Another Redheaded Ending Part 1 of 2

Posted by on December 27th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

They got tired, that’s all, or mostly all. Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich and her drawing partner June Brigman decided in early December to stop producing Brenda Starr, and Tribune Media Services, which owns the strip, seized the opportunity to end its syndication. Last June, TMS took out of its comics line-up the other redhead, Annie, a remnant of Harold Gray’s plucky waif strip, Little Orphan Annie. The final Brenda Starr will run on Jan. 2, a Saturday, finishing the week and ending the nearly 70-year run of one of the medium’s most venerable (and venerated) efforts, undoubtedly the longest-lived newspaper adventure strip with an eponymous heroine and the most famous strip created and produced by a woman cartoonist, Dale Messick, who was fiercely feminine if not so much fashionably feminist.

“It’s been an incredible privilege to be able to live life through this medium all these years,” said Schmich, who has written the strip for the last 25 years. “I’m a reporter, above all, so I always use Brenda in a funny way to report things,” she told Sophia Tareen at the Associated Press.

Schmich researched her stories as carefully as she could to give a patina of authenticity to Brenda’s exotic adventures in India or up Mount Everest. And she also used the strip to skewer the foibles of today’s news media — once inventing a character named Rat Sludge, “a thinly-veiled caricature of Matt Drudge.” And the strip also commented on the roles of working women.

But after 25 years, Brian Steinberg opined at, “Schmich sounds bored with Brenda,” referring to a Chicago Tribune story on the matter: “A comic strip like this is a very funny form to write in,” Schmich said. “It’s very difficult to advance the character, to advance the story. My life has advanced so much in 25 years. It just felt weird to me to continue to write a story and a character that could not.”

“The trouble?” asked Steinberg, hastening to answer himself: “Like Little Orphan Annie, Brenda Starr just wasn’t made for these times. She’s a reporter at a time when fewer people are, and when fewer traditional media outlets command much notice from consumers. At one time, being a globe-trotting journalist meant having great tales to tell and places to experience. These days, it usually means hacking out four tweets, a blog post and a couple of paragraphs for the Web and print that have none of the detail, color or fine turns of phrase that drew readers to newspapers when they were at their height. Simply put, Brenda Starr’s story just isn’t that interesting any longer.”

Probably. But her story was gripping for a long time, and the story of her rambunctious creator is the stuff of legend. Messick threatened to live forever, for instance; and it looked, for a while, as if she might.

Dale Messick, who often introduced herself as Brenda Starr’s mother, died on April 5, 2005, just six days shy of her 99th birthday. Her health had been in a long decline since she suffered a stroke on 1998; she’d lived in a nursing facility for a time, but she died in the Penngrove, Calif., home of her daughter, Starr Rohrman, who had been caring for her through the last few years.

Messick, who changed her first name to avoid being hit on by male newspaper editors, was a thorough-going professional cartoonist all her life. In her book The Great Women Cartoonists, Trina Robbins called Messick “one of the most seriously committed and tenacious woman cartoonists of the century. In a 1973 newspaper interview, Messick describes her pregnancy: ‘It was throw up, draw Brenda, throw up, draw Brenda.’” The anecdote captures with succinct perfection not only Messick’s dauntless dedication but her irrepressible sense of the ridiculous — about herself as well as the world around us.

Messick was born April 11, 1906 in Indiana and as soon as she could, she left for Chicago, where she attended the Chicago Art Institute for a summer and then worked in greeting cards until she went to New York where she continued making greeting cards while conjuring up comic-strip ideas in her spare time. Before Messick came up with Brenda and went on to become “the grande dame of comics,” she tried to sell four other strips, the histories of which Robbins rehearses in her book — Weegee (“drawn probably when the artist was just out of high school” and drawn better, I might add, than many contemporary strips of the mid-1920s) about a country girl coming to the big city to earn a living (On Stage anyone?), Mimi the Mermaid and Peg and Pudy the Strugglettes, which “metamorphosed into Streamline Babies. None of them sold.

Then in early 1940 she was dating C.D. Batchelor, the editorial cartoonist at the New York Daily News, and he told her that the newspaper was going to launch a new publication, a comic book supplement to the Sunday funnies inspired by the recently invented newsstand comic book, which, by 1940, was doing a booming business. For this purpose, Batchelor said, the newspaper needed eight new comic strips. Messick promptly invented a girl-bandit strip.

By then Dahlia (or “Dalia,” as it is usually spelled these days), knowing that a woman cartoonist would have small chance of success in the male-dominated world of the time, was signing her strips with the gender ambiguous “Dale,” thinking that most editors to whom she submitted her work by mail wouldn’t suspect she was female. But Captain Joseph Patterson, publisher of the News and head of the adjunct Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate, knew Dale was a woman.

“One look at Brenda Star,” Robbins wrote, “and it’s clear that no one would mistake the art as drawn by a man. Messick ‘drew like a girl,’ displaying a keen eye for exquisitely detailed fashions, featured lots of close-ups of her heroine’s beautiful starry-eyed face, added romance to adventure in her storytelling, and included paper dolls.” Messick said she was influenced by another great cartoonist of feminine frills, Nell Brinkley.

Messick’s characters were undoubtedly the frilliest heroines in comics since Brinkley, and perhaps for that reason, Patterson wanted nothing to do with them. Or perhaps the Captain had once before tried, unsuccessfully, a strip by a woman cartoonist and had vowed never to make that “mistake” again (although I don’t know who that cartoonist might have been, and it seems unlikely, as you’ll see in a trice, that he was prejudiced against women).

In any event, Patterson didn’t like the strip. He might have been guilty of simple male chauvinism. These days, we’re tempted to accuse him of sexism. But anyone hoping to make that charge stick will have to explain Mary King and Mollie Slott. King was Patterson’s first assistant on the Sunday Tribune, and he made no bones about her contribution to the paper’s success, giving her credit for “at least half of every good idea I ever had.” He eventually married her. And Slott was Patterson’s good right hand on Tribune-News Syndicate matters. It is doubtful that a rampant sexist would give such power and responsibility to women.

When Slott saw the girl bandit, she saw possibilities, and she convinced Messick to change the bandit into a newspaper reporter, a red-haired beauty inspired by Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. For the heroine’s first name, Slott borrowed that of one of the day’s glamorous debutantes, Brenda Frazier, and picked “Starr” because Brenda would be the “star reporter” of her newspaper, The Flash, also named by Slott. And then, Slott prevailed upon the Captain to buy the strip. He agreed — but only so long as Brenda Starr would never appear in his newspaper, the New York Daily News. And it didn’t. Not until two years after Patterson’s death in 1946.

Messick’s chronically romantic newspaperwoman first appeared June 30, 1940, in the Chicago Tribune’s newly launched Sunday Comic Book Magazine. The cut-out paper dolls that distinguished the Sunday Brenda for so many years were not yet in evidence, but in almost every other respect, the early adventures are vintage Brenda — as Richard Severo said in the New York Times, “a symphony of decolletage, good legs precariously balanced on high-heeled shoes, and Dior-like clothing that no woman would be likely to wear to a newspaper office.”

No self-respecting professional journalist, that is. But Messick knew little about the newspaper business and purposely avoided learning anything, believing that actual knowledge would corrupt her imagination. Norma Lee Browning, writing in The Saturday Evening Post (Nov. 19.1960), observed a consequence of Messick’s fact-free understanding of the newspaper business: “Messick left the newspapering to Brenda, which may explain why Brenda has been known to drop into her city room at midnight, bat out a story, and then hand the copy to a cleaning woman, who presumably conveyed it directly to the newspaper’s front page, without intervention of editors or other middlemen.”

In the newspaper business, Browning reported, not everyone had a high regard for Brenda. Said one newsman: “She’s the dame who put press cards back in reporters’ hats after reporters stopped wearing hats.” Said an editor of a major daily who wouldn’t run Brenda: “She does a disservice to the industry.” The publisher of the Houston Post canceled the strip when, in 1949, Brenda briefly took to smoking a polka-dot cigar.

And so Brenda Starr flounced across the comics page, festooned with fluffy nighties and lounging pajamas, low-cut (for that day) gowns, and plots governed only by the whim of Messick’s breathless invention, which often ignored logic and reason in favor of such purely feminine diversions (in the traditional male chauvinist sense) as a fresh hairdo or a new pair of shoes.

Yes, I know: that sounds sexist. But consider the evidence. On March 30, 1941, for instance, a doctor speculates that he’ll have to amputate Brenda’s legs so badly have her feet been frozen in a Sun Valley winter storm. The next week, we’re still waiting for a verdict on the projected amputation. But by the following week — happily, Easter Sunday — Brenda has miraculously recovered so she can waltz down the avenue in her Easter finery.

By the end of her first year, Brenda is the fashion plate she’ll be for the rest of her run under Messick, who stopped drawing the strip in 1980. (“The syndicate pushed me out,” she said, with a sort of bittersweet chuckle, “or otherwise I would have continued on.”) In her first adventure, the redhead is a little more fiery than she eventually became for the duration, but otherwise, she lacks only those stars in her eyes to be the Brenda we’ve always known (and, yes, loved).

Tomorrow: R.C. Harvey concludes his two-part essay by filling in biographical details on Dale Messick and her successors on the strip.

images ©Tribune Media Services

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One Response to “Another Redheaded Ending Part 1 of 2”

  1. […] Comic strips | R.C. Harvey begins a two-part essay on Brenda Starr, which ends its 70-year run on Sunday. [] […]