Reviewed by Annabel
When offered a review copy of Titan Books latest addition to their ongoing reprints of the Modesty Blaise cartoon strips series, I couldn’t say no, firstly as I’m trying to read more graphic novels this year, and secondly out of curiosity – for I remember seeing the black and white cartoon strips in the newspaper as a child.
For the uninitiated, Modesty Blaise began in 1963 as a cartoon strip in the London Evening Standard newspaper, and was widely syndicated. Peter O’Donnell wrote the stories and Jim Holdaway was the first illustrator, with Spanish artist Romero taking over for most of the rest of the strip’s run after Holdaway died in 1970. I was amazed to see that the it ran into the early 2000s – that’s over 10,000 daily strips building up into 99 storylines (and several print novels). Titan Books have been systematically reprinting the strips in large format softbacks.
Modesty Blaise, often wrongly referred to as a female James Bond, is not a secret agent – but she is someone you’d want on your side. She has a murky criminal past, which has made her independently rich although she is not yet thirty, and through her old network of contacts knows everyone who’s anyone – criminals and police alike, plus an awful lot of rich businessmen who now provide her bread and butter. She is exceptionally skilled in unarmed combat and has a keen mind. Together with her closest friend, but not lover, the Cockney Willie Garvin, they fix problems for their clients, typically putting themselves in danger every time.
Ripper Jax is the 27th book in the series, comprising four stories, numbers 82-85, each 126 strips long and originally published in 1995.
In the title story, Ripper Jax is a violent criminal and knife-expert who is holed up in a castle in the wilds of Ireland. He is a notorious womaniser who has charmed the teenaged daughter of a good friend of Modesty into his clutches – and is now holding her hostage, although the girl doesn’t realise it. Mr Haley, the girl’s father is a bookseller – and psychic – and Jax wants him to find the lost, hidden money from an armed robbery. Modesty and Willie will go in to rescue her, Modesty from the inside with Willie orchestrating events on the outside of the castle.
In the other stories, Modesty and Willie will get into trouble with a hit man while on holiday in New Zealand in The Maori Contract, get called in on a favour and betrayed again by a female assassin in Honeygun, and save a blind woman from the clutches of guerrillas in the South American jungle in Durango. I particularly enjoyed the first and final stories in this batch.
I came to Modesty Blaise with some preconceptions which were mostly shattered. I’d thought she was some kind of Mata Hari always using sex to honey trap her victims. She is very sexy – she is a dead ringer for Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida – raven hair, big smoky eyes, high cheekbones, accompanied by a figure to die for — and is apparently of Mediterranean origin. She’s very at home in her body and you get the feeling that she dresses for herself. Men adore her – and she adores them too having lovers aplenty, but women also love her – somehow she’s not a threat. She’s compassionate and motherly to the teenager in Ripper Jax and she treats Dinah and Consuela in Durango as equals, but she’s not afraid to use her feminine wiles on her opponents either. What a woman!
Turning to the strips themselves: Most of them have just three frames, a few just two. You have to remember they were originally published strip by strip, day by day. Each one has to tell a story in miniature, ending with a cliff-hanger, in the middle of action, or less often at a natural pause. They have to make you want to get the paper the next day to see what happens next. O’Donnell’s scripting is very clever in this respect – each strip is a mini-masterpiece of story-telling. For the most part they segue neatly on from each other with just occasional recaps to remind us where they left off before. The language is nicely formal – it’s nearly always Miss Blaise, Mr Garvin and so on too, very early 1960s which is the decade in which the strip stays put.
Reading these later Modesty Blaise stories was such fun that it made me want to go back to the beginning. I was sad to find out that most of the early Titan reprints are now themselves out of print, so, dear Titan Books – how about a reprint please, for all the new Modesty Blaise fans?
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and would now like to have the superpower of transforming into Modesty Blaise.
Peter O’Donnell and Enric Badia Romero, Modesty Blaise: Ripper Jax (Titan Books, 2016). 978-1783298587, 136 pp., softback.
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