Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Most Interesting Woman in the World

A few months ago, I happened upon an obituary in the Sunday New York Times for Peter O'Donnell, 90, creator of the comic strip action hero Modesty Blaise. His comics were published in the The London Evening Standard for almost 40 years and syndicated in other newspapers worldwide. I've never read any of O'Donnell's comics or subsequent novels featuring Modesty, but was so taken by the Times' graceful tribute to him and his fictional heroine that I saved it and read it to my family. I just found it on my desk again today and re-read it.

Long before "La Femme Nikita" (which I love, by the way), Trinity from "The Matrix," and Angelina Jolie in any of her roles, there was Modesty Blaise. As imagined by O'Donnell, she was what the Times' writer Bruce Weber calls "a distaff answer to James Bond"--a voluptuous, stylish brunette with a mysterious past; a war orphan who had profited from a life of crime before retiring very young and very rich, and subsequently deciding to use her powers for good.

O'Donnell, who served in the British army and lived a pretty interesting life himself, said that his wartime experience was the inspiration for the Modesty Blaise character. In 1942 he was stationed in Northern Iran where he encountered a young girl, barefoot, in a tattered dress, a refugee probably from somewhere in the Balkans. He gathered that she had been on her own for some time; she appeared to be resourceful and self-possessed--"her own person," as O'Donnell put it. He and his men put out some tins of food for the little girl, so she could get them without coming too close. Then, Weber writes, quoting O'Donnell in a 1996 interview,

"...She washed the utensils in the stream, and brought them back to where we had put the tins of food, and indicated 'Were these for her?' We said yes, and she opened her bundle and put them in. She stood there for a few seconds, and then she gave us a smile, and you could have lit up a small village with that smile, and then she said something and walked off into the desert going south, and she was on her own. She walked like a little princess. I never forgot that child.... when I wanted a background for Modesty Blaise, I knew that child was the story."

I don't want to make more out of this than O'Donnell intended; Modesty Blaise is, after all, a fun, sexy superhero--she's entertaining. But I find it touching that this young girl in the desert made such an impression on him. O'Donnell couldn't right the wrongs that had been done to her, but he acknowledged her dignity and beauty and wrote for her a future as an empowered, heroic character. I don't really know how to make a poem out of this, but since I must try:

a girl dressed in rags--
orphaned, hungry, cold--becomes
a desert princess

of all the stories
ever told
there is only one story
and this is it: redemption

1 comment:

  1. fascinating story. I love the back story of who Modesty Blaise was, and who Mr. O'Donnell made her out to be, who knew? thank you for divulging. Comics are such an interesting sub-culture, I too strangely came across the obituary of another comic strip writer, Harvey Pekar, and became fascinated by his work, American Splendor. I asked a close friend of mine who loves to go to this world famous comic book store, Tate's (an hour a way, not worth my visit!) if she would pick me up some of his work the next time she went. A few days ago I received two cool books of his.
    Next time she goes I'm now going to have her look for Modesty Blaise if there are any collections! If so I will send you copies for sure!