Modesty Blomqvist

Personal – Modesty Blomqvist
I am a huge fan of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip and especially the original Jim Holdaway drawn era, which tragically ended all too soon. When a fellow Modesty Blaise fan had a big birthday, I seized my chance to do this image which I had been planning to do for close to six years. Nice to see that with all the digital work I'm doing, I can still hold a brush when it comes down to it. I thought it was fitting to pay respect to one of the biggest influences of my early career as an illustrator on the birthday of someone who appreciates it.

Modesty Blaise was a smash hit from the beginning. Why it was so popular is a very good question and a useful lesson even now. Most of the Modesty Blaise stories fall into the general "secret agent" genre. Either they help their good friend Tarrant of the British intelligence services or stumble upon criminal gangs or organisations terrorizing innocent people. Almost invariably Blaise and Garwin deal with the situations by themselves.

Modesty Blaise was one of the first if not the first female protagonist, who was an undisputed leader, physically equal or more capable than the men but also had a stern but agreeable personality. She was the "tough guy" but had plenty of room for human emotions. At her late twenties, she had been a refugee, risen to head an international crime organisation with her right hand man Willie Garwin and retired as independently wealthy.

Despite there being an extremely close relationship between Modesty and Willie, it was never sexual, not even in a throwaway mind control episode like we see in so many tv series today. They exhibit the utmost respect and trust towards each other but their relationship also supercedes any dalliances they might have, which are always temporary. Even Modesty's original nationality is kept a mystery. The British nationality she holds, is illegally bought. They are portrayed as the epitome of freedom, they only have the ties they choose to forge and are always free to make independent decisions. Despite being a truly 1960's concept, it's very appealing in our time.

Peter O' Donnell (1920 – 2010) wrote nearly a hundred Modesty Blaise stories in comic strip form between 1963 and 2001. These were long stories, most of them span well over a hundred strips. In addition, O'Donnell wrote 10 Modesty Blaise novels and two short story collections. 

There have been three feature film adaptations, all of which O'Donnell hated (with good reason).

The first appearance of Modesty Blaise in La Machine, art by Jim Holdaway

Jim Holdaway (1927 – 1970) was an absolute master of linework. His lines look like they were drawn at a breakneck speed with a careless disdain for neatness. And yet, they convey information clearly and with amazing depth. And they are so tight when they need to be. In my opinion, it is this alternation of constriction and release, which made him one of the greatest line artists ever to get involved in comics. He approached Modesty Blaise with a passion that the artists who took up Modesty after him could not match.
Modesty Blaise: The Gabriel Set-Up, art by Jim Holdaway

Holdaway illustrated the 19 first Modesty Blaise stories (plus a short primer story"In the Beginning" for the American audience). He died of a heart attack in his early forties, midway through drawing the 20th story arc "Warlords of Phoenix". The death was so sudden it took everyone by surprise. After a furious search, he was replaced by Enrique Badia Romero, who penned the majority of Modesty Blaise stories and is the artist most people associate with the series. Holdaway's two last strips in the middle of Warlords of Phoenix were drawn by both of them. You can find a comparison of the strips in one of the reprint albums by Titan Books.

Modesty Blaise pinup by Romero
Romero is a very capable artist in his own right, but never had the passion for the character Holdaway had. Romero is also well known for his own (co-)creation Axa, which is a newspaper strip about a postapocalyptic world and a topless heroine in search of love and a true man. To put it bluntly it is everything Modesty Blaise is not.

Sadly, the reprint books by Titan of the early Modesty Blaise strips are mostly out of print having been published nearly ten years ago, and the used copies are starting to fetch quite a price. But hopefully your local library might have some of them in decent shape because the print quality is excellent. Unlike the earlier reprints by Star Books, the Titan versions are made from original films.

These three albums are still available at the moment of writing (links lead to The Book Depository online bookstore):

Modesty Blaise: Black Pearl
Modesty Blaise: Bad Suki
Modesty Blaise: The Hell-Makers (partly illustrated by Romero)

Modesty Blaise on wikipedia