Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Modesty Blaise Proposal

I was one of those guys who laughed at “Austin Powers” without really getting all the jokes. At least, anything that had to do with specific references to James Bond went straight over my very tall head. I’m here to tell you that I have no opinion as to which actor made the best movie Bond because I’ve never seen an entire 007 picture.

When I was a kid, I do remember a playground conversation with a guy my age whose mother let him go to Bond movies when he was around 10 or 11. To this day, I can hear the tone of his voice, halfway between blushing confusion and manly pride, when he said, “Of course, she tries to make me close my eyes during the good parts.” Said good parts, I was led to believe, contained oodles of naked female flesh.

You see, the 60s were many things, and one of the things they were was an era of absurdly male-centric sexuality. It was a time where sophistication and sex went hand in hand, but only if you assumed sex meant young, preferably buxom women at the beck and call of older, normally well-off men. The thing is, if you do go back and pick up some of that decade’s porn, Playboy or less familiar mags like Cavalier, you’ll find that it was pretty much worth it to read them for the articles. Not that I’m gonna pretend that’s what I did when I visited my Uncle in Bloomington, Illinois and found ten year’s worth of subscription copies lying around in his basement bathroom.

Anyway, the ethos of this particular approach said that sex was something to be enjoyed between two people who liked each other, but that it wasn’t anything to tie two people together for life. This, along with a love for jazz, fine liquor, and the novels of Norman Mailer, was the sign of the good life. And, frankly, jazz, fine liquor, and sex with or without commitment really are things I recommend highly. Norman Mailer, however, was an asshole.

A far better read, though one which was undoubtedly dismissed as trash at the time, would be the paperback novel “Modesty Blaise,” written by one Peter O’Donnell back in 1965. (Those of you wondering what else I bought the last time I went to the thrift store can now exhale.) Modesty Blaise was an English comic strip about a female Bond who had a propensity for being naked from time to time. (Again, a childhood memory: my only contact with this strip was a single reprinted sequence in “The Penguin Book of Comics,” on the same page as a panel from “Barbarella,” and boy, did I look at that page a lot.) O’Donnell was actually the author of the strip, though not the artist.

This novel was actually adapted from O’Donnell’s original screenplay for what was apparently a thoroughly butchered motion picture which came out at the same time. It was successful enough to launch a regular series of novels, though I’ve certainly never seen any of them turn up in my pawing over used paperbacks.

I have to admit, I was surprised at how entertaining this book turned out to be. I was expecting kitsch, and kitsch I got, but it has a fairly elaborate caper plot with superb pacing. Believe me, I may not know spy stuff very well, but I know pulp fiction, and this comes in at the top of the pulp game.

Is there sex? Well, how else is this book going to become sophisticated? It’s about two retired criminals working on the side of the law striving to prevent an international gang of thieves from stealing $10,000 in diamonds being shipped from South Africa to the Middle East. Why wouldn’t you take time out, on page 80, for the following passage? “In love, she used her splendid body to give joyously and without restraint, ranging from glad submission to urgent demand. The happiness in her giving touched his mind with a glowing warmth; but more than that, she received his own gifts with the same unfettered joy as she gave, and this above all stirred the deepest wells of his being.”

A couple chapters later, Modesty’s lover, Paul Hagan, walks in on her while she’s doing yoga, and gets completely freaked out. Ms. Blaise is the epitome of 1965 young girl super-spy sophistication. Of course, because it’s 1965, we also get this, two paragraphs after thirty or forty pages of twists and turns and physical exertion between Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin against the bad guys:

“ “Why the hell do I do it?” she said helplessly. “Why do I always have to . . . to snivel once a job’s over?”

“Not always, Princess,” he said reasonably. “Not often. Only after the rough ‘uns. And we’ve been right up the sharp end for a long while this time.” He eased himself to a sitting position. “I think it’s nice meself,” he said simply. “Honest I do, Princess. It’s nice an’ sort of . . . womanly.””

Ah, it’s too easy to focus on the sexist bullshit, which is held to a mid-60s minimum, to be honest. Blaise only threatens to use her secret weapon, the Nailer. What’s that, you ask? Probably the stupidest name ever given to any secret weapon in the spy world, because it refers to times when Blaise would take off her shirt and walk into a room of bad guys. The few seconds they would waste staring at her perfect breasts would buy her, or her partner, enough time to strike first. Apparently, no concerns occur to anyone that the villains could possibly be gay.

This sort of stuff aside, Modesty Blaise was an interesting creation. In a lifetime of reading pulp novels, comic books, and the like, and watching TV and movie action heroes, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone who worked so hard in a fight, and who suffered so much pain that she had to rest for a while after it. By holding her back from being a superhuman being, even if the only reason was because she was a woman, O’Donnell vastly increased the tension. I loved the fact that Modesty Blaise is not infallible, but that she keeps on fighting anyway.

Yeah, there are ultimately way too many cheap disposable deaths of the villains, and a few really unbelievable yet entertaining weapons hidden in various articles of clothing (including, of course, Modesty’s bra). But, I devoured this book for the cheap excitement it was meant to give. In fact, I found it a damn sight more thrilling than any episode of “Alias” I’ve ever seen, and quite possibly less demeaning.


Blogger Twisty said...

As a Star Trek fan, I struggle with the mid-sixties sexism of the original series. The chick crew members show a lot more leg than the dudes, and they weep and gasp with fear alot. But I can't give up Star Trek! So when some lieutenant with an alluring decolletage delivers a line like "I'm a captain's woman and I like it!" I just close my eyes and think of the Federation.

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