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September 12, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

The incredible Modesty Blaise

Modesty Blaise Until Modesty Blaise came along, female characters in the comic strips tended to be wimps, vamps or noodle-heads. There were the endlessly weeping heroines of such strips as The Heart of Juliet Jones or the sexy-ridiculous variety of Betty Boop. There were the Sheenas of the Jungle and the hapless Jane, who always managed to lose all her clothes in front of an audience of delighted men by the final frame of each day's strip (literally!)

A few characters were more robust. There were the career girls like Brenda Starr (a journalist-detective), as well as super-heroines like Wonder Woman, the Amazon with her magic lasso and Supergirl, Superman's blonde and petite cousin from the doomed planet, Kyrpton. In the heyday of the crime-fighters, there were any number of curvaceous companions for the gorgeously muscled male vigilantes, a Batgirl for every Batman.

Then there are the long-suffering wives like Flo of Andy Capp, the battle-axe wives like Maggie of Bringing Up Father and the cute-smart wives like Blondie of Blondie. There are little girl heroines like Li'l Orphan Anie and female fall-gals like Daisy Mae of Li'l Abner. There are female companions like Minnie Mouse for Mickey, Daisy Duck for Donald and eternal girlfriends like Popeye's Olive Oyl. The Phantom has his dark-haired Diane Parker, Mandrake has Princess Narda, Tarzan has Jane. But no one, anywhere, has had quite the combination of assets, personality and sheer originality as Modesty Blaise.

Recently, while compiling the cuttings I've made of the strip over the years, I found that I had 25 complete stories! She's been my role model since I first met her in 1965, when I was 12 (alas, all we share is hair-colour!). Her creator, Peter O'Donnel (who also created Garth), took two years to define her character. She was launched in 1963. Modesty was an orphan, Eurasian, grew up rough in refugee camps, became the leader of a crime-syndicate, made a fortune by her early 20s and retired from crime.

When we meet her, she and her companion Willie Garvin have agreed to work occasionally as unofficial agents for the British secret service. Forever 26, Modesty's physique is marvellous and her poise, unflappable. Aside from being formidable at judo and karate, she can also perform emergency surgeries, make omelettes, carve emeralds, go hang-gliding, cure leather, weave baskets -- in short, perform any task, physical or mental, with absolute and stunning competence.

Modesty Blaise None of this, however, is what makes her really special. There are countless female characters with magical abilities and superhuman strength. What sets Modesty part is her personal dignity and her total immunity to conventional romance. She and Willie, though they function with the efficiency of a pair of right and left hands, are not lovers. In fact, they are often at pains to explain that their affection and mutual dependence precludes any sexual entanglement. Both of them, separately and variously, have romantic encounters. But these detours never affect their own equation in any slightest way. There is, in the perfect balance of their caring for one another and their lack of possessive jealousy, something quite sublime.

Though Modesty herself never claims seniority in the relationship, Willie acknowledges that she is the one who calls his shots. He does this with remarkable elan, never losing one hair of his masculinity, never minding nor resenting it. He often suffers anxieties on Modesty's behalf, without ever condescending to her.

And she, on her part, never succumbs to the knotty situations she finds herself in: She can knock herself unconscious when she has to, but she doesn't permit herself the luxury of despair. If she is threatened with humiliation or rape, her response is to shrug it away as just another distraction. Though she is obviously and supremely attractive, she doesn't use her body to falsely entice a man, except when she feels that, by seducing a villain, she can achieve something positive. For instance, in Plato's Republic, she distracts the attention of Plato from the young Melinda who was his original target.

She can sometimes have sex in a coolly detached fashion, to help a friend get over a trauma for instance, with no loss or discomfort to herself. Though we see her in her trade-mark black bra atleast once in every episode, she always maintains her decorum. We neither witness her whinnying in the throes of passion nor sobbing hysterically in fear or pain. She is scrupulously fair in all her dealings, even with villains. And she is, in her own words, "...a compulsive payer of debts."

Her only vices, so far as I can see, are wearing make-up and smoking. But she's only being true to her era, the 1960s. In the '90s, I have no doubt, she'd clip her nails, sip mineral water and be fighting the multinationals instead of the Russians.

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Manjula Padmanabhan