Forty-five years after Hogan’s Alley featuring the Yellow Kid became the first newspaper comic strip in America, a dame got her high heel pumps in the boys club that dominated the most popular feature in most rags. And it was just a toe. Despite being superbly drawn, on a level with the widely admired Terry and the Pirates and having an exciting, well written script, Brenda Starr, Reporter as only admitted to the outer hall—a comic book supplement from the Chicago Tribune Syndicate that was enclosed with Sunday papers.
The strip’s intrepid creator, artist, and writer, Dale Messick, had been toiling to little reward as a greeting card illustrator while hoping to break into the big time. Inspired by Milt Caniff she had recently submitted a pirate strip of her own with a female lead. New York Daily News editor and publisher and Tribune Syndicate editor Joseph Medill Patterson, who bitterly resented women in the newsroom or anywhere else in his family’s newspaper empire, had turned her down flat.
Born Dalia Messick in Hobart, Indiana on April 11, 1906, she took after her father, a commercial artist. After graduating from high school she briefly attended Ray Commercial Art School in Chicago. She quickly found that she was more advanced than most of her teachers and left school get work. She quickly hired on at a Chicago greeting card company and was so good that she was pulling down top dollar and making a good living. But when the Depression hit her publisher cut her pay more deeply than less talented men who, she was told, deserved and needed the pay more.
Characteristically Messick quit on the spot. Gathering her pencils, tablets, and pens, she moved to New York City where she quickly got an even better greeting card job paying a fat $60 a week. She was able to send half of that home to her struggling family in Hobart and gaily live in the bustling Big Apple where, she later recalled, “I had $30 a week to live it up. You could walk down 42nd Street and have bacon and eggs and toast and coffee and hash brown potatoes and orange juice—the works—for 25 cents.”
Meanwhile she set her sights on breaking into newspaper comics. A handful of women were working—Gladys Parker had been doing syndicated flapper strips that featured fashion paper dolls on Sunday and Edwina Dumm produced Cap Stubbs and Tippie, a dog feature—but none were in the top ranks of the profession.
Messick began assembling a portfolio that featured several potential strips in various popular genres—Weegee, Mimi the Mermaid, Peg and Pudy, The Struglettes, and Streamline Babies. Each one was rejected in turn by newspaper and syndicate editors. Suspecting that her work was not even looked at because editors recognized her feminine first name, Messick began submitting under the gender ambiguous name of Dale.
Messick finally got a break when her work was noticed and championed by Mollie Slott, Patterson’s trusted right hand woman. Slott got Messick some greeting card assignments from the Syndicate and some odd job illustration, all the while talking her up to her boss. Despite his rejection of the pirate strip, he reluctantly agreed to publish Messick’s new strip in the Sunday supplement.
The decision to make the heroine of her new strip a reporter was a calculated one. Messick wanted her to have a career that would not tie her to an office and that would get her out in the wide world in a wide range of adventures. A girl reporter seemed just the ticket. For inspiration she drew on the historic and legendary Nellie Bly. She also noted the popularity of Warner Bros. B movie Trixie Blair series about the adventures of a sassy blonde reporter always one-upping the police.
Then in January, months before the launch of the strip, His Girl Friday Howard Hawks’s remake of Ben Hecht and Charles McCarthy’s classic The Front Page landed on the nation’s movie screens and was a runaway hit. Fast talking, sexy Rosalind Russell charmed audiences as she ran rings around clueless male reporters and her former boss and lover played by Cary Grant. The character Brenda Starr was already taking shape when Messick saw the film, but its success probably pushed Patterson to give a go ahead to her project.
Messick took the name Brenda from a staple of the late ‘30’s society and gossip columns debutant Brenda Frazier who was kind the early Paris Hilton of her era. Brenda Starr’s looks and fabulous red hair was inspired by film goddess Rita Hayworth. Although a working girl, the reporter would not be limited to frump suits with demure white collars. She was always decked out in the latest fashion and that red hair was put up in the most fashionable styles.
Brenda Starr, Reporter fairly leaped off of the page of the flimsy insert comics. It wasn’t long before Patterson had to promote her to the regular Sunday Comics section, where she ran successfully all through the World War II years when millions of American women were stepping into independence and the work force. And, of course, her intrepid reporting adventures nabbed spies and saboteurs and other wise contributed to the war effort while somehow keeping stocked with nylons and enjoying the romantic attention of dashing men in uniform.
At the end of the war there were pressures put on both Messick and her character to have Brenda settle down with one of those GIs and leave the workforce to the men who had come home. But Brenda, in defiance of the cultural pressure, rolled defiantly on into the 1950’s. Her devoted fan base finally got Patterson to give her a daily strip in addition to the Sunday adventures in 1946.
In 1945 Brenda Starr, Reporter had leapt to the big screen in a Columbia Pictures low budget serial staring B-movie siren Joan Woodbury. In 1947 the first of four comic book series was launched by Four Star Publications in 1947 followed by Superior Publishing from 1948 through 1949, Charlton Comics starting in 1955, and finally Dell Publishing in 1963.
Brenda Starr was always surrounded by a large cast of regular characters. In the newsroom were Atwell Liveright, the cigar chomping, bug-eyed tough editor of The Flash; Pesky Miller, a cub reporter and go-fer with stars in his eyes for La Starr; Hank O’Hare, another red-headed female reporter, but one decked out in masculine clothing, a beret and an unstated lesbian who was both rival and loyal supporter; and gossip columnist Kilbirdie, a nosy and jealous Hedda Hopper clone.
Starr needed a romantic foil, but not one who would tie her down. Enter Basil St. John, her dark haired swain in an eye patch. A “man of mystery” St. John disappears for long periods of time, presumably on some kind of espionage adventure. He also suffers from a deadly disease that can only be held in check with a black orchid serum that he cultivates at a secret plantation and laboratory deep in the Amazon rain forest. St. John’s disappearances gave Starr an opportunity to be wooed by other suitors—good guys and suave villains alike—in her globetrotting adventures.
By the mid ‘50’s Brenda Starr, Reporter was syndicated in more than 250 papers. Her popularity continued into the ‘60’s when the rise of a new wave of feminism both celebrated a role model and criticized her for relying on her looks and sex appeal.
Brenda started out as a twenty-something up and comer. By the ‘70’s she had settled into her particularly glamorous perpetual early ’40’s, mature and confident.
Brenda did eventually marry St. John and the couple had a baby Starr Twinkle, an adorable, impish red head like her mother. But on an ocean crossing with her father to join Brenda on assignment, the toddler falls overboard and apparently drowns, vanishing from the strip and sending a remorseful St. John back into hiding.
Later Brenda discovers that her man had a son named Sage from a relationship with Wanda Fonda, a cross between Foxy Brown and Oprah Winfrey. Despite the circumstances the two women become fast friends, commiserating about the faithless Basil, and share raising Sage.
Late in the strip a red-haired punk rock orphan with a chip on her shoulder appears who may—or may not—be the long lost Star Twinkle.
Messick continued as the sole proprietor of the daily and Sunday strips—other artists contributed to the comic books—until 1980 when she turned over drawing the strip to Ramona Fradon, a veteran comic book artists who had worked on Aquaman and The Super Friends for DC comics. Messick continued to write the script for the strip for two more years before retiring.
Linda Sutte penned the stories for Fradon from ’82 until ’85 when a real live reporter, Mary Schmich, who would also become a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist. From 1995 June Brigman illustrated Schmirch’s scripts.
The long running strip was expected to get a big boost in 1986 with the release of a big screen version starring Brook Shields as Brenda and former James Bond Timothy Dalton as Basil St. John. But the release date kept getting pushed back in a series of law suits over production rights. When it finally saw the light of day six years later it was universally panned by critics and flopped at the box office. The fallout over the failure badly damaged the careers of both Shields and Dalton. Today it has become the kind of minor cult status that only very bad movies achieve.
Soldiering on Schmich told stories of Brenda in a changing media environment. The Flash was sold to a tabloid empire and Atwell Liveright replaced by a clueless hack aptly named Bottomline at the helm. Brenda finds the budget for her world girding adventures slashed, and the newsroom moral sinks with layoffs. More than once Brenda’s scoops save the paper from folding entirely.
After an un-paid sabbatical in India, Starr returns to find that The Flash has been transformed into a flimsy freebie and is trying to establish a web presence with bloggers. After nosing out one final, shocking city scandal, Starr announced her retirement at a holiday party on January 11, 2011 and walks away with tears in her eyes.
At the time of its demise, the strip was carried in only 63 papers, half of them overseas. The hay day of adventure and romance serial strips had long passed and the comics pages were filling up with anthropomorphic animal and smart ass kid gag strips.
Strip founder Messick was gone by then. She died at age 98 in Sonoma, California on April 5, 2005. She did live to see many accolades including the National Cartoonists Society’s Story Comic Book Award for 1975 and their Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. In 1995 Brenda Starr, Reporter was one of 20 comic strips honored by a series of United States postage stamps. Messick was the only living original creator among those honored.
Upon her death, Messick’s life and work received new interest, particularly among feminists.