comic riffs

After 70 years, Brenda Starr will soon face final deadline

By Michael Cavna
Friday, December 10, 2010

Yet another veteran reporter has been forced from the print business.

Brenda Starr, the flame-haired, jet-setting journalist who devotedly split her passions between men and the pen, will leave the funny pages next month after a 70-year career, Tribune Media Services announced Thursday.

The comic's writer, Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, and artist June Brigman chose to bow out from continuing their longtime stewardship of the strip. Instead of seeking a new writer and artist, Tribune Media Services opted not to continue "Brenda Starr, Reporter."

"Mary and June have been instrumental in shaping Brenda's current character and have provided readers with sophisticated, adventurous, witty storylines and brilliant artwork," the syndicate's managing editor, Mary Elson, said in a statement.

So why did Schmich want to quit now, after a quarter-century of charting Brenda Starr's globe-trotting path?

"Everything comes to an end," Schmich said. "It's really that simple. I had a great time doing 'Brenda.' Through her I got to think about journalism, relationships, politics, society - life big and small - in a way unique to comic strips. When she traveled to exotic places - Belize, Mount Everest, the inner realms of TV talk shows - I traveled with her.

"But I'm ready to spend my time doing something new now. And Brenda, who has a life of her own, tells me so is she."

Featuring the then-rarity of a strong female lead as a professional, the Chicago-set soap-opera adventure strip debuted in 1940 as the creation of pioneering Dale Messick, a former greeting-card writer who faced initial resistance as one of the very few women working in the field of syndicated comics.

The Indiana-born Dalia Messick changed her pen name to "Dale" to battle gender bias from editors. After Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate head Joseph Medill Patterson gave "Brenda Starr" a trial run in a newspaper supplement - this despite his own reputed gender bias - the strip caught on with readers, eventually appearing in hundreds of newspapers as a daily feature by the 1950s.

One of the strip's notable aspects is that its creative teams have consisted entirely of women. Messick produced the strip till 1982, the final two years working with Ramona Fradon; the comic then changed hands to Fradon and Linda Sutter (1982-85); Fradon and Schmich (1985-95); with Brigman coming aboard in 1995.

Throughout its run, "Brenda Starr" flaunted the fact that journalistic realism wasn't the point, as the redheaded crack reporter favored high glamour and heightened romance, as well as highly unlikely journalistic scenarios. Brenda Starr's circle included Hank O'Hair (her city room "reporter pal who helps keep our gal's feet on the pavement"); Flash managing editor Atwell Livwright ("a tough boss with a heart of gold, reinforced with steel"); and her eye-patched longtime beau, Basil St. John ("Brenda's mystery man," whom she married in 1976).

"Brenda Starr" was honored with the National Cartoonist Society's "best story strip" award in 1976 and received its own postage stamp as part of the "100 Years in Comics" series. Messick herself received the NCS's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Tribune Media Services says Brenda Starr won't retire entirely. Working with Hermes Press, the syndicate says that it will publish a series of books titled "Brenda Starr, Reporter by Dale Messick: The Collected Daily and Sunday Newspaper Strips" and that the first volume will appear in June.

Hollywood attempted several times to do justice to Brenda Starr, with little luck. The 1989 film - starring Brooke Shields as the sleuthing ace reporter - especially did little to either embellish or tarnish the comic's place in popular culture; Messick reportedly even warned friends away from the movie.

Brenda Starr is the second redhead at Tribune Media Services whose retirement has been announced this year. In May, the syndicate announced that Little Orphan Annie would sing her final "tomorrow" on June 13 - 86 years after its launch. "Brenda Starr" reportedly is still appearing in 35 newspapers, the syndicate says.

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