Saturday, January 17, 2015

Modesty Blaise and graphic storytelling, plus a question for readers

I'm reading Modesty Blaise again, so here's an old post from back when I first read the original Modesty comic-strip stories collected between covers under the title Yellowstone Booty.  Before you read on, a few questions: Would today's readers have the patience for a story told in 126 three-panel installments, having to wait a full day from one installment to the next, as was the case with the Modesty Blaise series? When was the heyday for serial comic strips, especially crime and adventure? When did their popularity wane? And why?
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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":

"WHY DID I EVER BECOME A CON MAN?"

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

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


"Get back! No — !"

"Uhh!"

"Ooh!"

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.
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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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16 Comments:

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  
Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter.

I occasionally buy collections of comic book runs in hardcover or trade paperback, but I think today's audience would have the patience to read daily strips. After all, people are still willing to wait a week for half-hour and hour-long TV series, many with story arcs that extend over six, twelve, or twenty-four episodes.

January 18, 2015  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

I still read the comics every day, not all of them but a lot of them. I agree that the vast majority aren't funny. Some aren't even mildly amusing. I read them, anyway. A habit of nearly 70 years is hard to break. I no longer read many of the serial comics, but when I was a kid, I read nearly all of them, including Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G, Kerry Drake, Steve Roper, Steven Canyon, and others. Some of the serial comics were actually funny. Li'l Abner was for many years, and then it lost its way.

January 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald: You're right, of course, though I get the feeling from social media that many people wait until television series are available on DVD or for streaming, so they can watch a string of shows without waiting.

I, too, occasionally make a run to my local comics shops for hardback or trade paperback collections. (The only book for which I have bought single books is Scalped.) I avoid the single books for a reason related to the patience question: I don't want to spend four or six dollars on something that will take me five minutes to read then a wait a month to continue.

January 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, I remember all those strips from my youth, though I suspect few if any were being drawn by the original creators by the time I got to them. As a boy, I didn't like them much. Give me humor strips such as, yep, "L'il Abner" or "Our Boarding House (with Major Hoople)" any day.

The "Modesty Blaise" strips were single stories that stretched out over, say, 126 strips, and having a definite beginning, middle, and end. Were those older serials you named written on similar lines? I always had the idea that "Mary Worth" and "Apartment 3-G" were one long, never-ending story, in the manner of a soap opera.

I agree with you on today's daily comic strips. I remember noticing a few years ago the strips started being driven less by humor or art and more by demographics: You know, a strip for working women, a strip for empty nesters, a strip for suburbabites, and so on.

January 18, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Looking at Mr. Crider's list was like taking a trip down memory lane. My daily list also included Mark Trail, Rex Morgan, M.D., and Judge Parker. The comics served as a great incentive to learn to read.

I wonder how much they influenced my reading tastes of today. I especially liked Kerry Drake. Does anyone else see shades of Jack Reacher in Mike Nomad?

The one I disliked was Mary Worth. To me she was just an obnoxious old biddy in orthopedic shoes - a cross between Dear Abby and with a bit of Miss Marple.

January 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"....an obnoxious old biddy in orthopedic shoes ..."

That has to be my favorite description of the day. Thanks.

The more commenters mention those old strips, the more I remember that I would look to daily comic strip for the jokes and the art, but to comic books for stories.

I've only read one thing by Lee Child, and that was a non-Reacher short story, so I'll leave it to others to speculate about a Nomad-Reacher connection. Each character has a significant name, that's for sure.

In re comic-models for crime writers, more than one person, me included, has seen Modesty Blaise as a possible model for Stieg Larsson's Elisabeth Salander.

January 18, 2015  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

I miss Alley Oop.

January 19, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This, from the Wikipedia entry for Alley Oop, is the most beguilingly understated sentence I have read all day:

"Alley Oop, the strip's title character, was a sturdy citizen in the prehistoric kingdom of Moo."

January 19, 2015  

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