Modesty Blaise beguiles. When we first meet her, in her 1963 debut storyline, “La Machine”, she has already retired from a successful life of crime. Two secret service agents request her help, and as they review their dossier on her, the description arises that she has a ‘hint of Eurasian features’.
With her Breakfast at Tiffany’s hairdo, a Jane Russell figure, and a penchant for ditching her shirt, it would be tempting to dismiss Modesty Blaise as a simple pastiche of early 60s pop culture sex kittens added to a James Bond template.
But there are thought-provoking details in her early stories, such as that hint of a biracial background, that arouse curiosity. The other key detail to this line of thought lies in her origin story, both her real-world inspiration and the comic strip storyline, “In the Beginning”.
Writer Peter O’Donnell developed the idea of her character long before the Strip Cartoon Editor for the Express newspapers called in 1962, asking O’Donnell to create a new hero for a daily comic strip. The character grew from an experience O’Donnell had during WWII, a brief and poignant encounter with a girl in a refugee camp.
‘[A] small figure appeared wearing a thin sunbleached shirt that fell to just below her knees’, he writes in an essay included in The Gabriel Set-Up, the first volume of Titan Books’ ongoing reprints of Modesty Blaise comic strips.
O’Donnell and his soldiers give the girl some food, and he teaches her how to use the army-issue can opener. She’s wary at first, but eventually warms to them, and allows O’Donnell to approach closely enough to see that she wears a deadly weapon around her neck like a pendant: ‘[It was] a short piece of wood with a long nail bound tightly to it with thin wire…I felt chilled as I wondered what might have brought home to her the need for some way of defending herself’.
Years later, when he thought about the Express group’s request for comic strip, the memory of that child formed the basis to Modesty Blaise.
‘My character would have to have had a childhood of unrelenting struggle, in which she had been tested to the very core by danger, loneliness, fear and every kind of hardship, a child with a diamond hard will to survive’, he writes. ‘Of course, I had seen this very child 20 years before, and knew she was the perfect prototype for the character I would eventually call Modesty Blaise’.
O’Donnell also took inspiration from ancient history and myth, as Mike Paterson describes in his introduction to The Gabriel Set-Up:
‘Ditching the easy option of a one-dimensional helpless heroine, O’Donnell reached into historical mythology and took some classic precedents: Atlanta, the hunter of Calydon, who vowed to only marry a man who could beat her in a race; Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, possession of whose girdle was the 9th labour of Hercules; Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, who slaughtered 70,000 Romans in battle during her campaigns’, Paterson writes.
A form of the refugee camp story appears in Modesty Blaise’s origin story, “In the Beginning” (from 1966 but included in this volume). O’Donnell continues the young woman’s story out of the camp and across war-torn countrysides until she meets a wise old mentor. Eventually, her life of crime leads her to become the head of a criminal organization known as The Network. By the time we meet her in 1963, she’s apparently in her late 20s, and retired from The Network, but her underworld reputation remains.
Reading the early Modesty Blaise comic strips today, three other pop culture figures come to mind as possible influences, or at least spiritual sisters.
The most obvious antecedent to her story would be The Avengers, which began on BBC TV in 1961. They share a swingin’ sixties, British spy style, as well as an ass-kicking female lead.
However, Blaise’s template in this regard was not necessarily Emma Peel, who didn’t arrive on the series until 1965. Instead, the immediate precursor to Modesty Blaise could be Cathy Gale, played by the infinitely-cooler-named Honour Blackman, with her judo flips and leather catsuits, later duplicated by her replacement, Mrs. Peel.
But that might be too obvious a connection. The other two women that would seem to have a common bond with Blaise might not be so self-evident: Irma Vep and Tura Satana.
Irma Vep appears in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent masterpiece Les Vampires. She is the leader of a gang of ruthless criminals who rule Paris, and the ten-part serial that tells their tale includes severed heads, secret societies, double- and triple-crosses, and that’s only in the first half.
Along with her role as the head/muse of a nefarious and mysterious organization, Irma Vep shares with Modesty Blaise (and Honour Blackman, and Emma Peel) the uniform of a form-fitting black bodysuit when she’s on a mission.
There’s also a shared love of criminal gadgetry (by the 60s also influenced by James Bond). Of note, in Les Vampires, a pen that conceals a fast-acting poison seems to parallel a single-shot .22 calibre pen in the first Modesty Blaise story: between 1915 and 1963, a poison pen evolved into a pistol-pen.
Vep and Blaise are worldly-wise. Their stories are consistently aware of the class structures of their societies (witness Blaise’s sidekick Willie Garvin, who speaks with a rough Cockney accent in order to grate on the nerves of the stiff-upper-lipped, and then turns on a dime to converse with a waiter in eloquent French), and both women move freely among all social strata (see Vep’s ability to hide in plain sight depending on her surroundings: barroom singer, live-in chambermaid, bank clerk, to name a few).
Then there’s Tura Satana, most famous for her role as the viscous Varla in Russ Meyer’s 1965 classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Not only did Varla lead a gang of hot-rod riding female criminals, but she also knew her share of karate kicks, judo flips and spine-snapping martial arts maneuvers.
Of Tura Satana, Roger Ebert once wrote: ‘From Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi, to a Japanese-American internment camp, to a Chicago housing project, to street corner newsgirl, to Tura Satana, to Bourbon Street stripper, to discovery by silent star Harold Lloyd, to superstar of cult movies, to lover of Elvis, to dental receptionist, to icon of pop art, to grandmother of eight. The American Dream’.
Satana’s life story recalls Peter O’Donnell’s description of Blaise as a child of hardship, with a ‘diamond will to survive’.
Add Honour Blackman, Emma Peel, Tura Satana and Irma Vep (and also Maggie Cheung, who played herself attempting to portray Vep in the 1996 film Irma Vep) to ‘the crucial elements of sex, jeopardy, rescue and form-fitting catsuits’, as Mike Paterson described the comic strip. The result makes for a dream-cast to the long-rumored new movie, but it doesn’t quite answer the mystery of Modesty Blaise.
Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Thursday and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.
Modesty Blaise trailer
Les Vampires – The Severed Head
Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!