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May 6, 2010

Peter O’Donnell, 1920-2010

imageThe London Evening Standard confirmed a swirl of rumors Tuesday that the writer Peter O'Donnell died on Monday after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. He was 90 years old. He was best known for the creation of the female action hero Modesty Blaise and the internationally syndicated strip that was the ground zero for a long run in multiple forms of media.

O'Donnell was born in south-eastern London, in the Lewisham district. He served more than a half-decade in the British efforts during World War II as an non-commissioned officer assigned to mobile radio detachment. It was while stationed in what is now Iran that O'Donnell met a young female refugee who served as a partial inspiration for his most famous character. After the war he returned to pursuing opportunities in publishing and then writing full-time. He had written since a teen, seeing his first credit in 1936.

In the 1950s, O'Donnell began to find work in comic strip scripting, starting with a stint on Belinda in the Daily Mirror when its writer took ill. He was the writer on the Daily Express adaptation of the James Bond spy novel Dr. No. He also worked on the strips, Tug Transom, For Better Or Worse, Garth and Romeo Brown, the last a decade-plus gig with future Modesty Blaise collaborator Jim Holdaway.

The fulfillment of a request to create a new strip for the Daily Express, Modesty Blaise launched on May 13, 1963 with O'Donnell as the writer and Holdaway taking on art chores he would hold until his passing seven years later. Blaise was tough and beautiful young woman with a criminal past -- a past in general -- more extensive than her youth would seem to allow. The idea of a female action star, made rootless by the upheaval of World War II seemed to scratch an itch on the comics page and in the general post-Bond culture. Almost as popular was second lead Willie Garvin, not the first and certainly not the worst coolly effective supporting character with as much going on as the main protagonist.

Blaise enjoyed a successful licensing track, primarily through adaptations into other media. The first prose book featuring the character came out in 1964; there would be 13 novels in all. Three films were released featuring the character in 1966, 1982 (for TV) and 2004. Any number of publishers in numerous countries published Modesty Blaise collections, with Titan currently publishing a a well-received series of reprints. It was also an international syndication hit in its original strip form, enjoying clients in the US, India, Malaysia and South Africa despite its frequently adult themes. The comic strip maintained most of its popularity through a revolving cast of artists: including significant runs by Romero and Neville Colvin. The strip ended its original run on April 11, 2001, although there have since been limited runs featuring repeated material. O'Donnell had been the feature's sole writer.

O'Donnell also penned a number of historical romances under the pseudonym Madeline Brent, and wrote a successful stageplay.

O'Donnell was recently the beneficiary of a campaign to have fans e-mail the writer on the occasion of his 90th birthday, which was April 11, nine years after the publication of the last episode of his great life's work.

posted 10:00 am PST | Permalink

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