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The Rules of Attraction

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The Look of Love: The Rise and Fall of the Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip, 1946-1970

Madame X: Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway's Modesty Blaise

La Machine 1963

Modesty leaps into action on the 4th day of the strip, May 1963.  Even this early, her manner and martial arts prowess would not have been completely unknown to a British audience, as in many respects the strip was following emerging conventions of the Mod Espionage thriller.  The identity of her dispatched suitor--a preening US Cereal Magnate--and the way she digs her heels into his neck in the next daily display the mocking of post-war American Pop Culture and the latent S and M influence the genre included.  To see a portion of this same sequence done by another artist, see "Modesty Blaise: The Lost Characters of Frank Hampson" website.  

Under Western Eyes

Mind of Mrs Drake 1965In 1942, when a 22 year old British Army sergeant named Peter O'Donnell prepped for noon meal in the rough camp at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains in north Persia, he noticed a 12 year old girl suddenly appear like a frightened animal, her wariness overcome by the thought of food.  

O'Donnell knew refugees were on the move in every corner of the Balkans, as were the Germans, and when he was able to get close enough to offer her something to eat--noticing she spoke a language he couldn't recognize other than to know it wasn't Arabic--close enough to her to show he meant no harm, she smiled and that radiant smile, her dignity, her pride, her resiliency, has stayed with O'Donnell ever since.

Peter O'Donnell, circa 1960After the War, O'Donnell resumed the writing career he had just begun before he had entered the service, he had first appeared in print in 1937, but it was a difficult time as England was in the grip of tremendous shortages, including a rationing of paper that didn't lift until 1950.  He did a little bit of everything--magazines, trades, children's, copywriting, until he drifted over to the comic industry which was finally getting back on its feet.  In 1953 he began scripting Garth, a fantasy strip about a giant with abnormal strength begun by Steve Dowling in 1943 for the Daily Mirror.  By 1956, still on Garth, O'Donnell branched out into humor, teaming with a former advertising illustrator named Jim Holdaway on a glamour girl title named after its male lead, Romeo Brown.  When Brown approached the end of its run in 1962, the demise due to changing tastes in management rather than a drop in quality, the strip editor for Beaverbrook Newspapers asked O'Donnell to think up a spy strip.

Red Gryphon 1969As he mulled over what this strip would be, O'Donnell's mind returned to that feral child he had encountered for those few minutes almost 20 years earlier.  

He knew he had to have a plausible story for the hero he had in mind to create,  a female to do "all the things men were doing."  In an interview conducted in the mid 90s, O'Donnell said, " . . .But, for me she had to be plausible, so I had to give her the kind of background that would make her plausible. I don't think you could take a girl from behind a ...I don't know...a shop counter for example and turn her into a Modesty Blaise, it had to be born in the blood and the bone."

On Monday, May 13th 1963, Modesty Blaise appeared in the London Evening Standard with Jim Holdaway as the artist.  As introduction, what it meant to do a "spy strip" then, let's look at two other English Pop Culture icons which had an effect on Modesty: James Bond and The Avengers.

La Machine 1963

La Machine

Modesty Blaise hit the ground running.  Although its creative team continued to develop the style over their seven years together, the first sequence is a stunning debut nevertheless, in particular highlighting that Jim Holdaway could hold his own against the highest standard of photo-strips and other adventure strip artists. (Compare the stark high contrast, exacting detail here with the McLusky below.  Look at the last panel, above right, where the black-on-black treatment reminds one of Coles Phillips' celebrated fadeaway technique or what Raymond was doing on Rip Kirby.)  Such post-case "womanly" behavior by Modesty would soon disappear. 

Universal Export

Top, Fleming's Bond. Bottom, McLusky's version 1957Bondmania, the worldwide explosion of interest in Ian Fleming's spy, did not happen until after the release of the third film Goldfinger in the fall of 1964.  Goldfinger is often called the first "event" film, as upon its release, long lines of eager fans wrapped around theaters and some venues showed the film 24 hours a day.

But that's not the way it started. When Fleming published Casino Royale in 1953 with an initial print run of just 4,750 copies, James Bond was just one of a long line of British spy heroes and tales, going back, among others, to Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, "Sapper," to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, and Eric Ambler.  Bond was a moderate success, but not yet the phenomenon it would one day become.

What changed?  In 1957 Fleming was approached about adapting the novels into a comic strip and he resisted, feeling the mass audience form cheapened his work.  Eventually he relented.  Fleming commissioned an artist to provide his concept for the hero, as per the books, but its rejection as being too "pre-War" shows how Bond was becoming a symbol of the revitalized Britain of the upcoming 60s, not just nostalgia for the old empire. (It also shows how Fleming's creation was slipping away from him.) The strip began in July 1958 and followed the publishing order of the novels.  It was suspended in 1962 for a time because the source novels had been depleted.  When the strip returned with "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" in 1964, the story ran for 10 months.  

Despite Fleming's misgivings, the strip is generally acknowledged to be partly responsible for the runaway popularity of Bond and that led to the production of the first movie, Dr. No in 1962.  (The introduction of the Pan paperbacks in '55 and the concurrent serialization of From Russia With Love in  '58 are also commonly cited as factors. The often cited endorsement of JFK is probably exaggerated.  One analysis notes that total number of copies sold in the US remained the same before and after the plug by the President.)

The strips drawn by John McLusky (and written usually by Henry Gammidge) are faithful adaptations of the books, cited by fans and scholars alike as functioning as initial storyboards for the first cycle of films Dr. No (the comic script adapted by O'Donnell), From Russia With Love (1963), and Goldfinger. Those early films still bore a resemblance to the novels and the filmmakers strove to have "comic strip" techniques of cutting and shot making to create a fast narrative pace.

McLusky's depiction of Bond may have had an influence on selecting Sean Connery for the role, as many have noted the physical resemblance Connery had with the comic strip version.  This resemblance was further emphasized once the films and strip were running together in the marketplace. (According to Anthony Hearn, Bond's first adapter, Fleming instructed McLusky to use British golfer Sir Henry Cotton as the model in the beginning.)   

Jane 1951 by Mike Hubbard

Bond and Vesper, Casino Royale, 1958

Tatiana, Rosa Kelb and Red Grant, From Russia With Love

Top, the earliest mention of Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby style influencing a British cartoonist was former assistant Mike Hubbard's 1949-1959 realistic take on Jane, a popular girl strip first drawn in a cartoon manner by Norman Pett since 1932. (O'Donnell and Holdaway would collaborate on their own girl strip in the late 50s.) Rip was carried by the Daily Mail almost from its inception in 1946, and according to David Roach in CBA #8, its arrival "galvanized and created an adventure strip tradition in a country that simply did not have one." John McLusky's uneven but enormously popular work on James Bond  suffered from a typical  photo-strip dilemma, the clash between the fictive characters and the photo-referenced supporting cast and milieu.  See Red Grant's amazing The Art of James Bond or Dave Karlen's License to Thrill: The Newspaper strips of James Bond.  McLusky's son sells James Bond comic strip original art via the web.  

Goldfinger (adapted by O'Donnell)

Bond and Tilly Soames, Goldfinger

Kinky Boots

John Steed and Cathy Gale 1963O'Donnell has said his employers requested in 1962 a spy strip and, "knowing all about them," he thought the time had come to have a strong female lead character.  Exactly when in 1962 makes a difference, if credit for being the first matters to him. He recalled it was "over a year" of tinkering before the strip started in May 1963, putting its inception sometime in the spring of '62. That matters because the evening of September 9 1962, on the revamped Avengers TV show, Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale made her first appearance and the 20th Century female hero would never be the same.  (She had been hired in June and the first episode was completed in July.  Blackman would leave the show in 1964 to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.)  

When seen that fall, the 36 year old actress was an immediate sensation.  The producers said she had been modeled on a news story about a tough young woman in Africa, or later, as a cross between anthropologist Margaret Mead and photographer Margaret Bourke-White.  She affected a sleek, modern black leather look which brought the word "kinky" into the national vocabulary. (Fashion spreads linking Mod dress, Sex, and High English Espionage had appeared as early as 1960.)  Cathy handled miscreants with judo skills previously seen only employed by men.  And her character showed a "masculine" strength of personality, a steely resolve and resourcefulness, not altogether surprising since the part had been originally written to be played by a male actor. When later shows lost some of that flavor because the writers fell back to standard female characterization, Blackman fought to restore the "Gale Force" of before.   

How much O'Donnell and Holdaway were influenced by Blackman as Gale is open to speculation, but the comparison serves as a useful point of reference anyway.  Even if the duo had been completely unaware of the show, that two such strong female characters had developed independently of each other is interesting to ponder. Modesty first appeared at the height of public fascination with Gale and could be seen as Gale with opposite polarity. Since Gale was blonde who wore her hair down, Modesty had upswept dark hair.  Gale was conventionally pretty with a full face. Modesty was unconventionally attractive, with a distinctive angular face, tall and big boned as well. Gale had a string of degrees, Modesty had survived on the streets of the underworld. Gale was an talented amateur, Modesty the epitome of a professional. And so on, and so on.

And of course, there was the male partner, Steed for Gale and Willie Garvin for Modesty.  The John Steed of these two seasons (62-63; 63-64) is different from the Steed who would soon trade sly witticisms with the much younger Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel. Certainly there's an attraction between Gale and Steed, but there's also a coldness, a distrust that floats between them. These early shows are more serious than the romp most Americans remember when Rigg took over. Modesty takes great pains to never show any sexual attraction between Modesty and Willie, but the depth and loyalty of their relationship goes beyond even that of intense lovers.

The first appearance shows the different approach. Blackman's first, "Mr. Teddy Bear," and Modesty's first, "La Machine," have the same plot: the female negotiates a contract for the murder of her male partner, which then backfires badly.  In The Avengers, Gale chides Steed at the story's end for keeping her in the dark throughout the story and putting her life at risk.  In the comic strip, Willie and Modesty have so much shared history, all their actions and thoughts are dictated by the knowledge of how one partner will react and they behave accordingly. Modesty shows no surprise when Willie appears at the moment of decision.

Steed and Gale Newspaper Strip 1963 "Quest for a Queen"

Avengers color strip, Diana Newspaper for Girls, 1965

Gold Key 1968

The Avengers inspired a whole host of comic versions but only one newspaper strip proper, left, which was also the sole depiction of the brief Steed-Gale partnership.  With its scratchy inking, high polish, and fidelity to the photo reference, the limited run strip (1963-4)  appears to be done by an artist(s) of the "Spanish School," then quite visible in British Fleetway Romance comics and soon to cross overseas to spearhead the foreign Warren Horror Era.  (I have learned since it was done by one of the most well known of the Spainards, Jose Gonzalez of Vampirella fame.) David Roach, the man behind the CBA articles on the Spainards, has identified the illustrator of the color Diana series, middle, as Emilio Frejo assisted by Juan Gonzalez Alacrejo.  The Gold Key issue, right,  contained 2 reprints from a TV anthology issued in England. See The Illustrated Avengers, an extremely detailed site regarding the Avengers Comic variants, the source for the images used here and now part of The Avengers Forever Virtual Encyclopedia.

La MachineShe  What can be distilled between the two, Gale and Modesty, was the impact of the female hero on the public, a lineage that can still be seen today.  Modesty Blaise is unique in the attractiveness of the female wasn't just physical.  In fact, although her figure was standard issue for idealized females, her looks were like no other woman in comics, a risky choice for mass entertainment meant for all ages like a newspaper strip. She was also not a female Bond, whatever that meant.

And it didn't matter. As had The Avengers, Modesty Blaise made Smart sexy, made Strong women sexy, and that was truly revolutionary. 




Modesty 1: Madame X

Modesty 2: Romeo, Romeo

Modesty 3: Page 3

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