The Princess of Spy-Fi: A Critical and Historical Overview of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise
Comic Arts Conference; WonderCon, San Francisco (2007) & Comic-Con International, San Diego (2008)
“I fell in love with Modesty Blaise when I was twelve… As I grew up I also came to admire the craft with which she was brought to the world, the lunatic skills of her creator, and, last of all, I found the comic strips, where she started, and discovered just how much of what I loved about Modesty was there from the beginning…” – Neil Gaiman
Born out of glamour girl strips and 1960s British espionage stories, Modesty Blaise—one of the great literary characters of the 20th Century—remains relatively unknown to Americans, even though the British news strip in which she starred lasted for almost 40 years. She is the missing link—or at least the often unacknowledged connection—in the virtual family tree of modern myth’s superwomen.
Whereas the ancestral line traditionally begins with Wonder Woman, another can theoretically begin by placing Modesty Blaise as matriarch in a diverging line of descendants. Modesty signifies an evolutionary transition in representations of superwomen; creators of popular culture have left evidence of her inspiration throughout comic and filmic media. In light of this it’s shocking that Modesty Blaise has received little-to-no scholarly attention.
The cultural effect of Peter O’Donnell’s creation, and his prolific works about her, bear examination. Therefore, this presentation will provide a critical history of the character while exploring her contributions to comic narrative. What storylines or characteristics have been homaged and which are simply pilfered? What has been the legacy of Britain’s Princess of Spy-fi? Who are her spiritual descendants and how do they differ from those of Wonder Woman?