Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers

Written by Peter O’Donnell
Art by Neville Colvin
104 pages, black and white
Published by Titan Books

It’s been well over a decade since a friend of mine lent me some dog-eared, beaten up Modesty Blaise reprints. I’d never heard of Peter O’Donnell’s femme fatale at the time, but they were a fun, pulpy group of adventures that let a woman kick butt as well (and better) than her male counterparts. What I didn’t know until just recently, though, was that Titan Books started a definitive Modesty Blaise collected series just a few years ago, and it’s already up to fifteen volumes. Reading Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers now not only lets me flash back to the fun experience of reading some similar stories all those years ago, but I now also have a greater appreciation for O’Donnell’s writing.

Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers contains three stories, and while they’re all entertaining, the strip’s strengths and weaknesses are all the same. They’ve all got a good gimmick to kick things off, from dolphins helping with underwater research, to an army of women held in thrall by a man who pretends to be subservient to them. O’Donnell doesn’t stay content to just have any of his stories here be a simple, "Modesty beats up bad guys" adventure, but instead he tries to spice them up with an extra detail that helps them stand out from the pack.

That said, while the details may change, a lot of the basics don’t. You know that Modesty will sooner or later get into a huge fight with the bad guys, and usually gets captured by them as a lead-up to the event. (To be fair, at times she lets her self get captured so that she can be brought right into the mix of things.) In many ways she’s the non-governmental counterpart to James Bond; she drinks, she flirts, and when the chips are down she’s absolutely the best person to have on your side.

What I was particularly enthralled by, though, is that Modesty Blaise ran as a comic strip in multiple papers that didn’t have the same number of publication days. In some newspapers, you got new installments on Monday through Friday. With other papers, though, strips appeared on Saturday as well. The end result is that if you look at the strips (which are all numbered sequentially), every sixth strip doesn’t increase the count by one, but instead merely adds on an A to the end of the number. So if you’re reading the comic in a Monday through Friday paper, the next strip after #4937 will be #4938, but other papers would have #4937A in-between the two. These "A" strips are a tricky proposition because they can’t really advance the story any further (since not all readers would see them), but something still had to happen. What you end up with is O’Donnell using them for moments of transition, or at times a bit of extra exposition for newer readers. Once you start noticing the "A" strips, it’s hard to not deliberately look for them to see just how O’Donnell uses them. It’s an elegant, clever solution and I was impressed with how seamless O’Donnell makes these extra strips meld into the larger narrative.

Modesty Blaise: The Lady Killers features the first strips by Neville Colvin. It’s been too long since I last encountered Modesty Blaise to really recall the finer details of how it compares and contrasts to earlier artists’s work, but Colvin’s art seemed to be the Blaise that I remembered from back in the day. It’s a classic, "newspaper soap opera strip" look, with heavy detail pushed into just three panels every day. I almost want to call Colvin’s style as being scratchy, full of cross-hatching and patterns of lines on the backgrounds to try and provide texture and depth. Blaise and the other characters themselves are drawn with clean, thin lines; Blaise in particular has a classic look that also brings to mind artists like Wally Wood. It is a shame that some of these strips (which ran from 1980 to 1981) seemed to lack better source material than their counterparts; every now and then you get to a strip that seems unusually faded and washed out compared to the others.

It’s been fun to flash back to my days in college with this collection of Modesty Blaise; it’s a shame that she’s never really caught on in the United States, because I think the strip would be well-received. O’Donnell and Colvin make Modesty Blaise a fast-moving, fun adventure. In an ongoing serialized newspaper strip, that’s a rare commodity indeed.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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