Those were pre-internet days, so no ebook readers and no ordering books online. Kids hooked to reading had to join circulating libraries (almost non-existent now) in the neighbourhood, and read whatever popular comics and books trickled down to the Mumbai suburbs.
After outgrowing the Enid Blytons (she is out of favour now), Hardy Boys, Nancy Drews and Biggles, what was next? Archie, Phantom, Tarzan comics, maybe Perry Mason, Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean. But none of them had interesting young female characters. Where were the role models for a budding feminist?
Then, copies of Modesty Blaise comics and novels were discovered, and there was a fearless heroine to admire. On May 13, this year, she enters her 60th year, but to a lifelong fan she is ageless and immortal.
The British comic strip featuring the sexy and lethal Modesty Blaise, created by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated by Jim Holdaway was launched in May 1963; she also inspired 11 novels, two short-story collections and a few films, none of which could quite capture her allure. There were, according to information on the net, 99 storylines produced for the Modesty Blaise comic strip and all its printed forms over almost forty years, and every story was written by O’Donnell, though other illustrators joined up over the years. Even though the series eventually wrapped up in 2002, the comic strip is still carried in publications somewhere or the other in the world, and the books are regularly reprinted.
In the Sixties, when the women’s movement was still not a major wave, women– whether real or fictional—were supposed to be ladylike. In thriller or adventure fiction, they followed the hero’s lead. Modesty Blaise was anything but submissive—she was strong, smart, fearless. Plus, she had a devoted partner, Willie Garvin, and a male housekeeper, Weng.
Much to the giggly amusement of her teen followers, some of her weaponry was concealed in her lingerie, so she did not hesitate to strip when need be, and had a shocking tactic she called ‘Nailer’ when she appeared topless to distract male attackers long enough for her or Willie to put them out of action. She was totally comfortable in her skin, picked men to have affairs with, but Willie, who called her “Princess” (others called her Mam’selle), was a strictly platonic friend. O’Donnell was right in assuming that women would appreciate this relationship more than men.
Blaise has often been called the female James Bond, in the way people have to devalue women, but she is not as uni-dimensional as Bond. She could match him anytime, anywhere, and perhaps even beat him in hand-to-hand combat.
O’Donnell wanted to create “a super woman who could have the kind of adventure the big, super male heroes had been having all this time,” he said in an interview. He also realized that he could not “take a girl from behind a counter in a shop and turn her into a Modesty Blaise. It had to be born in the blood and the bone.” She had to have a plausible backstory.
He spoke of how he thought up this tough female character in several interviews. In 1942, when he was in the army and stationed in northern Persia, a little girl suddenly appeared. She was alone, barefoot and dressed in rags. She carried her meagre belongings in a small bundle on her head, and around her neck, hanging by a cord, was a piece of wood with a nail hammered into it, which was her weapon.
O’Donnell and his comrades offered the girl some food, and after eating, she washed the utensils. He is quoted in a excellent piece by RC Harvey about Modesty Blaise in tcj.com, “She stood there for a few seconds, and then she gave us a smile, and you could have lit up a small village with that smile, and then she said something and walked off into the desert, going south, and she was on her own and walked like a little princess. I never forgot that child. And when I wanted a background for Modesty Blaise, I knew that child was the story.”
How did he think of that peculiar name for her? He is quoted as having written in a letter, “The name Modesty Blaise emerged for me long after devising the character. I was looking for a dramatic name but nothing appealed. Then one day I was typing a script for Garth when I mis-typed the adverb ‘modestly’ and it came out ‘modesty.’ That’s when it hit me that this would be the ideal antithetic forename for her. At the time I was reading a book by C.S. Lewis. It was called That Hideous Strength and featured the resuscitation of Merlin from the days of the Arthurian legend. It was here that I learnt that Merlin’s tutor was a magician called Blaise. This was a monosyllable (as required for cadence), and it also had a fiery ring to it. So she became Modesty Blaise.”
Before she became the original power girl, Modesty Blaise, was a homeless orphan, like that child in the writer’s memory. In a refugee shelter, she met Lob, an old Hungarian professor, who educated her. He died when she was in her teens, and she went to work in a casino in Tangiers, under Henri Louche, acquiring sophistication, and learning all about the functioning of the underworld. When Louche was killed, she took over his criminal empire and formed her own syndicate called The Network. She insisted, however, that they would not deal in drugs or human trafficking.
She rescued Willie Garvin from jail in Saigon and he joined The Network, going on to become her most trusted aide and confidant. After a while she amassed a fortune, got bored with the life of crime, and retired, with Willie, to London. Soon her brain and skills were sought by Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence, to do dangerous assignments that needed to remain under the legal radar.
Modesty Blaise comic strips and novels became hugely popular all over the world, except the US, where nudity was a problem. For 40 years, she remained a pop culture phenomenon. Caitlin Flanagan writing in theatlantic.com got the character’s appeal. Modesty Blaise was, she writes,”the first female character I encountered who was truly in charge of something other than a hospital ward, or a school, or a household. She ran an organization full of dangerous men, and they all obeyed and revered her. She would know exactly what to do with a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer, and it would be a pleasure to see her do it. Half a century before Beyoncé, Modesty wasn’t bossy; she was the boss.”
With so much going for her, it’s a pity that the film, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp did not do her justice, and film projects planned over the years did not get off the ground.
Modesty Blaise is a heroine for all times, but she fits right into this feminist age. A new generation should know that before Lara Croft and Charlie’s Angels, much before Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen, there was a woman who showed girls it was possible to live happily-ever-after outside of a conventional fairytale.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated April 6, 2022)