Peter O’Donnell, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin

Posted by on May 11th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Some Further Adieu

Peter O’Donnell, writer of novels and plays and comic strips, died on May 3 at the age of 90. Of all the characters he created, O’Donnell was most celebrated — even, by some (me, for instance), revered — for Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin.

O’Donnell concocted Modesty and Willie as characters in a comic strip of stylish cloak-and-dagger intrigue for a London newspaper. The strip follows the clandestine adventures of the voluptuous and superbly athletic Modesty, a retired and fabulously wealthy erstwhile leader of an international crime network who now devotes her considerable talents for lethal undercover work to helping the British secret service, which she did with the able assistance of her comrade in arms, Willie Garvin.

Willie calls her “Princess,” and that, it turns out, is the consummate expression, for him, of their relationship. She calls him “love,” but that, for American readers, is misleading: They aren’t lovers. For readers in their native Britain, however, “love” here represents not fevered ardor but a kind of familial affection.

To me, Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin are a literary pair that ranks with Damon and Phintias. Or Roland and Oliver. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But Modesty and Willie are a greater literary achievement than these more celebrated duos: They are more fully rounded, more human. Their personalities have depth and nuance. They live. For a potboiler pair, that’s a notable feat. Although not a feat accomplished solely in their comic strip adventures. Modesty and Willie were also incarnated in 11 novels and two collections of short stories, and it is in these that their personalities were fully fleshed out.

Modesty and Willie were also incarnated in 11 novels and two collections of short stories where their personalities were more fully fleshed out than in the strip. In the early spring of 2001, the comic strip ended after almost 38 years, 10,183 individual daily strips. And O’Donnell had said, with the publication of the book The Cobra Trap in 1996, that he would write no more novels about Modesty Blaise. But that is scarcely the end of Modesty and Willie. Like any other literary creations, they will live on in the works that gave them life. The novels are still on shelves in bookstores, waiting to be purchased and read; and collections of the comic strip are also still available.

I first heard of Modesty Blaise in the mid-1960s, right about the time the movie starring Monica Vitti appeared, I suppose, which would make it 1966. By all accounts from Modesty fans, it was a terrible movie. O’Donnell said it gave him a nosebleed. Vitti, a blonde Italian actress, insisted upon remaining a blonde in the movie; Modesty has dark hair. And there was ample other silliness. Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide says this about the movie: “Director Joseph Losey ate watermelon, pickles, and ice cream, went to sleep, woke up, and made this adaptation of the comic strip about a sexy female spy.”

From the ballyhoo about the movie, I concluded that Modesty Blaise was a female James Bond. And when, subsequently, I heard about the comic strip, I assumed, from what I heard, that its main attraction was that Modesty was often nude. Like another notorious British comic strip, Jane.

In both of these notions, I was mistaken. The movie makers may have sought to capitalize on the popularity of the Sean Connery flicks by claiming Modesty was a female version of Ian Fleming’s 007. But Modesty Blaise is a much more complex and fascinating character than James Bond ever was.

As for the charge of nakedness — overwrought. In the strip, she is almost never naked. In the novels, she resorts occasionally to a ploy that she and Willie call “the nailer.” When she wants to gain a momentary advantage over a bunch of the villain’s henchmen, she takes all her clothes off and then suddenly appears before the bad guys. While they are rendered momentarily immobile in open-mouthed admiration of her undraped splendors, Modesty has time to knock them all cold with a few well-placed kicks or punches.

On the comics page, Modesty sometimes strips to bra and panties when she’s caught in a dangerous situation while attired in ordinary street clothes. But that doesn’t happen often. Usually, she goes into action deliberately, seeking out some dastardly villain she’s been alerted to. And for such forays, she dons a black jump suit that covers her from head to toe.

No, the attraction — what holds me enthralled still — about Modesty Blaise is neither nudity nor Bonded sex change. Instead, it is the ingenuity of O’Donnell’s plots — their inventiveness, their twists, the tenterhooks upon which O’Donnell suspends his readers — the intelligence of his stories and their devices, the novelty of his characterizations, and the transcendence of the partnership between Modesty and Willie, their romance without romance.

I own all the novels, but I haven’t read them all. I have deliberately put off reading the last couple that I bought because I know that after I read them, there will be no more freshly minted novels to read. I’ll have exhausted this rich vein of adventure stories. And I want to postpone that unhappy moment as long as I can. Perverse of me, I know. But love is about longing as well as consummation.

O’Donnell was born in Lewisham, South London, on April 11, 1920. His father, Bernard O’Donnell, was eventually chief crime correspondent of the Empire News, and young Peter sometimes encountered notorious underworld characters or their girlfriends sequestered in the family home, where his father was hiding them from rival journalists. One of his father’s big stories concerned the Rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson, the so-called “Prostitutes’ Padre,” who was subsequently unfrocked for consorting too freely with women of low character and was later eaten by a lion named Freddie at a seaside show.

Peter was educated at Catford Central School, and while still a student, he sold his first story (at the age of 16) to Scout, a magazine for young readers; Peter was paid one pound, ten shillings. Forthwith, he sold stories to The Strand, 20 Story Magazine and others. At 17, he left school and joined the Amalgamated Press (the forerunner of Fleetway Publications), then the largest periodical publisher in the world. He worked on children’s comics, learning the craft of scripting with efforts published in Butterfly, Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips.

Called into military service just before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, O’Donnell was posted with the Royal Signals to Northern Ireland. He married Constance Green in November 1940 but didn’t see her again for four years: in 1941, he was shipped off to the Middle East and subsequently to Italy and Greece.

After the war, he returned to Fleet Street, where he took a room above El Vino, a wine bar frequented by thirsty journalists, and he resumed writing comics, cartoons and pulp thrillers; he later estimated that in these years he was writing about 20,000 words a week. It was a hard-scrabble way to make a living. Once, when he asked an editor for guidelines on a story, he got the reply: “You’re supposed to be an author. **** off and auth.”

O’Donnell authed at miscellaneous enterprises until 1953 when an Amalgamated editor recommended O’Donnell as a substitute writer for a newspaper comic strip called Belinda. While he was doing that, he was invited to take over writing Garth, a science-fantasy strip that had slipped in popularity. O’Donnell revived it, and soon after starting on it, he was also doing Tug Transom, a strip about the skipper of a tramp steamer and his crew. During the 1950s, he also wrote a couple of other more humorous strips — For Better or Worse (about a married couple, Jack and Jill) and Eve (another Jane) — and short stories for women’s magazines.

Then at the end of 1956, the Daily Mirror lost the artist-writer of one of its most popular strips, Romeo Brown. In England, newspaper strips are produced for individual newspapers, not syndicates; popular strips may be circulated to “provincial papers” by the London papers that own them, but not always. Many strips appear only in their “home” newspapers where they were born. I don’t know if Romeo Brown appeared anywhere except in the Daily Mirror, but when the Daily Sketch lured Alfred Mazure (“Maz”) away, the Mirror needed someone to write Romeo Brown and someone to draw it. O’Donnell was invited to write it, and to draw it, the Mirror hired the man O’Donnell would thereafter always refer to as “the great Jim Holdaway,” the artist who would, later, give Modesty Blaise her glamorous appearance.

Romeo Brown was a blundering comical detective out of P.G. Wodehouse, but the strip’s “main idea,” O’Donnell said, “was to get girls’ clothes off in the nicest possible way.” Later, O’Donnell learned that Holdaway was plunged into despair when he found out what Romeo Brown was about. “He went home and said to his wife, ‘I can’t do this — I can’t draw girls.’ He had been drawing westerns for a long time and thought that he could draw only cowboys and horses!”

It soon developed, however, that Holdaway could draw pretty girls very well. Sexy, beautiful girls. Well enough that when O’Donnell invented Modesty Blaise — a beautiful, sexy heroine — he wanted Holdaway to draw her. Initially, the publishing newspaper tried another artist, but that individual “totally misunderstood” the character. “It was a disaster,” O’Donnell said. He promptly recommended Holdaway, and Modesty was, forthwith, given visual vitality.

Before Modesty, O’Donnell tried his hand at James Bond, scripting a comic-strip version of Dr. No for the Daily Express in 1960. Then in 1962, O’Donnell, by now an experienced writer of adventure strips, was invited by an editor at the Express to create a new comic-strip character — a female version of Garth, who would be as good at combat as any man without losing her femininity. “A super woman who could have the kind of adventure the big, super male heroes had been having all this time — that was the beginning,” O’Donnell said.

“You let these things simmer,” he went on. “You don’t consciously think about them very often. But gradually the yeast seems to work, and a character emerges. I would say that until you actually start to write the characters — to put dialogue in the mouth and to activate the strings of the [puppet] — they don’t come to life. Not for me at any rate. I can only get so far in thinking about a character, and then I’ve got to start working them out — writing pages and pages of dialogue and action just to get the blood flowing through the veins — and then they’ll begin to take on life for themselves and sometimes surprise me with what they say or do.”

Reportedly, it took O’Donnell nine months of painstaking work to devise Modesty Blaise, a combination of beauty, daring and feral instinct. The name of his heroine came to him when he mistyped “modestly” one day; Blaise was taken from Merlin’s tutor. Willie Garvin was inspired by a photograph O’Donnell had seen of a relatively unknown actor at the time: Michael Caine.

In imagining such a “super woman” as Modesty, O’Donnell had to give her a background, a history, that would make her plausible. “I don’t think you could take a girl from behind a counter in a shop and turn her into a Modesty Blaise. It had to be born in the blood and the bone.” He remembered, then, an incident from his army career. As he has told it frequently, he was with a mobile radio detachment in northern Persia in 1942, eating his dinner out of a mess kit beside a small stream when “this child suddenly appeared. She was alone, she was barefoot, she wore a rag of a dress, she had all her belongings tied up in a blanket on her head, and she had a cord around her neck with something hanging on it. She sat down at some distance away, on the other side of the stream, and started gnawing on something she removed from her bundle.”

O’Donnell and his comrades offered the girl food, and she finally took some, warily. O’Donnell saw that the object on the cord around her neck was a piece of wood with a long nail lashed to it—”a weapon, which she obviously needed.”

O’Donnell “surmised that she was a refugee from somewhere in the Balkans, and she had been on her own for some time because she was unfazed, she was her own person, this little kid,” and after eating from the mess kit she’d been given, she washed the utensils in the stream, using sand to scour them.

“She stood there for a few seconds,” he continued, “and then she gave us a smile, and you could have lit up a small village with that smile, and then she said something and walked off into the desert, going 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 the story.”

But Modesty is an extremely knowledgeable and sophisticated woman of the world, and for that aspect of her character, O’Donnell put the refugee girl in the company of an old man, a Hungarian professor, who educated the girl  and was protected by her. After he died, Modesty was 16 or 17, and she heard about a casino in Tangier and went there to work. There, presumably, she acquired some social polish and learned much about the shadowy underworld, and when her boss was killed, she took over his operation, eventually forming an international criminal organization known as the Network. The Network specialized in theft. Modesty, an orphan who had survived a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence through the sheer ferocity of her determination, refused to deal in vice or drugs: she loathed human degradation and those who dealt in it.

“Once Modesty had fully emerged,” O’Donnell said, “the totality of Willie Garvin followed thirty seconds later. He is an essential part of her.”

When Modesty first saw Willie Garvin, he was a gutter-bred, bitter, self-hating rough-neck hoodlum. But she saw in him not only prodigious physical abilities, but impressive mental prowess and, presumably, a kind of innate stalwartness. She rescued him from his thug’s lowlife and gave him the opportunity to make something of himself. And in six months, a new Willie Garvin emerged — a man of cheerful confidence and sharp intelligence with all his former criminal skills enhanced by his knowledge that someone believed in him — Modesty. On the day they met, when Modesty bought him out of jail, she seemed a “Princess” to Willie; and he has called her “Princess” ever since.

Through the six years they worked together in the Network, “they schemed, fought, bled, tended each other’s hurts,” and, in effect, became halves of a single personality, so attuned that each knew what the other was thinking and would do under any circumstance. And then, having piled up a small fortune apiece, they retired. Modesty split up the Network among her lieutenants and bought a penthouse in London; Willie took possession of an old-world pub by the River Thames. But they were not content with their new humdrum existence, and so when Sir Gerald Tarrant of British Intelligence needed some unorthodox help in an enterprise that was, for him, illegal, he turned to Modesty and Willie. They helped Tarrant on that occasion and liked the work well enough to take other assignments as they cropped up. And those make up the Modesty Blaise oeuvre of Peter O’Donnell.

At the last minute, the Daily Express, which fancied itself as a family newspaper, balked at publishing the adventures of an erstwhile underworld character. But the London Evening Standard had better sense (“and fewer qualms,” reported the Telegraph in its O’Donnell obit): Modesty Blaise began in the Standard on May 13, 1963,

The Modesty Blaise novels began with the Losey movie. Initially, the idea was to promote the movie, and O’Donnell simply adapted the screenplay he’d written. But the final screenplay was re-written several times, leaving only one line from O’Donnell’s script; so the first novel, Modesty Blaise (1965), is no longer anything like the film. (The line that survived —”Have you ever wondered about Mr. Fothergill?” — posed a question that O’Donnell later answered in a two-act play, performed in the provinces in 1974 as Murder Most Logical and then in London’s tony West End as Mr. Fothergill’s Murder.)

O’Donnell found more satisfaction in writing the novels. In writing the strip, he produced crudely drawn thumbnails of the panels so he would know how much space the words were taking — and, conversely, that sufficient room remained for the artwork. But the novels were solo performances with the writer in complete control. Moreover, in a novel, he said, “there’s elbow room to give more nuances of feeling and to say what’s going on inside your characters.”

The novels also more fully explain the relationship between Modesty and Willie, supplying an answer to the question O’Donnell has been plagued with more than any other.

From Sabre-tooth: “Modesty … by some strange magic had stripped away the veneer and liberated Willie Garvin from the gnawing demons who rode on his back. For this liberation, the new Willie Garvin had made himself — not her slave, for she would not allow that, but her eternally faithful follower. And though she had raised him up to become her right arm, he still sat at her feet. And there was no loss of masculinity in this …. Willie Garvin was wholly convinced that sitting at Modesty’s feet set him head and shoulders above any man alive — even those few who had known the gifts of her splendid body.” To suggest, as some did, that there was something sexual between them embarrassed Willie “as a devout believer might be embarrassed by a friend’s unwitting sacrilege.”

Said O’Donnell: “It’s a relationship women understand better than men.” 

By 1973, Modesty Blaise was published in 76 newspapers in 35 countries. The strip appeared in the U.S. in 30-40 papers at the time the Losey movie ran. All but the Detroit Free Press soon dropped the strip, saying the stories ran too long, 16-17 weeks. U.S. papers wanted O’Donnell to cut back to 12 weeks, but he refused. To do so, he said, would cut the meat out. “You’ll end up with no depth of character, no humor, none of the fleshing out and asides that, to my mind, are vital parts of the success of the Modesty Blaise/Willie Garvin setup.”

O’Donnell and Holdaway met once a week when the artist delivered the week’s worth of strips to the writer at his Fleet Street office. O’Donnell would look over the strips, and if “amendments” were needed, Holdaway would make them. And then they would deliver the completed batch across the street to the Standard offices. Writing later of these encounters, O’Donnell said he never knew quite what to expect on the day Holdaway was to appear.

“Sometimes the door would open an inch, and a voice would order me to throw out my gun and come out with my hands up. Sometimes he was the gas-meter man with a falsetto voice. Sometimes his hat would be thrown in, and sometimes the first I knew of his arrival was when clouds of cigarette smoke would come wafting through my old-fashioned office letter-box.”

They worked well together, O’Donnell believed. “We enjoyed and respected each other’s contribution and worked together in the greatest harmony.” Then in 1970, in the midst of their 18th Modesty story together, the great Jim Holdaway died. Struck down by a wholly unexpected heart attack at the youthful age of 43. Fifteen years after Holdaway’s death, O’Donnell would write: “Jim Holdaway was a small man with a gentle manner, an immense talent, and a lovely sense of humor. I still miss him.”

The Standard editors held try-outs for a replacement, and they and O’Donnell finally settled on a Spaniard, Enrique Badia-Romero. Thereafter, the production of the strip was conducted mostly by mail, which made a detour at the Standard offices for O’Donnell’s scripts to be translated into Spanish. Romero left Modesty in 1978 to concentrate on a strip of his own, Axa. He returned in the fall of 1986 and continued to draw the strip for the rest of its run. During his sabbatical, Modesty was drawn briefly by John Burns, then Pat Wright, and, finally, Neville Colvin from late 1980 until Romero’s return, a total of 15 stories. Colvin’s work seemed to O’Donnell to be closer to Holdaway’s than any of the other successors; and I agree, although he was closer at the beginning than at the end of his tour.

All 95 of the Modesty Blaise stories (and the 12 back-story strips about Modesty’s refugee life) have been reprinted in one place or another. Titan Books in England published 23 stories in eight 9×11” paperbacks which present the highest quality reprints, nearly pristine reproduction of every line no matter how fragile. Ken Pierce of Illinois published another 21 stories (only three of which duplicate Titan’s) in eight 7×10” paperbacks. The quality here, too, is virtually perfect but the strips are smaller than in the Titan volumes. All of Holdaway’s work can be found in either Titan or Pierce. The rest of the canon has been published by Comics Revue, sometimes in special Modesty Blaise issues that contain whole stories, sometimes serialized in the regular monthly magazine. The quality of reproduction here, however, is very uneven — due, doubtless, to the source material, which, apparently, is not always printer’s proofs. (Subscriptions are $45 for 12 monthly issues from Manuscript Press, P.O. Box 336, Mountain Home, TN 37684.)

By all report, O’Donnell was a courteous man, “with pleasant old-fashioned attitudes and manners,” according to the Telegraph’s obit. In addition to comic strips, he wrote romances under the pseudonym “Madeline Brent,” the initials paying homage to Modesty Blaise. He also wrote a popular serial for the BBC, “Take a Pair of Private Eyes” (1966), and a sequel to the movie “She,” entitled “The Vengeance of She” (1968). In retirement, O’Donnell lived in Kent and Malta; in his last years, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by his wife Constance and two daughters, Jill and Janet.

Modesty Blaise was one of the last great adventure strips, and it is arguably the most literate adventure strip ever. And the novels are better than the strip. The books have an advantage over newspapers’ serial mode: their emotional content is cumulative not diffused over intervening days and therefore builds toward greater impact. In the last of the books, the short story collection The Cobra Trap, O’Donnell arranged the retirement of his dauntless pair. They die. They die gracefully, in battle, as befits such legendary soldiers of fortune. O’Donnell brings down the curtain with his usual finesse, easing Willie into the afterlife on the last page of the title story. This tale takes place 20 years “in the future,” so Modesty and Willie are in their 50s. In the final strip story, “The Zombie,” they are still in their 30s and have 20 more years of exploits before them.

At the end of the last strip adventure, Modesty announces that she is tired of villains and secret service work and wants to do something “crazy — just for fun. We’ll take a little break, Willie love,” she says, “just you and me.”

Says he: “Best bit of all, Princess.” And they sail off in a yacht.

The strip ended April 11, 2001. It was O’Donnell’s 82nd birthday.

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