Another Redheaded Ending Part 2 of 2

Posted by on December 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

At Brenda Starr’s peak circulation in the ’50s, it was in 250 newspapers — which, for that day, was a goodly number. The stories are fast-moving adventures. Fast and even a little dizzying. But that is always part of the pleasure of reading Dale Messick’s strip. She kept us on the edge of our chairs for 40 years, and you don’t do that without being a teller of good, suspenseful tales, however dizzy they sometimes are.

Messick was famous for a dizziness all her own — occasional drastic lapses of memory. In one notable strip, she drew an injured man with his right leg bandaged in the first panel; by the third panel, it was his left leg. Her assistants and editors check for such endearing gaffes, but they didn’t always catch them, Browning said: “In one sequence, she showed a father consoling his daughter. The father had his hand on her shoulder. Changing her mind, Messick placed the father farther away from the girl and removed his arm—but not his hand. To inquiring fans, she blithely explained it as ‘the hand of fate.’”

Messicks’ workday started at 7 a.m. “or earlier,” said Browning, “depending on what she dreamed during the night. Many of Brenda’s most exciting escapades are inspired by Messick’s dreams.” The cartoonist usually woke up singing, according to Browning, and after choosing a wardrobe for the day, prepared a whopping breakfast for her husband, and then researched for the strip, clipping fashion illustrations from magazines. At about 10 a.m., her staff arrived: Jack Olson, a $12,000-a-year assistant “who corrects her spelling, does her lettering and draws outdoor backgrounds and most male anatomy for the strip; and Jim Mackey, an art student and part-time assistant, who draws automobiles, buildings and ‘mechanical things.’”

From the very start, Brenda was independent and feisty as well as courageous and resourceful — not only a suitable protagonist in an adventure story but, as it developed, a thoroughly admirable role model for ambitious young women who could find no others of their sex much worth admiring on the comics page.

CNN’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault is reported to have said that as a teenager aspiring to a journalism career, she hoped for the kind of “mystery and romance” she saw in Brenda’s big-city newspaper career. Hunter-Gault is surely not alone.             Brenda even inspired writers like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlen. “I originally became interested in journalism because I read Brenda in the late lamented Philadelphia Bulletin,” Quindlen wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. “She had red hair, stars in her eyes (literally), and a dishy boyfriend with an eyepatch named Basil St. John. Sounded like a plan to me. Later on I embraced the allure of deadline storytelling and the professional obligation to ask strangers rude questions.”

Quindlen was featured in the strip once and said that was one of the high points of her professional life. A copy of the strip hangs over her desk.

MESSICK, LIKE ANY CONVINCING STORYTELLER, lived her character’s life. She dyed her hair to match Brenda’s, “claiming the expense is tax deductible, which,” Browning adds, “in this case, it is.”

“I am Brenda Starr,” she would tell interviewers. “Brenda is the glamorous girl I wished I was. She’s what most women wish they were and what most men wish their women were, too. Whenever I hear from real reporters, “they would all say their lives weren’t as interesting as Brenda’s. Who would have read Brenda if it was real life?”

Linda Feldman of the Los Angeles Times visited Messick in early 1999 and observed that the cartoonist didn’t make small talk: she just said what was on her mind, even offering unsolicited information. “I was married twice,” Messick blurted out, “divorced twice, had a bad car accident and a baby and never missed a deadline in 43 years. I mailed Brenda in before I saw the baby. I was a terrible mother.”

“Not true,” interrupted Starr, who was born a year after her namesake’s debut. “She was a fine mother, though my life certainly wasn’t ordinary. I attended seven different schools before the fifth grade because we traveled in the Brenda Starr rolling studio — a silver streamer RV outfitted with its own water supply. Mother was a vagabond who worked seven days a week. She and my father both loved to travel, and she just had to have adventures. She eventually would use the adventures in the strip. My father, Everett George [an erstwhile art supplies salesman], was her business manager and the draftsman who did the lettering for the strip.”

Her mother slipped back into the conversation: “That’s why we got married — we needed each other.”

Her second husband was Oscar Strom, a lawyer. Brenda married only once, but it took 36 years to get to the altar. Her life was forever haunted by her romance with her “mystery man,” Basil St. John, a manikin-beautiful male specimen with an eye patch. He’d show up every so often to take Brenda into his arms. The redhead would melt in ecstasy — but then, the guy would run off, usually in pursuit of a rare black orchid from which he could extract a serum that provided temporary respite from the effects of the exotic disease he was dying of. Finally, in 1976, Messick permitted the lovelorn pair to marry. And then St. John took off again on another wild orchid chase.

The Mystery Man, Browning learned, was modeled on an assistant Messick hired long ago and fired three days later. “He was no good as an artist,” Messick explained. “But he wore this black patch over one eye, and I was fascinated. I don’t even remember his name, but I’ve always wondered: Where did he go? What happened to him?”

Browning continued: “Soon after he left, someone started sending her anonymously a fresh black orchid every day for a week. Could it have been her mystery man? Messick likes to think it was.”

Messick told Feldman that she rarely watched TV because she “can’t tell when the commercials begin and shows end.” And she never read fiction because she could always predict what’s going to happen next. She did, however, date. In her 80s, she managed to juggle three boyfriends simultaneously. “All three wouldn’t make one good man,” she told an interviewer, “but at my age, you can’t be too choosy,” she concluded.

Messick achieved her fame through talent and dedication — not academic training. She spent two years in the third grade and repeated that performance in the eighth.

I met her only once, in the winter of 1998, when I was visiting Mark Cohen and his wife Rosie in Santa Rosa. Mark arranged our meeting, and after dinner, we drove Messick home to her townhouse in a senior residential area. As we pulled up outside her place, Messick asked if we wanted to come in and see her “studio.” We did, and we did. It was a spare bedroom and lacked a drawing board. But there were souvenirs of her years drawing Brenda Starr all around. She was still drawing: She took a tiny sketch pad with her to the mall almost every day, and she sketched the people she saw. She showed me some sketches, all very confidently executed work. And when I professed admiration for one of them, she gave it to me (and I’ve posted it near here with a self-portrait of the cartoonist as a little old lady). She said she was working on an autobiography, Still Stripping at Ninety (never finished), and she was drawing a panel cartoon for a local newspaper called Granny Glamor.

She harbored, slightly but persistently I believe, some resentment over the male chauvinism that had infected the profession all her life. She felt that the National Cartoonists Society had never quite accepted her — even then, in 1998, as NCS was poised to give her the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual meeting that spring in La Jolla, Calif.

Messick, I think, felt a little more comfortable with me, a stranger, as the evening wore on, and her talk was increasingly enlivened by a satirical sense of humor, often self-deprecating, punctuated, usually, by a short little hoot of laughter. “Ha,” she might say at the end of a particularly cutting remark. She was, in short, a delight. And I’m glad to have met her.

Next Page: Ramona Fradon begins to draw Brenda Starr

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3 Responses to “Another Redheaded Ending Part 2 of 2”

  1. WLLilly says:

    …Though you don’t say it yourself , your listing of all the post-Messick creators on BSR back up what I recall reading , that Trib had consiously decided to keep the strip done by extra-X chronosome hands after its creator was ” pushed out “…That is , female ones .
    Even though that may have been a good idea , it may , I suppose , have contributed to Trib’s discontinuation of it at this time after Schmich and Brigman’s decision ( BTW , I have only seen Schmisch quoted as deciding to leave , though I suppose Brigman , sidterhood-is-powerful-like , may have chosen to go along with her . I recall a relatively recent HOGAN’S ALLEY afticle where Brigman was ethusiastic about he lot – ) , given the smaller amount , in general , of proven ” better half ” comics professionals , especially in the now-limited continuity strip gnre , is that’s…

  2. WLLilly says:

    …( continuing…)in the now-limited continuity strip genre ( If ” genre ” , indeed , is the correct phrase…) presuming that Trib didn’t wish to be accused of breaking tradition at this point…
    Oh , and where I wrote ” better half ” above , I really meant to write ” distaff ” , but couldn’t remember the ( No doubt you’re perhaps the last TCJ regular who’d accept the use of the phras ! ) term at that moment…
    BTW , Brenda , when the strip began , worked for the GLOBE , not the FLASH – When did the – merger ? – transpire ?
    In the 1970s the New York City-based rock band Blondie , featuring Deborah Harry , sang ” She looks like the Sunday comics/She thinks she’s Brenda Starr ” or similar in their song ” Rip Her To Shreds ” and I , as a teenager in that area , read the still-full-page tabloid BSR in the Sunday New York News then , and I remember a Sunday which consisted entirely of a strip-long long-shot to close-up , opening in the first panel with a shot of our entire solar system , drawing close to the ( then- ) nine planets , Earth from above , Earth past the cloud cover and so forth , into the Flash’s nesroom , where someone was speaking , and finally not even a close-up of an eye , but an iris/cornea !!!!!!!!!
    Or at least that’s the way I remember it………..