Brenda Starr

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Brenda Starr

Sixty years a journalist, red-haired Brenda Starr began her career as a funny paper version of the pretty girl daredevil reporter who was a staple of movies and radio over a half century ago. Created by a woman named Dale Messick, Brenda Starr, Reporter made its first appearance in 1940. It was a combination of newspaper melodrama and frilly romance. There had been female reporters in the comic sections before her, notably Jane Arden, but Brenda seemed to epitomize the type and she managed to outlast all the competition.

The strip owes its existence in part to the Chicago Tribune's uneasiness about the phenomenal success of comic books. The advent of Superman, Batman and then a host of other costumed heroes had caused hundreds of adventure-based comic books to hit the newsstands and, in many cases, to thrive. To offer its younger readers something similar that would hopefully boost sales, the Trib created a Chicago Tribune Comic Book that was tucked in with the Sunday funnies as of the spring of 1940. On June 30, 1940 Messick's strip was added to the uncertain mix of reprints and new material. The only feature to become a palpable success, it was eventually transferred to the regular Trib lineup. Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, who headed up the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate and was the publisher of the News, disliked women cartoonists in general and Brenda Starr in particular and the strip never ran in his paper until after his death. He was not opposed, however, to his syndicate selling to as many other newspapers as possible.

Feisty and pretty, Brenda covered all sorts of stories for her paper and that put her in frequent danger from crooks, killers, and conmen. But her job also introduced her to a succession of handsome, attractive, though not always suitable, men. Most notable among them was the mysterious Basil St. John, who wore an eye patch, raised black orchids, and appeared frequently over the years until he and Brenda finally were wed.

Brenda's managing editor was a fellow named Livewright and her closest friend on the paper was a somewhat masculine lady reporter named Hank O'Hair. For her feminine readers Messick included frequent paper dolls in the Sunday page. Messick apparently also drew all the fashionable clothes her characters wore, but for the action stuff and such props as guns, fast cars, and shadowy locales she relied on assistants. John J. Olson worked with her for several decades.

Brenda had a limited merchandising life. The strip was reprinted in Big Little Books as well as comic books, but there was little other activity. She was first seen on the screen by the Saturday matinee crowd. Columbia Pictures released a 13-chapter serial in 1945, starring B-movie veteran Joan Woodbury as the daring reporter. Roughly four decades later a movie was made with Brook Shields as Brenda. The film, which Leonard Maltin has dubbed "a fiasco," was kept on the shelf for three years before being released. When Messick was retired from the strip, Ramona Fraddon, who'd drawn such comic book heroes as Aquaman, took over as artist. More recently June Brigman assumed the drawing.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Goulart, Ron, editor. Encyclopedia of American Comics. New York, Facts on File, 1990.

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