long-lasting of MB opponents, appearing in both comic strip and novels. Here again, he escapes to threaten them another day! Sir Gerald – here apparently given a ‘month’s leave’ – very generous of HMG – plans to visit his brother’s grave in the War Cemetery at Imphal, capital city of the Indian State of Manipur. This refers to the July 1944 ‘Siege of Imphal’, and the 14th British Commonwealth Army, by the Japanese, in which there were over 50,000 Japanese casualties. Despite its subsequent obscurity, Mountbatten once described it as “one of the greatest battles in history” – perhaps a trifle hyperbole. The Cemetery contains over 1,600 British and Indian dead.
Here again, also, we see Georgi Gogol’s Circus, part-owned by WG, which we first met in the story “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972-73, drawn by Romero). Thus originally conceived in the comic strip, ‘Gogol’s Wonder Circus’ (as it is called in the novels), only appears in The Xanadu Talisman (1981) and The Night of Morningstar (1982), where it was explained WG first met Hungarian Georgi Gogol in the south of France just before the Network was wound down. On this occasion, we do not meet Chloe the elephant, but instead Fiona the female chimpanzee, who is infatuated with WG, apparently thinking either she is the human or WG is a chimp! As a relationship, perhaps, it was inevitably doomed right from the start, but again it illustrates WG’s empathy with animals – even a deadly cobra snake! For this latter close encounter, WG explains he once worked a month at the “Pasteur snake farm in Bangkok” and knew how to squeeze out snake venom. Although founded in 1912, this is actually (since 1922, by Thai royal decree) named the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, now located in Rama IV Road. Again, with Gopal’s chilling prophecy, we have an element of the supernatural – used often by Peter O’Donnell as a convenient plot device.
On a more sombre note, chimpanzee males are stronger than most human equivalents and can be quite violent. Genetically, they are our nearest primate relatives. However, when Peter O’Donnell wrote this story there was estimated to be about 1.3 million chimps in the wild. Now the figure is believed to be between 172,000 and 300,000 only. In other words, in less than 30 years, one million chimpanzees have been wiped out – by us, hunting them or destroying their habitat. WG would be angry.

71: Story name: Walkabout – 1990 ***
Location: Palm Beach, New South Wales, Australia – Sydney – Great Victoria Desert – Nullarbor Plain – railroad depot – Kalgoorlie – Forrest Airfield – yacht at sea.
Villain: American Mafia hoods, Renzo and others; ‘Four Fingers’ Fitch; Snowy and Jimbo; Martin Lang (aka Mario, American lawyer and crook who has lived in Australia as a Mafia ‘sleeper’ for 20 years.)
Other characters
: Debbie Grant (partner in Sydney law firm, WG girlfriend); Jacko (Aborigine and ex-Network member); Larry Houston (head of Internal Security); Tankai (young Aborigine maid); Luki (Tankai’s father); Doctor Dan Hailey; Bert Dalby (boss of Dalby Air services).
Body count
: 1
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: Debbie Grant.
Nudity rating: Debbie in a bikini, surfing and on beach with WG. MB in just loincloth or nude, in the Outback. Several bare-breasted, topless Aborigine women. WG, who Burns and Colvin drawn with shadowy chest hair, now has a fluffy blonde patch instead, as illustrated by Romero! Like his frequent depiction of him or MB wet, under a shower or emerging from swimming, seeming covered in streaming water droplets, this looks quite artificial and ridiculous.
Who kills who?
: Fellow thug Snowy kills Fitch with speargun instead of MB.
Summary/theme: Crime caper. WG is at Sydney’s Palm Beach, in Australia, where he renews his relationship from two years previous with lady lawyer Debbie Grant. Meantime MB is 1,500 miles away, on ‘Walk-About’ in the Great Victoria Desert with ex-Network member, Australian native Aborigine Jacko and his tribe, indulging in some ‘Stone Age culture’. Debbie is working closely with Larry Houston, of Australian Internal Security (who WG and MB know), on building up a case against an incursion into Australia by the America Mafia, whose ‘front man’ in Sydney is a crooked, naturalised lawyer named Martin Lang (‘Mario’ to his US partners). WG warns Debbie that she and Larry could be targeted, little suspecting Lang has already set up an elaborate assassination attempt on Larry through his henchman, Aussie ‘Four Fingers’ Fitch. Fitch has convinced Luki, the more incredulous Aborigine father of Larry’s maid Tankai, that Larry plans to dishonour his daughter, and use magic to harm her unless she complies. He thereby tricks Luki into attacking Larry with a spear, despite Tankai’s attempt to stop him. Larry is badly injured and Tankai urges her father to flee. Serving time in prison is the equivalent of a death sentence to an Aborigine. Meantime, after three weeks in the bush, MB is driving back by jeep, planning to stop over at a Trans-Australian railway depot for the night, when the sudden appearance of a camel in the road causes her to crash, trapping her leg. It is the fugitive Luki, working as a ‘fettler’ on the railway, who rescues her from the jeep’s petrol tank exploding, but – by a bizarre twist of fate – the spear given her by Jacko pierces his back, in an echo of Larry’s near-fatal injury. MB helps the local doctor in performing surgery, saving Luki’s life, but not long after the police arrest him for his murder attempt on Larry. MB realises he has been set-up and vows to help him. WG installs bugs in Lang’s office, enabling them to monitor the Mafia plans, and, together, they are able to arrange they are the only available pilots to fly Lang and the Mafia gang under Renzo, their leader, to Ceduna (in South Australia). Instead, they land and abandon them in the desert, where Jacko and his tribe ‘rescue’ them, forcing them to partake in their ‘walk-about’, living on foraged food like lizards and grubs. Jacko, meantime, pretends he cannot speak English other than “Hello”. Once they are suitable broken in spirit, MB and WG appear and force them – Lang especially – to sign confessions, before arranged for them all to be deported back to the USA. However, before being flown out, Lang contacts Fitch to revenge kill MB, although his fellow Mafia hoods refuse to sanction paying any financial reward. Unaware they are not getting payment, Fitch and two henchman, Snowy and Jimbo, kidnap Debbie and hold her on a yacht at sea, knowing MB and WG will attempt to rescue her. While WG approaches underwater (as Fitch anticipates), MB arrives disguised on water-skis, taking out Jimbo. Underwater combat follows, with Snowy killing Fitch by accident. WG enjoys time with Debbie, while MB introduces Jacko to Larry Houston.
Critical comments: A second return to the Australian Outback, and its native Aborigine inhabitants, previously visited in “The Stone-Age Caper” (1971, also drawn by Romero). That too featured the ex-Network member and Australian Aborigine Jacko, who again we also met briefly in “The Highland Witch” (1974). He only appeared in the comic strips. Here we discover something of his back-story – WG getting him “out of trouble in Marseilles” and finding him a job in the Network’s ‘boat section’, “on one our ships”. MB helped pay for him to study engineering, and he now has his own marine repair business, but still ‘goes native’ periodically, to keep in touch with his cultural roots. Australia, and especially the native Aborigine culture, obviously fascinated Peter O’Donnell, who used it again in one of his ‘Madeleine Brent’ novels The Golden Urchin (1986). MB, who we are again reminded spent her childhood and early teens living a similar nomadic existence, spends several weeks with his tribe, “living on lizards, grubs and snakes”, although she finds it hard to enjoy taking an active part in a kangaroo hunt. This primitive lifestyle she then inflicts on the American Mafia mobsters, prior to booting them out of the country. When their naturized Aussie lawyer frontman, Martin (Mario) Lang attempts to insult Jacko as “scum”, MB reminds him Jacko’s ancestors have lived here 20,000 years, and it was their land before the Westerners came. In fact, it is longer – estimated to be 50,000 years. In 2016 Aborigine numbers were given as 759,700, or about 3.1% of the total population.
Debbie Grant (who WG says is “the only lawyer I took a bubble bath with”, looking at times rather like Romero’s version of Maude Tiller) only features in this story, but Internal Security chief Larry Houston had featured in the novel Dragon’s Claw (1978), and is mentioned by name in the later comic strip story “The Killing Game” (2000), this being his first – and only – actual ‘crossover’ appearance. The story repeatedly illustrates the Aborigine psyche, often living in two, quite different worlds. In his introduction to the Titan Books edition, MB expert Lawrence Blackmore remarks, in the real world, the mafia had already been operating in Australia from the 1950s, for over two decades, under Lennie McPherson, George Freeman, and Abe (‘Mr Sin’) Saffron. For the most part Romero’s artwork is competent and workable, except for his illustrations of the Aborigine children, who are – quite frankly – depicted as grotesque, with peculiar shaped heads! Just weird!
Once again, in a country has huge as Australia, we have the rather unbelievable coincidence of fugitive Luki being the one to rescue MB from the crashed, burning jeep, to be followed by him being speared in the back also, as he had speared Larry Houston. The underwater combat previously being perfected by MB and WG in John Dall’s Texas swimming pool in “The Girl from the Future” (1989), here comes in useful!

72: Story name: The Girl in the Iron Mask – 1990/91 ****
Location: Mammon Hall, in the Swiss Alps – the “Treadmill” WG’s pub – (briefly) somewhere in Yugoslavia – ‘Kippel Hole’, freak 50-metre-deep pit in the Swiss Alps, located about “20 miles” from Mammon Hall.
Villain: Millionaire twins Reggie and Humphrey Bone; three-man ‘Magpie’ terror group; three-man ‘Iliad’ terror group.
Other characters: Celeste (Bone brothers’ housekeeper); Tarrant; Dave Craythorpe (pilot): Joe Mellar (Bone’s London contact and ‘fixer’); Damion, Tarquin and Jeremy (UK-based hit-squad); Doris (WG barmaid at the “Treadmill”); Valjevo (Yugoslav ex-Network member, now retired).
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover
: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB flashing plenty of leg as she climbs out of Kippel Hole. Getting changed out of her ragged dress in the helicopter as they fly to confront the Bone brothers.
Who kills who? : MB foot-kicks two of the ‘Magpie’ team down Kippel Hole. The ‘Iliad’ team shoot the third man. WG kills one of the ‘Iliad’ team. Humphrey Bone shoots brother Reggie, then has fatal heart attack himself.
Summary/theme: Revenge caper. Retired and aged millionaire bachelor twins Humphrey and Reggie Bone enjoy ruining rich people by manipulating the stock market from their retirement mansion in the Swiss Alps. Having grown bored with this game, they decide instead to take revenge on MB for thwarting their attempt to ruin Texan tycoon John Dall. They employ two separate terror gangs – code-named ‘Magpie’ and ‘Iliad’ – the former to kidnap MB, who is driving from Yugoslavia to Zurich, having been visiting ex-Network retirees. The ‘Magpie’ team put MB down ‘Kippel Hole’, a deep pit near to the Bone’s Mammon Hall, her head encased in an iron mask with only a slit-like opening for her to breath. The brothers watch on a TV monitor relayed by a camera used by one of the ‘Magpie’ team on a crane hoist. Celeste, the Bone’s housekeeper, is horrified and secretly phones WG at the “Treadmill” with a brief message to “Look for your friend in Kippel Hole”. Tarrant is able to identify what and where this is. WG is only briefly delayed going to the rescue, by an inapt gang of three young and arrogant thugs the Bones had commissioned to watch him. MG, meanwhile, having figured out her predicament, and despite unable to see in the inhibiting mask, manages to climb out, and is able to turn the tables on the ‘Magpie” team, plunging two down the hole, and taking the third prisoner, enabling her to access a spanner to remove the mask. At that point the ‘Iliad’ team – tasked with secretly monitoring ‘Magpie’ – open fire, just as WG parachutes down and intervenes. The two survivors, having revealed their employer, are hoisted down the hole, while WG and MB fly by ‘Magpie’s’ helicopter to Mammon Hall. Celeste scares off the Bone’s security guards by saying who is on the way. Humphrey hoped to bluff his way out by blaming Reggie and shoots him, thinking to make it look like suicide. Minutes later, however, he himself suffers a fatal heart-attack. MB and WG promise to help Celeste and her young daughter – named as Nicole, at school in Neuchatel, whom the Bones threatened, thereby keeping her like a hostage. Celeste, in turn, says she will simply let the Swiss police “make what they can” of four bodies, two surviving terrorists, and a crane at Kippel Hole!
Critical comments: Yet again, as with the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli or Russian army Colonel Greb, the Bone brothers are introduced with a pre-existing backstory, but here their previous encounter with MB is actually crucial to the entire plot – the reason for their revenge – yet it is remarked upon only in vague outline in just one early strip, number 7652, that MB foiled a plot by the Bone twins to financially ruin John Dall. There is nothing about this in any previous comic strip story, nor do they appear – even just mentioned in passing – in any of the novels/short stories. We gather they used the financial markets to bankrupt or ruin their victims, but how then did MB stop them? We never learn. Indeed, MB and WG only discover that the Bones are the instigators of the iron mask plot quite late in the story, after having eliminated both of the hit teams. WG’s only response is “the mad millionaires”. This is a pity, because it again implies additional stories not in either the comic strip or novel/short story collections, but also because their hatred of MB is the ‘McGuffin’, the key to everything that follows, in what is otherwise, quite a good story, O’Donnell back (for now) on form.
The ”book by that French chappie” referred to by Reggie Bone is, of course, The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandra Dumas (1802-1870), part of the D’Artagnan Romances, a fictionalised interpretation of the real unidentified prisoner held 1669/70 to 1703 at the time of French King Louis XIV.
The ‘magpie’ team technique to take MB captive – a fake car accident, overturned and on fire, somewhere presumably in the Italian or Swiss Alpes – rather depends on having a completely deserted, otherwise traffic-free, road both ways, least some other motorist should intrude upon the set-up, before, during or after the snatch. The use of a tranquilliser dart to subdue MB is reminiscent of the Mahmoud gang hit, in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72). The ’yippie’ hit team employed to take out WG as he tries to leave the “Treadmill” to search for MB – Damion, Tarquin and Jeremy – make a reappearance in “The Young Mistress” (1991/92). Given he is in England, it is rather curious that WG’s (unidentified) car is a left-hand drive.
Dave Craythorpe, the aircraft pilot, featured in both the comic strip and novels/short stories. In the latter he appeared in “I Had a Date with Lady Janet” (1972), A Taste for Death (1969), The Impossible Virgin (1971), “The Soo Girl Charity” (1972), and The Silver Mistress (1973). In the novels he had a Beagle Pup, based at White Waltham, near to “The Treadmill”, and was said to fly smuggled goods in and out of France. This story also has Doris, WG’s barmaid at “The Treadmill” pub, mentioned by name in “Death in Slow Motion” (1983), but seen here for the first time, although, typically, Romero depicts her as a young, Axa-like blonde – again! She, too, featured in the short story “I Had A Date with Lady Janet” (Pieces of Modesty, 1972), and got mentioned in Last Day in Limbo (1976), where she and her husband decide to emigrate to Australia. Strange then, that she is still working at “The Treadmill” in both this, and the other post-1976 stories, unless WG employed someone with the same name!
The helicopter used by the ‘Magpie’ team was a Bell 206, manufactured US/Canada 1967 to 2017. Again one of Bone three-man security detail was “with Bora’s mob” – the rival drug-dealing gang MB had put down in her Network days, mentioned on a number of occasions elsewhere in both the comic strip and novels. Peter O’Donnell had already used the surname ‘Bone’ in the story “Idaho George” (1978), with the rather stupid, female criminal gang leader Anastasia Bone. There is also a passing reference to Bernie Chan (made by the Damion mob), a crooked London jeweller and fence, who, in the novel The Night of Morningstar (1982), MB and WG kidnapped and tricked into revealing information they needed.

73: Story name: The Young Mistress – 1991/92 ***
Location: MB’s penthouse flat, London – Mount Galleries, Blakewell Street, London – MB’s cottage, near Benildon, Wiltshire – Lacey’s yacht, Shadwell Bay.
Villain: Bruce Lacey.
Other characters: Dr Giles Pennyfeather; Weng; Hooker (Lacey’s minder/trainer); Marian Hall; Eddie Parker (Marian’s boyfriend); John Dall; Tarquin, Dalmion and Jeremy (the ‘B’ team hit-squad).
Body count: 2
Modesty’s lover: Giles Pennyfeather; (she declines to spend time with John Dall, promising to see him “in the Fall”).
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB nude, and in bra and panties getting dressed (earlier with Giles, later as they prepare their showdown with Lacey on his yacht); MB, having removed her Velcro skirt, bare legs and panties as she takes on Hooker and Lacey in the gym.
Who kills who? : Lacey shoots Hooker in a crazy rage. Weng accidentally hits Lacey with powerboat, breaking his neck.
Summary/theme
: Art fraud caper. Dr Giles Pennyfeather is “between jobs” in Chad, doing locum work at a surgery in London, while staying with MB at her penthouse. Their Sunday morning in bed is interrupted by a telephone call from Marian Hall, one of his patients, who has been badly flogged with a riding crop by her ‘boyfriend’, a wealthy, art gallery owner named Bruce Lacey, who MB recognises as a vicious thug and possible criminal. She accompanies Giles to the flat above Lacey’s art gallery, but as they are leaving Lacey arrives, with his minder, Hooker. Giles calls him a swine, sadist and scumbag, prompting Lacey to take a swing at him, forcing MB to intervene. She, almost effortlessly, takes out both men, leaving Lacey tied to a climbing rope in the gym, just as WG arrives (having been updated on the situation by Weng). Only then does Lacey realise who they are, and vow revenge, intending (so he says) to strip and whip MB in turn. At Giles’ insistence, Marian goes back to the penthouse with them, and confesses to MB she copied a valuable Impressionist painting for Lacey, who then sold it for $30,000, whilst keeping the original. Lacey has since blackmailed her, saying she could go to prison for art fraud. MB traces the sale to an American, who turns out to be none other than her millionaire boyfriend, John Dall, in New York. Meantime, Giles and Marian go into hiding at MB’s Wiltshire cottage, but Lacey is able to find the address through a newspaper contact. WG, however, easily deals with the ham-fisted attempt to snatch her back. Dall having brought the fake painting to MB’s keeping in the UK, she and WG break into Lacey’s gallery, take the original and replace it with the copy, but now marked FAKE with a hot poker. Dall flies back to New York, and the following day Giles flies to Chad. But Lacey has kidnapped Marian, together with her former boyfriend, fellow commercial artist Eddie Parker (who she really loves), and sets MB up for an exchange – prisoners for the Impressionist painting. MB is prepared, however, wearing a plastron fencing jacket under the bodysuit, and faking being knocked out by a tranquillising dart. Meantime WG parachutes on the yacht, with Weng following in a power boat. They easily take out the unsuspecting four man crew, but in the final confrontation Lacey shoots Hooker dead, before falling overboard, still with his gun. As Weng swings the power boat round the yacht’s stern, he hits Lacey, breaking his neck. WG meantime retrieves the Rembrandt Lacey wanted Marian to copy next. They dump Hooker’s body into the sea also. Later Marian and Eddie thank them, Marian having painted her ‘last’ masterpiece, the “Mono Lisa” (signed with her own name) as a gift for MB.
Critical comments: Marian Hall is the ‘Young Mistress’, not in a sexual connotation, but as a copyist of Old Masters – Lacey’s “little joke”. There is no ‘Blakewell Street’ listed in London. Lacey is described as a “yuppie wheeler-dealer – rich – criminal type – keep fit type” with his own basement gym. The term ‘yuppie’ was first coined about 1980, as a ‘young professional’. The ‘Charlot’ is described as a ‘minor Impressionist’, of whom MB remarks “Yes, he’s become fashionable of late”, but this raises some query. Attempts to clarify more detail of ‘Charlot’ seem to draw a blank. There is a Louis Henri Jean Charlot (1898-1974), a French-American painter in the Mexican style. Otherwise there is apparently a ‘Marie Charlot’, said to be a 19th century Belgian Impressionist painter, but who might be a fictitious name used by a 1970s ‘painting factory’ creating fake Impressionist works! At least one ‘Marie Charlot’, entitled “Victorian Ladies”, was priced and sold (for real) at about $425. Much less than the $30,000 which the dealer paid Lacey, or the unstated price John Dall then paid, for “Tulips in a Blue Vase” (18” x 24”). Lacey’s next proposed swindle was to be a Rembrandt, which a collector wanted him to value as authentic. He planned for Marian to copy it, he would then ‘age’ it, and return the fake, keeping the original.
This sees another appearance of Dr Giles Pennyfeather, a crossover from the novels, who had previously appeared in the comic strip story “The Wild Boar” (1985, illustrated by Neville Colvin). Romero’s depiction of him keeps very much to the Colvin image, if perhaps a little less dishevelled and cartoony. MB’s mental description of him is “artless, guileless, usually penniless, academically hopeless, but has a marvellous gift for making people well”, and a “lovable idiot” at times who she pretends to rage at, although it’s questionable who, of the two of them, normally gets who into crazy and dangerous situations. Her other regular lover, American/Texan multi-millionaire tycoon John Dall, expresses mock jealousy of him, and the two couldn’t be more dissimilar, in character or circumstance.
Again, however, Romero goes completely ‘off-piste’ with his crazy depiction of MB’s Wiltshire cottage. From Jim Holdaway’s original two-storey house including roof space, to John Burns’ version – similar enough, and I think perhaps the best – to Pat Wright’s one-storey chalet-like shack, we, rather bizarrely, actually have several – quite different – versions by Romero, of which this is the most outlandish – a thatched building with dormer windows in the roof, and his usual crisscross pane windows throughout, but with Giles and Marian looking as if totally out of scale in the near foreground. Given that Romero (unlike Colvin) did attempt to remain consistent to Holdaway’s version of MB’s London penthouse and WG’s ‘Treadmill’ pub exterior, his lack of singular vision for MB’s cottage is rather oddball. However, we learn the cottage’s name, “Ashlea”, located “one mile west of Benildon”, Wilts., although this distance, too, varied over time in the comic strips or novels. In an earlier story it was three miles.
The hapless, but cocky, hit-man trio, Tarquin, Dalmion and Jeremy, had already appeared in the story “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90), getting thrashed by WG on the forecourt of the ‘Treadmill’. Here they suffer similar humiliation, but by WG disguised as an old man – “Garvin’s grandfather”, is their conclusion – an idea O’Donnell was to use again with the French agent Henri in “Our Friend Maude”, just two stories later, still in 1992.

74: Story name: Ivory Dancer – 1992 ***
Location: London East End judo club – ‘Dalliance Farm’, ranch and stables, Kentucky, USA – MB’s London penthouse – Disused quarry, Kentucky – Matt Ringwell’s Circus at Ashville – Limestone Hills (old mine).
Villain: Gallo and gang.
Other characters: Sam (Samantha) Brown; John Dall; husband and wife Mike and Sally Duggan; Matt Ringwell; Lolita and husband, ‘The Mighty Hercules’.
Body count: 1
Modesty’s lover: John Dall.
Willie’s lover: Circus contortionist Lolita (WG ex, from Gogol’s Circus).
Nudity rating: MB nude in bed with John Dall; MB in ‘bikini’ spangles as ‘Conchita’, WG’s knife-throwing act partner; Sam in bra.
Who kills who?
: WG hits and kills Gallo with mallet. WG gets face cut with bull-whip. Sam gets bullet skinning her rib.
Summary/theme
: Race horse ransom caper. MB accompanies WG to young Samantha Brown’s East End London ‘judo club’. Sam has already shown herself a natural at horse-riding on holiday visits to MB’s cottage in Wiltshire. They invite her to accompany them to stay with Texan multi-millionaire John Dall at his equine stables and stud-farm in Kentucky. Dall has just paid $10 million for champion race-horse ‘Ivory Dancer’, but crime boss Gallo plans to kidnap the horse for a $5 million ransom. He threatens to disfigure the wife of Dall’s stable manager, Mike Duggan, with acid, unless Mike cooperates to switch off the stable alarm system. Meantime, Sam is staying with the Duggans, and shows great empathy with ‘Ivory Dancer’. Everyone agrees she is like a young MB. Another distraction is a nearby circus, the owner of whom knows WG, and who asks if WG might do his knife-throwing act with MB. Later, on their way back from visiting the circus, Gallo attempts to take MB and WG out of circulation using thugs with steel-tipped bull-whips and a car-wrecking crane. WG uses 50-cent coins as missiles while MB gets the crane driver, then taking the rest of the gang with a butterfly kick and the kongo. Afterwards they speculate inconclusively who might have had a grudge against them. Sam, meantime, has a sort of premonition about Ivory Dancer, and one night accidentally sets off the stable alarms, much to Dall’s displeasure. WG and MB perform the knife-throwing act as ‘El Cazador and Conchita’. That night Gallo contacts a distressed and fearful Mike Duggan, who switches off the alarms and Ivory Dancer is stolen. Dall’s response to the alarms being off is to blame Sam, and Mike Duggan confesses it was him, terrified by what they might do to his wife Sally. Sam, however, has gone. leaving a note saying she thinks she knows were Ivory Dancer is. MB realises the gang will use the circus as cover to transport the horse (its colour disguised) away undetected. MB, WG and Dall go after the circus in his helicopter, and see the trailer, having by then already pulled off into woods. As the gang open the trailer, Ivory Dancer leaps out with Sam riding bareback. One of Gallo’s gang shoots, grazing her rib, before Gallo stops him, least he hit the horse. Flying overhead, WG uses tools as missiles, until the helicopter rotor blade is hit by a shotgun bullet. They land near to where Sam and Ivory Dancer are hiding, and (having bandaged Sam’s wound) MB and WG go back to deal with Gallo and gang. MB uses Sam’s bloody shirt to make it appear she fell, and was injured, from the helicopter. WG, with his hatred of men who threaten women – Sally, Sam or MB – uses a mallet to kill Gallo.
Critical comments: This is the second appearance of Sam Brown (now age 13), who featured in “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987/88). Sam would appear again one last time, in “The Special Orders” (1998). We are told that the Contrax business had been “last year”, although Sam’s age in that story was only 10. In the interim, her brother Tyrone, aka ‘The Cherub’, had quit the Hell’s Angel’s gang, and now had a “steady job” as a motor bike courier, while “Aunt Joan” now lived with them. In the school holidays Sam had stayed at MB’s cottage in Wiltshire, where she had developed an instant affiliation with horses, hence MB’s invitation for her to accompany them to John Dall’s ranch stables in Kentucky. Multi-millionaire John Dall is one of the most frequent crossover characters from the novels, either appearing in person – as in “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79), “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986/87), “The Girl from the Future” (1989), “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), and “Durango” (1996/97) – or merely mentioned, as in “The Gallows Bird” (1973), or “Garvin’s Travel’s” (1981). Presumably he has more than just the one ranch, as this time the action takes place in Kentucky, the ‘Bluegrass State’, rather than Texas. From “The Young Mistress” we know he has a house at East Hampton, New York State, again presumably to be near his New York City office. Although a Texan, he has native First Nations Indian heritage.
In his introduction to the Titan Books edition, MB expert Lawrence Blackmore remarks on the number of real race horses with ‘Dancer’ in their name – quoting ‘Northern Dancer’, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1964, and ‘Gate Dancer’. ‘Sword Dancer’ and ‘Native Dancer’, all winners of the Triple Crown. An internet search (Keeneland equibase) seems to show there really was a ‘Ivory Dancer’, with jockey John Lively, in the USA, circa 1978-80. Again, we have to question why MB’s open-topped sports car is a UK right-hand-drive. It gets written off anyway! Members of the Gallo gang mention how MB and WG had already “bust” the Preacher’s and Dino Quinn’s gangs. As usual, the warnings are dismissed out of hand. Peter O’Donnell’s love of – or fascination for – circuses is again apparent – this time with an American circus, Matt Ringwell’s, whose lady contortionist, Lolita, was formerly with Gogol’s Circus, part-owned by WG. Needless to say, she is another WG ex-girlfriend, although now married to the strong man, ‘The Mighty Hercules’. Once again Romero has a distracting background of silly circus tricks going on, as we saw in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73) – totally unnecessary and rather unrealistic. Commenting on their knife-throwing act together, MB confesses she finds WG being in disguise as a “Mexican nut-case” always a bit scary. No doubt she is recollecting her near-death experience with the Bubbles gang in “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976/77). Mike’s wife Sally is yet another look-alike Romero blonde – ‘Axa’ in clothes!

75: Story name: Our Friend Maude – 1992 ***
Location: Paris – ‘Le Gant Noir’ nightclub, Paris – MB’s penthouse, London – Vaubois office, Paris – Bois de Boulogne, Paris – Chateaux Avalon, Loire district – the deserted village of ‘Bezier’, located in a valley scheduled to be flooded for a new reservoir.
Villain: Kaut (illegal arms dealer); Zebart (so-called ‘High Contractor’).
Other characters: Maude Tiller; Rene Vaubois; Claudine; Tarrant; Henri (Vaubois agent, disguised as old man, and later as police ‘Inspector Leroux’); Sir David and Lady Waters (British residents living in France).
Body count: none.
Modesty’s lover
: none.
Willie’s lover: Claudine; Maude Tiller.
Nudity rating: MB in undies, getting dressed; MB in undies changing from ‘sans-culottes’ outfit to black bodysuit; Maude in undies, nightie; Maude getting dressed to go and see MB; Maude topless (‘the nailer’) viewed from back.
Who kills who? : Not applicable.
Summary/theme: Attempted assassination caper. French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois, working with Tarrant’s department, is getting close to compiling incriminating evidence on rogue arms dealer Kaut. Kaut, therefore, planned an elaborate scheme to brainwash (by narco-hypnosis) Tarrant’s agent (and MB friend/WG girlfriend) Maude Tiller, and trick her into shooting Vaubois, under false instructions he is a top traitor to be eliminated. This, he thinks, will ‘cold-case’ the investigation, and also undermine Anglo-French trust. Maude (who has just visited Vaubois on a mission from Tarrant) is kidnapped in Paris and taken to Kaut’s chateau at Avalon, near the Loire. The scam is overseen by Zebart, self-styled ‘high contractor’, posing as a Tarrant department psychologist, together with Kaut henchmen and actors who impersonate Jack Fraser, Tarrant, and the intended victim, Vaubois – all of whom (although they don’t know it) are to be disposed of afterwards. Unbeknown to Kaut and Zebart however, WG (in Paris with another old girlfriend, Claudine) sees Maude with Zebart in ‘Le Gant Noir’, a Parisian hangout for the criminal fraternity, and he tells MB and Tarrant, who confirms Maude should be on leave in Switzerland. MB contacts Vaubois, who introduces her to one of his more eccentric agents, Henri – a ‘master of disguise’ – who has been investigating Kaut, and also working undercover at ‘Le Gant Noir’, where he had bugged the pay-phone. Convinced Maude has been snatched and possibly brainwashed, MB and WG are assigned to unofficial duty with Henri, basing themselves at the abandoned village of Bezier, near the chateau. Kaut is using a costume (18th century theme) masked ball to cover for his meetings to sell nuclear weaponry, and (thanks to Henri’s trickery) MB and WG are able to gain access to the chateau as one of the guests. In addition to obtaining incriminating documents from Kaut’s safe, they rescue Maude (who is resisting her instructions by ‘Tarrant’ to assassinate Vaubois) and all flee to the deserted village, where – without resorting to gunplay – they are able to eliminate Kaut and Zebert’s henchmen one by one. WG and Maude look forward to a month of unbridled passion together in the Caribbean.
Critical comments: This story brings together a number of ‘crossover’ characters from both comic strip and novels – another appearance of Maude Tiller, Tarrant’s blonde female agent and WG girlfriend, who we first met in “The Puppet Master” (1972, illustrated by Romero), next, again featuring as a captive, in “The Wicked Gnomes” (1978), then “Garvin’s Travels” (1980), where both she and WG are taken captive and subject (not very successfully) to brainwashing, and next in “The Double Agent” (1986, both illustrated by Colvin – his is the best version of Maude), and later in “The Murder Frame” (1997, by Romero again), and “Fraser’s Story” (also 1997). Her first appearances in the novels was in Last Day in Limbo (1976). In this story we discover she has been with Tarrant’s department six years, and twice in a kill situation. French Intelligence chief Rene Vaubois, who first appeared in the novel Modesty Blaise (1965), although originally called Léon, his name changing to Rene in the next novel Sabre-Tooth (1966). His first appearance in the comic strip (as Rene) is in “The Magnified Man” (1967, illustrated by Holdaway), and again in “The Bluebeard Affair” (1972/73, by Romero), and “The Wild Boar” (1988, by Colvin), where he is the captive. He appeared in most of the novels, unlike ex-Network courier Claudine, another of WG’s girlfriends, who he regularly visited in Paris. She only featured in I, Lucifer (1967), and in “Bellman”, the extended short story version of “The Killing Ground”, published in Cobra Trap (1996). In the comic strip, she had a brief ‘walk-on’ part in “Sweet Caroline” (1983/84, perfectly depicted by Colvin), another – even more brief – part in “The Killing Distance” (1994, by Romero), when she is masquerading as MB to confuse the villains. We are introduced to a new character, Vaubois agent ‘Henri’ (apparently his code name), who appears again – this time only briefly – in “The Killing Distance” (1994). In our more PC age of the 2020s, some might take offence at the radio names MB and Henri use – ‘Rosbif’ for MB and WG, ‘Frogman’ for Henri (Maude is ‘Ladybird’). Racism! Or maybe not, just tongue in cheek humour.
Once again MB employs her ‘speciality’, the ‘nailer’ – a female going topless to distract or momentarily delay the reaction of the male villains. In the novels it is used only in Modesty Blaise and Sabre-Tooth (1965 and 1966). The first time she used it in the comic strip stories was “The Reluctant Chaperon” (1975), while a full nude version features in “The Inca Trail” (1976), “Black Queen’s Pawn” (1993) and “Death Symbol” (1999). But, at MB’s suggestion, the female character, Judy, uses it in “The Stone Age Caper” (1971), and Maude uses it twice – in “Garvin’s Travels” (1980/81), and here in this story, in the desolate empty church, MB having rung the bells to attract the bad guys.
In the first MB comic strip story “La Machine” (1963), the Parisian underworld club was named ‘Le Gant Rouge’, a name which (rather confusingly) Peter O’Donnell used again in the first novel, Modesty Blaise (1965) for gangster Pacco’s club, but which was in Cannes, on the Cote d’Azur. Perhaps the Paris club has since changed its name to ‘Le Gant Noir’? When asked by WG what news, club patron Louis remarks, “Lemont runs Montmartre now, Durand broke the St. Denis mob, Marcel got his throat cut – routine stuff.”
Struggling to reconcile reality with the unfamiliar ‘secret British training establishment’ under Zabert’s tutorage, Maude queries where is Chuck Daneby, in charge of weapons, or Jacoby, her regular martial arts instructor? Jacoby might be the individual featured in “The Puppet Master” (1971/72) when we first see WG teaching Maude unarmed combat. He featured in Last Day in Limbo (1976), where WG thinks him a “nasty bugger”, and sets him up for a knock out. In the novels the department’s training establishment is call ‘Three Meadows’.
The story – if rather far-fetched – is typical O’Donnell fare, but again rather let down by Romero’s artwork. Overall the art is sketchy and often without detail. In several (night views) the chateau is silhouetted as sitting on a hill, and as Romero’s usual spires and turrets-type ‘fairy tale’ castle, whilst in other views the front is a more conventional mansion, with wrought-iron gates. Glimpses of the interior appear rather like a stage-set, simplistic and theatrical. The abandoned French village seen here, is worth comparing to how Neville Colvin depicted a similar (Corsican) village in “The Wild Boar” (1985), and, in particular, the church interior. Colvin’s illustrations are more convincing and realistic.

76: Story name: A Present for the Princess – 1992/3 ***
Location: Republic of Montelero, near the Columbian border – village of Yuti – Covent Garden theatre, London – MB’s cottage in Wiltshire – MB’s penthouse in London – Toccopina (large city and sea port for Montelero) – bandit’s hideaway, in the “mountains east of Toccopina”.
Villain: A succession of bad guys.
Other characters: Ramon (ex-Network stringer); Tarrant; Dinah and Steve Collier; Rima and her father Jose; Julio (the hidago’s son); Joe Ling (Anglo-Chinese drifter and petty crook); Strobel (crook in Toccopina); Azul (local bandit); Weng; Mr Haley (bookseller and psychometrist); Police Captain Juan Corinto; Mary Foster (American from Nebraska, whose husband was murdered by Azul’s bandits).
Body count
: Too numerous to count.
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: (Perhaps after the story) Rima in Toccopina, Mary Foster in Nebraska.
Nudity rating: MB waking up, nude in bed from her premonition about WG.
Who kills who?
: Average of two killings a day on the emerald fields. MB and WG kill at least six of Azul’s bandits. More, including Azul, are killed by the police.
Summary/theme: Lost and found caper. WG is away on one of his ‘field-trips’, searching for emeralds (to make earrings for MB, the ‘Princess’ of the title) in the near-lawless Republic of Montelero, bordering with Colombia. Having already witnessed several murders a day, he quietly strikes camp and slips away, but is persuaded by an ex-Network man, Ramon (who has long since gambled away his ‘golden handshake’), and several other get-rich-quick desperadoes. Finding the rope-bridge across a gorge broken, WG is trapped and forced to dive into the river below, where he is knocked semi-unconscious by a drifting log. Further downstream, he is rescued by a young widow, Rima, and her elderly father, Jose. Much to her father’s disgust, she cares for him, despite that he has no money, and has (thanks to concussion with the log) lost his memory – if not his abilities to fight with knives or play cards. Meantime, back in England, MB grows more concerned about his welfare following a night-time premonition, and eventually asks Dinah Collier to use her dowsing skills over a series of maps, and the bookseller, Mr Haley, his psychometrist skills with the pearl necklace WG made for her, to try and establish where he might be. Mr Haley’s ambiguous impressions especially was of a “big man” with “three green eyes”, “lost and unremembered, with emptiness in his head, saved by the widow”. Back in Rima’s village, the son of the local landowner (the ‘Hidalgo’, noble or gentry) arrives, intending to sleep with her, but WG challenges him to a knife duel, easily beating both him and his bodyguard. Despite not remembering his past, name or MB (he is called only the ‘Inglese’), WG feels he must somehow travel to England to find his ‘talisman’. Rima insists on accompanying him as far as Toccopina, the nearest big sea-port. Once there, WG easily wins money at cards, but is seen by Joe Ling, a Anglo-Chinese petty crook, who knew him before his MB/Network days. He convinces WG his name is really Harry Brett, wanted for murder, and arranges for him to ‘hide’ with the local bandits in the hills. Rima pleads with him not to go, saying she doesn’t believe he is a ‘bad man’, but without success. Meantime MB has arrived in Toccopina, and visits police Captain Corinto, just as Rima also arrives, and it transpires Corinto knew her as a young girl – they both come from the same village. Rima realises MB is the woman ‘talisman’, and that Joe Ling lied about WG being a man wanted by the police for murder. MB deliberately drives into bandit country to be taken captive, and discovers a confused and distressed WG – still with no memory – and the bandits already holding a number of women as sex-slaves, including Mary Foster, from Nebraska, whose husband they had murdered. WG helps release the women, and they disable about two-thirds of the bandits weaponry, before forced to flee on foot, where MB and WG hold the narrow pass while Mary and the other women try to escape. When WG wants to remain, fighting to his death, MB knocks him out with her kongo. No sooner have they re-joined the other women (the bandits, having already lost a number of men, still fearful of making a direct assault), so Captain Corinto arrives, with Rima. While Azul’s bandits are either killed or captured by the police, the knock on the head has restored WG’s memory, and both Rima and Mary line up to thank and kiss him. The ‘three green eyes’ are emeralds, one of which is presented to Rima, to help fulfil her little private business dream in Toccopina (with Captain Corinto’s promise of protection and friendship), the other two she insists go to MB, knowing WG intended to present them to her as earrings.
Critical comments: Another amnesia story, like MB in “The Puppet Master”, or WG (if more briefly) in “Yellowstone Booty”. Indeed, there are several echoes here of previous, or other, MB comic strip stories in the series – MB and WG holding the narrow rocky pass against the hoards of bandits, echoed MB and retired Colonel Rodney Spooner in “A Few Flowers for the Colonel” (1982); the women being held as sex-slaves as in “Milord” (1988) and “Death Symbol” (1999); WB being swept away in a fast-flowing river, and MB waking up in the night convinced something has happened to him, as in “Yellowstone Booty” (1978/79) – presumable the “one other time” she casually mentions here.
As we have often seen now, Romero is good at depicting wilderness, but hopeless at other locations. Early in the story MB and Tarrant are the Covent Garden Theatre, but one distant, night-time, external view shows the Houses of Parliament from the Lambeth bank of the River Thames – nowhere near Covent Garden, which is off the Strand, beyond the Hungerford Bridge! Even more bizarre, is that MB’s Wiltshire cottage has changed its appearance yet again! Tarrant and Steve Collier are seen in conversation with the house in the background. It is now located atop a sloping open hillside, and has a double, angled wing either side of a central entrance, one with a tall, external chimney – vaguely similar to the original Holdaway/Burns versions, but larger, and more isolated in its own ground. Throughout this last third of Romero-illustrated stories, the cottage was rarely the same twice, and often totally different, complete inconsistent. Another, lesser, quirk was in strip 8135, where the character Joe Ling (who didn’t look especially Chinese) suddenly lost his distinctive moustache. The widow Rima – depicted here very much as a dark-haired MB lookalike, is said to have a “heart of gold”, but a “greedy, idle father”, who only hoped that the ‘Americano’ (as they first assumed WG to be) would be rich and reward them – “perhaps with 50 dollars”. Upon discovering WG is English, penniless, and lost his memory, the old man complains how the Inglese “are not rich, and even lose at football.” Early in the story Rima said her ambition was to open her own café in Tocoopina, but later WG says it was a shop. Her dreams were shattered when bandits killed her husband and stole all their money. The final confrontation between the police and Azul’s bandits is not even illustrated. Suddenly, from one strip to the next, it is all over, and Azul himself is declared amongst the dead. Given the built-up, this seemed something of a cop-out. Dinah and Steve Collier had already previously featured in “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90), and would so again in “Durango” (1996/97). This story again illustrates Dinah’s extraordinary dowsing ability, but this time also coupled with Mr Haley’s psychometrist talent, which we first saw as long ago as “The Mind of Mrs Drake” (1964/65). It is obvious that Peter O’Donnell was constantly fascinated by such extrasensory perception (ESP) ideas and possibilities. Steve Collier remarks to Tarrant that “scientifically a bee can’t fly, but it does.”

77: Story name: Black Queen’s Pawn – 1993 ***
Location: Madagascar – the village of ‘Mandofo’ – Salim’s yacht at sea.
Villain: Salim; and chief henchman Koch.
Other characters: Greg Lawton; Catholic missionary Father Brienne; Faro (one of Koch’s henchmen); villagers Chakota, wife Noniko and daughter Andri.
Body count: 0 ?
Modesty’s lover: Greg Lawton.
Willie’s lover: WG, at the end of the story, is “rubbing noses with the village girls” – their equivalent of kissing!
Nudity rating: MB bathing in wooden tub, later fighting Faro, naked under her robe; She and WG swim naked out from the flooded chamber; MB nude except for luminous paste, preforming a ghostly ‘naked nailer’, Koch and his men believing them dead.
Who kills who? : Although Father Brienne says Koch or his men have already killed someone, it is not made clear whom, or in what circumstances. Greg Lawton again gets wounded (MB is a dangerous girlfriend to have), this time in the arm.
Summary/theme: Lost treasure caper. In 1834 Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar had a secret ‘treasure’ hidden, which she hoped would grant her immortality. Subsequently she had all those with knowledge of its location – the astrologers, 520 slaves, and her captains – killed. “160 years later” MB and American veterinary surgeon Greg Lawton are in a remote area of Madagascar, looking to find a preserved, hopefully intact, 2,000 year old egg of the Aepyornis, an extinct, 10ft tall ostrich-like bird, but which was unique to the island. They arrive at the village of Mandofo, site of the ruins of Ranavalona’s summer palace, to find it has been taken over by Koch, who MB recognises as the ‘enforcer’ for a Lebanese crook named Salim. He likes to sneeringly refer to her as ‘Duchess’. The aged Catholic missionary, Father Brienne, intervenes and explains Koch has a copy of Ranavalona’s map, and is seeking the treasure, using forced labour from the village. Salim, meanwhile, is on board his yacht, in the Indian Ocean. MB assures Koch she has no interest in the treasure hunt, but is still forbidden to leave. At one point, Faro, one of Koch’s goons, starts beating a young village girl, and MB (clad only in a robe, having been taking a bath) intervenes and restrains him. Despite Koch instructing him to back off, Faro pulls a gun and Lawton takes a bullet in the arm instead. Whilst MB is still nursing Lawton better, WG arrives by jeep, not suspecting the situation until too late. Fearing that Koch may now have them all “put down”, MB decides on a ‘stopper’, she and WG will find the treasure themselves. Reluctantly – consulting by radio with Salim – Koch agrees. They note the course of the nearby river has changed from the map, having been dammed since. Salim, however, holds Lawton hostage on his yacht. By temporarily re-channelling the river, they uncover a flagstone under the silt, that leads to an underground chamber with ornate carved murals, and a giant gold-leafed Aepyornis egg. Despite Father Brienne pointing out how the more primitive superstitious mind works, Koch refuses to believe this is the treasure. MB says she wants to photograph the murals, knowing this will give Koch the opportunity to breech the temporary dam and flood the chamber, but, unbeknown to him, they take shelter in the part of the chambers above the river level, then swim out at night. At Father Brienne’s house, he has a laboratory in which there is paste from firefly beetles that glow in the dark. MB does a naked, glowing ‘nailer’, appearing and disappearing (thanks to a black cloak), shattering Koch and his men in panic, where she and WG can pick them off, one by one. WG then imitates Koch’s voice to summon Salim, together with Lawton, from the yacht.
Critical comments: In the context of the story, Queen Ranavolona (aka Ramavo-Manjake I, or Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, c.1778-1861, ruler of the Kingdom of Madagascar 1828-1861) is depicted as a mad, sadistic tyrant. She certainly aspired to traditionalist policies, but she was an astute politician who was determined to protect her country against the encroachments of colonial European powers, and it would appear they subsequently encouraged the stories of her apparent cruelty and evil character. That said, it appears that the population certainly declined quite dramatically in the middle years of her reign, from 5 million in 1833 to 2.5 million by 1839. Her empire extended over much of the island, except for an enclave to the west, and the more arid southernmost tip of the island. She was succeeded by her son, Radama II. Romero depicts her ruined ‘summer palace’ as being of stone. In fact, one of her construction projects was a massive wooden palace at Manjakamiadona. The Aepyornis were known as the ‘elephant bird’, and weighed on average 520kg (1,200 lbs). They probably became extinct about AD 1000. They featured in a David Attenborough BBC television programme broadcast in 2011.
The aged Father Brienne is one of Peter O’Donnell’s ‘good’ clergy, having served as a missionary in Madagascar for 50 years, and is able to read Malagasy script. The treasure map – an O’Donnell fantasy, and only partially complete – had reputedly passed to a “French serviceman” during the French colonial period. French is still the lingua franca amongst the villagers. When WG remarks about Father Brienne’s possible reaction to a fertility scene carved into the wall of the underground chamber, MB remarks “You can’t shock a Catholic priest.” Salim is another bald, ugly man with a moustache, but with an attendant young female in the background on the yacht. Kock too had a moustache and dark glasses, and wears a baseball cap throughout, looking at times a bit like the actor Tom Sellick in the TV series Magnum P.I. Brienne warns MB that Koch has already “killed once”, although it is not made clear who, or under what circumstances. Certainly no one is killed in this story. WG, on his first encounter with Koch’s thugs on the outskirts of the village, asks are they “part of Doctor Dougal’s team working on the classification of prehistoric man-eating lepidoptera?” and when the thug, who had pretended to be a “scientific researcher”, says yes, WG points out he just invented Doctor Dougal, and ‘lepidoptera’ are butterflies!

78: Story name: The Grim Joker – 1993/94 **
Location: Benildon, Wilts – MB’s cottage – the “Treadmill”, WG’s riverside pub – ‘The Retreat’, a 19th century folly on the Scottish island of Moggairne, 15 miles from the mainland.
Villain: ‘The Grim Joker’ – brothers Mark and Matthew Goodchild, and Prudence (‘Pru’) Hill.
Other characters: Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard; rich uncle Mortimer Goodchild; TV interviewer Ray Sandham; Tarrant; Weng.
Body count: 6
Modesty’s lover: none.
Willie’s lover: none.
Nudity rating: MB in bathrobe and short nightie; MB in undies and just panties getting into camouflage outfit; Pru in bra and panties; MB nude, swimming and moving WG about.
Who kills who? : The Grim Joker kills public school headmaster Simon Colby; gossip columnist Robert Laine; and snobbish wine critic John Clarence. Matthew shoots Pru. WG plunges Matthew and Mark into the whirlpool.
Summary/theme: Inheritance murder crime caper. There had been three bizarre, apparently unconnected, murders by the self-named ‘Grim Joker’ (each appropriately ingenious and with the signature “ho-ho-ho”) – that of a rather unpleasant gossip columnist; a snobbish wine critic; and, most recent, the hanging from a railway bridge near MB’s Wiltshire village retreat of Benilton, the headmaster of a local public school. This last shocking murder is still the talk of the village fête, where Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard, confides in MB and WG. Unbeknown to them, the ‘Grim Joker’ is watching – brothers Mark and Matthew Goodchild (disguised as vicars), and their shared girlfriend Pru Hill. While Pru remarks that MB is a “lush bird”, they fail to recognise them, then or later. Their modus operandi is to establish a series of random, motiveless killings, before they murder the brothers’ rich uncle Mortimer for his money. With little to go on, WG and MB decide to provoke the Grim Joker to attempt to murder WG next, after he is interviewed on television slagging off the Grim Joker as a gutless scumbag who only kills ‘soft’ targets. The bait set, WG and MB then withdraw to a remote Scottish island folly, belonging to a friend of Tarrant’s, which they often use for mediation. WG lives in the gothic house, MB hides in a cave, her presence therefore unsuspected. When Pru makes enquires at the ‘Treadmill’, she is told only where WG is, with the implication he is an alcoholic who needs to ‘dry out’ periodically. Pru pretends to be a weekend sailor adrift in her motorboat, and, at first, WG falls for her story, until she attacks and drugs him. He manages to hit out, badly bruising her face, before becoming unconscious. While Pru is waiting the arrival by boat of Mark and Matthew, MB investigates, dresses WG, leaving boot marks leading to the cliff edge, then takes a still unconscious WG and temporarily places his body to look like he fell to his death on the rocks below. The brothers are none too pleased, and blame Pru, who, in turn, says the knock-out dosage couldn’t have been strong enough. Meantime, MB (swimming nude), sets all three boats adrift, then removes WG’s body. He wakes up in the cave, much peeved to have been taken for a sucker. By then relations between the brothers and Pru have deteriorated, with them blaming her for not tying the boats up properly, while she has become paranoid, convinced something on the island is out to “destroy” them. Their plan is to signal to the passing local ferry, but Pru has used WG’s small hand tape-recorder to dictate a ‘confession’, putting all the blame for the murders on Mark and Matthew. When they discover this, they shoot her and dump her body in the sea. WG takes the opportunity to search the house, finds the recording, and a clown outfit that was intended for him as their latest Grim Joker murder. Instead the brothers find themselves confronted by “Clarence the Clown – Willie Garvin sent me”, and WG quickly stuns them, before dragging them to a sheer clifftop above a freak whirlpool. To MB’s initial shock, he briefly instructs them the only escape from being sucked under, then all three go over the edge, but only WG dives right or emerges again. Later Inspector Brook concocts the story all three died when their boat sunk, with no mention of MB or WG. When Brook tells Uncle Mortimer, he just laughs and says his nephews were pompous idiots; they were never in his will!
Critical comments: None of the three Grim Joker victims are especially likeable, the gossip columnist was said to have a “vitriolic pen” (one wonders if Peter O’Donnell had anyone in mind), and was crushed by a giant roll of newsprint, while the wine critic was a snob, and was drowned in a barrel of Madeira, prompting MB to remark about a similar fate of the Duke of Clarence 500 years before, that the Grim Joker is a “literate monster”. George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence (1449-1478) was the brother of King Richard III, and was reputed to have been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine (notably in Shakespeare’s play Richard III). Although said to have been executed at the Tower of London, he was not beheaded, and it is possible the barrel of wine story (or rumour) may have its origins in his body being preserved thus, to be transported to its burial place at Tewkesbury Abbey.
Again, as in the story “The Young Mistress” (1991/92), Romero depicts MB’s cottage in Wiltshire as being thatched, with a glass patio-like door. However, in the story “The Hanging Judge” (1998), Romero shows MB’s cottage has changed yet again, for the fourth time! Romero also continues his peculiar quirk of portraying children rather weirdly, in this case out of scale – in strip 8291, a young girl stands next to a fair-ground stall, looking a bit like a giant in relation to those about her. Peter O’Donnell continues his own tradition of ‘wicked’ clergy, having Mark and Matthew (who, although brothers, look completely different in appearance) pretending to be vicars, despite being accompanied most of the time (but not, obviously, when visiting Uncle Mortimer) by sexy blonde Pru – the third member of the Grim Joker, who takes turns to share her favours with them in the bedroom. We are perhaps reminded of another fake priest, Father Lamont, in the story “Milord” (1988), and the fake abbot and monk (ex-OAS killers from French Algeria) in “La Machine” (1963). Again, too, we have a desolate island off the Scottish coast – but with a convenient cave, like in the story “The Killing Ground” (1968), or “The Aristo” (1994/95). The 100 year old folly, ‘The Retreat’, “built by the fifth Earl of Tiachearne”, is another weird Romero fantasy, this time in the Gothic style, but looking (as always) too small from the outside to its more spacious interior.
The structure of the story is quite unusual, in that for much of the first half we share the viewpoint of the three Grim Jokers, while MB and WG often are there in the background, almost on the fringe. However, while we come to understand their ultimate motive – basically, an updated version of an Agatha Christie story, to murder their wealthy uncle for his inheritance – and something of the addictive nature of their bizarre murder spree (especially on Pru), strangely the two brothers seem to lack any backstory. Perhaps, of course, this illustrates the limitations of a newspaper comic strip over that of a novel, but one cannot help but wonder what twisted events or thinking first drove them into their strange and rather sinister mènage à trois. As if to compensate for this shift of focus, the second half of the story sees the trio very much on the back foot, as MB (in particular) engineers the seed of their ultimate downfall, with them, never once, suspecting her presence. Pru proves to be the weakest link, while the two brothers, in their single-minded arrogance, ignore her doubts and suspicions. WG’s own ruthless act of retribution is both a bit shocking, but perhaps also just.