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Cartoonist Dale Messick Dies; Creator of 'Brenda Starr' Strip

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page B06

Dale Messick, 98, whose glamorous, spirited, redheaded reporter Brenda Starr cracked open the comics pages for adventure-seeking female characters and cartoonists, died April 5 after a series of strokes. She was at her daughter's home in Penngrove, Calif.

Ms. Messick, who often described Brenda as her alter ego, created the quick-witted character in 1940. She drew and wrote "Brenda Starr, Reporter" for 43 years, until the syndicate that owned it pressured her to retire. The strip, which at its peak appeared in 250 newspapers, continued to be produced by two two-woman teams. It now appears in about 20 papers.


Dale Messick, shown working on her strip in 1953, wrote and drew the reporter's adventures for 43 years. (Chicago Tribune Via AP)

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Long before the fictional television journalists Mary Richards and Murphy Brown burst into American homes, ace reporter Brenda Starr mixed style and controversy as she rocketed from one thrilling adventure to another. She appeared just as the American workforce transformed, with men headed to World War II and women to factory floors.

The starry-eyed Brenda, who always knew her own worth, agitated for better assignments and broke stories in exotic locales after parachuting out of planes or being hijacked on the high seas. Brenda unapologetically sassed the grumpy editor of "The Flash" newspaper and often filed stories so late that her only company was the newsroom cleaning woman.

San Francisco author Trina Robbins, who wrote "A Century of Women Cartoonists" in 1993, said Ms. Messick was "extremely important" in the history of comics.

"Throughout her life, she met a lot of resistance from men. Even in the early 1960s, [male interviewers] played her up as a dizzy dame instead of this brilliant comics creator," Robbins said. "Brenda had a better image than Lois Lane, who was always being rescued by Superman. Yes, she swooned over her mystery man, but remember, Brenda Starr always solved her own problems and got herself out of fixes."

The mystery man was the unreliable Basil St. John, who wore a black eye patch, disappeared for months at a time yet managed to survive an unnamed disease that could only be treated with a serum extracted from black orchids collected in the Amazon jungle. When Brenda and Basil finally married in 1976, President Gerald Ford sent a congratulatory telegram. Basil turned into a boring househusband, and after a few years, he was banished to restore some romantic frisson. Brenda, whose looks were inspired by actress Rita Hayworth, went on to have many more affairs.

Ms. Messick strongly identified with her creation, dying her hair red, naming her own daughter Starr and adopting the impeccable grooming and expensive attire that her most famous character wore.

"She was more like a diva movie star than a cartoonist," said Laura Rohrman, whose visits to her grandmother's Chicago apartment were marked by dressing up in feather boas in a gold-painted room. "She was like no one else you're ever going to meet in this lifetime. She just had this incredible imagination and would tell us [Rohrman and her brother] stories like you never heard."

Ms. Messick had to fight her way into funny papers at the beginning, when editors would rather take her to lunch than take her work seriously. Mollie Slott, then secretary to the head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, recovered Ms. Messick's strip from an office trash can and persuaded Ms. Messick to change Brenda's occupation from bandit to reporter. She also suggested Ms. Messick change her given name from Dalia to Dale to get around the blatant sexism of the time.

Even into the 1950s and 1960s, Ms. Messick said she would get letters from male readers who, assuming she was male, would ask for "more daring" private sketches of the glamorous Brenda. The artist complied, sending off a drawing of Brenda going over Niagara Falls in a barrel and coquettishly asking whether that was daring enough.

She drew paper cut-out dolls to accompany her Sunday comic, showing Brenda in frilly underwear, with a choice of career wear or Southern belle formals. She also drew an African American paper doll, Lona Night, which Robbins described as "Grace Jones, as done in 1948."

The U.S. Postal Service gave Brenda Starr a commemorative stamp in 1995. She was the heroine of a movie serial in 1945, a television movie in 1976 and a thoroughly panned movie in 1989. Ms. Messick did a little better: A 1991 documentary film, "Funny Ladies," featured her, and in 1997, the National Cartoonists Society gave Ms. Messick its lifetime achievement award.

In her time, she could be controversial. Whenever Ms. Messick drew in cleavage or a navel, the syndicate would erase it. She was once banned in Boston after showing Brenda smoking a polka-dot cigar. Her outlandish plots included countless death-defying stunts on snow-covered slopes and desert islands, becoming a member of a girl gang and repeatedly escaping from kidnappers.

Ms. Messick's Brenda also was criticized as the women's liberation movement picked up steam in the 1970s for being more interested in love and fashion than the controversies of the day. Ms. Messick shrugged off such critiques, and interviewer after interviewer noted her appreciation for a good-looking man.

Born in South Bend, Ind., she grew up near Gary, Ind., and was artistic as a child. Her father was a sign painter and her mother a milliner, but during the Depression, Ms. Messick was the sole support of the family of seven, working as an artist in a greeting card company in Chicago. She quit in a snit when her boss cut her $35-a-week pay to give a raise to another employee. She cried all the way home but then moved to New York, where she found a $50-a-week job at another greeting card company. She worked on her comic strips at night.

She got a break when the New York Daily News's Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist C.D. Batchelor told her the paper was looking for a new strip. She fell in love with him, said her granddaughter, but he was married. Although she subsequently married and divorced twice, she always pined for her first love. Her granddaughter has a play about Ms. Messick's life, "Reporter Girl," in development at the New York Actors Studio drama school.

The strip was turned over to a writer-artist team after Ms. Messick left. Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Schmich now writes the strip, and it is drawn by June Brigman.

"I am constantly amazed by how many female reporters of my age tell a story of spending Sunday morning stretched out on the living room floor, racing for Brenda, the one place in the comics where you could find women having an adventurous life," Schmich said. "I mean, who else was there? Nancy? Blondie? Mary Worth? Brenda showed us that you could have the men and the work, too."

Ms. Messick never owned her own work, drawing it for a salary for 43 years from what is now the Tribune Media Syndicate. In retirement, Ms. Messick had a small pension and worked on an unfinished autobiography, called "Still Stripping at 90." She also drew a single-panel strip that the AARP's Modern Maturity magazine rejected because its characters, including Granny Glamour, were too activist.

Ms. Messick said through that character that she wanted no funeral services. In her words: "No fuss, no muss, just dust."


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