In 1962, Beaverbrook Newspapers asked author Peter O’Donnell to suggest a new strip idea. He thought long and hard and came up with Modesty Blaise, an action adventure strip. Kennedy Aitken, who was Beaverbrook’s strip cartoons editor, suggested they should invite Frank Hampson, creator of Dan Dare, to interpret O’Donnell’s script – and now one of his sample strips, the earliest art to feature O’Donnell’s hugely popular femme fatale, is up for sale over on ComicArtFans.
Current owner Terry Doyle, a longtime collector of British comic art, relates how Hampson accepted the offer, but took many weeks to return his strip samples, giving no reason for the delay. O’Donnell was dismayed at the eventual sequence of dailies, feeling Hampson had “totally misunderstood the character” and suggested his former partner Jim Holdaway , who he had worked with successfully on another strip, Romeo Brown, be given the strip to illustrate.
Over on Cloud 109, author Peter Richardson notes that the commission came at a time when Hampson was at a low ebb, having only recently been dismissed from “Dan Dare” for Eagle, a life-changing event from which it could be argued he never fully recovered.
“Heading into his mid forties and feeling bitter and disillusioned, Hampson was finding it challenging to say the least to re-engage with the world of illustration,” Peter notes. “He accepted the brief with a degree of superficial enthusiasm appropriate to such a prestigious commission but once he’d returned home the enormity of the job seemed to sap his will to sit down and produce the work that Aitken and O’Donnell were now anxious to see.
“Weeks passed and in the end, feeling he could stall no longer he steeled himself to the task and sat down to produce a series of strips that entirely failed to capture O’Donnell’s vision.”
The Lost Characters of Frank Hampson web site, which features all of Hampson’s samples alongside the strips drawn and published by Jim Holdaway, notes O’Donnell wasn’t specific but author Alastair Crompton suspects his problem was that Hampson’s Modesty simply wasn’t sexy. Nor did she look tough enough to fight the way the script required. Nor did she look like she would happily shoot to kill.
While Hampson fans delight in the artwork, Modesty Blaise fans note his take on the character looks perhaps too similar to top Hollywood actresses of the time, such as Kim Novak – which would have caused practical legal issues when it came to US syndication of the strip, a country where likeness rights are often fiercely protected.
Of Hampson’s tryout dailies for the first Blaise story “La Machine”, which pre-date Holdaway’s published strip which appeared in the Evening Standard in 1963, eight have survived and Terry once owned all of them. “This one tryout daily I kept was, to my mind, the best example,” he feels, “and the only one to exist as pure pencils. Of the remaining seven surviving examples, Hampson part-inked those (possibly used for practicing on in later years, as I firmly believe all of Hampson’s tryout dailies were submitted for approval in pencil stage).”
This daily strip, measuring about 18″ x 5″, is the earliest Modesty Blaise to exist as it was originally illustrated and presented to Beaverbrook newspapers for consideration and Terry is making this rare gem, which is in excellent condition, available for sale for a limited time and am looking for offers at or above $5,000.
With thanks to Richard Sheaf