An End to Things: Greta Tomlinson R.I.P.

It’s a terrible thing to wake and the first thing you learn is of the passing of someone whose work enthralled you. Today, I’m barely awake and I’m having to commemorate the life of Greta Tomlinson, Greta Edwards in married life, who has died at the afe of 94. With her has gone, to the best of my knowledge, the last link to those madcap days when Frank Hampson and a team of perspiring assistants, produced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in a more than overcrowded lean-to in alongside a Southport house.

Greta Tomlinson was one of the original team of assistants that joined Hampson in the Bakehouse, a few weeks into the life of Dan Dare. She was the youngest of his assistants, fresh from Art College, who responded to an ad that led her to Southport. There, she looked at Frank Hampson’s work and thought it fantastic, and that when Hampson she had to get involved in this.

Like all the rest of Hampson’s assistants she was overworked mercilessly, to the point where her exhaustion led her to hallucinate, but like the rest she bore up under the strain, because of her belief in Hampson’s genius, and becase he never asked her, or any of them, to do anything that he would not do, and indeed did even harder than them.

Greta formed a close bond with Hampson’s former College friend and senior assistant, Harold Johns. Together, they worked on several short stories for Eagle Annuals but, most notably, it was this pair who took over the third Dan Dare story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’ when Hampson worked himself to illness and was prescribed bed rest for months.

Sadly, that artistc relationship resulted in their unjust dismissal from Hampson’s studio. Johns and Tomlinson could not be accomodated at Bayford Lodge in Epsom, the studio’s new and permanent location, and were based in town. Finding themselves under-used, the pair sought permission to take on outside work, permission reluctantly granted on the accepted condition that Hampson’s work came first, and then they were both sacked abruptly, for the crime of doing what they had permission for. It was a disgraceful and wholly undeserved ending, yet Tomlinson bore Hampson no malice.

I never met her, indeed I never met any of the Dan Dare team, though I would have loved to thank each and every one of them personally for what they did. My most vivid memory of Greta Tomlinson was in the lovely documentary, Future Perfect, that took her back to the Bakehouse and filmed her as she looked around, descrivbing cheerfully how it had been laid out as a studio, and who sat where, plainlyt seeing everyone around her, and suddenbly asking the Director to cut as those memories plainly overwhelmed her.

But Greta Tomlinson was more that just an artist, and more than just, I believe, the last one left of those men and women. As any Dan Dare fan knows, part of the strip’s success lay in Hampson’s use of his assistants to model panels in order to get exactly every nuance of expression, every shadow and every wrinkle of clothing. Some of his assistants and models were the exact model for characters in the series. Geta Tomlinson was Professor Peabody, the botanist, the scientist, the forthright, independent and highly intelligent feminist long before there were feminists. Greta Tomlinson’s passing takes Peabody with her: I mourn them both.

‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’

It’s not been made the subject of any public announcement that I’ve heard or seen, but I’ve just learned from John Freeman’s ‘Down the Tubes‘ that Don Harley, Frank Hampson’s most skilled and reliable assistant on Dan Dare, has passed away earlier this week. It comes as no surprise as Harley was in his nineties – this year would have been the seventieth anniversary of his joining the team at Bayford Lodge – but any loss of a man so talented, and who brought imagination, colour, life and, most important of all, pleasure into the lives of so many diminishes us all.

It’s not to demean Harley that I quote Frank Hampson’s own words of tribute to him. There is no shame to being ‘The Second Best Dan Dare Artist in the World’ to Hampson himself. How many times, during the Man from Nowhere trilogy, did Hampson co-sign Harley’s name to his own as the artist of record? Who stayed on to assist Frank Bellamy? Who took over the strip himself, supported by Bruce Cornwell?

The good do not always die young, but they always leave a gap that cannot be filled.

Dan Dare: Keith Watson’s OTHER New Eagle Story

A long time back, as part of my series on Dan Dare stories, I reviewed the first ever real revival of the Pilot of the Future, a six-part, eighteen page story appearing in New Eagle in 1989, drawn by the legendary Keith Watson.
At that time, I was aware of, but chose to ignore, a second Watson story, a pathetically short effort consisting only of two episodes, the second completed by Andrew Skilleter. I don’t know the history of that but, judging by all I know of Watson and his loyalty to Frank Hampson and his work, I could easily see him walking away in disgust at such poor and cheap material.
Not that long after my piece on Watson’s six-parter appeared, I was advised by a commenter that I had it wrong, that Watson had drawn a second ‘full-length’ story in New Eagle. For various reasons – the overall lack of quality of the first story, the complete of my Eagle collection, the discovery of comics collections on DVD – I didn’t bother trying to find and read it until now, and so it can take its belated place in the list of tales I recognise as semi-canon.
The second story started on 3rd February 1990 with a cover by Watson and the excitable blurb about ‘A craft of Alien origin crashlands in England…’ Indeed it does, but the fact that it crashlands in Wigan, practically next door to Digny’s Aunt Anastasia’s house, disrupting her famous annual outdoor party (what famous annual outdoor parties?) doesn’t get things off on the right foot. Nor does Aunt Anastasia immediately vid-phoning Digby at Spacefleet HQ to tell him to come nad drag it away necessarily improve matters. Then Farmer Benson, on whose land it’s crashed, has in dragged into a barn in case it might be worth something for salvage, and starts fiddling with its controls. Which erupt with probably disastrous effects when someone hits it with a hammer…
I confess to having had this first part for a couple of years without feeling the urge to go further, as you may well understand, but now I’ve got the rest of the run off eBay, so how did things develop?
Near two pages of rapidly burgeoning disaster seques into Dan and Digby debating the likelihood of this craft being an alien probe out to make contact, like the Voyager probes launched in the Seventies. This is the Voyager mission of our world, not Dan Dare’s Universe, making the reference an anomaly (the prediction that Earth lost contact with Voyager in the late 1990s was, thankfully, inaccurate). But that’s just a prelude to an energy field forcing the pair down into a School playground where the kids are running from a horrible, dragon-like monster (oh dear…)
Noticeably, whilst Sir Hubert Guest wore the proper Spacefleet cap, Dan and Dig have to wear the unimpressive forager-style peaked caps that characterised the ongoing stories. Not even Watson can make them look palatable. Anyway, Dan and Digby get rid of the fire-breathing thing by decoying it into the local colliery museum and dropping it down a liftshaft. Then a machine appears, collecting soil and plant samples, until it reaches a garden Centre and blows up for no adequately defined reason. Are you detecting a streak of the banal a Saturnian mile wide yet?
Still, the machine is generating an ever-widening energy field that’s consuming everything in its path. Enter Professor Peabody to detect that the field is penetrating everything above ground but not a dicky bird underground. Clearly Earth’s earth is inimical in some way, so Dan whistles up a Thunderbirds style machine known as the Earthworm, which he and Digby will use to literally undermine the machine, causing it to drop into the local subsidence.
This just sets up the cliffhanger. Apparently radio waves in Dan Dare’s future can’t penetrate underground so the moment the Earthworm digs through the surface its incommunicado, and the maps of the old mine-workings don’t show shafts… So the Earthworm gets trapped under collapsed rock, earth and substandard twentieth century coal… unable to move!
But you know Dan Dare will save the day, thanks to an offhand remark from Dig that sets his brain working. By turning up the heat, Dan burns off the coal in time to get the Earthworm where it needs to be. Cue one massive cave-in, enabling the machine to be sealed in and cut-off from sunlight. Day saved, end with Aunt Anastasia complaining about cracks in her garden and a portentous comment from Dan Dare about maybe we don’t want to meet this alien civilisation after all.
This other adventure is very much the traditional curate’s egg. The adventure itself is flat and banal, less involved that some of the old eight-pagers from the Eagle Annuals of the Fifties, and in its determinedly mundane settings I get the impression that the writer can’t really take it seriously. It comes over to me as being penned by someone who can only see Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, as old hat, fit only to be sent up: I mean, come on, Dan Dare? In 1990?
But if the story is, frankly, a load of bollocks, it is nevertheless another eighteen pages of Keith Watson, devoting himself to maintaining the quality of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. And despite the enforced faux-pas of the forager caps, for which he cannot be blamed, Watson is again on wonderful form, this time supported by a colourist who makes full use of his palate, Even in those panels that are mostly monocoloured, the tones chosen are attractive and sympathetic, and do not overwhelm Watson’s linework.
Good art, shame about the story: how many times have we said that? Sometimes it seems the price of an affinity for this scruffy and disreputable medium. I’m glad to have these pages to look at and drink in. Let this exceedingly minor effort tuck itself into some unimportant and half-concealed corner of the continuity. Keith Watson rides again in our memories.

A Southport Expedition

It’s been a while, since Derby in january in fact, since I went ahywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s goimg to mean breathing through a facemask.

Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Woorking Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.

It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me  it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.

Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.

Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time to steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.

There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus have to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.

As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.

It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, full down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.

I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was the first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast waking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Fronty had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?

But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.

The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.

There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is is far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.

But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day i was born!There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.

Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually,  Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.

But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.

There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.

It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th  Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.

After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shpopping estate dominated by Matalan.

This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side.Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that i finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.

I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of awander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in tho draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than  vague idea where it is: another time then, again.

So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time i come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.

I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.

But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resortand whilst I might be an old person myself now, i’m not that kind of old person. The one i seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.

So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a norwich train and off again in Southport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge On the Artists who drew Modesty Blaise

Of the five artists who drew Modesty Blaise 1963-2001, Jim Holdaway (1963-70) was by far the best, while my least favourite was Pat Wright’s brief stunt, one and a half stories (1980). Wright was a good enough artist (rather in the Brian Lewis mode), just not the right (no pun intended) artist for Modesty Blaise – being too light, not enough dark, and strangely flat. Sadly John M. Burns (born 1938) never got to finish “Eve and Adam”, for whatever crazy reason the London Evening Standard editor had for sacking him on the spot. Potentially he was a much better artist than longest-running (and, in consequence, the best-known Modesty artist) Enique (Enric) Badia Romero, as Burns’ two and a half stories, “Yellowstone Booty”, “The Green Cobra”, and even the first half of “Eve and Adam”, shows. Like Holdaway, he was particularly brilliant with faces (I would argue much better than Romero), although his Modesty’s hair-do seemed a bit top-heavy and exaggerated at times! In addition to other projects, Burns illustrated Danielle, a sort of blonde female version of Garth; a more contemporary version of Norman Pett’s original Jane (in the Daily Mirror); and later the early, black and white version of George and Lynne in the Sun. The pity is just how good and underrated he was, and what he might have contributed to the Modesty Blaise stories that followed. The two and half stories he did illustrated showed great potential.

At first my next least favourite after Wright was Neville Colvin (1918-1991), but gradually I’ve come to appreciate him more. His style is often scratchy, messy, and sometimes his stuff could be quite ‘scrappy’. On the plus side, however, as others have remarked, he would occasionally hint at the heyday of Holdaway; for instance, in his rather cinematic ‘pull-back’ images, but, in particular, at the originality of the appearance of characters. However, unlike Holdaway or Romero or John Burns, he wasn’t always particularly confident at drawing sexy females, although his women didn’t all fit into same mode (as with Romero) and his artwork certainly improved over the time-period, 1980-86, while his swansong, “The Double Agent”, is justly a classic, in every way. However, by contrast, if we look at his first story, “Dossier on Pluto”, although he depicted Willie’s latest girlfriend as cuddly and sexy, suddenly Modesty had a really narrow wasp waist – almost like a Victorian lady in a corset! In fairness, Colvin saw himself more as a cartoonist, and he was much more constrained than his predecessors in depicting Modesty minus her clothes, even for the apparent ‘tastes’ of a ‘family newspaper’. However, Holdaway’s Modesty always looked real, flesh and blood, natural, and her facial expressions in particular. Holdaway’s ‘style’ was realism. Burns, like Romero, excelled at the female nude, but (as we will argue below) the Spaniard often made all his non-Modesty women characters, especially the blondes, look rather alike. Ultimately his style was always much more ‘comic strip’.

Unfortunately (facial features aside) Colvin’s Modesty, especially in those early strips, looks, at times, rather like a Barbie doll. While he was good (if not always consistent) at depicting Modesty’s and (for the most part) Willie’s faces (something, in retrospect, I started to appreciate more also with his other characters), there were times when he could sink into something more like a crude caricature. Examples of this are Tarrant in “Dossier on Pluto” strip 5012A; or Willie, same story, in strip 4937, where they are rendered almost unrecognisable, or at other times distorted. Other examples are: Zahki in “The Lady Killers” strip 5087; Steve Taylor, again in “Pluto” strip 4987; or (perhaps to a lesser extent) occasionally Colonel Greb in “Return of the Mammoth”. Incidentally, another oddity during the Colvin period was Tarrant occasional took to smoking a pipe. Before that (under Holdaway) he always smoke cigars!

Both Holdaway and Burns had a very dramatic style, almost cinematic at times, different angles, sudden close-ups, unusual angles. Wright’s brief tenure, by contrast, was quite static at times. Colvin, in fairness, improved, but never measured up to the master, Holdaway…But then Holdaway was always going to be a hard act to follow.

One of the great things about Holdaway’s Modesty was that she was sexy without ever being tarty or pornographic. At that time (1960s into the 70s), of course he was still quite restrained by what was acceptable in a so-called ‘family’ newspaper. She never intentionally got her kit off like Jane, or Romero’s own later science fiction Axa character in the 1980s – a sort of Logan’s Run type of story, but a naked blonde. Right from the start, however, Modesty dressed and undressed, slept nude, sometimes swam nude, like to have baths and showers, but at most the reader saw only a bare back.

Despite having worked with O’Donnell before (on the Romeo Brown stories) Holdaway was not apparently the editorial first choice. However, we now know that choice to have been offered to Frank Hampson, late of Eagle comic, creator and on/off illustrator (from 1950 until the early 1960s) of “Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future”. Hampson was a wonderful artist in his own right, able to create in magnificent detail exotic worlds, whether it be an alternative Venus, the moons of Saturn, distant planets, or the Biblical story of Jesus. However, science fiction was his forte, and he mostly worked in colour, and on a less restrictive pictorial scale than a newspaper comic strip of three panels per day maximum. Also, although while he was perhaps ahead of his time in introducing the female character of Professor Jocelyn Peabody into a boy’s comic as early as issue No. 5 (May 1950; initially based on fellow team artist Greta Tomlinson), in reality women – and especially sexy women – were simply not his forte. Away from “Dan Dare” or his graphic (if rather over idealised) depiction of the life of Jesus, his style was too prim, too 1940s/50s, more appropriate for Women’s Own magazine. Looking at Hampson’s sketches for the first half a dozen or so episodes, O’Donnell hated it (although, even years later, he remained too much the gentlemen to actually name names), and fortunately he was able to insist on Holdaway instead. It was a splendid choice. Modesty was as much the creation of Holdaway’s penmanship as of O’Donnell’s own imagination.

In fact, Hampson’s Modesty was rather bland and devoid of any eroticism, and the action scenes with the unwanted American would-be boyfriend also rather static, lacking drama. Almost needless to say, Sir Gerald looked remarkably like Sir Herbert Guest, Space Fleet Controller from “Dan Dare”, who had been based on Hampson’s on father. With all due respects to Hampson as an artist (and alas, sadly he never found his niche after being forced out of illustrating “Dan Dare”), we can only be thankful he didn’t get the job of illustrating Modesty! Indeed, in all likelihood, maybe he knew this wasn’t his kind of thing, and probably deliberately didn’t put much ‘heart’ into it!

Holdaway stamped his interpretation of Modesty, Willie Garvin, Sir Gerald Tarrant and Jack Fraser on the characters that no subsequent artist dared to change – but then perhaps Peter O’Donnell would never have sanctioned any such drastic change…especially after the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie, whose Italian actress (Monica Vitti) insisted on being blonde – which was foolish and unfortunate, because with a black wig she actually looked like Modesty. Pity about the butchered script and that Willie Garvin was played by Terence Stamp, who has dark hair. After that debacle, Peter O’Donnell was perhaps right to be protective of his creation.

Continuing on from Holdaway, both the Romero and Burns versions of Modesty were quite erotic, sizzling with sexuality, while keeping her exotic. As the comic strip moved into the less repressed 1970s (at least in the UK, if not the USA), both delighted in depicting her (and occasionally other female characters) in the nude. However, what may have been Burns’ downfall, his wonderful depiction of Lucy Grant in “Yellowstone Booty” had full-on boobs, very daring. But that really justify his instant dismissal in mid-story?

Romero especially, in his second and final period as artist, grew ever more daring throughout the 1980s and 90s, thereby showing a side to her that Peter O’Donnell had previously really only explored in the Modesty Blaise novels. The greatest tragedy was Jim Holdaway’s untimely early death in 1970, midway through the Japanese-based “The War-Lords of Phoenix” story – itself one of the few in the comic strip to be most like a James Bond story, and actually not one of the best of the early Modesty stories. The decision was made to recruit (very quickly) the Spanish (actually Catalonian) artist Enrique (or Enric, as he later styled himself) Badia Romero, despite him being based in Barcelona and speaking little, or no, English.

Unlike the visually jarring Burns/Wright changeover in “Eve and Adam”, he did at first continue the Holdaway style in the second half of the story, perhaps to conceal Holdaway’s demise from the reader. The artists were uncredited until Colvin took over, although Holdaway and Romero both had their ‘signature’ logo. However, in the next story (the less than successful “Willie the Djinn”), he quickly evolving into his own bold, soon to be familiar, style. He was competent and often visually interesting, and – as remarked – the major characters (Modesty, Willie, Sir Gerald Tarrant, Jack Fraser) continued to be recognisable, but, in retrospect, he never quite equalled Holdaway, or had that visual flare for characters Burns showed, even in his all-too-brief tenure.

Later, in the last phase of the Modesty strips from the 1990s to 2001, his style subtly changed again. Personally I think it greatly deteriorated; becoming rather mechanical, less vivid, not so strong perhaps, even crude at times, and more ‘typical’ comic strip. However, even before this period, there were occasionally visual mistakes and a few outright howlers, either through lack of personal knowledge of locations, or either haste or indifference. Eventually his style became lighter, details more scrappy, repetition crept in, and realism seeped away. Perhaps, in truth, Romero had, by then, tired of the strip, and it was more of a chore that brought a regular pay-packet, rather than enjoyable anymore. However, the sheer length of his tenure, and the sexy quality of his depiction of Modesty (including ‘off-story’ nudes – although Holdaway did a few also) has made him the Modesty artist for many.

During that time, the quality and style of O’Donnell’s stories changed also, but strangely (for me) I enjoyed them less when Romeo was the artist after Holdaway. The stories seemed to improve under Burns and Colvin, only to decline again, become darker in both tone and plot, the previous humour less apparent. One thing Peter O’Donnell was good at, in both comic strip and the novels, were villains. They were almost always delightfully evil, but not as merely demented and two-dimensional as Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” villains. At the same time they were often complicated, clever or ruthless geniuses, who often (at least at first) managed to get one step ahead of Modesty and Willie. Time and again, this meant it took that extra measure of intelligence, cunning, skill and literal thinking for our two heroes to finally win out.

Their enemies might be evil, even sometimes a bit crazy, but they were never stupid like comic strip “Garth’s” villains, who often left me wondering how had they ever got to what and where they were supposed to be? The Garth character, too, was brawn rather than brain, and only won in the end because his enemies were so intellectually challenged. There was never that imaginative cleverness to his success, no more than to Fleming’s James Bond. Even in the shorter – and, hence less complex – comic strip stories (or the short stories), that rarely was the case with Modesty. Garth, in his earth-bound or non-science fiction stories, often displayed little forethought or planning, and sometimes idiotic negligence, in a way that was unthinkable with Modesty, who (together with Willie Garvin) was always the intellectual superior.

For much of his career writing Modesty, Peter O’Donnell was a master story-writer, although I personally still think it was the majority of his early comic strip stories that were amongst his very best. Into that category I put “The Long Lever”, “The Gabriel Set-Up”, “Uncle Happy”, “The Red Gryphon”, “The Hell-Makers”, “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, “The Magnified Man”, even “Mister Sun”. All brilliant stories, clever, complex, challenging, with exceptionally evil (but at that time, still believable) villains who often finished up justly dead.

As we have remarked, both Holdaway and Burns were brilliant at faces. Observe Holdaway’s gallery of emotions on Modesty’s face (strips 184-5, 189-95) in the magnificent “The Long Lever” story; and again (strips 1817-26) in “The Hell-Makers”. And together they created some wonderful heroes and villains: Holdaway’s Gabriel (who, together with Sir Angus McBeal, was the only villain to ‘cross over’ into the novels), Uncle Happy, Gus Fletcher (again a delightful character from “The Hell-Makers”), Korzin in “The Mind of Mrs Drake”, almost all of the characters (both important and peripheral) in “The Red Gryphon”, another excellent, emotive story. Sadly, we have only Burns’ Pandora and the dwarfish but sinister Doctor Vigo, his excellent portrayal of Sir Angus McBeal (“Green Cobra”), Jed Bowley and Mr Hogan (the superb “Yellowstone Booty”) and millionaire Dan Galt in the first half of “Eve and Adam”.

They, together with the clever panel compositions, give a hint at just what was so foolishly lost by Burns’ abrupt, needless dismissal. It’s worth just pausing to look at the handful of ‘cross-over’ strips the Evening Standard secretly commissioned from Pat Wright, his version of the ongoing “Eve and Adam” story, with those of Burns. It’s quite obvious which is the better, which has the drama and most evokes the two lead characters, yet still they dumped Burns and enlisted Wright. One can only speculate just how Burns would have depicted the rest of the story, with its abrupt (and, I think, rather disappointing) plot twist, but, again in retrospect, Wright’s effort is valiant perhaps, but horribly flawed.

Incidentally (given this was 1980) that story at first seemed to very much shake us out of Modesty’s original 1960s time-period and into the contemporary world of space satellites, but it was an idea, however, O’Donnell had previous already used in his 1971 Modesty Blaise novel The Impossible Virgin. Later, especially in the novels, but also in the 1980s/90s technology like mini-computers and mobile phones, that discord between the character’s origins and World War II time-period and apparently still being in her late twenties/early thirties at best, would only get more glaring and obvious. It was – along with the apparent fundamental lack of continuity between strip and novels – the most annoying and disappointing flaw to O’Donnell’s wonderful creation. This is the problem perhaps when an author creates a character (one thinks of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or, more especially Georges Simenon’s Chief-Inspector Maigret), but which is still being writing about two, three or four decades later. Simenon’s Maigret, for example, first appeared in 1930, aged (Simenon immediately informed the reader) 45. Despite ‘retiring’ him at one point in the 1940s (as a Parisian police office he would have retired at 55), Simenon continued to write more Maigret novels throughout the 1950s and 60s (the period, in retrospect, most associated with him) and on into the late-1970s, by which time the still serving Chief Inspector would have been pushing 90! In truth, Simenon’s best writing pre-dated 1965. Most books after that period – the Maigret novels in particular – were inferior, lacking his originality or descriptive magic.

The same was true of Modesty, who we are told in the first comic strip story, “La Machine” (1963), to be “about 26” – hence born c.1937. On that basis, by 2001 (and the last Modesty strip, “The Zombie”) she would be 64, while in the last of the novels, Dead Man’s Handle (1985), she would still have been aged 48. The one exception to this, of course, was the short story “Cobra Trap” (1996), in which Modesty is in her early fifties, and (apparently with an incurable brain tumour) sets out on her final death mission. For most Modesty fans (myself included) it is hardest to read. Indeed, some hardened fans claim they still haven’t read it, deliberately. Given that Modesty could still have been physically active at least into her mid-forties (therefore the late-1970s), O’Donnell could have aged her, while keeping her within the time-frame, and that would have been more credible. Of course the counter-argument is she was just a fictitious character anyway, but O’Donnell often remarked he thought of her otherwise. He remarked on occasion that he was merely her ‘biographer’, or that, on his own travels about the world (presumably places like the USA, France, or Malta, where he also had a villa, like Modesty) he half-expected to see her and Willie sitting in a nearby cafe or restaurant!

Looking back at the first run of Romero (1970-78) one cannot help but wonder how different they might have looked under another artist, like Holdaway, had he lived, or even Burns, for instance. But actually there was another artist working away at about the same time, who might have been equally interesting, both in his interpretation of Modesty and Willie, but also in his visual and physical depiction of other characters – villains especially. To my knowledge no one has suggested this, but what a pity Martin Asbury never got the opportunity to illustrate Modesty. Alas, in our parallel universe, Asbury inherited The Daily Mirror’s “Garth” strip following the tragic death of Frank Bellamy. Asbury was equally competent drawing stories set in the Wild West, Greek mythology, Medieval, Tudor, or eighteenth century England (“Hell-Fire”, about the Hell Fire Club, is especially good), or conventional science fiction (futuristic architecture, spaceships, aliens and alien planets), but it is his ‘contemporary’, mostly crime, “Garth” stories that (for me) peaked my interest (despite, as we have said above, being greatly inferior to Modesty Blaise, or even the earlier, 1940s to 50s-period Buck Ryan stories, drawn by Jack Monk), and got me thinking “If only….”

Three in particular, “The Don’s Daughter”, “Sapphire” and “The Fishermen”, all show Asbury’s ability for the vivid angle or prospective we see with both Holdaway and Burns, but (perhaps more important) was his talent at depicting faces. Compare the early strips of “The Fisherman” in conference, or the wacky (but totally stupid and incompetent) villains in “Sapphire”. They are original, believable, vivid. Sadly (and “Sapphire” is a good example) he was let down by an inferior story and the totally unbelievable beefcake of a hero, who all too often uses muscle rather than much brain, and mostly against the most stupid villains or evil, so-called, geniuses. Even the weakest of O’Donnell’s Modesty stories (and there were a few) was still much better written, cleverer and more intellectually challenging than anything from the “Garth” stable. But I still contend that Asbury might have excelled at illustrating Modesty, had he been given the chance.

Instead let us consider the Neville Colvin period of 1980 to 1986. I’ve already remarked his – at first – shaky ability to depict Modesty’s body (although, even in his first story, he drew two well-proportioned bit-part bikini-clad and nude females); also his tendency to slip into caricature (he thought of himself as a cartoonist first, comic strip artist afterwards), but, while we might wish in vain for the (sometimes over the top) detail of Holdaway, or the strong clarity of Burns, many of his faces or characters are first rate. Consider Gasper in “Dossier on Pluto”; or ‘Comrade Doctors’ Vole and Yago in the rather crazy, but enjoyable, “Garvin’s Travels”; or the Russian diplomats in “The Moon Man”; (and again in his swansong, “The Double Agent”, another excellent story); almost all of the characters in “The Wild Boar” (the French policeman, in particular); or Colonel Spooner in “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”. Colvin’s version of Maude Tiller (who first appeared in “The Puppet Master”, drawn by Romero) is blonde, beautiful, but somehow quite distinct, whereas Romero’s blondes all came to rather look alike, variations of his sexy sci-fi heroine “Axa”.

Probably Colvin’s best creation was the Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his blonde girlfriend Aniela. Guido, who has a touch of Salvador Dali about him, is a wonderful and memorable visual creation, who Romero was to later depict, competently enough, but without much flare, in several more later stories. Less successful, however, was Romero’s later depiction of Aniela. As I’ve already remarked, all his blondes (Maude and Aniela especially) somehow looked much like Axa. Go back and look at Colvin’s version, and somehow she actually looks Italian. Again, she is quite distinctive, with an interesting profile.

And this was Romero’s main artistic weakness. Modesty and Willie are OK, although Modesty was still lacking that magic which Holdaway, Burns and even Colvin gave her sometimes, but Romero’s other faces are a bit like well-drawn masks. Just occasionally (like with his blondes, or elderly women characters) they actually start to look alike, as if he had a limited repertoire of faces he merely ‘tweaked’ with different stories. Maybe I’m being unfair, but the best Modesty stories (even in the later period, when the really original clever stories were less frequent) needed a subtly and believability that Romero lacked, Colvin had perhaps 60% of the time, and Holdaway almost every time. In my opinion “Bad Suki” and “The Vikings” were perhaps the least successful of that early fertile Holdaway period, but that was through no fault of Holdaway as an artist.

If one were to divide up the strip into that of the three main artists, I would say Holdaway’s period (1963-1970) has the greatest concentration of the best stories – Peter O’Donnell at full-flight. Even the (mostly introductory) “La Machine” is excellent, and the characters and setting already almost fully formed, while “Mister Sun” saw the introduction of ‘houseboy’ Weng. What followed was newspaper strip comic at its most adult and complex. No wonder the American newspaper editors at the time didn’t ‘get it’, and wanted to cut the length, the clever (and funny) sub-plots, even the ‘naughty’ bits – a naked female back! Horror! Blood and gore, yes. Nudity (especially female nudity) a no-no. As is often the case with British comic strip artists (one thinks of both Hampson and Sydney Jordan, who draw the science fiction “Jeff Hawke” and later “Lance McLean” strips), they are more appreciated in Europe than in Britain. Virtually all of Sydney Jordan’s work has been reproduced in Italian, whereas less than a dozen “Jeff Hawke” stories (mostly from the Willie Patterson scripted period) were reprinted in their original English by Titan Books. Likewise, Modesty was especially popular (both comic and books) in Scandinavia, the comic strips often coloured, and both they and the books with very competent colour covers – we believe at least some by Burns, others by Romero, others but unidentified artists.

Holdaway’s “The Head Girls” (1966) saw the second (and in the strip stories, last) appearance of evil arch-criminal Gabriel, the only villain who also appeared in the novels Modesty Blaise (1966) and in A Taste for Death (1969), when O’Donnell rather briskly killed him off! “The Black Pearl” (1966), set in Chinese-occupied Tibet, followed, and first introducing the more mystic/occultist aspect to some of the Modesty stories. As we will see this had a ‘sequel’, but one of the final Modesty stories, “Death Symbol”, written in 1999, which bizarrely reintroduces both the Tibetan setting and some of the Tibetan freedom-fighting partisans from 32 years previous, but we are told the earlier adventure had happened only two years earlier! Eight or ten years maybe, even that would be stretching it! Again the time scale makes no sense.

“The Magnified Man”, another clever story, featuring an exo-skeleton, something that was being researched in that time, but never really took off. “The Jericho Caper”, and “The Galley Slaves” followed, both competent and miles better than anything from the “Garth” stable, then two wonderful stories “The Red Gryphon” and “The Hell-Makers”, the former showing just how dangerous it could be as Modesty’s boyfriend, the latter a classic, illustrated the bond between Modesty and Willie. “Take-Over” was next, on a theme I think was used again by O’Donnell, and (I believe) in a Garth story, but never as cleverly plotted, and then “The War-Lords of Phoenix”, which sadly brought the Holdaway period to its conclusion.

Romero’s first period (1970-78) saw a slightly dropping-off in the really edgy, clever stories, although “The Puppet Master”, “The Bluebeard Affair”, “The Gallows Bird”, “The Iron God”, “Highland Witch” (with some clever trickery from Modesty), “Cry Wolf”, and “Idaho George” were good, if not quite reaching brilliance. There followed (1979-80) the brief Burns/Wright interlude, then the Colvin period, 1980-86. This latter period saw the competent “Dossier on Pluto”, the very clever plot twists (and more Modesty ingenuity) of “The Lady Killers”, the crazy cleverness of “Garvin’s Travels”, the again competent “The Scarlet Maiden” (an old story O’Donnell had started back in the 1960s), followed by “The Moon Man”, a goodish espionage story. “A Few Flowers for the Colonel”, had a story-line not dissimilar to “The Jericho Caper” (or the 1972 short story “A Better Day to Die” from his Pieces of Modesty collection).

That was followed by “The Balloonatic”, which first introduced the reader to one of O’Donnell’s re-occurring characters: the roguish Italian journalist Guido and his beautiful, but long-suffering girlfriend, Aniela, who ‘Weelie’ gets to bed on more than one occasion! Not for the last time we get a hint of a back-story of previous encounters between the two, never elaborated further. This, however, was a routine Italian-based espionage/terrorist gangs story made memorable by the Modesty/Guido, Willie/Aniela on-going banter. It sees Modesty in a hot-air balloon and Willie and Aniela following by car, except Aniela can only read a map if facing north – hence her leaning over the passenger seat with her bottom in the air!

This is followed by the revenge thriller “Death in Slow-Motion” (in which Willie waylays a truck using ingenious disguises), then “The Alternative Man”, both good, if not quite ‘excellent’. “Sweet Caroline” is so-so, but like “The Vanishing Dollybirds” is now very dated, relying on the Neil Diamond pop-song context. Colvin does good work on illustrating some of the minor characters – compare his middle-aged, working-class lady hostage with any similar aged females Romero draw! However, the better stories are timeless. “The Return of the Mammoth” is competent, set in Finland and the Soviet Union, introducing Russian army Colonel Greb; while “Plato’s Republic” and “The Sword of the Bruce” are both workable capers. In the former – like the earlier Romero-illustrated story “Death of a Jester” – Modesty literally ‘sleeps with the enemy’, not for the only time either.

“The Wild Boar” (1985) raises the stakes, as well as introducing a character from the novels, Dr Giles Pennyfeather, who featured in The Impossible Virgin (1971) and The Xanadu Talisman (1981). While Colvin’s depiction sometimes looks gross, nevertheless it is how we envisage him, and Romero again followed the earlier portrayal of him in later stories. This was back to Modesty at her best, as was the final Colvin story (“Kali’s Disciples” being so-so), the excellent “The Double Agent”, with Modesty coming face to face with her evil communist agent dopplegänger! One almost regrets Colvin bowing out by then, especially as the next and last phase of stories seem to move more towards the dark, gritty style of the novels, away from the early clever, tricky, playfulness of the Holdaway period.

With the (this time) permanent return of Romero (1986-2001), both story and style seems to be darker. “The Vampire of Malvescu” is competent (set in much the same location as “Top Traitor”, 1965, Holdaway, actually Transylvania), while “Samantha and the Cherub” (1987) introduces the young, feisty Samantha character who appears in “Ivory Dancer” (1992) and “The Special Orders” (1998) – this last being another dark story about the white slave trade. Between Sam’s first appearance and her last there is actually a several years’ time gap. Samantha was probably only about age ten in the first story, before becoming a 15-year-old teenager in the last story. The problem is more in Romero’s art. He isn’t good at depicting children (as exampled in his first illustrated story, the dated and rather silly “Willie the Djinn”), and Samantha finished up looking too much like a young Modesty.

Another failing perhaps – which Holdaway or Colvin would never have done – is Romero’s obvious lack of direct knowledge of Britain, and London in particular. Sam, we are told is a working class girl living in the East End, but her house, when we see it, is much too posh. Tarrant’s office, originally in the Whitehall/Foreign Office area, is now depicted as some anonymous modernist block, surrounded by equally unidentified modern buildings, having almost a hint of some futuristic science fiction city-scape. Likewise, Romero’s depiction of the architecture of the capital of the communist East European country in “Death Trap” (1977/78) just looks quite wrong, again more like something out of science-fiction – nothing like Soviet-style architecture, although the villain looked a bit like the long-time president/dictator of post-Soviet Belarus! In other illustrations – of Paris, for instance, or views of Big Ben from across the Thames, both landmarks and scale are all wrong. We will give examples below, including his totally wrong depiction of both an English village and castle.

“Milord” (1988) is equally dark, with a grim theme (it has Guido and Aniela again, but not much humour left, with girls being kidnapped for extreme porno and stuff movies). So too is “The Astro” (1994, again featuring women being sold into the criminal sex trade). On a happier note is “The Girl from the Future” (1989), with a rather crazy plot to swindle a gullible mega-rich science fiction publisher (not a writer, but, given he thinks to change the future of humankind, why did I think of L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientology man?) “Lady in the Dark” (1989/90) was another ‘cross-over’ from the novels, featuring Steve and Diana Collier, but, while they are sympathetically portrayed by Romero, neither are perhaps particularly visually outstanding to anyone first having read the novels.

“Walkabout” (1990) is another of O’Donnell’s favourite locations, the Australian outback, and again features Mafia hoods. There followed a gritty, but very good, “The Girl in the Iron Mask” – my only complaint being that the back-story of the Bone brothers having their reason to hate Modesty is only alluded to, but doesn’t appear in either the strips or novels, although the master planner of the rather inapt criminal gang in “Idaho George” (1978) was named Bone. O’Donnell often repeated names (as well as a few plot ideas or accessories) over his near-40-year period. George was a likeable con-man, and another one whose pretty and sexy girlfriend (like Aniela) flirted outrageously with Willie – except Aniela we know did enjoy having nooky with Willie – Maisie apparently was less lucky!

“My Friend Maude” (1992) is again passable espionage, although again the plot itself is rather silly, while “The Maori Contract” (1995, which rather repeated “The Sword of the Bruce” story idea), “Durango” (again with overtones of previous stories, like “The Iron God”), and “The Murder Frame” (1997, a revenge caper) are so-so. The previous playful humour has completely evaporated now, as exampled by “Fraser’s Story” (1997), which reintroduces the character Doctor Yago (from “Garvin’s Travels”), but he too is no longer a comic villain, instead gone completely to the dark side, now quite unlikeable. Towards the end Jack Fraser (Tarrant’s assistant and ex-field agent) breaks his neck. There is no more ‘Mr Nice-Guy’. Villains are über-villainous and meet nasty deaths accordingly. However, at least Maude and Willie are now, at long last, getting to enjoy sex together! In the novels Willie’s regular bed-partner was Lady Janet Gillam, but she only appeared a couple of times in the comic strip world, and only as a major plot character in one, “Murder Frame”.

We have already mentioned “Death Symbol” (1998, the series is near to its end) which was again set in Tibet, and with some of the same characters as “The Black Pearl” (1966), but it has the utterly bizarre plot line that the two stories (actually 32 years apart!) are only two years apart! Sorry, Peter, but that’s nonsense! Why did you say that? But that too is a much darker story, with Modesty being beaten and raped at the hands of a sadistic Chinese renegade – something that happened several times in the novels, but rarely in the comic strips. If she went to bed with the villain (Saint-Maur in “Death of a Jester”, Plato in “Plate’s Republic”, Dom Tregallion in “Those About to Die”), it was by her choice, not force.

“The Last Aristocrat” features Guido and Aniela again (they also featured in “Guido the Jinx”, 1994, along with Russian GPU Colonel Greb from “The Return of the Mammoth”), and does have some humour still, with Aniela again promising the faithless Guido “I will keel him! Slowly!”, although Romero does treat us to five strips of a very naked Aniela in bed with Willie and getting dressed afterwards! But the ‘macguffin’ is a plague bomb, again rather grim, and more in the James Bond spirit, which the greater majority of the comic strip stories were not. At the end Aniela and Guido finally get married, although one must question just why would she want to do so, knowing he was an unrepentant liar and womaniser! The penultimate story, “The Killing Game”, again returns to a theme used before, in the 1968 story “The Killing Ground” (reworked as a short story “Bellman”, 1996, in the Cobra Trap collection), and also “Eve and Adam”, with Modesty and Willie in ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ skimpy jungle outfits being hunted by a team of professional killers. However, the best that can be said it is competent.

The strip ending (unlike the more downbeat “Cobra Trap” short story) is the ultimate crossover between the two genres, with Modesty suggesting they go dig up the priceless Roman treasure that was re-buried in the North African desert at the end of the novel A Taste for Death, and afterwards donate the lot to the Salvation Army! Maybe, we know Modesty had a phenomenal sense of direction and place, but, as David Attenborough would tell you, the Sahara is a never-ending, wind-driven shifting place with no land-marks. Would they really find the treasure again? Given the near-forty years, it ends there, in a rather timeless limbo and anti-climax, as they apparently walk off into the sunset whilst planning their final caper. One is rather reminded of the unimaginative ending to the “Jane” comic strip, as she finally marries her idiotic boyfriend Georgie Porgy. Compare perhaps to the ending of the French science fiction comic saga “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Christin, in which the two heroes are projected back from the 28th century to early 21st century Paris, but as young children, remembering nothing of their past adventures as space-time agents. Like it or hate it (fandom was mixed), but it was an ending, with finality of sorts, rather than disappointing let-down.

Again it might have been better if O’Donnell had allowed Modesty to have aged just a bit (even 15 years perhaps), or to ended on a story that wrapped things up in a more satisfactory way – perhaps with the retirement (not before time!) of Sir Gerald, Willie selling his half of the circus (perhaps to Lady Jane), and it might have been better if Maude Tiller and Danny Chavasse (ex-Network operative, who had featured in a lot of novels) had partnered up, instead of the female, Leda, daughter of the latest villain in “The Zombie” (2001). It was too much a ‘routine’ story, rather than the ending it should have been.


Fig. 1: Jim Holdaway, 1927-1970, the original Modesty Blaise artist, and the best. He had previously illustrated Romeo Brown, also written by Peter O’Donnell. He died, aged 43, mid-way through “The War-Lords of Phoenix”.

Fig. 2: Holdaway, 1963 – Jack Fraser and Sir Gerald Tarrant visit Modesty at her penthouse apartment (I suggest Bayswater Road), overlooking Hyde Park.

Fig. 3: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Modesty Blaise. Note the intricate background detail in both this, and the previous, illustration. The Rolls-Royce parked at the kerb in panel 2 is probably Modesty’s.

Fig. 4: Holdaway, 1963 – His first image of Willie Garvin. Modesty visits him at his Thames riverside pub, the ‘Treadmill’. Note the interesting angles in panels 1 and 2. All three illustrations are from the first story La Machine.

Fig. 5: Holdaway, 1965/66 – Willie Garvin, Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser, and Modesty. Illustration from the story Top Traitor. Fraser is a former field agent whose outward persona is now that of a rather dull desk-bound bureaucrat. He, along with Sir Gerald, featured in many of the Modesty stories, both comic strip and the novels.

Fig. 6: Holdaway, 1963/64 – The first appearance of arch-criminal Gabriel.

Illustration from the third Modesty story The Gabriel Set-Up. Gabriel made one more appearance in the comic strip, in The Head Girls (1966), and featured in two of the Modesty Blaise novels, Modesty Blaise (1965), and A Taste for Death (1969), in which he is rather unceremoniously killed off.

Fig. 7: Holdaway, 1964 – The introduction of another regular character, that of Modesty’s ‘houseboy’ Weng, seen here in the fourth story Mister Sun. Again, take note of the detail of Mister Sun’s underground inner sanctum, the expressions and body language of the characters. Mr Sun was something of an Ian Fleming-type villain, in a story set in Hong Kong (then still a British colony) and during the Vietnam War, whilst emphasising Modesty’s hatred of the drug trade.

Fig. 8 : Holdaway, 1964 – Another episode from Mister Sun. A masterstroke to have the Chinese criminal villain practising his cartography while hoping to corrupt Modesty into the drugs trade. Probably only Neville Colvin equalled Holdaway in his ability to capture facial expressions and body language so effectively.

Fig. 9a : Holdaway – Modesty taken captive by another Cold War espionage villain, osteopath V. N. Korzon, from the fifth story The Mind of Mrs Drake. As with the second story, The Long Lever, often the good guys get killed; in this instance one of Tarrant’s agents, blonde Jeannie Challon. Holdaway’s artwork and characterisation is at the top of its game, except for the old Hollywood mistake that silencers aren’t actually effective on revolvers, only automatics!

Fig. 9b : Unknown artist (perhaps John Burns?), cover to a later Swedish language edition of Modesty, the title apparently changed to Psyko-spionen – psycho-espionage.

Fig. 10 : Holdaway, 1964/65 – Again from The Mind of Mrs Drake, and just one of numerous examples of the incredible detail Holdaway put into what was just a daily newspaper comic strip. Look at the third panel in particular as Modesty and Willie drive through London in her sports car convertible. Cars feature a lot in the Modesty comic strips.

Fig. 11 : Holdaway, 1969 – And another Cold War espionage villain from The Hell-Makers. Like the earlier Uncle Happy, this too was set in the USA, with the final action taking place in Montana. In addition to the larger than life Alex Kazin, Peter O’Donnell introduced another fascinating character, Gus Fletcher.

Fig. 12 : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s incredible attention to detail, as Modesty and her latest lover, Italian architect Max Aquino, attend Count Alborini’s Venetian ball in the palazzo on the Grand Canal. Another ruthless villain, driven by arrogance and greed. How long would it have taken for Holdaway to ink in all this intricate detail, only for it to be reduced down to probably a quarter of the size of the original, and with all the smudgy imperfections of 1960s/70s newspaper print?

Fig. 13a : Holdaway, 1968/69 – Another example of Holdaway’s almost cinematic compositions and mastery of light and shadow, especially in the top first panel. The (by now) slightly insane Count Alborini and his henchman hunting Modesty in the spooky derelict palazzo on its own island in the Venetian Lagoon, Modesty still with her wrists in handcuffs.

Fig. 13b : Unknown artist, the cover to the Swedish publication Agent X9, featuring translated Modesty Blaise stories, again from The Red Gryphon.

Fig. 14 : Holdaway, 1969-70 – Yet another example of Holdaway’s maticulous artwork, this from the story Take-Over. Modesty is being wined and dined by another comic strip regular, Inspector Brook of Scotland Yard. Although the story text does not say so, my guess this is the ‘Trafalgar Tavern’ at Greenwich.

Fig. 15 : Holdaway, 1970 – From The War-Lords of Phoenix, set in Japan, with the crazy mega-rich industrialist brothers Kato and Fumiya having forcefully ‘recruited’ Modesty and Willie to train their warrior fanatics. This was the penultimate Holdaway-drawn episode before he died so suddenly.

Fig. 16 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – In November 1978 John Burns took over illustration with the departure of Enric Badia Romero to concentrate on his “Axa” science fiction comic strip in the Sun newspaper. The first Burns story was Yellowstone Booty, another American story, and featuring the mega-rich American businessman and Modesty’s lover, John Dall, another ‘cross-over’ from the novels. Burns used strong black and white, and, while less meticulous in detail than Holdaway, he was excellent on faces, expressions and composition.

Fig. 17 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Two more illustrations from Yellowstone Booty, featuring the feisty Lucy Grace, half-Native American Indian treasure-hunter, and her husband Brad, about to rescue an unconscious Willie Garvin in a canoe. Was the nudity really too up-front for the Evening Standard readers in 1978? Why else was Burns given instant dismissal half-way through only his third Modesty Blaise story?

Fig. 18 : John M. Burns, 1978/79 – Another episode of Yellowstone Booty. Note that Burns is credited as artist, as later was Neville Colvin. Was it just a coincidence that a strong story also had a strong artist in the same vein as Holdaway? Burns’ portfolio is huge and impressive, and includes “The Seekers”, a Modesty Blaise-like comic strip (written by Les Lilley, 1966-71); “Danielle” (1973-74, 1978); George and Lynne (1977-84); “Bionic Woman” (1976-77) and “Eartha” (written by Donne Aveness, 1981-82).

Fig 19 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Peter O’Donnell’s equivalent of Ian Fleming’s SPECTRA was Salamander Four, which appeared in both novels/short stories and here, in one of several examples, in the comic strip. Sir Angus McBeal also featured in the novels, and the short story “Old Alex” (1996). This is from the story Green Cobra, another strong espionage story in which Tarrant’s assistant Jack Fraser is kidnapped – a twist on the much earlier story Top Traitor, or the novel The Silver Mistress, when Tarrant was the kidnap victim.

Fig. 20 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Another episode from Green Cobra, and an example of Burns’ strength at creating memorable (if eccentric) characters – the ruthless Pandora, egocentric martial arts fighter with a chip on her shoulder concerning Modesty, and the Toulouse-Lautrec-like midget Dr. Vigo.Fig. 21 : John M. Burns, 1979 – Although Burns’ Modesty occasionally looks wrong – her hair piled too high, lips too full, by his third story, Eve and Adam, he had already stamped his strong, distinctive style on the strip, and drawn some memorable characters, here the slightly bonkers Dan Galt, convinced the world was about to end, and planning to transplant Modesty and Willie to an isolated, fertile valley in Africa to be the new Adam and Eve. The perfect excuse for some discreet nudity and the odd flash of Modesty’s bare boobs, but then suddenly, mid-story, Burns is gone and replaced by another artist, Pat Wright, whose style is completely different. As editorial decisions go as far as a popular comic strip was concerned, it was completely crazy.

Fig, 22a and 22b : John M. Burns and Pat Wright – John Burns was dismissed by orders of the then Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour in September 1979, and hurriedly replaced by Pat Wright. The last two Burns strips were not printed and replaced by the Pat Wright version instead, thus giving us an interesting opportunity to compare the two artists and their individual interpretation of Peter O’Donnell’s script. The contrast is apparent. Burns’s style was strong and realistic, and, like his two predecessors, Holdaway and Romero, he used shadows a lot. Wright’s style was much lighter, often almost devoid of shadow, and, while he was quite good with his depiction of Modesty’s face, he was weak on figures in general, and even more so on background. He was the son of comic artist David Wright (1912-1967), who draw the comic strip “Carol Day” (written by Peter Morris, 1956-67) for the Daily Mirror. Perhaps had Wright been drawing a completely new comic strip, he might have survived and thrived, but there is no denying that he was the weakest and least able of the five artists, and his tenure lasted only one and half stories, before he, too, was replaced in May 1980 by Neville Colvin, and the artistic style dramatically changed yet again. Pat Wright had previously drawn for The Eagle, 2000AD, and the Commando comics, and later for Private Eye. His forte were single panel cartoons. Continuity error! Willie is weeks in the wilderness but is still clean-shaven!

Figs. 23 and 24 : Pat Wright, 1979-80 – Wright completed the story Eve and Adam, ironically taking over almost at the point where the story took on a totally unexpected twist, and a more brutal edge. Alas, one can only imagine how John Burns might have illustrated this change of direction. Wright’s version is disappointing. Between January to May 1980 he completed the next story, Brethren of Blaise, a routine crime caper set in a small village in winter. Artistically, this too was, at best, serviceable, at worst, mediocre. As the two examples above show, his Modesty and Willie were perhaps better even than Romero’s, and certainly nearer to the original Holdaway images. But little else worked – the backgrounds were scrappy and vague; there was little detail, the style was sketchy rather than realistic, and the composition was workaday, nothing else. Sadly, Pat Wright’s Modesty was the least successful.

Fig. 25 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – This from the opening episodes of the first story Colvin illustrated, Dossier on Pluto, and from the man, who – so the story goes – when offered the job of being the replacement Modesty Blaise artist, claimed he couldn’t draw women! Straightway he was drawing Willie’s latest squeeze, American former cheer-leader and prize bimbo, Cheryl, and in the skimpiest of micro-bikinis! Later, in the same story, he draw a very nude Rosita, another of Willie’s horizontal playmates (although this time in the noble cause of duping the villains, of course!) Given how American newspaper editors had so heavily censored Romero’s artwork in The Gallows Bird (1973) from even the hint of bare feminine flesh or Willie sleeping with his girlfriends, one can only suppose the later Modesty stories never saw the light of day in the USA. Like Pat Wright who he replaced, New Zealand-born Colvin regarded himself as more of a cartoonist, and his artwork was not without flaws and failings, but, in retrospect, he did restore something of the Holdaway spirit – most notably in his depiction of characters and often real emotion in their faces – something that both Pat Wright and Enrique Badia Romero often failed at.Figs, 26 and 27 : Neville Colvin, 1980 – The two villains from Dossier on Pluto, Squire Maitland and Gaspar (an overweight Captain Hook type). This story has the third appearance of another of Modesty’s lovers, American Steve Taylor, the F.B.I. agent who first appeared in Uncle Happy (drawn by Holdaway) and then The Gallows Bird (by Romero) – so three different artists. Now retired, he is conducting dolphin research – Pluto being the name given to one of the dolphins. During the Cold War (and perhaps since) such research was actually being carried out by both the USA and the Soviet Union. One feature which distinguished Modesty from her fictional rivals, especially government-employed thugs like James Bond, was her empathy for dumb animals, donkeys and dolphins in particular. Maitland is the first of several posh, rather autocratic, long yellow- or silver-haired villains portrayed by Colvin; we see his type again in Sweet Caroline (perhaps the least successful of the O’Donnell/Colvin stories), Plato’s Republic, and the foreign office sleeper agent in the last Colvin illustrated story, The Double Agent.

Figs. 28a and 28b : Neville Colvin (above) and Enric Badia Romero (below).

The Neville Colvin period was from 1980 until 1986, and included some excellent stories, but also Peter O’Donnell reintroduced some previous characters, like circus-owner Georgi Gogol, French intelligence chief René Vaubois, and Maude Tiller, who had first appeared in The Puppet Master (1971-71), drawn by Romero. Here she is again in Gavin’s Travels, and – while still a blonde – looking completely different, actually with more character!Fig. 29 : Neville Colvin, 1981. Here is Maude Tiller again in Gavin’s Travels, with comrade Doctors Yago (with the bald head) and Vole, rare comic book incompetent villains in Peter O’Donnell’s world, although Dr. Yago made a later reappearance in Fraser’s Story (1997, drawn by Romero), in which he was no longer comic and inapt, but a true nasty who merits getting his neck snapped! Holdaway would have handled the background with more subtlety and perhaps detail, while Romero would had perhaps emphasised contrasting shadow more, but the two villains are distinctive (if perhaps comic), and Colvin’s version remains the best ever depiction of Maude, here and in The Double Agent.Fig. 30 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Circus owner Georgi Gogol is another character who made a few ‘guest appearances’ over the span of stories, first in The Bluebeard Affair (1974, Romero), then Death Trap (1978, also Romero), but seen here by Colvin in The Return of the Mammoth, ten years later, in 1984. Once again, it is Colvin who really captures Gogol’s appearance and character to match O’Donnell’s dialogue. The second illustration by Romero (2001).Fig. 31 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – When it came to depicting another of Modesty’s regular lovers, the medically talented, if mildly eccentric Doctor Giles Pennyfeather, Colvin did occasionally stray into caricature. This is one of his less comic portrayals, from the excellent crime caper The Wild Boar (which also features another regular from both comic strip and novels, Rene Vaubois). Giles first appeared in the novel The Impossible Virgin (1971) and again in The Xanadu Talisman (1981), and in the comic strip stories The Young Mistress (1992), Honeygun (1996) and Children of Lucifer (1999, all drawn by Romero).Fig. 32 : Neville Colvin, 1985 – Just in this one story, The Wild Boar, where the action moves from Tangiers to Cannes to Corsica, there are a number of fleeting characters, yet all vividly depicted by Colvin. Whether it be Cannes police inspector Durand, seen here on his day off at the marina, and looking characteristically French, or the elderly Corsican gentleman with his white flowing moustache, or Vaubois’s scheming deputy in French intelligence, who looked a bit like Mitterrand!Figs. 33 and 34 : Neville Colvin, 1984 – Two episodes from The Return of the Mammoth, in which Willie loses his favourite circus elephant Chloe in Russia. G.R.U. Captain Novikov doesn’t believe Willie’s story, until an old Soviet army officer acquaintance, Colonel Greb, rescues him. Greb appeared again, in Guido the Jinx (1994, drawn by Romero). But even if we allow for the time lapse, Romero’s Greb looked nothing like Colvin’s, who, as we see here, depicts a much more typical, stocky, ruddy-faced Russian. Romero’s Greb is just a fat man of no discernible nationality with short fair or cropped hair. I always felt that O’Donnell’s Greb was a nod to Len Deighton’s Colonel Stok as featured in his early novels Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.Fig. 35 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – From the story A Few Flowers for the Colonel, this is Colonel Rodney Spooner, retired, Royal Engineers, a story set in another fictitious O’Donnell South American country, and a variation on The Jericho Caper (1967/68) and the short stories A Better Day to Die and Cobra Trap.Figs. 36 and 37 : Neville Colvin, 1982 – Two illustrations from The Moon Man, seen here in the second frame, Herbert Duck, aka The Moon Man, the UK agent of an unnamed East European (e.g. communist) foreign power, who uses his apparent claim to be in contact with extra-terrestrials aliens in UFOs as ‘cover’. Perhaps even aside from his time writing the “Garth” stories for the Daily Mirror (1953-65), Peter O’Donnell obviously had an interest in science fiction and so-called flying saucers, or UFOs. They feature in at least two other Modesty comic strip stories, “Take Me To Your Leader” (1974, Romero), and The Girl from the Future (1989, also Romero). The story sub-plot has Modesty posing nude for a painting by her latest lover, again a plot idea used (but sculpture) in The Jericho Caper, and the short story Salamander Four. Aside from the dastardly East European villains, Colvin depicts a cast of characters, including the painter’s young daughter and a motley collection of ufologists!Figs. 38 and 39 : Neville Colvin, 1982-83 – Perhaps Colvin’s most enduring visual creation was the lying, scheming, fantasizing and womanizing Italian journalist Guido Biganzoli and his long-suffering blonde girlfriend Aniela, both seen here in different episodes of Guido’s introductory story The Balloonatic. Despite her misgivings, Modesty agrees to take part in a hot-air balloon race in Italy, while Willie (“Weelie”) and Aniela follow by car, except Aniela can only read maps if facing north! As usual in Peter O’Donnell’s world, murder and terrorist gangs very soon come to dominate the plot. Colvin’s Guido has a touch of Salvador Dali about him. They appear again in Guido the Jinx (1996), Milord (1988), and finally The Last Aristocrat (1999-2000). All three were illustrated by Romero, but now Aniela looked just like Romero’s version of Maude Tiller, and Guido is recognisable, but rather ‘stiff’, and the last two stories in particular are rather nasty and brutish – snuff porno movies and biological warfare terrorism.Figs. 40 and 41 : Neville Colvin, 1986 – In retrospect we must regret that Colvin decided to retire from drawing Modesty, and, perhaps even more, the editorial decision to again engage Romero to take over illustrating the comic strip again. Colvin had got better and better which each story, but bowed out in style, with the excellent – and at times, quite comic – espionage story The Double Agent, which, as almost immediately becomes apparent, has itself a double meaning: Modesty is up against her own double! With the communist operative Havil, not for the first time in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty universe, we have a villain who has apparently crossed swords with her before, but in some previous, untold story. His intended revenge is to use a ruthless and highly trained Modesty-lookalike to assassinate Tarrant, with Modesty taking the blame. The problem being, of course, that, no matter how good the double, Willie would know. This story – Colvin’s swansong, culminating in a hand-to-hand battle between Modesty and Gemini, her double – is O’Donnell at his creative best, evoking both tension and humour. The story again features Maude Tiller, at her most seductive, but also a cast of villains (seen above, two underlings and Havil himself), a circus bear, a man in a clown suit, holograms, an ingenious murder attempt on Willie, and the final confrontation on a golf-course – I like to think somewhere in Surrey. Colvin bows out, and Romero returns, and once again it almost seems as if the tune of the stories start to change also.

Fig. 42 : Romero, 1970 – The first Enric Badia Romero period was from 1970 to 1978, and Willie the Djinn (above) was the first complete story illustrated following Holdaway’s untimely death. It was not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best or most memorable stories, set in a fictitious Middle Eastern Arab country (perhaps not unlike Kuwait) now rich from oil wealth, whose eccentric ruler knew Modesty in her teenage wandering days. O’Donnell returned to a similar plot in 1977/78 with the equally mediocre The Vanishing Dollybirds, also one of his less successful titles. Romero’s style is bold and strong, but, while he was excellent at drawing young women, he seemed strangely unable to draw very young children. For instance, compare the middle panel of the top episode with the much smaller, almost babyish girl in the last panel of the bottom episode. In The Stone Age Caper (1971) the Aboriginal children look quite grotesque, while the later character of Sam Brown (Samantha and the Cherub, 1987) often looked like a miniature Modesty.

Fig. 43 : Romero, 1971 – The third fully-illustrated Romero was Death of a Jester, a competent, if not particularly outstanding, quasi-espionage/crime caper, whose lordly, ex-British Army commando villain is the bearded and ruthless John Vandeleur Saint-Maur. Both monasteries and castles feature a lot in the Modesty stories, but Romero’s castles are always rather ridiculous, like out of fairy stories. His artwork is detailed, and his Modesty already quite exotic (not for the only time, in either novels or comic strip, she sleeps with the bad guy). Also not for the only time, Peter O’Donnell has a reoccuring name – in his 1982 novel The Night of the Morningstar, one of the villains is Major Ronald St. Maur, a.k.a. the Earl St. Maur. Had O’Donnell forgotten he had used the same name back in 1971?Fig. 44 : Romero, 1971 – The Puppet Master was more of a revenge caper, featuring the evil-looking Mahmoud, former vice-ring boss, seen here with the title character, mind-molding psychiatrist Dr. Hans Baum. Set mostly in Italy, with excursions to the South of France and Athens, this story also introduces Maude Tiller, another one of Tarrant’s blonde female agents, who became a Peter O’Donnell favourite, featuring in over half a dozen comic strip stories, as well the novel Last Day in Limbo. Strangely enough, an early Romero sketch for Maude, reproduced in the Titan reprints, shows more character than his later depiction, when she became rather a ‘typical’ Romero blonde. The final action takes place on the Monte Solaro chairlift in Carpi, O’Donnell supplying Romero with photographs as to the location.Fig. 45 : Romero, 1971 – Another favourite O’Donnell location was Australia, and especially the Outback, which featured in a number of the Modesty comic strip stories, The Stone Age Caper (opening episodes above), and Walkabout (1990-91), as well as one of his ‘Madeleine Brent’ pen-name novels, The Golden Urchin (1986, something of a literary tour de force, being written in the first person, whose heroine is a young white girl brought up as an Aborigine). This introduces both another recurring villain, Chinese Mr Wu Smith, who perhaps inherited Mr Sun’s criminal empire, and Australian Aborigine Jacko, former of the Network, whose tracking skills are occasionally called upon. Here too we meet one of Modesty’s one-off, one-time lovers, Australian zoologist David Collins, whose persona is remarkably similar to that of near-namesake Steve Collier, another former Modesty lover, who first appeared on the 1967 novel I, Lucifer, but only appeared in the comic strip in 1989. Fig. 46 : Romero, 1971 – Horror, shock! Modesty shows her nipples! Tame by the standards of the 1980s – “George and Lynne” or “Axa”, but still got reader complaints apparently, and a mild rebulk to Peter O’Donnell. Laughable now.Fig. 47 : Romero, 1972-73 – The Bluebeard Affair was a more conventional crime caper, the wicked Baron Rath and his two hideous daughters, Hortense and Celeste, planning to murder his fourth wife for her money. The setting is the South of France, near Cannes, although Romero’s depiction of the town at night, viewed from the bay, is strangely unconvincing. However, the would-be victim is the niece of French intelligence chief, Rene Vaubois, who first appeared in The Magnified Man (Holdaway, 1967). This also sees the first appearance of Georgi Gogol’s circus, who Willie half-owns (much to the surprise of both us, the reader, and Modesty herself!) The circus will feature again in Death Trap (Romero, 1977-78), and Return of the Mammoth (Colvin, 1984), and The Zombie (2000-2001). Fig. 48 : Romero, 1973 – Next to guns (Modesty’s speciality), cars feature a lot in both comic strip and books, and – apart from Willie’s London black cab – mostly left-hand drive. I suspect both Holdaway and Romero enjoyed drawing them. This final episode of The Bluebeard Affair is especially good.fig. 49 : Romero, 1978 – American con-man Idaho George and his girlfriend Maisie has him pretending to be misogynist Indian mystic Ram Dal Singh, supposedly able to materialise gold or silver. I believe O’Donnell had a personal interest in stage magic, and several of his stories use this theme – The Girl From the Future and “Take Me to Your Leader”, for instance. A routine crime caper, with a thuggish gang of incompetents lead by Anastasia Bone, following the death of husband Alfred Potts. Maisie is another, like Guido’s girlfriend Aniela, who flirts with Willie, but less successfully. This story is notable for bringing together (if only briefly) Maude, Weng, Steve Collier, Lady Janet (who featured more in the books) and Inspector Brook’s nephew Rufus, who had appeared in the story From Rufus With Love (Romero, 1972). It also has Modesty badly beaten up, and performing a self-inducing near-death coma. Other stories of interest in this first Romero period are The Gallow Bird (1973), a USA caper in which the villains (an elderly pseudo-Confederate ‘General’ and his crazy wife, obsessed with hanging) plan to flood New Orleans – 32 years later Hurricane Katrina was unfortunately more successful; The Iron God (1973-74), set in New Guinea, with roguish bearded Irishman O’Mara as villain – although Romero had him looking not unlike John Saint Maur (above). Romero can at least draw believable black adults, as exampled in this story, unlike the dreadful effort of Pat Wright in Eve and Adam. Finally one of the better stories, even if a routine crime caper, Highland Witch (1974), featuring another sarcastic Steve Collier-type named Dr. Gordon Ritchie, and another samey Romero blonde-lookalike girl-in-peril, Peggy Western, looking like Maude Tiller much of the time. The villain is Sister Binks, middle-aged and fat, another Romero stereotype. Aborigine Jacko makes a brief appearance, but the best part of the story is Modesty’s ingenious frightener on the bad guys who think Peggy is dead, only to keep seeing and hearing her ‘ghost’… Fig. 50 : Romero, 1986-87 – Enric Badia Romero returned in 1986, with the cowboy/western-themed Butch Cassidy Rides Again, featuring a English-born, gun-slinging villain named The Preacher – a throwback perhaps to the Revd. Uriah Crisp in the 1978 novel Dragon’s Claw. There seems to be a subtle change in Romero’s art, but also increasingly in the nature of the stories in this final fifteen year phase. Workaday art for a workaday story, but it does see a brief intervention by Modesty’s favourite multi-millionaire boyfriend, John Dall.Fig. 51 : – Romero, 1987 – The story The Million Dollar Game is one of several Modesty comic strip stories over the entire period with a hunting theme – more often Modesty and Willie being the hunted. These are the short, fill-in story The Killing Ground (1968, Holdaway – O’Donnell later wrote a short story version, Bellman, 1996), and The Killing Game (Romero, 2000). This story, eventually about large-scale poaching in Africa – sadly, still on-going in real life – actually begins with a flashback to Modesty’s Network days in Tangier, and her love of dumb animals, donkeys in particular. Grey Lawton is the animal doctor, eventually, after a bumpy start, another of Modesty’s lovers. When he later appears, shaven-headed with a beard, in one image he looks a bit like the American actor Tom Selleck.Fig. 52 : Romero, 1987 – Samantha and the Cherub (in retrospect, not one of Peter O’Donnell’s best titles) introduces young Sam Brown, working class London East Ender, into martial arts, who was to feature in a number of subsequent stories, below.Fig. 53 : Romero, 1992 – Sam’s second appearance, seen here with Modesty’s millionaire American boyfriend, John Dall, another cross-over character who appears in both comic strip and the books. Sam shows herself to be both intelligent and brave, with another Modesty characteristic, empathy with animals, in this instance Dall’s champion race-horse, the title’s ‘Ivory Dancer’. Fig. 54 : Romero, 1998 – Sam Brown again, no longer a child, now about 15, seen here in The Special Orders, and looking quite different! This story is set in the Far East, this is about girls being kidnapped for a vice ring.

Fig. 55 : Romero, 1989 – The Girl from the Future is another caper set in the USA, so almost inevitably also featuring John Dall, the Texan tycoon. It features Alex Gant, a rather arrogant, self-centred multi-millionaire science fiction publisher and flying saucer enthusiast, who believes he has been visited by a girl from the 25th century AD, so he might prepare humankind for cosmic enlightenment. However, to return her to her own time requires two solid gold spheres worth a mere $4million each. It’s a scam, but by whom, and how was it done? Peter O’Donnell could still think up an ingenious plot. Romero depicts Modesty in skimpy swimwear, his usual gruesome ruffians, and some non-Modesty female nudity in one of the better stories from this last phase.Fig. 56 : Romero, 1989-90 – Another enjoyable workaday story is Lady in the Dark, which finally (belatedly) introduces Steve and Diane Collier, regular characters from the novels and short stories. Romero’s depiction of them is seen here, from another, later, comic strip story, Durango (1996-97). Collier is another of Modesty’s ex-lovers, while Diane, who is blind, but has compensated with enhanced psychic senses, first appeared in A Taste for Death, when her sister was murdered by Gabriel, and she was rescued by Willie Garvin. Lady in the Dark features another, rather ridiculous-looking, castle in Carinthia, together with Salamander Four villains. Thereafter the Colliers appear as both key- or bit-players in a number of subsequent stories.Figs. 57 and 58 : Romero, 1991 – The Girl in the Iron Mask is another revenge caper – so like The Killing Ground (Holdaway), The Puppet Master (Romero), Death in Slow Motion, and The Double Agent (Colvin), Live Bait, or The Murder Frame (Romero), but this time by the retired millionaire Bone brothers, Reggie and Humphry, seen here with their servant, Celeste, at their home in the Swiss Alps. Modesty is kidnapped, fitted with the iron mask, and put down a deep pit, Kippel Hole, in an operation carried out by the ‘Magpie’ gang. Again, Peter O’Donnell hints at a backstory not chronicled in either book or comic – that Modesty foiled an attempt by the vindictive brothers to ruin John Dall. The ‘Bone’ name, however, was also used before, in the 1978 story Idaho George. Figs. 59, 60 and 61 : Romero, 1999-2000 – Romero’s version of the lying, womanizing Italian journalist Guido and girlfriend Aniela (also seen here, commiserating with ‘Weelie’ having been jilted at the altar by Guido); this from their final appearance in The Last Aristocrat. Even at this late stage, as we see here, Romero continued to draw what was perhaps his true speciality, faces and naked, or near-naked, women, to perfection – even if his villains started to look more and more like grotesque masks and his blondes all looked like Axa, his other ‘creation’ after his version of Modesty. However, by the 1990s his previous attention to detail – whether it be cars, planes, room interiors, or background locations – had greatly declined, become more slapdash and indifferent. Always rather eccentric in how he depicted places, as we shall illustrate below, I get the impression drawing the Modesty comic strip had – for the most part – became a chore, made only enjoyable perhaps by the opportunities to draw her – or other female characters, friend or foe. It was a slow, steady deterioration into what was often – at best – crude simplicity; or worst, the kind of scrappiness only previously seen with Pat Wright. Fig. 62 : Romero, 2001 – the last Modesty Blaise comic strip – ever. 38 years, 95 adventures (excluding the novels and short stories) and they’ve barely aged. Peter O’Donnell, however, was then 81 when he finally retired from writing. He died in 2010, aged 90. He expressed the wish that no one write any further Modesty Blaise stories. The short story Cobra Trap (published 1996) was to have been Modesty’s true swansong, with her (then in her fifties and with an incurable brain tumour) and Willie dying in a sort of A Few Flowers for the Colonel situation. The “Evening Standard” comic strip ending, by comparison, is an anti-climax, rather tame. With Peter O’Donnell’s permission, Romero illustrated one more story, The Dark Angels, another short story from the 1996 collection. Romero also illustrated the covers to the Scandinavian translated reprints. Romero is, therefore, now the artist most associated with Modesty. Like Colvin, his art was 60% very good, but none of the other four artists matched Jim Holdaway for talent, detail or skill. John Burns had also illustrated some of the short stories, and – we believe – some of Swedish translation magazine covers. If so, we can only lament yet again what might have been had he continued the “Evening Standard” comic strip.Figs. 63 and 64 – Possibly John Burns – covers to the Swedish edition of The Dossier on Pluto and The Alternative Man, both originally by Neville Colvin.Figs. 65 and 66 : Two more covers to the Swedish translation, this time of The Head Girls, and Top Traitor, both originally by Jim Holdaway.

Fig. 67 : The now classic image of Modesty Blaise, as illustrated by Romero, black, zip-up bodysuit, gun and holster, hair up.Fig. 68 : Contrast to the John M. Burns version, much less sexy!Fig. 69 : Another John M. Burns illustration, this time to Uncle Happy, recognisably in the style of the original Jim Holdaway illustration.Fig, 70 : Italian actress Monica Vitti (born 1931 as Maria Luisa Cecilarelli) as Modesty Blaise in the 1966 movie of that name, directed by Joseph Losey and produced by Joseph Janni. Vitti was a natural blonde, but did actually look like Modesty in a wig. Sadly the movie was awful, about which less said the better!

Figs. 71 and 72 : Over a period of time Romero also draw illustrations loosely based on the comic strip stories. These actually bore little relation to the stories themselves, and were essentially excuses to depict Modesty in various states of undress, exposing legs or upper body, as seen in these two examples. The first is supposedly the scene from Colvin’s A Few Flowers for the Colonel, where Modesty is holding off the advance of the bandits in the narrow gorge, but Romero has inflicted serious damage to her trademark bodysuit that never happened in the actual story. The second illustration is from Walkabout, when Modesty goes ‘native Abo’ with her ex-Network operative, Australian Aboriginal Jacko – a good excuse to depict her near-naked, if still strategically concealing her breasts! Actually, in the story, Modesty let the Aborigines kill the kangaroo!Figs. 73 and 74 : Romero and Holdaway – Modesty in the nude.Fig. 75 – Romero – Axa (with Donne Avenell, 1978-86) and Modesty.Figs. 76 and 77 : Enrique (Enric) Badia Romero (born 1930, Barcelona, Spain); Peter O’Donnell, British journalist, writer and novelist (1920-2010), who also wrote under the pen-name of Madeleine Brent.

Fig. 79 : Superb illustration by Romero depicting a nude Modesty about to fight the villainous killer ‘Mr Sexton’, from the novel The Silver Mistress.

However, below we review some of Romero’s less successful work, repetition, and (we suggest) artistic decline:

Castles: Along with monasteries, castles often featured in the Modesty Blaise comic strip stories, most of which were illustrated by Romero. The most obvious exception is in the Holdaway illustrated story “Top Traitor”, featuring Storgen Castle, in the “Savinsken Alps”, which at least some readers insist are now known as the Savinja or Savinjska Alps, located on the Austrian/Slovenia border. If so, we must assume, from the date of the story (1965) it was in Austria, rather than Yugoslavia! Holdaway’s rather low-key depiction certainly has a Central European appearance, whilst also elements typical of Hapsburg architecture. The castle in the later (1987) story “The Vampire of Malvescu” is set in “Transylvania”, actually in Romania – which again at that period was still part of the Eastern communist-controlled Bloc. It is perhaps questionable if Modesty and Willie would have been allowed to travel there so freely.

This is Romero’s illustration:

The interior is even more grand:

Romero’s depictions of French chateaux are also rather over the top. Here, in “Our Friend Maude” (1992), the chateau looks almost Central European again:By contrast below is the French crime boss Reppo’s chateau “on the Aisne”, apparently once owned by Modesty during her Network days:

However, Romero’s English castles are both more exaggerated and unbelievable. Below we see Saint-Maur Castle, Cornish home of crazy ex-commando Earl Saint-Maur, in “Death of a Jester”:

Oddly enough, it has both drawbridge and moat, and a grand entrance for Modesty’s Rolls-Royce!

If this seems a bit over the top, consider Stutley Castle, supposedly in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood, in the story “The Greenwood Maid” (1975), what might be described as a ‘Robin Hood Caper’. Peter O’Donnell has mixed Locksley, the supposed birth-place of the legendary Robin Hood, with the equally folklore character Will Stutely, sometimes associated with Will Scarlett. There is a Studley Castle, but it looks nothing as fanciful or exotic as this! This image is grand to the point of being quite ridiculous. Just look at the scale!

I’m afraid Romero really lost it in this story, supposedly set in a rural England that he obviously had no personal knowledge of. His depiction of ‘Stutely village’ isn’t just wrong, it is crazily and recognisably wrong! The architecture of the façades and roofs are German, not English, and, indeed, it has been directly lifted from photographs of that of the German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Bavaria! hat presumably both O’Donnell and the London Evening Standard editors let this one go, surely was an insult to their readers’ intelligence. Or did no one not notice?

CITIES: Let us move on to Romero’s depiction of cities and places. In the story “Death Trap” (1977) we see several images of the “capital of an (unnamed) minor East European” communist country. Given that there are mountains “on the northern border”, and Willie talks about walking “for two or three hundred miles”, one must assume this mysterious country to be in the Balkans rather than Eastern Europe. The geography, in fact, makes little sense. The capital, as envisaged by Romero, is even less believable. It looks like something out a Flash Gordon comic, almost science fiction. Again, really, even at the time one would expect something a bit more realistic. I cannot imagine Holdaway drawing something quite so absurd. Later Romero depicted similar tower-blocks into an unrecognisable London.

Two views of Paris, both featuring the Eiffel Tower, the first from the story “The Killing Distance” (1994), the second from the earlier “Those About to Die” (1976), perhaps illustrating the deterioration in Romero’s artwork – the later illustration being crude, scrappy and slapdash. My issue with the earlier illustration is scale. Is the Eiffel Tower in the background really so much taller than the modern skyscraper tower-block we see in the foreground? Although Peter O’Donnell said he often sent photographs of real locations to help Romero (Monte Solaro on Carpi, for instance; and possibly Mdina, on Malta), my feeling is that Romero was much less meticulous in his illustrations of foreign locations – be it London, the South of France, the USA, New Zealand or Australia – than either Holdaway, or even Colvin. And, sadly, as time went on, Romero played less attention to detail or background, concentrating only on figures and faces. Fine artist as he could be – the above illustration to The Silver Mistress shows that – he had limitations, and gradually these became more apparent.

Two views of London – both very scrappy, the first from “The Big Mole” (1989), a view supposedly from the direction of St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Albert Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, with a misshapen Big Ben, and the bad guys seemingly located in the buildings facing onto the Victoria Embankment; while the second – from “The Vanishing Dollybirds” (1976), supposedly of Willie, driving a London black cab down The Mall, which what looks like Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial in the distance. Again, the art is very crude, especially for this earlier period. However, another small point of criticism: in the story Willie and Modesty pick up Sir Gerald from his Whitehall office, and we then see them drive around Trafalgar Square. However, if they then turned from Admiralty Arch into The Mall, they would be going towards Buckingham Palace, not away from it.

Repetitious places: Of course when the comic strip was originally drawn, to be published Monday to Saturday in a British newspaper, perhaps no one really thought it would be reprinted or become collector’s items. No one was going to go back and look at illustrations from years earlier. Titan Books only began to reprint the entire comic strip series in English in 2004, finally completed in 2017. Much earlier, Modesty was reprinted in various European countries – most notably in Sweden and in Swedish – and even (surprisingly, given some of the images) in India – we presume from samples seen, edited and, in part, redrawn. Romero was at least consistent in depicting the interior and roof-terrace of Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, as it was originally envisaged by Holdaway. For the most part Romero also maintained the general exterior views – mostly of the upper floors and roof of the building, with glimpses of street level. In the comic strip it is always described as “overlooking Hyde Park”, which could put it in three possible locations – on the south side (Knightsbridge), to the east (Park Lane), or north (Bayswater Road). Both the first and last are most likely options, but I personally prefer the Bayswater Road. However, there are a number of quite different variations for Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire”, including the original depiction from Holdaway in “The Gabriel Set-Up”; one, quite different version, from Romero, in “The Grim Joker”, which he used again in “The Young Mistress”; but a different house completely in “Lady in the Dark”. There is yet another quite different version again from Pat Wright in “The Brethren of Blaise”; and, finally, one – perhaps the best and most believable – from John Burns in “The Green Cobra”, which is at least still loosely based on the Holdaway version. Likewise, Jim Holdaway, right from the first comic strip “La Machine”, gives a wonderful image of Willie’s Thames riverside pub in Berkshire, “The Treadmill”. Colvin gives a tantalizing glimpse in “the Moon Man”, and again the rear, facing onto the river, in “Death in Slow Motion”. Romero gives two half-views in “Murder Frame”, which do at least match Holdaway’s original vision, although at the same time contrasting their styles. Otherwise, there are only interior views, too tiresome to compare!

Jim Holdaway – Modesty’s cottage in Wiltshire.

The John M. Burns’ version – my preference!

The Pat Wright version – more a shack! One Romero version, in “Lady in the Dark”, more a English country house than a cottage! Completely different!

Romero’s second version – completely yet different again, back to being a cottage, but now with a thatched roof!

The Treadmill”, Holdaway’s version.

Romero’s version of “The Treadmill”, pretty much the same, but cruder!

Colvin, by contrast, gives us this rather scratchy rear view. It doesn’t look to be the same building – too wide!

Modesty’s London penthouse apartment, by Jim Holdaway, 1963/64.

And as depicted by Romero, with some detail in “Death of a Jester”, more crudely in “The Killing Distance”, but consistent with the Holdaway original.

The Murder Frame” was the one comic strip story that featured (other than a fleeting bit-part) Willie’s regular lady lover, Lady Janet Gillam, who had more prominence in the novels and short stories. Somehow, Romero’s depiction of her never seemed quite right, to say nothing that the comic strip version makes no mention of her artificial leg. Here, however, is her farm house, surprisingly credible in its appearance, if not unlike the earlier Romero version of Modesty’s cottage in “Lady in the Dark”!

More oddly is Romero’s apparent repetition in his depiction of other houses. This only becomes apparent when trawling through the entire Romero period. The house on the top is from “The Puppet Master” (1971) and is supposed to be on the Italian island of Carpi. However, the house on the bottom is from “The Wicked Gnomes” (1973), and is supposed to be on the Cornish coast, England.

These two houses look virtually the same, even to the foreground trees, yet the one on the top is meant to be in Australia (from “Walkabout”, 1990), while the one on the bottom is supposed to be in Italy (Willie with Aniela) in “The Last Aristocrat” (1999)! Both have a passing similarity to the Cornish house above.

Another example of repetition from Romero – again hauntingly similar, yet depicting entirely different locations, even countries! On the top, is supposed to be an English village in “The Killing Distance” – it looks more urban, nothing characteristically rural English. On the bottom, again from “The Last Aristocrat”, this is supposed to be an Italian village. The parked vehicles look much the same, as do the planted trees and the building, with its low wall, on the right frame. Again it does not look at all Italian. It could be anywhere. Both illustrations are rather crude compared to Romero’s style in the 1970s. Sadly, this shows Romero’s later, more slapdash, indifference to places or things.

In “Butch Cassidy Rides Again” (1986), or even “Ivory Dancer” (1992), Romero’s depiction of towns or buildings in the USA is credible. Here, however, in “The Children of Lucifer” (1999), his art is flat, crude, composition and scale wrong.

Faces. On Wikipedia Romero is described as a “good-girl artist”, and his depictions of women, especially semi-clad or nude, never faltered. However, we have already remarked his blondes all rather look alike – Maude Tiller, Aniela, Carmen in “The Vanishing Dollybirds”, Peggy Western in “Highland Witch”, Debbie Grant in “Walkabout”, Sophie in “The Big Mole”, or even Marian Hall in “The Young Mistress” – and all rather like his science fiction comic strip character Axa. His depiction of young Modesty (in “Tribute of the Pharaoh”) looks like the younger Samantha Brown, while the female character in the New Zealand-based story “The Maori Contract”, Carol Nash, also looks rather like Modesty.

That said, even some of male characters started to look vaguely alike.

Here is Gilbert Bone, husband to crime gang boss Anastasia, from “Idaho George” (1978), compare to Reppo, French crime boss in “Those About to Die” (1976). Compare again, the evil looking Mahmoud, ex-vice gang boss and Modesty enemy in “The Puppet Master”, with the equally evil Sangro in “The Greenwood Maid”.

Two more villains, ‘Friar’ Tuck, in “The Greenwood Maid”, and Stanley Boote, in “The Wicked Gnomes”.

Perhaps the more obvious – Brosni, Director of Security of a “minor East European country”, from “Death Trap” (1977), and Felix, a minor underling to “Ripper Jax” (1995).

What Might Have Been: We have remarked the sudden – and still, really, unexplained – dismissal of John M. Burns, an British artist of considerable talent, who, even in his brief tenure, showed empathy toward the key characters – Modesty, Willie, Tarrant and Jack Fraser, and even in depict their environment – Modesty’s “cottage in Wiltshire” looks just right, not too dissimilar to what Holdaway illustrated. Burns illustrated the Pieces of Modesty short stories, and – we believe – some of the magazine covers for European editions, as well as other stand-alone illustrations. This implies – whatever the opinion of the London Evening Standard editor – that Burns felt a continued affiliation with Modesty, and one, we have to presume, that Peter O’Donnell also approved. Both Burns and Colvin had another advantage also over Romero. They knew Britain. They knew London and British rural architecture, countryside, and British faces. It was not a foreign country. Although his style was not as bold or ‘realistic’ as Burns, Colvin showed himself more than capable to vividly illustrate foreign localities also – the West Indies, North Africa, South America, Italy, the South of France and Corsica, and India. Both the characters and their environment look right. However, Colvin was the eldest of the five artists, and eventually chose to retire – if, nothing else – on a high note, another of O’Donnell’s more classic stories.

Reluctantly, and with no disrespect to Romero, we would argue that the editors should have looked to other talent to have continued what was to be the remaining 15 years of the comic strip. At least one talented British artist was already working in the newspaper comic strip field, and that was Martin Asbury (born 1939), from 1976 to 1997 on the “Garth” strip for the Daily Mirror.

This is Martin’s “Garth” in the original black and white, giving a taste of his style, at times not unlike Frank Bellamy. More important, if we look at the reprints of the “Garth” stories on-going on the Garth Comic Facebook website, now reproduced in colour, we can see Asbury’s ability to illustrate places and faces – especially the latter. Below are some random samples. Look, and reflect, imagine if it had been Asbury drawing Modesty in her final one-and-a-half decades.

Modesty Blaise Story List:

  1. La Machine – 1963 – Artist: Jim Holdaway

  2. The Long Lever – 1963-64

  3. The Gabriel Set-Up – 1964

  4. Mr Sun – 1964

  5. The Mind of Mrs Drake – 1964

  6. Uncle Happy – 1964-65

  7. Top Traitor – 1965-66

  8. The Vikings – 1966

8A. In The Beginning – 1966

  1. The Head Girls – 1966

  2. The Black Pearl – 1966-67

  3. The Magnified Man – 1967

  4. The Jericho Caper – 1967-68

  5. Bad Suki – 1968

  6. The Galley Slaves – 1968

14A. The Killing Ground – 1968

  1. The Red Gryphon – 1968-69

  2. The Hell-Makers – 1969

  3. Take-Over – 1969-70

  4. The War-Lords of Phoenix – 1970 – Jim Holdaway & Romero

  5. Willie the Djinn – 1970 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  6. The Green-Eyed Monster – 1970-71

  7. Death of a Jester – 1971

  8. The Stone-Age Caper – 1971

  9. The Puppet Master – 1971-72

  10. With Love From Rufus – 1972

  11. The Bluebeard Affair – 1972-73

  12. The Gallows Bird – 1973

  13. The Wicked Gnomes – 1973

  14. The Iron God – 1973-74

  15. Take Me To Your Leader” – 1974

  16. Highland Witch – 1974

  17. Cry Wolf – 1974-75

  18. The Reluctant Chaperon – 1975

  19. The Greenwood Maid – 1975-76

  20. Those About To Die – 1976

  21. The Inca Trail – 1976

  22. The Vanishing Dollybirds – 1976-77

  23. The Junk Men – 1977

  24. Death Trap – 1977-78

  25. Idaho George – 1978

  26. The Golden Frog – 1978

  27. Yellowstone Booty – 1978-79 – Artist: John M. Burns

  28. Green Cobra – 1979

  29. Eve and Adam – 1979-80 – John M. Burns & Pat Wright

  30. Brethren of Blaise – 1980 – Artist: Pat Wright

  31. Dossier on Pluto – 1980 – Artist: Neville Colvin

  32. The Lady Killers – 1980-81

  33. Gavin’s Travels – 1981

  34. The Scarlet Maiden – 1981

  35. The Moon Man – 1981-82

  36. A Few Flowers for the Colonel – 1982

  37. The Balloonatic – 1982-83

  38. Death in Slow Motion – 1983

  39. The Alternative Man – 1983

  40. Sweet Caroline – 1983-84

  41. The Return of the Mammoth – 1984

  42. Plato’s Republic – 1984-85

  43. The Sword of the Bruce – 1985

  44. The Wild Boar – 1985

  45. Kali’s Disciples – 1985-86

  46. The Double Agent – 1986

  47. Butch Cassidy Rides Again – 1986-87 – Artist: Enric Badia Romero

  48. Million Dollar Game – 1987

  49. The Vampire of Malvescu – 1987

  50. Samantha and the Cherub – 1987-88

  51. Milord – 1988

  52. Live Bait – 1988-89

  53. The Girl From the Future – 1989

  54. The Big Mole – 1989

  55. Lady in the Dark – 1989-90

  56. Fiona – 1990

  57. Walkabout – 1990-91

  58. The Girl in the Iron Mask – 1991

  59. The Young Mistress – 1991-92

  60. Ivory Dance – 1992

  61. Our Friend Maude – 1992

  62. A Present for the Princess – 1992-93

  63. Black Queen’s Pawn – 1993

  64. The Grim Joker – 1993-94

  65. Guido the Jinx – 1994

  66. The Killing Distance – 1994

  67. The Aristo – 1994-95

  68. Ripper Jax – 1995

  69. The Maori Contract – 1995-96

  70. Honeygun – 1996

  71. Durango – 1996-97

  72. The Murder Frame – 1997

  73. Fraser’s Story – 1997

  74. Tribute of the Pharaoh – 1997-98

  75. The Special Orders – 1998

  76. The Hanging Judge – 1998-99

  77. Children of Lucifer – 1999

  78. Death Symbol – 1999

  79. The Last Aristocrat – 1999-2000

  80. The Killing Game – 2000

  81. The Zombie – 2000-2001

Novels & Short Stories:

  1. Modesty Blaise, 1965

  2. Sabre-Tooth. 1966

  3. I, Lucifer, 1967

  4. A Taste for Death, 1969

  5. The Impossible Virgin, 1971

  6. Last Day in Limbo, 1972

  7. Pieces of Modesty, 1972 – A Better Day to Die

The Goggle-Wrecker

I Had a Date with Lady Janet

A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck

Salamander Four

The Soo Girl Charity

  1. The Silver Mistress, 1973

  2. Dragon’s Claw, 1978

  3. The Xanadu Talisman, 1981

  4. The Night of Morningstar, 1982

  5. Dead Man’s Handle, 1985

  6. Cobra Trap, 1996 – Bellman

The Dark Angels

Old Alex

The Girl with the Black Balloon

Cobra Trap

Jim Holdaway.

Dan Dare on Mars

I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.

The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.

Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.

Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.

The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.

The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.

Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.

Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.

The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.

Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.

Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.

And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.

The Lion in the Seventies – Part 1

Lion and Eagle. As an unreconstructed Eagle fan, even as one whose collection deliberately excludes the last two years and four months of its history, I cannot help but see that title as a tragedy. I received Eagle week by week from the first week of January 1964 until its last issue in the last week of April 1969, and I carried on with the merged comic for maybe another seven or eight weeks before ending my connection. I was growing out of comics anyway, I was getting football magazines weekly and monthly, I do not know if any other comics remained on my order. But Eagle was not recognisable as Eagle in any of this, and I did not wish to see more.
As for the host, there was a mass attempt to bring existing stories to a rapid, and in come cases, rushed conclusion. Some old favourites, and several new car-crashes came to an end: The Spider in the first category, the Captain Condor and Rory MacDuff reprints crashed, Andy’s Army, Wyatt Earp and The Mind Stealers were terminated.
In their place were a whole host of new series, all of them to the Lion born, and four transfers from the hapless Eagle, the most significant of which being Dan Dare, for whom the ‘Rogue Planet’ reprints had been cut to ribbons to allow the Pilot of the Future to start with a reprint of ‘Reign of the Robots’ to celebrate his new berth. Though celebrate was not the word: all the new setting did was to demonstrate just how integral the Hampson studio’s painted colour was to the art.
It was not long before faces were being touched up to render them more distinct for B&W and done pretty badly too.
Accompanying Dan was The Gladiators (drawn by Archie’s Ted Kearon), about six Gladiators from the Roman Arena who had escaped thanks to an old sorcerer, who had sent them 2,000 years forward in time, to the middle of World War 2, Lightning Stormm, about a wheelchair bound crime-fighting ex-racing driver, obviously inspired by TV’s Raymond Burr vehicle, Ironside, and The Waxer (with art by Reg Bunn), in which ex-cop Mike Martin tried to convince his old colleagues that sinister waxworks owner, Septimus Creech, was bringing waxworks to life to commit dastardly crimes.

Paddy Payne (going into reprints), Robot Archie, Zip Nolan and Carson’s Cubs all survived from Lion, as did Mowser. New series were Turville’s Touchstone, Gargan and Oddball Oates. The new mix was widespread and it would be some time before the value of these could be assessed. But in a single issue, what was Eagle was buried, deep and dead.
In traditional Lion manner, another new series turned up just four weeks into the merger, a one page cartoon with overtones of Charlie Drake’s sitcom, The Worker, in the form of Chester the Cheerful Chump. Like every such one-pager except the inescapable Mowser, this only appeared when they felt like it.
Frankly, I remember absolutely nothing about the other Eagle transfers, even though I was still reading the comic until the end. Discovering them now, as if anew, they are a mixed bunch. The Gladiators is actually quite entertaining. There’s is a pretty basic fish-out-of-water series, but the writer creates an authentic feel to the gladiators, their attitudes and their speech, that gives the story a strong underpinning.
The Waxer is cheerfully OTT on spookiness, but then if you have Reg Bunn as your artist, I suppose it’s only natural. The story premise is goofy and without Bunn it would probably be an ugly mess, but it’s atmospherics (and the fact that it is not as idiotic as The Spider, which it effectively replaced) sustained it in the first instance.
In contrast, Lightning Stormm is a real loser. It apparently ran in Eagle as Lightning Strikes Again. I don’t know how long it had been around but it was awful: ex-racing driver Dan Stormm, crippled and confined to a wheelchair, fights crime in the motor-racing game. The practically paraplegic Dan, sat ramrod still in his over-armoured Supercar of a wheelchair, was a ridiculous image and the strip no better.
The new series was a similar mix in quality. The best of these was Turville’s Touchstone, a comedy drama. Thomas Turville inherits the family mansion, which is dilapidated and badly run-down. There is a lost family fortune which ‘rascally’ Solicitor Crabtree is determined to get to first. Tom however is aided by his 16th Century alchemist ancestor Sylvester, possessor of the titular touchstone, who is not all that fazed by the difference between the world in which he was cursed and that in which Tom has awoken him.
Oddball Oates, as the title implied, was a straight comedy series. Albert Oates is a mild-mannered, scrawny, bespectacled botanist who has discovered a wonder herb which, when smoked and sniffed, gives him wonderful athletic powers. Oates, who prefers to wander around in a caravan, becomes the target of Dr Vulpex, who wants to kidnap him, learn the secret of the herb and turn his country into a sporting superpower. This was a straight comedy, with exaggerated, quasi-cartoonish art and all sorts of sporting feats.

It’s not steroids, but the story rests on a very dodgy basis that you couldn’t write today. In Carson’s Cubs, at one point, Arthur Braggart calls Herbert Snook a Coke-head. Given that Oddball Oates was getting his ‘powers’ by smoking a wonder herb, and getting one heck of a high off it, I start to wonder just what the writers might have been smoking themselves.
The last series, Gargan, was a bust. Gargan was a big Yeti-type monster from the Himalayas, gentle as a lamb but looking like a monster. He and his sherpa boy companion Rhurki are kidnapped to America by a crooked circus owner who intends to exhibit him as a monster. Cash Maddack has a hold over Rhurki because he steals the magic mirror belonging to the ancient Reega the Wise, who is immortal as long as the mirror isn’t broken.
The series never rises above the predictable and, even as a ‘monster’, Gargan looks too silly to be convincing.
Of the Lion stalwarts, Paddy Payne reverted to reprints, and Robot Archie to the jungle, although without overwhelmed and superstitious natives. Zip Nolan was the same as it always was, week in, week out, as was Mowser, but with the excuse of being reasonably amusing. Chester the Chump totalled only four appearances, and was not a great loss, or any loss at all.
There were a few Reg Bunn Zip Nolans along the way, one of which I definitely recognised. These had to be reprints, leaving me to suspect that Nolan’s stories were the same every week because they were literally the same, reprints from years of formula tales impossible to distinguish any longer.
As for Carson’s Cubs, this had now gone stale as indicated by the fact that the stories were no longer about the Cubs’ progress on the football field but about the distracting shenanigans that took place off. It was rather like the Nineties’ TV series, Playing the Field, about a woman’s football team: two series about the club and its fortunes, and then it collapsed into a soap opera about a group of women whose link happened to be being in a football team.
The new line-up was pretty much settled for the rest of the year, but Lightning Stormm was the first to crack, lasting only twelve issues before transforming into Tales from the Tracks, a series of weekly motor racing stories narrated by Dan Stormm, which got rid of the embarrassing crime-fighter-in-a-souped-up-wheelchair aspect. These were actually surprisingly decent, but the feature was pulled after 29 November, making way for Drive for your Life.

This was a pretty implausible motor-racing story. Count von Drakko’s cowardice on the track causes a massive pile-up, as attested to by six fellow-drivers, resulting in his banning from racing. Six years later, all six drivers are kidnapped to drive a private race track designed by the Count, who means to show them what being scared really is: the track is a vicious obstacle race with fatal traps designed to kill five of the drivers. Only the race winner will survive, and it’s obviously going to be the American, Rev Ryder, because he’s the one with the stupid hero’s name.
The Gladiators had already lost both Ted Kearon and his successor when, on 4 October, The Waxer’s series lost Reg Bunn, and renamed itself Palace of Villainy. However, Bunn was back in harness ten weeks later, for the series’ next phase, When Midnight Chimes, The Waxworks Walk, which has to be one of the most stupid titles in Lion‘s history.
Gargan was now rambling with no real direction and Rhukri just whined all the time. Archie’s time-travelling adventures were having less and less point, and now the pals found themselves in some undated near future period battling the Sludge, that old jelly-like monster from 1964.
These changes apart, the Lion and Eagle line-up occupied the last months of the Sixties, and held over until the end of January 1970, but once again it was time for a revamp, with stories and series coming to abrupt endings and a new round of features starting up.
To begin with, Eagle was gone: we were back to being Lion again, until the next swallowing up of a weaker rival. Dan Dare, whose reprinted adventure had been chopped down into an unnaturally short four page finale to make room, was all that remained. Turville’s Touchstone was renamed Spellbinder and acquired Reg Bunn on art, although the boring rascally Solicitor Crabtree was kept on. Carson’s Cubs started a new story in which they found themselves playing the Circus Wanderers, that is the stars of the Eagle series that didn’t get carried over into Lion. Zip Nolan was no different, Paddy Payne was still in reprints, Archie, Ted and Ken finally got back to the right time and place but, as telegraphed the previous week brought The Sludge with them, Oddball Oates went Rugby League and Dan Dare brought up the rear with an untitled reprint of The Phantom Fleet. The quality of Frank Hampson’s art still shone through, but it was a close run thing, and as the story went on, it stopped being close and more often than not turned into a travesty. And Mowser rolled on, but James the Butler was demoted from co-billing.

Four new series of mixed quality began. Stringbean and Hambone was a comedy thriller about two mismatched wrestlers teaming up to tag-wrestle, with the unknown benefit of a magic wish-granting stone from China, which was marred from the offset with incredibly racist bullshit in the form of Chinese ‘dialogue’ in which no-one could plonounce the letter ‘R’. Yes, 1970, kids comic, blah-de-blah-de-blah, it’s still racist bullshit, and I simply refused to read it.
Flame o’the Forest was an altogether more serious affair, set just after the Norman Conquest, with a young Saxon sworn to vengeance on a vicious Norman baron who’d tortured his father to a premature death, whilst The Fugitive from Planet Scorr was a lumpen SF story about a rebel alien trying to stop his race’s plan to destroy Earth, only to be hated and feared as a monster whatever he did: like Gargan, then. As for General Johnny, this was an unwelcome re-run of Andy’s Army, with a schoolboy military tactician genius becoming a World War 2 General, about which you have to say it’s a wonder we won the bloody thing at all, given some of the notions weekly comics writers came up with in the Sixties. Except that Andy’s Army was actually better and more plausible than this.
This latest line-up was worse than weak, it was dull. Thanks to Reg Bunn, Spellbinder was visually interesting, but there was insufficient variation in the storyline, whilst Flame o’the Forest, after an initially interesting premise, got bogged down in having the Flame act like another superhero, as if this were still 1967. Lion had never pretended to be anything but a boy’s action, adventure and humour comic, but it had always had series, and frequently several off them, that proved interesting to an older audience. Now, the knack of spanning those generations seemed to have been lost. The title was lodged in a very narrow band of appeal, and its stalwart series had gotten very very tired indeed.
Reading it at this point is more of a chore than an enthusiasm. Nor am I surprised to learn that this is when the sales started to dip.
Apart from a run of poorly-reproduced Sky-High Bannion stories, billed as complete adventures, there was no change to the line-up until 25 July, when both The Fugitive from Planet Scorr and Hambone and Stringbean gave up the ghost together. Their replacements were Britain 2170AD, in which a four man spaceship crew returned from a five year mission to a Britain regressed to jungle primitivity and Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman, which I don’t even want to talk about.
Archie, Ted and Ken abandoned the time-travelling Castle at last as if it had never existed, for a trip to Mexico (superstitious peons, sigh), in search of a Golden City under the ocean whilst beating off a villainous rival who sticks at nothing to beat them to it, snore.
It’s not as if any of the new series had decent art, either. By now, only Reg Bunn’s pages for The Spellbinder were of any quality. Frank Hampson’s carefully prepared Dan Dare art was being trashed weekly by catastrophic cross-hatching and shading that looked as if it had been applied with a carpenter’s pencil, and whilst Flame o’the Forest’s artist maintained a decent smooth line, it was no better than bland. But bland was vastly superior to the horrifically scruffy art everywhere else.
At least Dan Dare was put out of its misery on 24 October 1970, when The Phantom Fleet reached an unabridged end. That was it as far as the old Eagle was concerned, and as far as this blog goes. I’ll make one new series an excuse for the next instalment.

Eagle Volume 12 (1961)

The new front page

The boy who read issue 1 of Volume 12 of Eagle, and who was then marooned on a desert island and only rescued in time for issue 52 would have reacted to the difference by asking aloud the 1961 equivalent of ‘WTF just happened?’ But for the continued presence of ‘Dan Dare’, ‘Riders of the Range’ and ‘Storm Nelson’, the only thing to link first and last issues this year was the name at the top of the cover.
This was the year when Odhams began seriously messing with Eagle, and not a single thing about the comic was better for it.
‘Dan Dare’ began the year in the hands of three ex-Hampson Studio alumni, Eric Eden on scripts, Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell on art. A new story, ‘The Solid-space Mystery’ was in only its second week. Given the strictures already being placed on the series, it was surprising to find the story not only resurrecting the Mekon for his first appearance in three years, but also bringing back Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette for one final adventure.
But whilst this was a middling but reasonable effort, week by week Harley’s art was growing blander, his attempts to use Frank Bellamy’s designs and uniforms less detailed all the time. And with the following two stories, seguing into one another in the old manner, the bottom began to drain out of the writing. First, in ‘The Platinum Planet’, Dan and Digby are overcome by the Zylbat’s suspa-gas and fly off uncontrolled into Deep Space for years, only to find an appallingly trite overthrow-a-dictator story awaiting them, then they return after unimaginable years for ‘The Earth-Stealers’, to find Earth a ruined planet, evacuated after horrendous ecological disasters and under the control of a mercenary organisation trying to take it over.
As an idea, it’s ruinous to any notion of coherence, but worst yet, the artwork has been crippled by the decision taken as from issue 42 to have the front page shared with ‘Men of Action’, a column-wide strip about sportsmen, mountain-climbers etc. ‘Dan Dare’s art is compressed to two, at most three panels, divided horizontally into two blocks by the strip and story title, in the middle of the page, automatically killing any sense of dynamism on the cover.
And inside, to make up the episode length, Harley and Cornwell have to work in five tiers, cramping every single panel, and flattening everything of any impact, not that Eden gives either of them anything to work with. What were Odhams trying to do? Kill off Eagle‘s flagship character? Well, funny you should say that…
‘Storm Nelson’ fared better, though the series was not unaffected by the passage of time. When Guy ‘Edward Trice’ Morgan fell ill, Richard Jennings took over writing the series for its last two serials. Whilst Jennings proved himself equal to the task of writing the crew of the Silver Fleet, his plotting, especially on his first effort, ‘Mystery of Oaha Island’ was noticeably looser, especially in the story’s long set-up.
‘Riders of the Range’ was also approaching its end. After ‘The Scourge of the Pecos’ was completed in time for the usual Eagle birthday reset that had as many features as possible start new stories, Charles Chilton launched into another factually based tale, ‘Last of the Fighting Cheyenne’. This was a sequel, of sorts, to ‘The War with the Sioux’, concentrating on the long struggle of Cheyenne Indians, displaced to a dustbowl of a Reservation after the Little Bighorn, and seeking to return to their old grounds.
It’s a tragedy of a story, filled with Army and Government severity, hostility, ignorance and arrogance, but it’s main flaw is that there isn’t really anything for Jeff Arnold and Luke to do. They have no part to play except that of unwanted consciences. And the real story lasts so long, and needs so much summarising, that Chilton is having to insert massive amounts of commentary and Frank Humphris is given no decent narrative to illustrate. Ultimately, it’s a dull, heavy, depressing story, as time and again common sense is refuted and stupidity embraced.
The final story, begun and with only a short overlap into Volume 13, like ‘Storm Nelson’ to come, is better and Humphris is more like himself, but the Cheyenne story dominates the year, and it even has the indignity of losing its title, or changing it, whichever is obscure, for the last six episodes.
But at least these old stalwarts were still there at the end of the year. ‘Fraser of Africa’ was run down abruptly and disappeared after a total of 54 weeks all told. There would be more to come in Eagle from Frank Bellamy, and all of it brilliant, but once ‘The Road of Courage’ ended, secular to the last, Frank Hampson would vanish from Eagle for good, with only a black-and-white Bovril advert to represent him until, years from now, his work would be re-exploited in reprints of ‘Dan Dare’. By that time, Eagle would have ruined him.
There was one more ‘Great Adventurer’ story, that of Sir Walter Raleigh, under the title of ‘The Golden Man’, with former ‘Jack O’Lantern’ artist Robert Ayton returning for one final outing on Eagle’s back page.
And ‘Luck of the Legion’, the series that was once second in popularity only to the Pilot of the Future himself, that too bowed out, reducing yet further that classic line-up. ‘The Mark of the Monster’ took place in West Africa, and in its penultimate instalment, the monster itself, a gigantic gorilla, dealt a massive blow to Sergeant Luck. Was Luck dead? Nearly: enough to be a passenger, in need of hospitalisation, in the last strip, but returning, on the mend, to supervise drill for Trenet and Bimberg.
But by then, we knew, if we were wise, that another change was being made. Five weeks before the end, Luck’s artist, Martin Aitchison, turned up on a second series. ‘Danger Unlimited’, written by Steve Alen, about two ex-Marines becoming Queen’s Messengers to avenge a friend and uncover a plot to steal secrets, took the place of ‘Fraser of Africa’. Frank Hampson’s dictum about single artists not being required to draw more than one page of colour art per week had never been officially rescinded, and Aitchison couldn’t have drawn two series simultaneously with that kind of detail for very long, so it was obvious in retrospect that ‘Luck of the Legion’ was not long for this world.
So that meant another, partial redesign. After eleven and a half years and more, Eagle‘s famous cut-outs were moved from the centrespread to the back page. In their place came ‘The Last of the Saxon Kings’, a full centrespread strip about the Godwin family, King Harold and the Norman Invasion. It was blandly drawn with two many small panels every week but what was worst was that it was a reprint, from Comet where it had run under the title ‘Under the Golden Dragon’.


Eagle hadn’t run a reprint since it first exposed Tintin to British readers, and then it was running two, as a black and white and rather hagiographical strip about the life of Stonewall Jackson appeared out of the blue, another reprint from Comet.
George Cansdale and Backmore produced another, mostly B&W half-page series in ‘All About Nature’, and Harris Tweed ploughed on manfully, but as the year ground out, he was now given the undignified sub-title of ‘Super-Chump’. Close to the end was the first appearance of ‘Fidosaurus – The Prehistoric Pooch’, that I found so funny as a boy, but which I find worthless now.
The prose series had disappeared at the beginning of the volume, but Lee Mayne popped up again with two final four-part stories of ‘The Hawk; before launching into ‘Leopards of England’, starring Edward, the Black Prince of England as Constable of England’s holdings in Fourtenth Century France. Three four-part serials and one six-part to round off, then another E W Hilditch serial, ‘Jim Starling and the Spotted Dog’, far less interesting by far, before the volume was seen out with a new serial, ‘The Gay Corinthian’, not a fortunate title nowadays: Squire Jack Hardcastle, a Corinthian in Regency England, undertakes to win a series of wagers, one of which commits him to marry a woman he has never met. In the opening episode, he assists a pretty young woman in danger of being thrown from her horse, who seems to react when she hears of that element of his wager: you can see the ending from here, can’t you? Still, in its well-depicted atmospherics, it was probably the best story in this section all volume.
Stories were back again, suddenly. The cover re-design of issue 42 was also accompanied by a sudden run of classic short stories, from writers such as O. Henry, Charles Dickens and even Doris Lessing.
By this point, Eagle had started to become confused, features appearing and disappearing with no rhyme or reason. Three times, one-off black and white one page comics stories appeared. ‘Knights of the Road’ dribbled out week-by-week, introducing a new supporting character in the investigator, ‘Gagdets’ Gryll – is he a goodie or a crook? – further demonstrating that somebody hadn’t got a clue what they were doing, and a new comics series arrived in issue 42, ‘Home of the Wanderers’.
At long last, Eagle had got what no-one had ever realised it had been missing, a sports strip. The Wanderers were Wellport Wanderers, a football club from, well, Wellport, and this dull series was going to shock a lot of people next volume, for no virtue of its own. For now, its opening story, about a winger under consideration for England Under-23 honours being blackmailed over his non-existent tearaway past, and its stiff, cold art, whose pitch scenes held the flavour of tracings from football photos, demonstrated that Eagle had seriously lost its way.
Of course there was a reason, and it was Leonard Matthews.
Odhams had bought out Hultons but the pressure was still on in Fleet Street and now they surrendered the unequal fight and sold out to the Mirror Group. Who sent in Matthews to make changes to Eagle, mostly, or rather solely, of the cost-cutting kind. One Art Director was sacked on the spot for protesting. Several other senior editorial staff quit in sympathy. Editor Clifford Makins quietly left the premises. Others followed. New staff were drafted in from Longacre, where Mirror Group (and Matthews) were based. Replacements? Or Dead weights, driven out from where they had ceased to be useful?
The effect on the readers was almost immediate. The printers strike of two years previously had driven many magazines to the wall, and it had knocked Eagle‘s seemingly invincible 800,000 weekly circulation down to a half million. Now, the sudden changes cut that figure by another 150,000. The long decline had begun in earnest.
But there were still several years of decline, and some heartening returns to form, ahead. The old bird might be sick, but it wasn’t dead yet.

Paradoxically, the future…

Eagle Volume 11 (1960)

The new front page

The old Eagle that had entertained and enthralled us for a decade had only eleven issues to go when Volume 11 started. Odhams had come in determined to shake Eagle up, to refresh it. Frank Hampson had gone, albeit not (yet) for good, his studio had been dismantled, Marcus Morris had departed for pastures new and Clifford Makins had replaced him as editor, polls had been conducted on what the boys wanted and didn’t want, and change was in the air. Issue 12 would see the first ‘new’ Eagle, whose front page no longer looked like those of the Fifties.
Of those first issues, there was a concerted attempt to bring stories to a close so that as many features as possible should start new tales in week twelve. Dan Dare’s ‘Trip to Trouble’ was never more than a cheap, splashy but insubstantial effort to wind up Frank Hampson’s intended ‘Terra Nova’ cycle as quickly as possible, and it was managed in that perfunctory fashion. The contrast between Frank Bellamy’s art and that of Don Harley was never greater than when Harley attempted to mimic Bellamy’s look with an approach resting more upon impressionism than anything else, but looking more muddy than intricate.
The story’s end had a poignant moment. Five heads appear, musing over what they will discover on their return to Earth. One of them is Professor Peabody, appearing for the last time. One of them was not ‘Flamer Spry’, written out absolutely completely behind everyone’s back.
‘They Showed the Way’ on page 3, wrapped up its run with Isambard Kingdom Brunel. ‘Riders of the Range’ ended Jeff Arnold’s pursuit of Sam Bass. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ brought the highwaymen to justice and got himself back on the right side of the Law, and ‘Storm Nelson’ ended his adventure with the White Shadow. Only ‘Luck of the Legion’, having finished his adventure in Indo-China in issue 5, was already deep into another story, in North Africa, when the great changeover came.
As for the half-pagers, ‘Harris Tweed’ began the year in colour, and stayed that way more often than not, but he had been re-named from ‘Extra Special Agent’ to ‘Super Sleuth’ (though one autumn strip still ran under the old title). The strip itself was now very one-note, building up to a usually predictable punch-line in the final paragraph.
Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ continued throughout the year, sometimes replaced by a ‘Mr Therm presents…’, about which there was nothing new to say, whilst George Cansdale, still partnered by George Backhouse on gorgeous art, continued to show the natural world in all its glory, especially with the new ‘Nature Had it First’ series commencing in issue 12, showing how many scientific developments had their origins in the natural abilities of all manner of animals, birds fish etc. Most of this series was in b&w, but there were a number of colour instalments.
Before going on to the ‘new’ Eagle, there was one more departure to record. MacDonald Hastings, E.S.I. for long years, had less than a handful of stories left, and after a final ‘Men of Glory’ in issue 6, he was let go in ignominious silence, having come bottom of the poll. Not a word of thanks or farewell.
Thus Eagle came to the first of several re-designs.
The changes for the ‘new’ Eagle were obvious from the front page. Gone was the big title-box, the red corner with the eagle and the name and the issue details and date. This was transmuted into a red bar, across the top of the page, the image space for ‘Dan Dare’ suddenly compacted to more like a square.
There was a new story, ‘Project Nimbus’, written by Eric Eden, with Frank Bellamy drawing both pages, and it was finally his chance to carry out his brief from Odhams. There’s a comprehensive redesign of space rockets and Spacefleet uniforms, the latter of which moving away from the military uniform aspect. Bellamy, as was his instinct, concentrates on dynamics, with no concern or feel for plausibility in the terms of the space craft, as is horribly obvious when it comes to the alien ships that have entered the Solar System, whilst the aliens themselves, no matter how well drawn they are, are nothing more than overgrown insects.
Don Harley still struggles to keep up whilst Eden’s notorious weakness at writing endings starts to be painfully obvious. Astonishingly, for a story that is supposed to make a complete departure from Frank Hampson’s ‘Dan Dare’, there’s a first appearance in three years for Hank Hogan and Pierre Lafayette.
‘Project Nimbus’ would last just over twenty weeks before Bellamy was released from his travail. Don Harley was asked to take over the strip, belatedly, but refused to draw two colour pages per week. Thus, Bruce Cornwell returned, to supply the technical art to Harley’s characters. ‘Mission of the Earthman’ began as a good Hampson-lite story, but once again suffered from a feeble ending.

One mountaintop…

The next big shock was the transplanting of ‘Storm Nelson’ from page 18 (the ‘new’ Eagle was now slated to be a 20 page comic) to page 3, where it would be seen into the next volume. This remained unchanged, as did the other surviving regulars, ‘Riders of the Range’, ‘Luck of the legion’ and ‘Jack O’Lantern’. With a new story, artist C L Doughty felt free to draw in his own style, but ‘The Wreckers’ was a weak and short tale, and Jack’s last adventure. Lord Bruneaux sends him down to Cornwall to investigate the local Wreckers (who turn out to be the Preventives themselves). There’s a cameo for cousin Rufus, and the story ends with Jack and Captain Yorke restored to their ancestral home of Brackens, to live without excitement. It was not a particularly worthy end.
Jack’s replacement was to be a glorious series, but first we need to go back to the new series introduced to Eagle in the revamp. These were three: ‘Knights of the Road’, ‘Vic Venture’ and ‘The Hawk’.
The first of these was an orthodox two page black and white comic series, written by Gordon Grinstead and drawn by Gerald Haylock, though the second story was taken over early on and finished by Roland Davies. It’s a comic strip about a lorry driver. I’ll repeat that: a long-distance lorry driver. Among an SF strip, a western, the French Foreign Legion, a Napoleonic era ragamuffin and a sea-faring crew of troubleshooters, the subject alone can’t hold its head up.
The stars are ‘Sir’ Ted Knight, star driver, and his harmonica playing beat obsessed younger brother, Frank. Ted is a delivery firm’s ‘star’ driver who, thanks to Frank’s shenanigans and the machinations of a rival driver, loses his job at the end of the first adventure – all about delivering a long-distance load to Liverpool, and coming back – and sets up his own private lorry firm. Yeah, I know, exciting eh?
The ‘Sir Ted’ bit is overdone by the first week, Frank is an idiot with no sense of responsibility, and the tone of the strip can be determined in the second story when half a page is given over to different types of lorry that Ted might buy. The strip’s only real appeal lies in its attempt to depict contemporary youth in 1960, and I’ve seen worse attempts from middle-aged writers. But Frank’s interest is in jazz, not rock’n’roll or anything resembling pop. That was still off-limits to Eagle, however ‘new’.
‘Vic Venture’ was a real oddity. A half-page black and white cartoon from writer D. Chapman and artist G. Bull, its subject was a young boy who would drift off into dreams about various settings – First World War fighter pilots, for one – and follow these adventures over several weeks. The art was very heavy and awkward, placing cartoon characters against settings that, within the cartoonist’s style, were meant to be realistic and detailed, and in stories that were presented as serious adventures. This odd approach makes it look very much like one of Eagle’s advertising half pages, though it was a legitimate part of the comic. On all levels, it failed, and told only three stories over six months before being abruptly replaced by the rather more conventional – and readable – ‘Sir Percy Vere – the Good Knight’, by Roland Fiddy, a straightforward comedy strip in typical Fiddy style.
It all seems very familiar, as if I read these whilst still young, though the strip had vanished before I discovered Eagle first time round. I’m sure I found it funny then, but I don’t now.

Another mountaintop…

By far and away the most successful of the new features was ‘Special Agent’, written by Lee Mayne. This was Eagle‘s first prose series since the ‘Three J’s’ but this was a straight adventure series. The series featured Frenchman, Inspector Jean Collet, aka ‘The Hawk’ of Interpol, a clever and implacable policeman, whose adventures took place all over the world. It was good, clipped, boy’s adventure stuff, whose biggest weakness was that every story consisted rigidly of only four episodes.
There was one more new series in Eagle in volume 11, and although it only ran a short time overall, it was one of Eagle‘s classics, a series to set against the best of the Fifties. This was ‘Fraser of Africa’, replacing ‘Jack O’Lantern’, featuring the continuing scripting of George Beardmore, and it was Frank Bellamy’s reward for his uncomfortable year on ‘Dan Dare’.
Martin Fraser was a white hunter and game warden, in Africa. The strip had been promised to Bellamy as an inducement to take on ‘Dan Dare’ and he was even given the chance to write it if he chose. For Bellamy was an Africaphile: it was his dream feature.
And his enthusiasm shines in every panel. Bellamy not only draws the strip but colours it as well. To create the parched, dry feel of East Africa, his colour palate is dominated by yellows and browns, with only the occasional, almost intrusive depiction of blue skies. Bellamy corresponded heavily wit a local farmer to ensure the authenticity of everything he produced, and whilst the subject of the series is by its very nature colonialist, Fraser himself respects the native populace with whom he works, and holds their interests at heart.
Sixty years on, times have changed, and the ‘White Man’s Burden’ is no longer respectable, but ‘Fraser of Africa’ still shines as the work of an incredibly gifted artist on a subject dearest to his heart, for which much must be forgiven.
Did I say one final new series? Technically, that was so, but in a year of upheaval, with the comic being turned towards the less in-depth and serious, there was one final treasure that made its debut. Technically, it was but the latest in the back page ‘Great Adventurer’ series, and in practice, thanks to the culmination of forces in opposition, it was the last great work of a great creator.
The ‘new’ Eagle brought us back Frank Hampson for the last time, drawing ‘The Road of Courage’ under the (ostensible) scripting of Marcus Morris. Since leaving ‘Dan Dare’ the previous summer, Hampson had been on an extensive research trip in Palestine and Israel, preparing to draw the life of Jesus Christ.
For the ‘greatest story ever told’, and scripted by a clergyman, this is an oddly secular, indeed flat story of Jesus, the familiar story told with all the bases touched but everything accounted for in a pragmatic, functional manner that removes the numinous the spiritual, the god-like at every turn. It’s hard to imagine the story invoking faith in any boy. But that’s not why we relish it. We relish it for Frank Hampson, at his glorious, indeed spectacular best, for the very last time.
The characterisations, the body-language, the clothing, the settings, the compositions, the colours: this is Frank Hampson showing us what he can do, as if we needed reminding, and in the process laying the ground for a tragedy. This was the last time his genius, and I repeat, genius, would be used in its natural metier. Over the next year or so, Eagle’s owners, managers and lawyers would break him. There would not be anything like this ever again.
Bellamy’s ‘Fraser’, Hampson’s Jesus, at one and the same time. The peak may be past, the downhill slope already evident, but Volume 11, and its successor, seeing these two strips to their end, contained mountaintops that anyone who loves this artform will remember forever.

…and a trough

Eagle Volume 10 (1959)

The year of the Fall. The lucky amateurs who had created Eagle and made it a stunning success for almost a full decade were replaced by the professionals, who knew what they were doing. Eagle would never be that good again. The control of the comic was handed over from people who respected and trusted their audience to people who thought their audience was basically stupid, and would respond only to simplification and sensation. Fifty years later, maybe forty or thirty, they would have been on the nail. In 1959, they were hideously wrong.
It’s tempting, but not wholly accurate, to think of Volume 10 as two different stories. This was the other ‘short’ Volume, reduced to 45 issues via a seven week long printers’ strike, from June to August, and it would be easy to call what came before it ‘Old’ Eagle and afterwards as ‘New’ Eagle. But real-life doesn’t offer such clear distinctions as that.
The three significant factors were, in order, Hultons selling out to Odhams Press, Frank Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’ and Marcus Morris stepping down as editor: the second and third of these events were a consequence of the first because Odhams made it clear from the start that in their eyes, Eagle was dull, stodgy, long-winded and stale. They were the ones who had produced comics all along, not these luck amateurs. Changes would be made.
For one thing, Hampson’s Studio, with its assistants and profusion of reference material, its expensiveness – Hampson’s expensiveness, being paid more than the Executives – was an instant target. It had to change, and Hampson, frustrated at the lack of backing he’d had from Hultons already, and realising that the protection Morris had afforded him would no longer shield him from attack, decided to leave his premier creation.
And Morris, with his unlimited expense account suddenly choked off, reconsidering his position, fell upwards onto his feet, leaving Eagle to progress in publishing at the National Magazine Company, writing his farewell Letter from the Editor in issue 37. For three weeks, this direct address to the readers was signed merely by ‘The Editor’, before Morris’s successor, Clifford Makins, allowed his name to go forward.
There was no indication at the start of the year of what was to follow. ‘Dan Dare’ started the new year with a new story, ‘Safari in Space’, opening up with Frank Hampson’s personal favourite piece of art, a near full-cover of Dan, Digby and Flamer starting a spell of leave under the sun in the Venusian jungle. It’s bright, intense, detailed, a sign that Hampson’s heart was very much in things again.
And the story bounded forward eagerly. From Venus, and several panels of Professor Peabody in a swimsuit, enjoying her leave with Sir Hubert and Lex O’Malley (hmmmm), to the Asteroid belt, and from there across trans-stellar space to Terra Nova, a near-Earth-like planet. But this was not a story of exploration: for Dan it was the chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, long believed dead but not revealed to have gone on a long trip, and perhaps still alive.
There’s a panel that illustrates just how bloody brilliant an artist Frank Hampson was. It doesn’t look like much, it’s not spectacular, it’s on a page 2 so maybe the credit belongs to Don Harley, let’s be fair. Dan and Co have been kidnapped to go on this madcap, private mission to Terra Nova, and Dan’s ahead of the McHoo. He’s leaning back against a desk or something, apart from his friends, at the back, because he sees where this is going, and his hands are by his side, holding on to the desk and he’s tightly contained and by how he half-stands, half-leans, in that single drawing we see how much emotion he is feeling.
Hampson planned a cycle of stories, set in and across the Terra Nova system, as Dan followed his father’s trail from planet to planet, culminating in… what? I have always believed that it would have ended with Dan finding Captain William ‘Mad Billy’ Dare alive. A man who had incarnated his own father so indelibly within his creation could not, I believe, have planned to frustrate that reunion.
But that wasn’t what happened. As well as the growing pressure from Odhams, there was a devastating loss. On June 18, whilst on holiday in Barcelona, Alan Stranks, the writer Hampson had come to trust best to write Dan Dare, died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
I don’t know how the timings worked out, behind the scenes. The last pre-strike issue of Eagle was no 25, dated 20 June. Two complete issues of Eagle were ready, and appeared without dates as soon as the strike ended. Both featured the work of Frank Hampson on ‘Dan Dare’, his last piece of art a uniquely silent first page, with Dan or any of his companions.

Frank Bellamy style

By the time this appeared, Hampson had left Dan Dare. In later life, he claimed he was only taking a year off, to refresh, renew, rethink, and his successor, who was not Don Harley (yet) was hired for a year, but Odhams certainly weren’t interested in having him back, his Studio was broken up, his reference materials destroyed, save for what could be carried by Harley and the only other assistant retained, Keith Watson, and I have never heard of any attempt by Hampson to take up Dan Dare’s reins again.
His replacement was Frank Bellamy, and he had been given a brief. More action, more dynamism, more excitement. Though Bellamy, naturally, drew superbly, there were many problems with the new ‘Dan Dare’. In no particular order, it’s principal artist had no real liking or feel for SF; he was working with Harley and Watson, two artists trained in Hampson’s style, who produced one page between them, resulting in months of unevenness as clashing styles; they had lost the series’ regular writer, who was replaced by Eric Eden, who at best could only produce a decent pastiche but who had no facility for satisfying endings; and with Bellamy dividing the script pages up each week, the series was hampered yet further by a flip-flopping of styles as Bellamy would assign page 1 or 2 to himself alternately.
The seven week absence during the paper strike had damaged Eagle‘s circulation. That its front page not only looked radically different, but was never in the same style two weeks in a row, could not repair the problem.
‘Terra Nova’ rapidly degenerated into a fight with giant ants, whilst its successor, ‘Trip to Trouble’ took only five weeks to undermine the whole point of Hampson’s vision. In Xmas week, the new Eagle revealed that Dan’s father had been killed, offscreen and ten years earlier. Heartless, and pointless.
Page 3 continued to go downhill. The personality-absence that was ‘Cavendish Brown, M.S.’ lasted only three more issues before vanishing, unregretted, after less than a year. He was replaced by ‘They Showed The Way’, for which Pat Williams was retained on art for a series of true-life stories of adventure and achievement: the Suez Canal, Charles Lindbergh, the discovery of anaesthetic, the conquest of Everest, submarines under the North Pole. Educational in their way, with rough-hewn art, this series might have been designed for the new masters, with none of the stories staying long enough to bore, or to interest for that matter.
MacDonald Hastings, ESI, remained confined to quarters throughout this Volume, continuing his ‘Men of Glory’ series, tales of heroism in War, for about three-quarters of the year, with sporadic interruptions.
With issue 16, Eagle expanded, ‘permanently’, to twenty pages, introducing two new series, and yet more advertising space.’Hobbies Corner’ got half a page, sometimes paired with George Cansdale’s excellent ongoing series about household pets, now drawn in black and white by George Bowe, but the other new feature was given two full pages almost ever week. This was ‘As the Scientist Sees It’, by Professor Steele, an educational series well in keeping with Eagle’s traditions. The Professor would take a different subject each week, breaking in down into half a dozen related points, which would be introduced with an enviably simple clarity. For those who regard Eagle as imperialistic and colonialist (which is not untrue), please note that one such entry poured scorn on racism as being completely unscientific and utter nonsense.
‘Riders of the Range’ continued to be steady. The Mexico adventure wended on for the first half of the year, though it suffered from a lack of cohesion as Chilton set up multiple opposing forces – bandits and Indians trying to take over an ill-manned cave-pueblo occupied by women and children, and a Mexican army patrol of limited strength, plus several kidnappings and releases associated with the appearance of a comet in the Sky.
From there, Chilton resumed historical stories with ‘Jeff Arnold and Sam Bass’, the latter being a notorious outlaw and train-robber. Sam’s inserted into the story by his ambition to learn gunfighting from Jeff, but circumstances contrive to put him on the wrong side of the Law, and Jeff has to try to bring him in. It turns out that Sam is an even faster gun than Jeff and, by the volume’s end, the latter is nursing a wound in his shoulder that prevents him using his gun in his right hand…
‘Luck of the Legion’ also maintained its course, without any stories standing out in particular: Bond and Aitchison simply provided good, quick action, and quirky humour from the Fat Man, Legionnaire Bimberg, in the desert and on a return trip to Indo-China, the serial ‘Dragon Patrol’ continuing on into Volume 11.
But Dan Dare was not the only series to lose its long-standing artist. Robert Ayton had drawn ‘Jack O’Lantern’ from its inception, and would continue to do so for the short stories in the Eagle Annuals, In Volume 10, he stayed to complete ‘The Brotherhood of the Key’, Jack’s longest ever adventure at 37 weeks, and to start its successor, ‘Your Money or Your Life’, but after a mere eleven weeks, he left the strip, to be replaced by C. L. Doughty.
The new story was a bit problematic to begin with: in ‘Brotherhood’, Jack had run away from home to sell his beloved horse, Black Dragon, for 80 guineas to assist his father to repay wicked Uncle Humphrey’s debts without selling their ancestral home. Instead, he returned for £1,000 in reward money, but by the next week, Jack and Captain Yorke were out of Brackens, and off to their new home in London anyway.
Unfortunately, they’re immediately attacked by a highwayman, Captain Yorke seriously wounded, their fortune stolen and Jack back in an orphanage, exactly like week 1. He would escape, discover the highwaymen and find himself pressed into becoming a junior tobyman himself.
Doughty’s style was very similar to Ayton, and the change in artist was not immediately apparent on a cursory glance. I did subconsciously recognise a slightly richer, more florid approach in drawing faces, and the contrast between styles was very much less pronounced than that between Hampson and Bellamy.
At this remove, I cannot find any information about why the change of artists came about, and as I said, Ayton was still drawing annual stories into 1961 (when he returned to Eagle for one last series). Perhaps stories for annuals were compiled well in advance, and kept in inventory. Certainly, Jack’s short adventures were still appearing two years after his series ended, which we shall see in the next volume.

Super Sleuth

For the ‘Three J’s’, this was to be the end of the line. The current, Christmas holiday story, which involved them breaking the ankle of Sixth Former and Prefect Noel Hardy, introduced the notion of forged fivers circulating in Northbrook. This segued into one final term-time story, which dealt with the forgeries at greater length, but once the villain was captured by the Police, and the good guys – including Hardy’s girlfriend, Linda, even though she was never acknowledged as more than a childhood friend – exonerated, the series ended.
Peter Ling would henceforth concentrate on writing for TV, including a Doctor Who serial and its novel. In 1964, he would reach a nadir, by co-creating Crossroads
The ‘Three J’s’ were immediately followed by ‘Jim Starling and the Colonel’, a ten part adaptation of E. W. Hildick’s third novel, in his Last Apple Gang series, but once this had run its course, the prose serial disappeared, and Odhams sold more advertising space in its place.
That was two of the classic line-up gone, a third near its end and the leading serial having undergone a seismic shock. In contrast, ‘Harris Tweed’ started the new volume in colour, for most of the first six months. Even then, his adventures would switch backwards and forwards between colour and the traditional black-and-white and this continued throughout the entire volume, with no apparent pattern, but a crude balance between the two kinds of episodes. The contents were never affected, of course. It was interesting to note that John Ryan’s artistic approach did not vary. In American comics, there is usually a perceptible difference between art drawn for colour and for black-and-white reproduction, but Ryan’s flat, cartoon style, using clearly defined figures with no sense of shading or greying, was ideal for a strip that now flipped back and forth. Whether Ryan himself was responsible for the colour, or whether this was the work of an occasional artist, I have no idea.
Like ‘Luck of the Legion’, ‘Storm Nelson’ survived the volume unaffected by the winds of change (apart from a brief promotion from page 14 to page 13 in issue 1, and very strange it looked to meet the Silver Fleet even a page before they were usually expected.
With the exception of a single, remaining ‘He wants to be…’ Dennis Mallet’s ‘Magic in Meter’ had the inside back page to itself all through the volume, and it still continued to be the most baffling thing Eagle had featured to date. Unless there was evidence of a rising tide of youngsters badgering their parents to install Gas central heating I can only think that it was aimed deliberately at Eagle’s adult readership (figures undefined), though if that were the case, surely Mallet’s twee cartoon figures were not the best promotion. How bizarre.
Eagle‘s back page continued to be the province of the ‘Great Adventurers’ series. We began still in the midst of the story of ‘David, The Shepherd King’, drawn stunningly by Frank Bellamy, and told in a determinedly secular manner, with God’s influence never rising beyond David acting upon Christian principles.
Bellamy was retained for the next subject, ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, but his transfer to Dan Dare necessitated his giving this up to the reliable Peter Jackson. Here the timeline again becomes confused: Bellamy’s last instalment of ‘Marco Polo’ is in issue 23, two issues before the printer’s strike struck, and four before Hampson’s resignation from ‘Dan Dare’. Clearly, Bellamy’s take-over could not have been a precipitate affair, especially as a total of eleven weeks elapsed between the two assignments.
How it went, exactly, is something I don’t expect ever to learn, though these are the details I find so fascinating.