BRENDA STARR 101 - A BRIEF HISTORY

The world was at war in 1940. And when women across the United States answered the call to pick up slack in the nation’s work force, they became the family breadwinners, the daily newspaper buyers . . . and the comic strip readers. Enter Brenda Starr, Reporter, the format’s first career girl created, written and illustrated by a woman—Dale Messick. A good four years before Wonder Woman burst onto the scene, Brenda Starr was America’s top female crime fighter. The fearless, feisty redheaded journalist (who jettisoned girly assignments like obits and ice cream socials for dangerous hard crime news) became an immediate symbol of feminism and upwardly mobile aspirations for generations of readers. Brenda Starr, Reporter enjoyed a phenomenal seven-decade run, appearing until 2011, making it one of the most successful syndicated comic strips in the history of the art form. At its peak, the title was carried by more than 250 newspapers and followed by 60 million readers.


Top: Where the magic happened--Dale Messick at her drafting desk; Left: Bon Voyage with daughter Starr; Right: Celebrating the Brenda Starr U.S. postage stamp.

Top: Where the magic happened--Dale Messick at her drafting desk; Left: Bon Voyage with daughter Starr; Right: Celebrating the Brenda Starr U.S. postage stamp.

THE REAL WOMAN BEHIND BRENDA STARR

Dalia Messick (1906-2005) was a greeting card designer with a single-minded pursuit—to get one of her comic strips published. She moved to New York and walked the concrete jungle with a portfolio tucked under her arm, getting face time with a series of art directors for meetings that generated little more than a wink and an invitation to lunch.

It was a boys club like no other at the time. All owners, editors, syndicate directors, and comic strip creators were men. So Dalia rechristened herself the more gender-neutral Dale and began mailing in her submissions instead of turning up in person. The switcheroo worked. Soon Brenda Starr was born, her looks modeled after Hollywood goddess Rita Hayworth and her name cribbed from the most famous debutante of the day, Brenda Frazier.

Messick’s romantic illustration style, adventurous storytelling prowess and cheeky humor brought unique life to the world of Brenda Starr, triggering a faithful base of supporters that allowed the strip to continue long after Messick’s retirement. In 1997, she received one of the highest honors in her industry—the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonist Society.

POP CULtURE ICON

Way back in its World War II-era Sunday section debut, Brenda Starr, Reporter started with a bolt of brash energy. The character was already a working journalist, and she was introduced to the world as a hot-tempered go-getter irate over being handed down soft assignments while the boys in the press got grittier stories to cover. That was 1940. And for 70 years, the adventures continued.

The strips are fascinating pop artifacts as the storylines reflect the culture and times in which they appeared. Fashion, politics, social trends, world affairs, the state of journalism—it’s all there in Brenda Starr’s incredible 3,640+ weeks of consecutive first-run original appearances.

Creator Messick became one of the first female cartoonists to succeed in the male-dominated arena of the serialized story strip. She created a family of continuing characters for The Flash newspaper office that some argue might have provided a bit of inspiration for The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s colorful newsroom cast. Romance was a dominant theme in the strip, with one love interest in particular generating most of the drama . . . Basil St. John, Man of Mystery. The dashing suitor with the black eye-patch suffered from a rare hereditary disease. Only the serum from rare black orchids could keep his mental madness symptoms at bay, a nifty plot trick dreamed up by Messick to accommodate Basil’s extended disappearances. The back and forth kept Brenda miserable and readers captivated for years and years.

But after three decades of will-they-or-won’t-they, Messick relented and married star-crossed lovers Brenda & Basil with great fanfare. People magazine covered the ceremony as if it were a celebrity wedding, and then President Gerald Ford saw fit to issue an official telegram congratulating the couple on their nuptials.

For the U.S. Postal Service’s centennial anniversary, Brenda Starr was the only female among 20 comic strip characters honored with a commemorative postage stamp. On the broadcasting front, the strip has been adapted into a 1940s movie serial, a 1976 TV-movie and backdoor pilot for ABC and a feature film starring Brooke Shields as Brenda and former James Bond 007 franchise star Timothy Dalton as Basil.


BRENDA STARR, REPORTER - THE DEBUT: June 30, 1940


BRENDA STARR, REPORTER - THE FINALE: JANUARY 2, 2011


THE WOMEN WHO MADE BRENDA STARR, REPORTER

Throughout its run, the Brenda Starr, Reporter comic strip was written and illustrated exclusively by women. Messick handled the illustrating and writing duties on her creation for four decades, barely stopping to have a baby (she famously met a deadline by finishing a strip in the hospital delivery room). But her retirement gave way to a roster of super talents, beginning with artist Ramona Fradon, a Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame inductee who whipped up Brenda Starr adventures on her drafting table for 15 years. She was followed by June Brigman, who illustrated until the strip’s final appearance. As the strip’s top writer following Messick, Mary Schmich (a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Chicago Tribune) became the voice and soul of Brenda Starr for more than a quarter century. Fascinating career collections from Fradon and Schmich are available below:

THE STARR TEAM OF BRENDA STARR, REPORTER

Dale Messick (Illustrator/Writer), 1940-1980
Ramona Fradon (Illustrator) & Dale Messick (Writer/Plot Consultant), 1980-1982
Ramona Fradon (Illustrator) & Linda Sutter (Writer), 1982-1985
Ramona Fradon (Illustrator) & Mary Schmich (Writer), 1985-1995
June Brigman (Illustrator) & Mary Schmich (Writer), 1995-2011


MEET THE AUTHOR OF BRENDA STARR MYSTERIES

J.J. Salem has parlayed his lifelong fandom of Brenda Starr, Reporter (1940-2011) into a new contemporary novel series, Brenda Starr Mysteries, an officially licensed reboot that brings the glamorous feminist icon into the 21st century for exciting new adventures. The first entry, Black Orchid Murders, is set for a Spring 2017 release.     

Once called “the literary love-child of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins” by The Daily Record, J.J. Salem’s affair with women’s commercial fiction began as a teenager when he worked odd jobs to splurge on the hardcover edition of Collins’ Hollywood Wives. With writing that’s been called “deliciously bitchy,” “captivating,” and most pointedly, “escapism with a feminist edge,” the USA Today bestselling author has published 20+ books in a wide array of genres from suspense and romantic comedy to young adult fiction and celebrity biography. Visit his official website at www.jjsalem.com.