Sunday, 24 June 2007

Review: Modesty Blaise – The Inca Trail

Modesty Blaise: The Inca Trail by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Enric Badia Romero (art), Titan Books, May 2007, 118 Pages of strip, £11.99
Features “The Reluctant Chaperon” (first published in the Evening Standard, 26 March – 14 August 1975)
“The Greenwood Maid” (first published in the Evening Standard, 15 August 1975 – 2 January 1976)
“Those About to Die” (first published in the Evening Standard, 5 January – 28 May 1976)
“The Inca Trail” (first published in the Evening Standard, 1 June – 20 October 1976)

I am always slightly amazed at how well a good daily adventure strip can read in collected form. Surely, it is a hard enough task to tell a story in over a hundred tiny daily instalments over the course of several months, coping with readers who might start part way in, or miss a couple of weeks’ instalments while on holiday, or just not really remember how the story started by the time they reach the end. For it also to read fluidly in a collected format that was never intended by its authors is quite remarkable.

In this eleventh volume of Titan Books’ chronological reprints, Modesty Blaise reads so smoothly that it might have been written as a graphic album with an eccentrically restrictive panel grid. And Modesty Blaise was a very good daily adventure strip indeed. For once, I can say that about an old British comics series without fear that my judgement is being distorted by nostalgia. The Evening Standard is a London local newspaper, and it was not readily available where I grew up. I had read one or two of the novels, but I didn’t encounter the comic strip until Titan’s previous attempt to reprint the series in the 1980s.

For the uninitiated, Modesty Blaise, which ran from 1963 to 2001, was a contemporary crime and adventure strip.

No, honestly, it was.

Modesty herself had established a criminal empire in the southern Mediterranean while still in her teens. She had then retired, but, together with her sidekick Willie Garvin, was forever being drawn back into trouble.

The Modesty Blaise stories generally followed one of two templates. In the first, Modesty becomes aware of some nefarious activity by accident, or is informed of it by one of her old criminal associates, or by Sir Gerald Tarrant, head of British Intelligence. She and Willie plan to defeat the baddies. Something invariably goes wrong, and Modesty and Willie have to improvise their way to victory. In the second formula, someone with a grudge targets Modesty or Willie. They learn of this, work out a counter-plot (which usually goes wrong) and, again, improvise their way out.

The joy of the stories is in the variations that O’Donnell plays upon these themes, the convincing and ingenious details he adds from his research, and, above all, in the characters of Modesty and Willie, confident, competent, and displaying utmost faith in each other, but never superhuman. They make mistakes, are injured, are sometimes even out-thought or out-fought. Their victories always seem earned by effort, ingenuity and skill.

Right from the start, Modesty was also a rare female lead character of the period who was intelligent, tough and decisive, on a par with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel. But whereas Steed generally had the upper hand in The Avengers, nobody is ever in any doubt that Modesty is the dominant partner in her relationship with Willie (and, indeed, with anyone and everyone else). O’Donnell had rapidly dropped her tendency to become weepy at the end of a “caper”. The only remaining charge of sexual stereotyping that could be levelled at the character is the authors' willingness to use show her using sex to her advantage, as in the occasional tactic she calls “the nailer” – going into combat topless to distract the enemy. But even that is handled with a matter-of-fact humour that is typical of the series.

Of the four stories in this volume, three follow the first template. In “The Reluctant Chaperon”, Modesty is looking after the teenaged daughter of a friend when they witness an attempted Mafia hit, as part of an attempt to take over organised crime on Malta. In “The Greenwood Maid”, Modesty and Willie agree to help an old associate recover the proceeds of a bank robbery so that it can be put into a charitable trust for aiding drug addicts (it’s hidden in a castle where a Robin Hood pageant is being staged – hence the first of the two anachronistic panels earlier). In “The Inca Trail”, Modesty encounters the children of the deposed President of a South American state while trekking across country to meet Willie. “Those About to Die” follows the second template, as a dying billionaire kidnaps various combat specialists and forces them at gunpoint to take part in gladiatorial games.

Neither “The Greenwood Maid” nor “Those About to Die” is prime Modesty: stories with costume gimmicks often suggested that O’Donnell was bored. But “The Reluctant Chaperon” and “The Inca Trail” both benefit from commentary on the lead characters by various callow young things, and “The Inca Trail” has a particularly neat climax involving crossing a ravine with no bridge.

When I moved to London in the late 1980s, I was finally able to start reading the strip on a daily basis. I formed something of a dislike for Romero’s art at the time. Although it told the stories clearly enough, his characters all looked like they would be more at home in a Barcelona disco in the 1970s than wherever the story was set in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

That’s hardly a complaint I can level here. These stories are set in the 1970s, after all, and Romero’s types look quite at home in stories set in Malta, an unnamed Mediterranean island and a country in South America. Reproduction is patchy: clear in most places, but sometimes prone to losing fine lines and blotchy spreading of thicker ones. I’m not sure why this should be the case, as Titan presumably has access to Peter O’Donnell’s collection of tear sheets. But since the strips were originally drawn to be printed by letterpress on newsprint, they are quite robust, and comprehensible even when poorly reproduced.

Peter O’Donnell contributes short introductions to each story. There is also a reprinted interview with him from 1973, which covers his early work in comics (did you know that he wrote the venerable Weary Willie and Tired Tim for Comic Cuts at one point?), his move into newspaper strips, and his writing techniques for Belinda, Garth and Tug Transom.

Overall, if you have any interest at all in thriller or contemporary adventure stories told in comic strip form, Modesty Blaise is pretty much indispensable. Pick any album. This one will do.

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