So there I was - I'd wrapped up my read of all the Modesty Blaise books, sniffled my way through Cobra Trap, browsed all the websites... even watched the terrifyingly surreal movie. What's next? Fortunately, Titan Books pointed out the blatantly obvious - Blaise started as a daily comic. And however much I'd achieved in plowing through the spin-off formats, there were still (at last count) 8 quadrillion strips to read.
The Girl in the Iron Mask (2013) is the latest of Titan's collection editions - there are, if I counted correctly, 23 of them to date. As a Blaise fan, I was pretty comfortable jumping right in. And, daily comics being the savvy institutions they are, each of the story-lines starts with a solid explanation of Modesty and her background. So, don't worry - you don't need to start at the beginning (The Gabriel Set-up, if you're interested.)
The Girl in the Iron Mask has three stories - Fiona, Walkabout and Mask. These ran, somewhat shockingly, between 1990 and 1991, but we'll get to that shortly. Each of the stories is introduced by Lawrence Blackmore, who does a good job putting them in context with the rest of the Blaise mythos and, despite being a Blaise expert, is clearly not blinded by the series' weaknesses.
Fiona is about as close as Blaise ever gets to slapstick. Modesty flies out to India to visit one of the old Network members - this time it is Sumi, a former nurse in the organisation's private hospital. Sumi and her husband, David, (who is insufferably dense) have a tiny clinic in the Chittigong Hills. They're doing good work, but Sumi is nervous. David is getting their supplies from a group of (obvious) criminals. Mr. Wu Smith (one of the series' few recurring villains) is essentially buying David's silence - and David's just too dumb to realise it.
Modesty is initially just there to lend a hand. She does her share every now and then, and "carrying bedpans" is good for the soul. Sir Gerald Tarrant is there, well, because the story requires it. And good ol' Willie Garvin comes along because the Princess can't get along without him. Also in tow? Fiona - a chimpanzee with a serious crush on Garvin.
One thing leads to another - mostly through David being stupid - and Modesty and Willie (and Fiona) head out to the villains' headquarters at the temple of Manasha. There's violence, a somewhat magical chimpanzee, some scantily glad statuary and a tragic (and predictable) sacrifice. The whole thing is a bit goofy, with David's head-slapping naivete and Fiona's impressive intelligence offsetting the highlights of Willie's banter and Modesty's ass-kicking. (Lovely fight scene with Modesty, armed with quarterstaff, fighting off a horde of bandits from the hood of a Land Rover.)
Still, Fiona is classic literature when compared to Walkabout. Modesty's off in the Outback with her friend (and ex-Network employee) Jacko. She's on her annual walkabout - in which she goes "native" to toughen up ("native" = topless and grub-eating). Meanwhile, Willie's having a bit more fun shagging a lawyer in Sydney. But when the Mafia show up...
Eh. Honestly, Walkabout is so appallingly racist that even as I started writing this review, I thought it stemmed from the sixties. This is from the nineties. Seriously, what's wrong with people?! At best, this story is an excuse to have a topless Modesty running round. At worst, well... it is simply appalling. (So much so that Titan, wisely, have a strongly disclaimer in the inside front-cover.)
Thankfully, there's the titular story: The Girl in the Iron Mask. This one's genuinely great. The Bone brothers are a pair of eccentric billionaires, holed up in their Alpine mansion, Mammon Hall. They like money, and they like to play games. (If you ask me, Peter O'Donnell caught a late showing of "Trading Places" at some point... there are more than a few similarities.)
At some point in the past, Modesty foiled the Bones, and now they want revenge. They kidnap her, seal an iron mask on her face, drop her in a pit and wait for her to go insane... Mask succeeds because it is pure, unadulterated Modesty. Willie's a blast, but there's a certain amount of masculine entitlement that comes with his presence. Here we have Modesty at her strongest - both mentally and physically. She outstmarts, outfights and outclasses her enemies in every way, cleverly avoiding a particularly nasty deathtraps.
A great story, with Blaise at her best.
As a final aside, I've now read two of these collections, this and The Gabriel Set-Up. So far, I prefer Enrique Badia Romero's Modesty to Jim Holdaway's, but, for everything else, including Willie Garvin, I prefer Holdaway. Romero's characters all only seem to have one expression each, with Garvin's face stuck in a scowl like Karl Urban in "Judge Dredd". Romero's work is still gorgeous - I always forget how much I enjoy black and white strip art - but the faces in this collection feel a tiny bit same-y. We'll see how it goes...