The excitement in the Long Island theater where I first saw Pulp Fiction was unlike anything I’d previously experienced at the movies: Everything people were saying about Quentin Tarantino, the boy-genius director, was true. But the picture stirred me most profoundly—alerting me that there was an intelligence behind it that was in some small way in sync with my own—when I caught sight of the book John Travolta reads on the crapper, first at Butch’s apartment and then in the diner bathroom: Modesty Blaise.
Modesty Blaise was my secret self the year I was 15, the subject of ardent daydreams and the first female character I encountered who was truly in charge of something other than a hospital ward, or a school, or a household. She ran an organization full of dangerous men, and they all obeyed and revered her. She would know exactly what to do with a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer, and it would be a pleasure to see her do it. Half a century before Beyoncé, Modesty wasn’t bossy; she was the boss.
Modesty is the invention of an English comic-strip writer named Peter O’Donnell. In the early 1960s, an editor asked him to create a new character, and he decided that “it was about time that somebody woke up and produced a female who would be able to do all the hero stuff as well as—or perhaps better than—most men.” Modesty is a secret agent who works on special assignments for British intelligence, so (to O’Donnell’s great frustration) she is most often compared to James Bond. They’re really nothing alike. Bond’s life begins and ends with each mission. Modesty, by contrast, exists in a fully realized world, with homes—in particular, her sumptuous penthouse overlooking Hyde Park—friends, lovers, and a range of interests. She enjoys attending country fairs, going to the theater, dressing up, riding horses, cutting gems, rescuing animals. She never enters a scene without an exact description of what she’s wearing, right down to her shoes. O’Donnell maintained that the key to her character is that while she is incredibly brave, capable, and—when the situation demands it—lethal, she is also exceedingly feminine. “She doesn’t just kick people in the head,” O’Donnell once said of Modesty. “She’s very tender and vulnerable.”