You could sort the comics by color when I was a kid. The dark menacing covers, with the heroes attacking or being beset by awful enemies, and the pretty, silly bright ones, where cheerful characters got in to unmemorable difficulties, and out again without much trouble, but with some lesson learned. Flip the pages on the menacing ones, they’re full of threat gestures, and oversized shoulders. It was not a world that I cared to spent my time in. And the pretty ones are boring if you’re not ten.
The bigger-than-life-sized heroes translate brilliantly to the big screen, and comic book stories make great action films. I am enjoying them very much in this new guise, distilled for the essence of story and character problems. And, bowing to modern sensibilities, some women who don’t exist solely in relation to the hero. Is there a single comic that passes the Bechdel test?
My favorite comic is Modesty Blaise. I discovered her late, so of course I found the books first, but I track down the comics whenever I can. Modesty Blaise doesn’t wear tights. Survivor of a displaced persons camp after World War II, as a child she becomes the protector of an old Eastern-European
professor, and together they wandered the Middle East for several years. He teaches her, and names her. She fights, first for her own life, and then for his as well. When he dies she buries him and goes on alone. At seventeen she is spinning the roulette wheel at a casino in Tangiers, owned by one of the local mob bosses. When he is killed by a rival gang, she organizes his splintered forces, fights off the takeover, exacts revenge, and becomes the new leader. Thus “The Network” is born.
Modesty Blaise is an international crime boss, but she doesn’t touch vice or drugs. In fact, she uses her own forces to root out evil gangs that come her way, thus earning her the respect of various international police forces. At twenty-five, having made a fortune, she retires to live in a penthouse suite overlooking Hyde Park in London. And becomes bored.
Her right-hand man, Willie Garvin, who retired at the same time to take up his life-long dream of running a pub on the Thames, is also bored. The head of British intelligence uses that as a lever to get them to adventure for him to do things he cannot do. And thus the books begin.
Modesty Blaise has no angst. She is a martial arts expert, continuously training to hone her skills. Willie Garvin, raised in an English orphanage, one-time member of the foreign legion, a miserable thug remade by her trust and in her image when she buys him out of a Thai jail on a whim, has an eidetic
memory and endlessly adaptable combat expertise. And a string of girlfriends all over the world, loving and uncomplicated. Modesty and Willie are clever. They think their way out of problems and then fight. They enjoy life; they play. They may also be the first example in literature of a man and a woman who are really good friends, go adventuring together, but are not in a sexual relationship.
Modesty and Willie have nice friends. They have lovers, hobbies, enthusiasms. They are life-long learners, continuously trying new things. And they play horrible jokes on each other.
The villains in the stories are larger-than-life, over-the-top Evil, folks you really love to hate. The stories are fast-paced, jam packed with fun and adventure. The comic books are fun, because it’s a pleasure to see what Peter O’Donnell thought Modesty and Willie look like. But the books are better. Stories have more impact when they take awhile to unfold, especially when the stakes are high and the character goes through hell and back to win. Modesty Blaise: no angst, and without tights. Good comics, and an even better bunch of books.