Favorite Female Characters in Literature # 15: Modesty Blaise

This time it’s not a comic book character, but a women out of the newspapers (in the not-so-funny pages) and the movies and paperback books. It’s Modesty Blaise, the suave and sexy super-spy. Incidentally… do super-spies count as detectives? I’ve been trying to consider if my favorite female characters are super-spies or detectives, but I’m wondering if “detective” is a prerequisite of being a super-spy. I flip-flop back and forth on this: I think it’s a matter of focus. Anyway… both sexy.

Favorite Female Characters in Literature # 15: Modesty Blaise


I've never seen the movie or read any of the paperbacks, so all of my familiarity with Ms. Blaise comes from the newspapers strips. I'm still missing a few of these books. Santa Claus... where the hell were you? Were you just loathe to give up these treasures? Did you loan them out to the elves and never get them back?

A small selection of the Modesty Blaise paperbacks. I want some of these damn things. They're a little bit hard to get. Usually paperbacks of this type aren't a very good read (Doc Savage novels and Ted Mark's "Man From O.R.G.Y." novels are... ahem... CLEAR exceptions, of course) but these were actually written by Peter O'Donnell, Modesty's creator and regular writer... so I have high hopes for them.

Peter O'Donnell (1920 - 2010) was the sole writer for everything Modesty Blaise (except the movie, which we'll get to in a bit) and this allows the character to remain consistent... to have growth over time... to always be true to the vision. She seems all the more real because of it. Okay, "real" in a completely fictional way, but that's the dream, right? Also... LOOK at O'Donnell. THAT'S a writer, dammit!

The long run of Modesty Blaise comic strips was remarkably consistent in art, as well, with the vast majority of the strip illustrated either by Jim Holdaway, or by Enrique Romero after Jim had passed away. Here's a montage of Holdaway art.

Some Holdaway strips. Damn... he was such a damn fine cartoonist. His characters had life and individuality.

More Holdaway goodness.

It was Holdaway that established Modesty's classic look... half vamp, half society lady, and always able to kick your ass.

Romero was a FANTASTIC replacement for Holdaway... though I find myself favoring Holdaway for the most part. Not sure why. Might have something to do with Holdaway being the first artist. I think Romero made Modesty more immediately sexual, but Holdaway's version had this smoldering to her that was undeniable, all the while never losing the strength of her character.Â

A taste of Romero. Modesty often found herself partially clothed, but not so much that the strip was about tittilation; the allure of Modesty Blaise wasn't because she was gorgeous (which she was) or partially clothed (which happened) but because she was such a strong individual, independent character. Whatever it was... Modesty could handle it.

Later art from Romero. I guess I'd probably pay five bucks for Modesty to dress in panties and jump kick me. Unless... would that be weird? Forget I said anything.

I like to think they're talking about rock bands. I mean, the Who are an okay band, but wouldn't you rather be the guitarist for the War-Lords of Phoenix? Just looks better on a marquee, and it's easier to pick up girls. At least in Phoenix.

More Holdaway strips. This time Modesty is in her bra and jump kicking a guy. Dating Modesty probably came with an equal amount of smiles and bruises.

Speaking of dating Modesty... let's talk about Willie Garvin... Modesty's sort-of boyfriend. The relationship between Willie and Modesty is one of my favorites in all of literature. They are Holmes and Watson. They are Batman and Robin. They are Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. They are together, but they see a lot of other people at the same time, as demanded by the rigors of life as a spy, and the life of a fictional hero, and the fact that it's awfully fun to take off people's clothes and have sex with them. Despite the frequent wanderings, Willie and Modesty were always there for each other... and their relationship, and the sexuality of the characters, was some of the most adult in heroic fiction. I despise the "grand" aspects of love and sex in most comics, for instance, because it always takes place as if the world is shuddering and fate is being sealed, but in Modesty Blaise the sex took place as if the sexual partners were shuddering, and they were laughing, and they were being alive and being people. That's worth so much more than the pedestrian childlike fantasy sex in most fiction.

A Modesty "Sunday" strip. It's Holdaway, and it's in color. And, like usual, it's beautiful stuff.

Modesty kicks some poor / lucky bastard's ass in another montage of Holdaway art.

More Modesty art. The first piece is by Enrique Romero… not sure on the 2nd piece… it’s at least based on Holdaway, but not sure it’s him. It’s also rather a strange piece, because Modesty’s adventures were very based in reality… thugs and drug runners and spies and so on, so why a man is running around in a straight jacket being menaced by a floating eyeball and giant insects, I do not know. Might just have something to do with those drug runners, though. I can’t remember, in my college days, ever doing much more than being REALLY fascinated by clouds and sidewalks, and the last time I drank really good absinthe I thought I was seeing a leprechaun, so I guess I’ve lucked out on the “haunted by giant insects” aspects of altered states.

Comic strip and comic book writers always have the task of keeping things visually interesting when characters are having long discussions. In superhero comics, that's why Spider-Man is usually chattering away while punching the hell out of someone... but in Modesty Blaise it wasn't all that uncommon for her to be changing her clothes during a discussion. WIN!

Pretty much how I want my house and life to look.

Modesty in the movies, played by the actress Monica Vitti. The movie was, unfortunately, not a great success, and the blame falls largely to the fact that movie people seem unable to not fuck everything up. Peter O'Donnell wrote the script for the movie, and of course he's THE MAN, and he IS Modesty Blaise, so the script was full of goodness. By the time the movie people were done with the script... ONE LINE remained. One line. Ain't that a kick in the pants. Monica did a good job as Modesty, though... she just did her good job in a bad movie.

Monica Vitti, again.

Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel in the Modesty Blaise movie. The main problem with this movie (I've seen parts of it) is that It Is Tedious. The directing is absymal. Every scene streeeeeeeeetches as actors say a line, and then there's a pause, and the next actor very deliberately says their line, pause, repeat. There are only two good aspects to the movie. The first is Monica Vitti, and the second is this outrageously rocking bathrobe.

A "sort of" Modesty Blaise movie appearance. This is Vincent Vega. On the pot. With the book. You can see this book a few times throughout Pulp Fiction.

And now, for a send off, I thought I’d end with a sampling of Modesty Blaise book covers, all of them paintings by one of my VERY favorite painters, Robert McGinnis. Enjoy!


#25: Scarlet Witch

#24: Chance Falconer

#23: Vampirella

#22: Tigra

#21: Jean Grey

#20: Kitty Pryde

#19: Janet van Dyne

#18: Mary Jane Watson

#17: Hermione Granger

#16: Death

#15: Modesty Blaise


I’ve been thinking about women, lately. Women characters in comics. Women creators in comics. Female characters in literature. And pretty girls riding around on bicycles or walking along the sidewalk, etc, etc. Because of this, I’ve decided to make An Entirely Useless List. Why is it entirely useless? Because it’s my top 25 female characters from comics and literature, and such lists change at whim and at a breakneck pace. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to quantify favorites… the term favorite is far too malleable. A list of my best friends from high school, for instance, would not include anyone with whom I’m currently in contact. Times change. Still… I’m making the list. Why? I suppose I just like thinking about women.


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5 Responses to Favorite Female Characters in Literature # 15: Modesty Blaise

  1. Jason Caskey

    I absolutely love Modesty Blaise. One of my all-time favorite comics. Whether it was for the strip or one of the novels O’Donnell sure knew how to construct a great plot and keep it moving along. The storie solidly hold up and despite being of their don’t come off as dated at all.I’ve read the first 6 volumes that Titan has put out(I need to catch up on the rest),but of the novels I’ve only been able to track down Sabre-Tooth (which I enjoyed just as much as the strip) and want to track down more.
    I thought the 60’s movie was fun but came off more as something “inspired by” the source material than any sort of adaptation. The recent My Name is Modesty was okay, but if you haven’t seen it the real treat on the DVD is the interview with O’Donnell. In it O’Donnell gives one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard about writing; at some point when discussing with his editor a concern he had about a story the man turns to O’Donnell and asks “Well,do you consider yourself an author” When O’Donnell tells him yes the man abrupty ends the conversation, telling him “Well go fuck off and auth’ then.”
    I love that quote.

  2. Paul Tobin

    Everyone who wrote me says those paperbacks are excellent. I’m even more fired up for them, now. Sounds like good down time for when I’m not auth-ing.

  3. I’ve only read the first novel and a collection of short stories, the latter of which includes Modesty and Willie’s last adventure, acc. to O’Donnell. Both are worth your time. As your posts have been for me…fun! So, thanks!

  4. Paul Tobin

    Thanks, Jim. And thanks for another notch in the “you should read those books” column. I’m definitely searching them out, now. You going to be at Emerald City by any chance? Seems like a decade since we’ve seen you!

  5. It has been a while! Not a decade, but too long nonetheless. But…no Emerald City plans, at least for now. (I kind of shot my travel-for-comics allotment for the near future by touring around and talking about the Feynman book in 2011.) But if I can get out your way, I will. I love seeing you and Colleen and all the Portland folks.

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