Modesty Blaise: Live Bait
by Peter O'Donnell & Eric Badia Romero (Titan, 2012)

In 1963, British writer Peter O'Donnell noticed that the world had gone James Bond crazy; England, especially, was all Bond, all the time. So, O'Donnell figured, there had to be room for a female James Bond, a sexy martial arts master who could kick ass with the best of men and was given to running around in skimpy clothing. And, why not, he thought, do it as a newspaper comic strip? Modesty Blaise was born. Beginning in the Evening Standard, the strip became extremely popular, so that books, a movie and a TV show followed. Still, despite all of its spinoffs, it was as a continuing strip that Modesty Blaise was best known; it ran until 2000.

Titan Books, which is making a name for itself as a wonderfully quirky publisher of pop-culture materials, has been reissuing the Modesty Blaise adventures in a series of books that reprint the strips. This collection, Live Bait, contains three complete stories that show the range of Modesty's adventures. In the first, "Samantha & the Cherub," Modesty's running mate and fellow spy, Willie Garvin, has been teaching a group of working-class British kids martial arts, when another volunteer at the club where Willie teaches is kidnapped. (Kidnapping is a favorite plot device, at least in the stories in this volume.) It turns out the snatched volunteer is the wife of an Iron Curtain diplomat who has defected to the West. If he does not re-defect, his wife will be killed. Modesty and Willie have to rescue her and, in order to do so, they call on Samantha, a 12-year-old Modesty Blaise in the making, and the local chapter of Hell's Angels.

"Milord" is about a master criminal who has been kidnapping women from rural South America. He forces them to participate in porn films and occasionally kills one or two in snuff films. The survivors are sold into slavery. Modesty and Willie have to rescue them. Interestingly enough, where "Samantha & the Cherub" is lighthearted and fun, "Milord" takes a turn for the dark, as the surviving kidnapped women take revenge on the criminals. Willie, who has a chance to stop them, does not; in fact, he deliberately prevents Modesty from stopping the slaughter the victims are now perpetrating on the bad guys. The story raises an interesting moral dilemma: a quick, emotionally satisfying eye for an eye vengeance or a more abstract justice?

O'Donnell wrote the stories and Eric Badia Romero illustrated them. Done in the black and white of newspaper strips, Modesty Blaise doesn't trade in the minimalist cartooning of current strips. Romero's art is lavish, lovingly detailed, and created a sense of flow and movement that is beautiful to see. Speaking of beautiful, Romero is in love with women's bodies. Modesty Blaise is loaded with bikini-clad women. If he can't find an organic way to work the women into the strip, a jail full of scantily clad kidnap victims, for example, Romero will set an exposition scene at a fashion show, so that models can stroll the runway in the barest of bikinis.

So, here's is what it adds up to: Modesty Blaise: Live Bait is filled with fun. It is amusing, suspenseful, well written and beautifully illustrated. If you're discovering these strips for the first time, then you'll be glad to know Titan has another dozen or so titles out there.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 April 2012

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