Before Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway collaborated on Modesty Blaise, they worked together on a very different, humorous series, Romeo Brown, published in the Daily Mirror between 1954 and 1963 – a newspaper strip now little known in the UK, despite a following in Europe.
Very much in the style of Norman Pett’s Jane strip for the same newspaper, Romeo Brown was a often clumsy, narcissistic, and dim private detective, investigating mysteries that inevitably found him surrounded by beautiful girls wearing clothes that never stayed on. As you can imagine, it’s a strip very much of its time, initially drawn, and perhaps written by, Dutch artist, writer and film maker Alfred Mazure, creator of the acclaimed Dutch strip Dick Bos, who left the strip in 1957 to work on another “girlie” strip, Jane, Daughter of Jane, an updating of Jane, before moving on to Carmen & Co.
While the strip has been described as Peter O’Donnell’s creation by some his fans, the writer himself noted he didn’t start working on Romeo Brown until 1957, but unfortunately the myth that he was the character’s creator has been perpetrated by some of his fans,
“In 1957, the Mirror asked me to take over a comedy strip called Romeo Brown,” O’Donnell stated in an article on his pre-Modesty Blaise work for the character’s official site. “This was when I first met Jim Holdaway, who was called in to draw it, and we worked together on it for six or seven years.
“Romeo Brown was a comic private detective, and my brief was that every story was to revolve around a girl or girls, and the more clothes I could take off them with dignity the better. In the following years I devised some remarkable ways of meeting the brief.”
He certainly did – even poking fun at the strip’s entire concept in a strip published in 1960, “Gigi and the Head-Shrinkers”, as Brown is called on to help a young woman who can no longer undress – helped by a young woman who does not want to undress, but will have to do it to accomplish the mission).
It was only later that O’Donnell found out Holdaway was plunged into despair when he found out what Romeo Brown was about, according to a Comics Journal feature about Modesty Blaise. “He went home and said to his wife, ‘I can’t do this — I can’t draw girls.’ He had been drawing westerns for a long time and thought that he could draw only cowboys and horses!”
Proving that he could draw girls after all – albeit in a more adventure comics style than Mazure – when Romeo Brown was cancelled by new management at the Mirror who considered the female pulchritude on offer too risqué (according to a Jim Holdaway tribute on the Crime Time website), it can’t have taken much persuading for Holdaway to take on after Frank Hampson’s samples failed to please.
There don’t appear to have been that many British collections of the strip. A Mirror “Two in One” collection collected the strips “Romeo the Ruthless” and “The Girl and The Ghoul”, while The Arabian Knight included five stories. Two selected strips also ran in Hawk Books The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection. But other than these, the adventures of the blundering yet charismatic Romeo Brown have had no outing in print in the UK since the strip’s original publication, but they have been collected in Dutch, French and Italian, and strips appeared in the weekly US title The Menomonee Falls Gazette in the 1970s, suggesting the strip had some success in international syndication during its lifetime.
The artwork by both Mazure and Holdaway on Romeo Brown, both very distinctive and talented artists is both charming and appealing, and of very different styles. The stories credited to Peter O’Donnell have clearly achieved appeal beyond the UK, gaining glowing reviews for foreign language reprints.
It’s a shame, like many other newspaper strips, that the origins of Romeo Brown are shrouded in mystery, and it’s another gem of British comics that’s had little coverage in English. From online samples, including a Word and Pictures sample of the strip translated back into English from Italian, it’s clearly a very funny item deserving the attention of collectors.
• Romeo Brown – List of Stories (note erroneous pre 1957 writer credits to Peter O’Donnell, at odds with his own account of work on the strip)