Modesty Blaise

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Cover of the first Modesty Blaise novel.

Modesty Blaise is a character in a comic strip of the same name created by Peter O'Donnell (writer) and Jim Holdaway (art) in 1962. The strip follows the adventures of Modesty Blaise, an exceptional young woman with many talents and a criminal past, and her trusty sidekick Willie Garvin. It was adapted into films made in 1966, 1982, and 2003 and a series of novels and short stories beginning also in 1966.

Many critics see the early years of the strip as a classic of adventure comic strips. The novels are regarded by some as being among the classics of adventure fiction.



In 1945 a nameless girl escaped from a prison camp in Karylos, Greece. She did not remember anything from her short past. She wandered through post-WW2 Mediterranean and Arabia. During these years she learned to survive the hard way. She befriended another wandering refugee, a Hungarian scholar who gave her an education and a name: Modesty Blaise. Eventually she took control of a criminal gang in Tangier and expanded it to international status as "The Network".

During these years she met Willie Garvin. Despite the desperate life he was living, she saw his potential and offered him a job. Inspired by her belief in him, he pulled through and was soon a vital member of The Network and Modesty Blaise's most trusted friend. Their relationship is based on mutual respect with no sexual intentions. He has always called her "Princess", a form of address that only he is allowed to use.

When she felt she'd made enough money, she retired and moved to England; Willie Garvin followed suit. Bored by their new lives among the idle rich, they accepted a request for assistance from Sir Gerald Tarrant, a high-ranking official of the British secret service - and this is where the story really begins.

Many of her adventures are based on "capers" she and Willie Garvin become involved in as a result of their association with Tarrant. However, they may also help perfect strangers or fight various eccentric villains in exotic locations of their own volition if the cause fits their values. Although Modesty and Willie will not hesitate to kill if necessary--and have, on occasion, taken on the roles of judge, jury, and executioner when dealing with particularly unsavory types--they will avoid deadly force whenever possible, often relying upon their extraordinary physical and weapons skills to change a killing blow into a knock-out.

In keeping with the spirit of other long-running comic strip and literary characters, Modesty and Willie generally do not age over the decades, with Modesty always being depicted as being in her late 20s-early 30s at most. Willie's age is more ambiguous, though he is likely in his mid-30s. The only exception to this rule occurs in the 1996 short story "Cobra Trap" (see "The Books", below) - the final Modesty Blaise adventure - which takes place in an unspecified future year in which Modesty is in her late 40s and Willie is in his 50s.

The comic strip

Modesty Blaise debuted in the London Evening Standard on May 13 1963. The strip was syndicated among a large number of newspapers ranging from the Johannesburg Star to the Detroit Free Press, The Bombay Samachar, The Calcutta Telegraph, (Calcutta, India), The West Australian (Perth, Australia) and The Evening Citizen, Glasgow, Scotland.

After Jim Holdaway's death in 1970, the art of the strip was provided by the Spanish artist Romero. Eight years later, Romero quit to make time for his own comics projects, and after short attempts by John Burns and Patrick Wright, Neville Colvin drew the strip until 1986. Then Romero returned to the job and continued until the end of the strip.

The strip's circulation in the United States was erratic, in part because of the occasional nude scenes, which were much less acceptable in the US than elsewhere (a censored version of the strip was circulated as a result). Modesty was fond of a strategem that she called the "Nailer," in which she would appear topless and Willie would incapacitate their foes while they were distracted by her bare breasts.

The final Modesty Blaise strip ran in the Evening Standard on April 11 2001. Some of the newspapers that carried the series, feeling that it had become a tradition for their readers, began running it again from the beginning. O'Donnell, in order to give Romero some additional work, gave the artist permission to adapt one of his short stories ("The Dark Angels") as one final comic strip that was published in Scandinavia in 2002, later being reprinted in the US.

Many reprint editions of the comic strip have appeared over the years, of varying quality. Most focus upon the earliest strips, with strips from the 1980s and 1990s being the least-often reprinted, although Manuscript Press did publish two volumes of recent-vintage strips in 2003. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Titan Books of England published a half-dozen volumes of reprints of the early strips featuring art by Holdaway and Romero. In 2004, Titan launched a new series of reprint volumes, as detailed below. These new versions use larger images and reportedly come from better source material than the early versions. Several volumes also featured specially written introductions by O'Donnell. Titan has indicated that it plans to reprint the entire Jim Holdaway series of stories (which ended in the late 1960s), as well as the first couple of Romero stories (essentially the same stories reprinted by the company earlier), but it is not yet known if the company will continue the reprint line past this point.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, the strip has been in continuous distribution in monthly serials since 1969 in a monthly comic adventure magazine called "Secret Agent X-9". Many of O'Donnell's stories actually premiered here (translated into Swedish), and the magazine continues to run a Modesty Blaise story every month, from the archives. Sweden is also an ongoing source for in-print graphic-novel-style collections of Modesty Blaise "capers", (including hardcovers) though they're also mostly in Swedish. The American magazine Comics Revue also continues to reprint the strip, and remains to date the only publisher to have released an English-language version of the final 2002 strip "The Dark Angels".

Titan's series of reprint volumes began in March, 2004. These collect the full run of the Holdaway years and the first few Romero stories. It is not yet known whether the series will continue past its seventh volume.

  • Book 1: The Gabriel Set-Up (March 26 2004)
  • Book 2: Mister Sun (June 25 2004)
  • Book 3: Top Traitor (October 22 2004)
  • Book 4: The Black Pearl (December 17 2004)
  • Book 5: Bad Suki (March 25 2005)
  • Book 6: The Hell Makers (June 2005)
  • Book 7: The Green-Eyed Monster (October 2005)

The movies

Missing image
Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise and Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin perform their infamous musical number in the 1966 spoof Modesty Blaise.

After initial popularity, the story was filmed in 1966 as a comedy thriller, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Monica Vitti as Modesty, Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin, and Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel. The movie was not very successful. Peter O'Donnell's screenplay went through a large number of rewrites by other people, and he later commented that the finished movie contained only one line of what he wrote. A scene in which Willie kills a thug in an alley after the death of a female character is also played out more or less the way it appears in O'Donnell's novelization of his screenplay.

Diehard fans find the film quite offensive in the way it eliminates many elements of the comic strip in favor of a laugh. The worst change in the characters, according to fans, is that in the movie, Willie and Modesty fall in love, which is something completely taboo in the books and the comic strip. The two even perform a musical number together!

In 1982, a pilot was made for a proposed Modesty Blaise television series, starring Ann Turkel as Modesty Blaise and Lewis Van Bergen as Willie Garvin. The film aired on the ABC Network to positive reviews, but no series eventuated.

Missing image
Alexandra Staden as Modesty Blaise in a flashback sequence from My Name is Modesty.

In 2002, Miramax, the current holders of the Modesty Blaise film rights, made a film called My Name is Modesty, with Alexandra Staden as Modesty Blaise, based on the story of the character's life before the beginning of the comic strip. The film, made primarily to retain the film rights, did not receive theatrical release, being released straight to DVD in Europe in October 2003; it didn't receive DVD release in North America until September 2004, more than two years after it was produced. Critical reception appears to depend upon the critic's familiarity with the comic strip. Those aware of Modesty's history seem to be far more receptive to the film than those expecting an action film or another comedy, though fans were disappointed that the character of Willie Garvin was not featured. Staden's performance was generally praised, although she was seen by some as too frail-looking to convincingly play Modesty. The general consenus, however, is that this version is at least better than the 1966 spoof.

Quentin Tarantino has been interested in directing a Modesty Blaise movie for many years, and at one point Neil Gaiman even wrote a script treatment based upon O'Donnell's novel, I, Lucifer. So far, nothing has come of these plans. Tarantino did "sponsor" the release if My Name is Modesty by allowing it to be released under the label "Quentin Tarantino presents ..." Nicole Kidman has also gone on record as being interested in making a Modesty Blaise movie.

The books

Peter O'Donnell was invited to write a novel to tie in with the film. The novel, called simply Modesty Blaise and based on his original screenplay for the movie, fared considerably better than the movie itself did (it was also released a year before the movie). During the following decades, he would write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels and two collections of short stories.

O'Donnell's final book, Cobra Trap, is his most controversial as he chose to end the book by giving Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin a definitive end (although the comic strip would last for several more years before it, too, was retired). Many longtime fans of Modesty Blaise refuse to read the titular short story that closes Cobra Trap. Perhaps reflecting this, O'Donnell chose to end the comic strip on a more hopeful note.

Other adaptations

In 1994, DC Comics released a graphic novel adaptation of Modesty Blaise (the novel), with art by Dick Giordano.

At least one of the Modesty Blaise novels was adapted for radio in the 1980s. In the early 1980s, an audio tape reading of the short story, "I Had a Date with Lady Janet", was released featuring John Thaw as the voice of Willie Garvin.

Modesty Blaise has been the inspiration for a number of similar (but usually inferior) book series, most notably the ultraviolent mid-1970s series The Baroness by Paul Kenyon. The 1993 American television series, South Beach was also inspired by Modesty Blaise, and fans of the character also see more than a few similarities between Modesty Blaise and video game heroine Lara Croft.

Future of the character

As mentioned above, in 1996, Peter O'Donnell wrote the final Modesty Blaise story collection, Cobra Trap, and in 2001, retired the original comic strip. The Modesty Blaise character and concept remain popular enough that there have been calls for new writers to continue her adventures. O'Donnell, who owns the rights to Modesty Blaise, has been vehement that no one else ever write about Modesty Blaise. He made an exception for the 2003 film, My Name is Modesty, but after the film (the third attempt to adapt the character for the screen) received mixed critical reviews and never achieved theatrical release, O'Donnell went on record that he wanted no more movies to be made of his character.

O'Donnell's attitude has sparked debate over ownership of literary works, and whether an author can completely control a creation that has become a popular success (beyond issues of copyright and intellectual property and licensing). It is not known if O'Donnell's statements will have any impact upon the proposed Modesty Blaise film project by Quentin Tarantino, or if his eventual heirs will allow new writers to continue Modesty Blaise in comic strip or literary form.


  • Modesty Blaise is unique in that in all its printed forms over more than 40 years--comic strip and literary--it has only ever been written by one person: Peter O'Donnell. Even the 1966 and 1982 film versions, though only loosely based upon O'Donnell's writings, still made use of characters and situations created by the author. The new film, My Name is Modesty is the first production to use a wholly original story not written by O'Donnell, although he did act as a consultant on the film, and the events of the film clearly reflect some of the back story of the character created by O'Donnell.
  • The canonicity of the novels vs. the comic strips is a matter of some debate among fans, as Modesty and Willie occasionally act more ruthless in the novels than they do in the comics, and there are occasional inconsistencies. Plus, some comic strips were based upon some of O'Donnell's short stories, and vice-versa, with the inevitable differences between them. In any event, only stories (illustrated or textual) written by O'Donnell himself are considered candidates for canon; none of the film and graphic novel adaptations qualify, including the new My Name is Modesty film which contradicts elements of the novels and comic strip.
  • As the sole example of "real" pulp fiction in Quentin Tarantino's film "Pulp Fiction", the character of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is seen in several scenes reading the first Modesty Blaise novel while sitting on the toilet. The edition Vincent reads is the same one illustrated at the top of this article.

External links

Modesty Blaise is also the name of a 1994 British band: See [1] ( Blaise


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