Modesty Blaise is perhaps one of the English language’s greatest comic strips, running up there with other greats such as Prince Valiant and the like. Modesty Blaise was always a work of art that compelled readers adventure after adventure, as they followed their favorite femme fatale and her partner Willie throughout newspapers into exotic locations, duking it out with the bad guys, and saving the day against sometimes quite incredible odds. Titan Books has done a fantastic job presenting these little works in an affordable yet pristine way on high quality paper, as the art and writing pop off the page at you. Live Bait contains three Modesty Blaise tales: “Samantha and The Cherub,” “Milord,” and “Live Bait,” each one with stories feeling like they were pulled from the world of 1980s exploitation-cinema, but without being exploitative themselves.
“Samantha and The Cherub” is our fun biker movie of a comic strip. In it an organization is hired to kidnap a woman named Mrs. Wu in a plot to force her husband to leave the country, or she’ll be killed, all part of cold war politics trying to make international headlines at the time. They cross with the wrong group as Mrs. Wu helps out at Willie’s martial arts dojo on the East End. Some Hell’s Angels-esque bikers are hired as second hands in the robbery, but only succeed by the skin of their teeth and some smart disguises. Modesty and Willie decide to save the day, and their first place to go is to talk to the streetwise kid Samantha, who is in Willie’s martial arts class. By a twist of fate, Samantha’s older brother turns out to be Cherub, who was hired as part of the bikers to pull this off. All the pieces suddenly come together, and a rescue mission with little Samantha tagging along ensues. This story is fun. It has bikers, it has kung-fu, we get some heart as Samantha has a little girl crush on Willie, as well as Samantha reminding Modesty of herself when she was younger. Just a great story right here.
“Milord” is our jungle snuff film of a comic strip, and in fact that is what the plot is! On a trip through South America, Modesty comes across a dastardly plot where a man disguised as a priest has been taking young women from their villages to cities for better work and lives. Turns out they are really taken deeper into the jungle where they are forced to participate in snuff films, films where the women are really raped and murdered on film. In the meantime, a twist of fate brings us the return of Italian character Guido Biganzoli, who wishes to make newspaper headlines by hiring some guys to fake kidnap him and Modesty, so he can escape and write about his heroic adventure (he needs Modesty because “What’s a story without a beautiful woman?”). Things go bad when the kidnappers grab Willie and Guido’s girlfriend instead. They then get worse when the kidnappers are double crossed and the pair is sent off into the jungle to the snuff film racket. Willie goes along to bide some time to figure out how to save the women being held captive, as Modesty makes her way across the jungle to also save the day. The story ends where O’Donnell provides us with an interesting moral issue: Is it right that the women should kill their captors after all they’ve been put through? The results will certainly make readers think, as well as still divide those for and against such an action, but in a very Brechtian way, O’Donnell’s question makes the comic strip reach beyond just being a mere strip for entertainment and causes the reader to think, a hallmark of the man’s genius on Modesty Blaise.
The final story in the collection, “Live Bait,” provides us once again with a moral issue that will divide readers. In this tale, an old enemy of Modesty and her friend Rosina, from Modesty’s days working for The Network, kidnaps Rosina’s daughter for a crazy amount of ransom money. Modesty doesn’t believe they should pay the ransom money, that paying only causes more kidnappings, and that she should rescue the girl instead. The father obviously feels differently and is enraged that Modesty won’t help them go along and just pay. We then follow Modesty and Willie through Venice during carnival time, as they get all the pieces they need together, finally carrying out their rescue mission, where Modesty actually gets caught for once, with a handful of twists to ensue. Surely a classic story for the strip, packed with action, and once again fantastic writing by O’Donnell.
The art on each strip by Romero is fantastic as per usual given his track record on Modesty Blaise. I love his fight scenes, and his detail with the given location of Venice during carnival time in “Live Bait” gives us some really stellar designs by him. Paired with O’Donnell’s writing, as mentioned at the opening of this review, Modesty Blaise is transformed from mere strip into something a lot greater and worthy of high note and praise.
Modesty Blaise: Live Bait is out now from Titan Books.