On June 30, 1940, a Starr was born in Chicago. Her story is part of the story of the Daily News, which will celebrate 100 years on June 26, 2019.
This part of the story starts with an illustrator with the last name of Messick whose then-boyfriend — Pulitzer-winning News editorial cartoonist C.D. Batchelor — called her Dalia, as did everyone else.
At a glorious time when growing newspapers needed more comics, he told her about a Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate contest for new strips, and she submitted one about a pirate with a striking resemblance to Rita Hayworth.
Syndicate owner and News founding publisher Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, hands-on with his funny pages and strictly opposed to women cartoonists, threw it in the trash. His top assistant, Mollie Slott, fished it out and suggested to the artist that she change the pirate to a reporter, and Dalia to Dale.
With those changes made, “Brenda Starr, Reporter” debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1940. Its mix of fashion, action and romance was picked up by hundreds of papers and read by millions of men and women, as a generation of girls cut out the paper dolls printed with the Sunday comics.
For all that, the Captain stuck to his sexist guns when it came to his paper. It wasn’t until 1948, two years after he died, that The News finally introduced New Yorkers to “the story of a glamorous newspaper gal” whose “pin-up pulchritude wrecks hearts while the presses roar” as she “tracks down crooks, cracks spy rings and captures scoundrels.”
As writer R.C. Baker noted in The Comics Journal, Messick, who could be a loose writer (like when she had Starr file her copy to the cleaning lady) and illustrator (“the hand of fate,” she’d say when asked about a hand that had remained on a woman’s shoulder after she’d redrawn a panel to move the rest of him), had a gift for showing the heart of things.
In a man’s world, Messick’s woman got the scoops, and often the man, too — all while apartment-hunting with her cousin, talking back to editors who’d sometimes try to push her into competition with other female reporters, and fending off unwanted advances.
When men would write Dale requesting more “daring” drawings of the sexy reporter, she’d send them a sketch of Starr in a barrel going over Niagara Falls: “I hope this is daring enough.”
Messick — who’d introduce herself as Brenda Starr’s mother and who’d dyed her own hair red — named her real-life daughter Starr. Looking back on her pregnancy, Messick recalled: “It was throw up, draw ‘Brenda,’ throw up, draw ‘Brenda.’ ”
Some of those drawings, from a story where Starr tracks down a wrench-wielding robber who turns out to be a scared and scarred teenage girl living with her dad in a junkyard, can be seen through this week at Manhattan’s Museum of Illustration. They came from Laura Rohrman, whose play about her grandmother and her grandmother’s creation, “Reporter Girl,” will be read there Wednesday evening.
Messick drew the strip until 1980 and scripted in until 1982, when the syndicate — where she said “I never was really accepted” as its first female creator — “pushed me out.”
In 2010, five years after Messick passed away at 98, Starr — a year after her paper had laid her off — left the funny pages, months after Cathy gave her last “ack!” and Little Orphan Annie her last “leapin’ lizards!”
“I am Brenda Starr,” Messick would say. “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?”