Messick, whose given name was Dalia, was the eldest of five children and the only daughter of Cephas Hawks, a vocational arts teacher and part-time sign painter, and Bertha Cora (Wagoner) Messick, a milliner. Shortly after her birth, Messick’s family moved from South Bend to Hobart, in northwest Indiana, where she grew up. She displayed artistic talent at an early age and was encouraged to draw pictures. Although nearsightedness and indifference toward school caused her to repeat two grades, Messick entertained her fellow students and teachers with illustrated stories inspired by movie serials (especially those starring Pearl White) and other popular images from World War I and the early 1920s. Also influenced by the glamorous, curly-haired Brinkley Girl drawn by Nell Brinkley, a popular illustrator of the day, Messick most often made women her main characters.
At Hobart High School, Messick served as art editor of her class yearbook. After her 1926 graduation, she moved to Chicago to pursue her dream of becoming a professional cartoonist. Seeking to improve her skills, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the Ray-Vogue School (later the Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg). In the late 1920s Messick found employment in an engraving plant and did artwork for a soft-drink firm before landing a position designing greeting cards. Although one of her cards reportedly sold millions of copies, she quit her job over what she felt was an unjust reduction in her weekly salary of $35. After being hired by another greeting company in 1934, Messick left Chicago for New York City. There she earned the sizable Depression-era sum of $50 per week, $20 of which was sent back to Indiana to help support her family
While working, Messick spent her nights drawing comic strips that she hoped would be purchased by newspapers. Her earliest-known strip (probably created when she was just out of high school) was the somewhat autobiographical “Weegee,” whose main character was a poor country girl seeking fame and fortune in Chicago. The petite and attractive Messick attributed the rejection of “Weegee” and other early submissions to the fact that male editors were more interested in obtaining her phone number than in discussing her work. She then changed her first name to the more gender-neutral “Dale” and mailed her sample strips instead of delivering them in person. Nevertheless, subsequent Messick strips—including the odd fantasy “Mimi the Mermaid”; “Peg and Pudy, the Strugglettes,” a more polished and updated version of “Weegee,” about two young women trying to succeed in New York; and “Streamline Babies,” a revised “Peg and Pudy”—went unsold during the Depression decade.
In 1940 Messick heard that the New York Daily News was seeking new comics material and sent her latest offerings to Joseph Medill Patterson, the paper’s founder and publisher who also headed the Chicago Tribune–New York News Syndicate. But Patterson, the comic-strip guru who had helped develop Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Terry and the Pirates, had no interest in the female cartoonist’s portfolio. However, Mollie Slott, Patterson’s principal assistant, who also had a reputation for shaping new comic strips, thought one of Messick’s samples simply needed fine-tuning. At Slott’s suggestion, the strip’s protagonist, a beautiful red-haired bandit, became a beautiful redhaired newspaper reporter named Brenda Starr. The first name was borrowed from Brenda Frazier, the most photographed New York debutante of the 1930s; the last stood for the character’s status with her paper, the Flash. Although Patterson still refused to run the strip in the Daily News, Slott persuaded him to buy it for the syndicate.
Brenda Starr, Reporter debuted on 30 June 1940 in the syndicate’s comic-book magazine, a Sunday insert launched by the Chicago Tribune editors to counter the growing popularity of comic books. Of the many entries that appeared in the magazine in its four years of existence, the only unqualified success proved to be Brenda Starr. At the end of 1941 the strip moved into the regular Sunday comics and began running in the daily papers on 22 October 1945. Messick married Everett George (“Pup”) Soltmann, who worked for his family’s Manhattan art-supply business, on 15 November 1940. They had a daughter and divorced on 7 March 1953. Afterward, Messick married Oscar Charles Strom, an Indiana trial lawyer, on 19 April 1953. They had no children and later divorced.
A significant departure from Messick’s career-girl strips of the 1920s and 1930s, Brenda Starr was an escapist blend of action, adventure, high fashion, and romance. The self-confident heroine, whose red hair, face, and form were modeled after the movie star Rita Hayworth, wore elegant clothes and traveled to assignments around the world. Brenda struck a chord with the millions of women who streamed into the American workforce during World War II, and the strip maintained its popularity long after the war. At its peak, Brenda Starr ran in 250 papers, and in 1960 Messick had a readership of more than 40 million. A number of comic books of reprinted strips, as well as a coloring book of the cutout paper dolls drawn by the cartoonist for the Sunday papers, were published over the years. Brenda also became the subject of three films: a serial starring Joan Woodbury (1945), a made-for-television movie with Jill St. John (1976), and a disastrous feature that starred Brooke Shields (1992).
Messick, who cared little about real reporters’ lives, had her heroine parachuting from airplanes, freezing on snow-covered mountain slopes, and narrowly escaping from gangsters, spies, mad scientists, and spurned suitors turned kidnappers. Often inspired by dreams, the cartoonist’s plots moved with breakneck speed and allowed for whirlwind romances and numerous wardrobe changes for the fashionable Brenda. Messick dismissed journalists’ criticisms of her fantastic depiction of their profession by telling them that if she “made Brenda’s life like theirs, nobody would read it.”
The cast of regulars in Messick’s strip included Atwell Livwright, Brenda’s grumpy but caring managing editor; Hank O’Hair, her androgynous newsroom colleague and confidant; and Abretha Breze, her cousin and comical sidekick. A supporting character with a pivotal recurring role was Basil St. John, Brenda’s “mystery man” and one true love. A tall, handsome millionaire with a black eye patch, he suffered from an unknown malady that could be relieved only with a serum made from rare black orchids. Brenda’s far-flung assignments and her mystery man’s constant search for orchids in the Amazon jungle kept them apart for long periods. Even after marrying in 1976 (thirty years after meeting), the lovers resumed their separate quests.
Messick wrote the stories and drew Brenda (exclusively), the fashions, other important characters, and action scenes. She relied upon assistants, including her first husband and the artists Frank Roberge, John Olson, Jim Mackey, and Mike Grell, for layouts, lettering, spelling corrections, and the drawing of outdoor backgrounds, male anatomies, buildings, automobiles, and other mechanical objects. Another assistant, a handsome young man with an eye patch whom Messick fired after three days’ work, became the inspiration for her strip’s “mystery man.”
The flamboyant Messick dyed her hair red, playfully called herself Brenda’s “mama,” and boasted that she had married twice, divorced twice, had a baby, and “never missed a deadline.” She moved regularly, after 1940 residing in New York, Connecticut, Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and California; for a time a silver travel trailer served as her home and studio. Messick continued to write Brenda Starr until 1980. In 1983 she stopped drawing as well, turning the strip’s entire production over to a two-woman team. In retirement in California, living on a modest syndicate pension, she dressed stylishly, juggled three boyfriends, and even produced a new one-panel cartoon, Granny Glamour, until a stroke in 1998 left her unable to draw. She died of severe cachexia and was cremated.
Just as Brenda Starr fought her way out of the social department to become a globe-trotting reporter, Messick battled her way into the cartooning business and succeeded in the overwhelmingly male action-adventure genre. Although she never won the National Cartoonists Society’s coveted Reuben as Cartoonist of the Year, the male-dominated organization did award her the silver plaque for Best Story Strip in 1975 and the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.
The Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University in Columbus has a clipping file on Messick and some of her original artwork, and Indiana University in Bloomington has a sizable collection of original art from the Brenda Starr comic strip. Tom Mason, comp. and ed., The Red-Headed Bombshell (1989), includes the first year of Brenda Starr and an interview with Messick. Messick’s career is discussed in Trina Robbins and Catherine Yronwode, Women and the Comics (1985); and in two other works by Robbins, A Century of Women Cartoonists (1993) and The Great Women Cartoonists (2001). A profile of Messick in her heyday is Norma Lee Browning, “First Lady of the Funnies,” Saturday Evening Post (19 Nov. 1960). See also Jackie Leger, “Dale Messick: A Comic Strip Life,” Animation World Magazine (July 2000). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 8 Apr. 2005).
Richard H. Gentile