Thursday, March 17, 2011

Trade Waiting – Modesty Blaise: Sweet Caroline

Modesty Blaise is a cartoon strip of a young lady that often finds herself in the middle of criminal problems she must then resolve. She has long been a solid heroine and this compilation of four tales shows her at some of her best. This strip is great to read and takes some different liberties with the form it’s presented in. Hit the jump to see why this Titan Books reprint of old Blaise strips is well worth picking up.


Written by Peter O’Donnell
Art by Neville Colvin

The first tale, the titular song title-swiped delight, starts with Modesty lounging about at a cricket match. A simple enough beginning but a bomb in a ball soon sets the action into motion. But for the two pages before this explosive act, and thus eight strips of a usual three-panel structure, you quickly notice the pacing of this comic. It’s good. O’Donnell and Colvin take their time, they set the scene, they introduce these characters. You only get 23 panels (something a writer today would sprinkle over anywhere between four to six pages, and yet here we get all we need. Due to the tighter plotting structure, each line of panels must mean something, be it for the narrative or the character, and every line ends with a little something. It’s so simply and yet cleverly done.

People don’t take comic strip writing nearly serious enough (and reading Stan Lee’s Spider-Man strips in the Comic Shop News doesn’t help because those stories stretch and repeat til you wonder if there is a story) but this is a masterclass in the form. Each segment reads well collected and I can only imagine what reading such a long tale (long both in content and time delivered) would have been like in the newspaper form.

Once the bomb hits, and it’s gory if still well censored, then the game is afoot. Modesty instantly steps up to the carnage and the challenge and there’s no doubt at all this girl wants to be the lead in a bad situation. This is no damsel in distress, this is a hero and gender be damned. I like that about her. She never comes across as the barnstorming, muscle-clad hero, but she neither seems phased by much. She’s a rock in the world, dependable, hard, constant, and able to be used as both a pillow and a weapon if either fancy strikes you.

As the next two related crimes are detailed for Modesty, we are shown one simple still from each crime scene. Again, nothing overtly horrifying or graphic but by only showing the one scene the reader fills in the rest. It’s a smart use of restraint to actually apply more to the tale. These strips feel just slightly more violent and disturbing than they actually are. The same can be said of the sexuality present in the comic.

Modesty isn’t backwards in coming forwards and so if it’s a scene where she’s showering we’re going to see her with a bathrobe half open, or in a towel, or getting into a bra. Again, nothing overt, but I’m sure generations of minds filled in the gaps. It’s a smart ploy that less is more and you so rarely see it effectively used today so it is nice to appreciate it well done here.

The case winds on and doesn’t mind going to new places. By the end, you feel like you’ve gone through a full tale. There are no shortcuts executed here, the pace is suited to the emotion and feeling they wish to evoke. O’Donnell and Colvin are in complete control.

I’m still on the fence as to whether the conclusion needs to come so fast or not but as far as pacing goes it probably is the most effective way. You don’t want cliffhanger moments being spread longer than is necessary or believable.

The next tale, Return of the Mammoth, takes a mildly different approach and centres around a frozen woolly mammoth’s remains, but the MacGuffin isn’t the fun. The intrigue and drama are what propel this book. This tale hooks plenty of people straight away with a display of a naked woman sleeping in quite a suggestive manner. It makes me wonder if today’s comics could do this sort of pose without covering the offending side-flesh with a colour tone to intonate spandex – because then naked chicks are just fine.

Modesty takes off to follow Her Man Friday, Willie Garvin, to Helsinki on a case that involves getting an elephant pregnant and playing a little double-cross cat-and-mouse. It’s another two-fisted yarn and as you delve into it two things become apparent. 1) The creators are obviously well aware of the constraints of their structure so they don’t, and can’t, rely on any splash page type moments or reveals. Everything fits within the box, that’s just how it goes. 2) There is a lot of redundant description of the action you can see right below the text. It’s the sort of thing we just don’t have today so it’s a glaring annoyance here. Sometimes it might add one extra detail but usually it simply reinforces the action of the image.

Modesty is a hero who overtly uses her brain while on the job. She’s still quick and lethal but when faced with a gun she makes the smart choices. It’s nice to have a lead intent on thinking their way out of a situation. This isn’t MENSA level code breaking but it’s not an over-reliance on being able to punch harder than the other guy.

However, I also get the feeling Modesty covertly uses her sexuality to win the battle, too. Not a mission goes by when she doesn’t drop most of her clothes for some reason or another. Instead of making it just an inserted nude scene for no reason, O’Donnell always links it to the story, whether she’s fitting in with the circus she’s about to crash into or if she’s just woken up there’s usually some reason for Modesty’s state of undress – though, to be honest, sometimes there isn’t. Modesty is drawn in a way that isn’t very modest but doesn’t look unrealistic. She’s the type of character that if you placed her into the real world she wouldn’t suddenly be this swollen example of a human with drastic back problems. She looks real at all times and surely her appearance has some affect on the men she wars against.

This use of the female form becomes apparent in the third story, Plato’s Republic. A villain captures one of Modesty’s old spy pals and lures her to hi island as well. There he plans on gaining data from the both of them and then surely killing them. The villain, Plato, is a slimy and sleazy bastard and yet Modesty doesn’t mind offering her nightly services to keep him at ease and also put her in touch with the control room. It’s actually quite a shocking turn of events, but it’s something James Bond does all the time and I don’t think twice about it. I guess if Modesty is fine with it then we should be as well. It just seems a bit rough, and hearing Modesty talk about it the next day is certainly something.

This tale is a very good spy tale – probably the best in the book. Modesty gets to use her brains plenty and end it all with some might in her fight. Willie is shown as a true playboy which leads him into trouble but nothing he can’t find his way out of. The way this story doesn’t slow down shows you exactly how good Modesty Blaise as a character and as a comic can be. Oh, and you actually se nipples in this tale – that shocked me a little as well. I must be a tea-sipping nail-biter to get my blush on with something that is still so tame.

The final tale in this collection, The Sword of Bruce, opens with Modesty parachuting from his lightning struck plane into Scotland. Things could be dire but she’s rescued by a passing Scottish lass and then we cue the scenes of helping undress and drying hair together after bathing. It’s actually a sweet moment of Samaritanism but it’s the closure between panels that echoes in the reader’s mind. Modesty goes from her clothes to a nightie, and not without some help. Or perhaps I’m just focusing on the wrong aspect of this story, and character. It seems this helpful lass, Jennie, is about to become the target of assault most foul so it now seems lucky Modesty dropped into her lap.

There’s a great piece of business with Willie where he stands up a date with a girl to go to Paris because he’s heard Modesty was in a spot of bother and he won’t budge until he knows she doesn’t need him. That’s a pretty awesome friend and business partner. Willie might be a pants man but he’s first and foremost the man Modesty can rely on at absolutely any and all times. Considering Modesty is the only set of pants not sustaining Willie, that’s a strong bout of reliability and loyalty.

As some goombah thug holds a gun on Modesty and Jennie, Modesty defies him and leads Jennie away. She says she knows the thug won’t shoot because if his orders were to shoot he would have done it straight away. It’s a major bluff to play, one that takes true fortitude of character, and Modesty pulls it off perfectly. Once again, she outsmarts the guy with the deadly weapon.

An almost contrived plot point means Jennie must make a trek through the Scottish highlands and Modesty organises for Willie to be the ‘impartial invigilator’ to aid her in this quest. Such vigilance and protection is required because an inheritance is on the line and one attempt to keep Jennie from it has already been made. I love a good spy story where the leads really think ahead to set something up – even if it does result in something as preposterous as one character masquerading as a Reverend.

One very cool scene shows Modesty and another man, Mark, trekking behind Willie and Jennie just to ensure all goes smoothly. Things, of course, are instead about sleek as sandpaper and they are soon beset by black masked thugs. Modesty thinks quick, as always, and clubs Mark. She thanks her ‘saviours’ for coming to rescue her from the supposed thug who had made away with her. As this scene progresses, Modesty’s blouse cut gets lower and lower but then she says, and I quote, “He’s a fiend! He even took my bra! LOOK!” A quick flash of the old girls gets the attention and she pounces in that moment to attack. That’s how superspying is done, kids.

Once you get used to the bite sized pieces of story you should be fine. As for Colvin’s art, it feels thin, sketchy, and yet he rarely misses a beat. There’s no colour here and the book doesn’t need it. Modesty and the rest of the crew all own the page in a confident manner and nothing is ever hard to understand through the visuals. If you take your time and appreciate the art you’ll find many small subtleties to enjoy.

Verdict – Buy It. Modesty always wins the day but it’s a delight seeing how she does it. This comic might be a slight product of its time but it’s still damn good years later. This is a female spy played not as kitsch or a novelty, it’s just a chick getting the job done. Sometimes it’s sexy and sometimes it’s smart but it’s nearly always great fun. Newspapers today need more of this stuff right here.

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twobitspecialist said...

Not gonna lie: reading you gush about this trade has piqued my interest. I may look this up once I am able to.

Jormungand said...

Modesty is the greatest female comic character of them all with her professionalism, independence, keen intellect, physical prowess and strategic brilliance, but don't choose the wrong volume to start with. Jim Holdaway was the original artist of Modesty Blaise – and the undisputed master. Nobody ever drew women as beautifully stylish as Holdaway did. I'd recommend trying The Gabriel Set-Up instead of this volume, because all the artists that followed are inferior to the magnificent Jim Holdaway. Not to mention that the early Peter O'Donnell stories are the best – The Head Girls, Bad Suki, The Mind of Mrs. Drake and The Hell Makers are particular stunners.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@twobit - it's different to most anything else you'll read today, content, format, art, but it is a damn fine hoot. At least leaf through it in the store. See what you think.

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