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Monday, September 08, 2008

Review: Modesty Blaise: Green Cobra

Green Cobra is the latest in Titans' Modesty Blaise reprint series. The 14 volumes have so far reprinted 46 stories, approaching the half-way mark as there were a total of 97 in all. The strip ran for almost 40 years and remained consistently brilliant through its whole run. The strength of the strip was its protagonists. When the strip opened in 1962, readers were introduced to Modesty, a war-orphan and former controller of a criminal network, now retired to London. In that first story, she is persuaded to use her contacts in the criminal world to help the British secret service, personified in the strip by the gentlemanly Sir Gerald Tarrant. Here, she enters the fray once again through blackmail; often it is for the thrill of excitement; other adventures can begin when her past catches up with her or she spies something that demands her involvement. When this happens, her first call is always to Willie Garvin, her right-hand man in the Network, also retired.

The two share a bond stronger than any other. They have complete and utter faith in each other, a trust forged by years of facing death side by side. There is no sexual tension between the two (they both have healthy love-lives with other partners) which is the common route for stories that have a male and female protagonist; they do, however, complete the other: strong where their partner is weak, smart when the other is distracted.

The latest book collects three strips from 1979-80 and concludes a period of change for the strip. Following the departure of Enrique Romero in 1978, the artwork was taken over by John M. Burns. A match made in heaven, you would think—Burns, one of the finest comic strip artists working in the UK on one of the best adventure strips being published. His first story was published in the previous volume, Yellowstone Booty, and the current volume contains what was, inexplicably, his last work on the strip.

Patrick Wright took over the strip on 27 September 1979
with strip 4768. Here we have Burns' interpretation of the
same sequence, followed by the published version by Wright.

Why was Burns given the boot? The answer to that is still a mystery: Charles Wintour, the editor of the Evening News which carried the strip, simply called up his cartoon editor, Gerald Lip, and ordered him to replace Burns immediately. Bardon Art, who represented Burns, put forward Pat Wright who was dropped in at the deep end, replacing Burns halfway through a story at short notice. It would take Wright a couple of weeks to find his feet—you can see that he starts to get comfortable with the strip once a number of new characters arrive. But however good Wright was as an artist (and I have fond memories of his 'Day of the Eagle' in Battle Picture Weekly and 'Hitler Lives' in Crunch!), his tenure on the strip lasted only one more story.

Four different artists in twenty months usually means that the strip is floundering around looking for direction. Thankfully, author Peter O'Donnell remained the backbone of the series he had created and carried the strip successfully through all these changes. The stories presented here are typical of the series: strong in both action and character. In the title story, Modesty is faced with a villainess called Pandora who may be more than a match for her and Sir Gerald's assistant, Fraser, comes to the fore and proves he is far more than the meek man he chooses to portray; in 'Eve and Adam', Modesty and Willie are deliberately marooned in a paradise valley and become mixed up in the search for a lost satellite capsule; and in 'Brethren of Blaise' the Blaise of the title was Merlin's tutor, the story involving a strange cult who believe that they can resurrect the ancient wizard of Camelot from fifteen hundred years of sleep.

Each story is briefly introduced by Peter O'Donnell and the volume opens with two introductory articles by Lawrence Blackmore, one discussing the artist changes, the second looking at a set of illustrations drawn by John M. Burns for a Swedish edition of O'Donnell's Pieces of Modesty, a collection of Modesty Blaise short stories.

Modesty Blaise: Green Cobra. Titan Book ISBN 978-1845764203, September 2008. Available now. A full list of Titan's Modesty Blaise reprints can be found in the Comics Bibliography store, as can a full list of Modesty Blaise novels.

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