Blaise. Modesty Blaise.
Bond, Bourne, and Hunt, listen up. Yeah, you’re easy on the eyes, but move the heck over. Let Modesty show you how it’s really done. She’s not a mindless weapons of state power. She’s not an emblem of toxic masculinity. She’s not a cop in a tux. She’s her own person, makes her own decisions. She helps those who truly need it, guided by her stern moral code rather than the behest of shadowy government agencies.
Not too long ago, perusing the new graphic novel shelves at Forbidden Planet (a comic shop in NYC) I came across an arresting anomaly amidst the endlessly repeating parade of super heroes: an issue of Illustrator’s Quarterly dedicated to the five artists that spent time on the Modesty Blaise comic strip.
I had never heard of the strip, but just looking through the book there in the store, I was hooked. The art is gorgeous and sexy AF. Growing up, I loved Mission Impossible, Get Smart, and the Avengers (Steed and Peel, darling, not Cap and crew). So, naturally, I had to know more. Wikipedia and the NYPL came to the rescue.
While I may have been immediately engrossed by a heady combination of artistic skill and nostalgia, it didn’t take long to realize that Modesty is a little different than other luminaries of the secret agent genre—then or now. Her creator, Peter O’Donnell declined to use the term “feminist” preferring instead “individual” to define how he thought of her. Throughout her 40-year run, however, he avoids the usual toxicity of western individuality by balancing it with respect. She demonstrates again and again her respect for others’ individuality, friend and foe alike. And she’s a bad ass that commands that same respect for hers.
The strip is not without its absurdist escapism, questionable exoticism, and troubling depictions common to the genre and time. Like everything in our culture, it’s a mixed bag. Make of it what you will. To me, the good far outweighs the bad. And the bad should still be seen, taken in, reflected upon, and learned from. Modesty always managed to take things in stride, adapt, and grow. She expects no less of us.
I’ll leave you with the words of author Stef Penney, from her introduction to one of the reprint collections:
It’s not uncommon for comic strip characters to come from adversity, but there is something special about Modesty Blaise. Not only was she a lone child—the most vulnerable person imaginable—but a stateless orphan: without family, without nationality, without even a name. She is the ultimate Middle-Eastern refugee; the ultimate migrant. At the time of writing, as another refugee crisis builds in the Middle East, and nativism and alt-right politics are on the rise everywhere, a heroine like Modesty is more vital and relevant than ever.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
- Illustrator’s Quarterly Special #16 The Modesty Blaise Artists
- The collected comic strip reprints from Titan Books
- The Modesty Blaise novels by Peter O’Donnell
The world is too damn straight!
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