This was before the internet, there was no online book ordering service, and therefore no e-book readers. Children addicted to reading had to join the circulating libraries (almost non-existent now) in the neighborhood and read the comics and popular books that were arriving in the suburbs of Mumbai.
After passing the Enid Blytons (she is now out of favor), 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. In May this year, she entered her 60th year, but for a lifelong fan, she is ageless and immortal.
The British comic strip featuring the sexy and murderous Modesty Blaise, created by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated by Jim Holdaway was launched in May 1963; it also inspired 11 novels, two collections of short stories, and a few films, none of which could quite capture its appeal. There were, according to information on the net, 99 storylines produced for the Modesty Blaise comic strip and all of its forms in print over nearly forty years, and each story was written by O’Donnell, although other illustrators have joined over the years. Even though the series finally ended in 2002, the comic is still seen in publications somewhere around the world, and the books are regularly reprinted.
In the sixties, when the women’s movement was not yet a major wave, women – whether real or fictional – were meant to be feminine. In thriller or adventure fiction, they follow the example of the hero. Modesty Blaise was anything but submissive – she was strong, smart, fearless. Additionally, she had a devoted partner, Willie Garvin, and a housekeeper, Weng.
Much to the amusement of her teenage followers, some of her guns were concealed in her lingerie, so she didn’t mind stripping down when needed, and had a shocking tactic she called, ‘Nailer’ when she appeared topless to distract the male aggressors. long enough for her or Willie to knock them out. She was totally comfortable in her own skin, choosing men to have affairs with, but Willie, who called her “Princess”, was a strictly platonic friend. O’Donnell was right to assume that women would enjoy this relationship more than men.
Blaise has often been called the James Bond woman, in the sense that people must devalue women, but she’s not as one-dimensional as Bond. She could match him anytime, anywhere, and maybe even beat him in hand-to-hand combat.
O’Donnell wanted to create “a super woman who could have the kind of adventure that great male super heroes had all along,” he said in an interview. He also realized that he couldn’t “take a girl behind a counter in a store and turn her into Modesty Blaise. It had to be born in the blood and in the bones. She had to have a plausible story.
He explained how he imagined this tough female character in several interviews. In 1942, while in the army and stationed in northern Persia, a little girl suddenly appeared. She was alone, barefoot and dressed in rags. She carried her meager belongings in a small bundle on her head, and around her neck, suspended by a cord, was a piece of wood with a nail driven into it, which was her weapon.
O’Donnell and his comrades offered the girl food, and after eating she washed the utensils. He is quoted in an excellent article by RC Harvey on Modesty Blaise in tcj.com, “She stood there for a few seconds and then she smiled at us, and you could have lit up a little village with that smile, and then she said something and went out into the desert, down 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 history.
How did he come up with this particular name for her? He is quoted as having written in a letter: “The name Modesty Blaise came to me long after I conceived the character. I was looking for a dramatic name but nothing worked. Then one day I was typing a script for Garth when I mistyped the adverb “modestly” and it came out “modesty”. It was then that I understood that it would be the ideal antithetical name for her. At the time, I was reading a book by CS Lewis. It was called “That Hideous Force” and featured the resuscitation of Merlin at the time of Arthurian legend. It was there that I learned that Merlin’s tutor was a magician named Blaise. It was a monosyllable (as required for the cadence), and it also had a fiery sound. So she became Modesty Blaise.
Before becoming the original power girl, Modesty Blaise was a homeless orphan, like that child in the writer’s memory. At a refugee shelter, she met Lob, a former Hungarian teacher, who educated her. He died when she was a teenager and she went to work in a casino in Tangier, under Henri Louche, gaining sophistication and learning all about the workings of the underworld. When Louche was killed, she took over her 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 Saigon prison and he joined The Network, becoming her most trusted assistant and confidant. After a while, she amassed a fortune, grew bored of the life of crime, and retired, with Willie, to London. Soon his brains and skills were called upon by Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence, to carry out dangerous missions that were to remain under the legal radar.
Modesty Blaise’s comics and novels became hugely popular around the world, except in the United States, where nudity was an issue. For 40 years, she remained a pop culture phenomenon. Caitlin Flanagan writes in theatlantic.com got the character call. Modesty Blaise was, she writes, “the first female character I encountered who was really in charge of anything other than a hospital ward, or a school, or a household. She led an organization full of dangerous men, and they all obeyed her 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 was not bossy; she was the boss.
With so much going for her, it’s a shame the film, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, didn’t do her justice, and the film projects planned over the years didn’t take off.
Modesty Blaise is an all-time hero, but she fits perfectly into this feminist era. A new generation should know that before Lara Croft and Charlie’s Angels, long before Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen, there was a woman who showed girls that it was possible to live happily ever after outside of a fairy tale. conventional.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author)
Posted: Friday 06 May 2022, 08:58 IST