Friday, December 19, 2008

Modesty Blaise and graphic storytelling

This one's from back in the days when men were men, women were lethal weapons, and graphic novels were comics.

I'd written about the first Modesty Blaise novel and the godawful 1966 movie, but Yellowstone Booty was my first experience with Modesty's original medium. I already knew about Modesty's platonic relationship with sidekick Willie Garvin and about her beauty, her physical prowess, her ingenuity, and her skill with odd weapons, so I paid special attention in these stories, collected from the "Modesty Blaise" daily comic strip, to author Peter O'Donnell's technique: How did he sustain a longish narrative when he had to tell his story in tiny, daily-comics-size chunks?

Here are lines or dialogue exchanges with which O'Donnell ended some of the 126 installments of the story "Idaho George":


"So where's the sting? Who gets conned?" / "That comes later, honey ..."

"Holy bloody smoke ...! The crazy old biddy means it!"

"Get back! No — !"



Something is always happening, in other words, and that's the strip's lesson in storytelling: Always leave the reader wondering what will happen next.
Back when I read the novel Modesty Blaise, whose publication followed the comic strip's inception by two years, I wondered how daily newspapers had got around the occasional nudity in the book and some of its sequels. The answer is that they didn't — except in America, of course.

Yellowstone Booty, a three-story collection that contains "Idaho George," also includes a portfolio of Modesty Blaise art by John Burns, one of several artists who drew the strip over the years. Three of the drawings include a topless Modesty.

Yet a Wikipedia article on Modesty Blaise says that "The strip's circulation in the United States was erratic, in part because of the occasional nude scenes, which were much less acceptable in the U.S. than elsewhere, resulting in a censored version of the strip being circulated."

One can only speculate what depravity Americans would have got up to had they been permitted to see a naked cartoon breast from time to time.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I have never read a comic strip in my life and think I have missed something important. I did read Archie comics--what a mistaken choice if you were only going to read one.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The book Travolta was reading on the toilet when Bruce Willis Uzied him? ... Yeah thats right.

Oh and later on I think it's Travolta wearing one of your beloved UCSC Banana Slugs T shirts

December 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti: Interesting that someone in North America should avoid comic strips her whole life. Even though most of the sitcom and zany-animal strips in daily papers these days suck, I still look at them from time to time out of some weird combination of masochism, nostalgia, and the lingering hope that I'll find something good. (When I do, it's usually in "Overboard" or "Ernie." Did you just lack interest in comics when you were younger?

Interesting, too, that Archies were the ones you read. A while back, when I was posting about Alan Moore's Watchmen, I wondered what girls read when I was a boy reading superhero comics.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I am well into Fifty Grand, and I have to tell you that for all the poetry and literature and rugy and cricket, I've come to understand that your true fascination in life is Scientologist movie stars. I must say, though, that if one must deal with such a person, Bruce Willis did it the right way.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"One can only speculate what depravity Americans would have got up to had they been permitted to see a naked cartoon breast from time to time."

Leave out "cartoon" and you found out after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl exposure. Every sensible American shrugged it off; well, every American except three. Those three worked for the FCC.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Looks like Kevin Martin's power at the FCC will be sharply reduced, which was the occasion of an interesting article about him that I read this week. He actually did some good things, such as restricting market share of mammoth cable companies. But the weird, censorious puritanism is how people know him and will remember him, I think.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, we read the Sunday comics cover to cover when I was kid, and I find it kind of touching how democratic we were about all that--sort of unjudging. I mean, you found some funny and some boring, but you didn't skip over the boring ones--you just figured there was something you didn't understand.

As for comic books, we did get the occasional comic book when I was very young, but they were things like Casper, Little Audrey, oh and now I'm just remembering that someone in the family gave us some Donald Duck comics which entertained us for quite awhile.

I also remember a family coming out to visit us in Colorado from California, and the daughter our age had five or six Peanuts books, which just seemed like incredible extravagent profligate wealth to us at the time.

But after that, there was no real equivalent to boys superhero and collecting obsessions. Although I guess someone I knew did have a lot of those Archie comics too, which we read because they were there. I didn't really get into all the girl stuff either though, which would have been more typically things like Tiger Beat and other pop idol promo things. My friends had some. I have no idea what occupied my mind on a pop culture level back then. Probably mainly television. Or else it was just a zenlike blank. In which case, I seem to have regressed a great deal.

December 19, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never liked the soap-opera ones when I was a kid: "Mary Worth," "Rex Morgan" and so on. I was more a comedy type of guy, with a special attachment to strips with distinctively comical drawing: "Bringing Up Father" and "Our Boarding House" with Major Hoople.

Re comics that girls might have read, I remember there were romance comics, but I'm not sure what age-group they aimed for.

A Zen-like blank state is something to yearn for, but a good-natured recognition of his own inability to attain such perfection is why I love the T'ang poet Po Chü-i so much. I commend you to his care.

December 19, 2008  

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