Messick, Dale (1906—)

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Messick, Dale (1906—)

American cartoonist who created the comic strip "Brenda Starr, Reporter." Name variations: changed name from Dalia to Dale in 1927 because of bias against women cartoonists among art editors. Born Dalia Messick in South Bend, Indiana, in 1906; daughter of Cephas Messick (an art teacher) and Bertha Messick (a milliner); studied at the Art Institute of Chicago; married and divorced; married Oscar Strom (divorced); children: (first marriage) one daughter named Starr (Mrs. Jack Rohrman, b. 1942).

Back in the late 1920s and 1930s when Dale Messick was peddling her comic-strip boards to publishers, cartooning, like so many other fields, was a male-dominated business not open to women. Messick changed her name from Dalia to Dale in hopes of getting a foot in the door, only to find that after landing an appointment to see an art editor, she usually received an invitation to lunch instead of an offer to work. Due in large part to her determination, women cartoonists have finally made their mark, including Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Nicole Hollander ("Sylvia"), and Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy"). Messick's own ground-breaking strip, "Brenda Starr, Reporter," is still in syndication, well over half a century after it first appeared.

Dale Messick was born in 1906 in South Bend, Indiana. Her father Cephas was an art teacher in Gary and held down a second job as a sign painter to provide for his daughter and four sons. Her mother Bertha Messick , a milliner, became a painter herself at age 78. (At age 90, Bertha had a one-woman show at the Palmer House in Chicago.) Messick was a poor student, possibly because she was so myopic that she did not even learn to tell time until she was a teenager; she repeated the third and eighth grades, and quit high school for a year before her parents convinced her to finish. Messick began drawing at an early age, with great encouragement from her father, who would sketch sunbonneted babies for her to copy. In school, she drew continuous story strips for her schoolmates, inspired by favorite heroines from the silent movie serials that she loved so much.

Messick's formal art training was meager; she spent a summer at the Art Institute of Chicago and a year or so at a commercial art school. For her first job she painted pinup girls on oilcloth tire covers for Orange Crush, a popular soft drink. She then moved on to designing greeting cards for companies in Indiana, Chicago, and, finally, New York. While drawing cards by day, Messick worked evenings experimenting with the comic-strip character that would eventually become Brenda Starr. Though no one took her seriously, she somehow rebounded from each rejection with more intensity than ever.

One particularly discouraging interview with Joseph Medill Patterson of the New York Daily News turned out to be Messick's break. Although Patterson told her outright that he would never hire a woman, his assistant Mollie Slott —who would later head up the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate—saw something promising in Messick's discarded strips. Together, they reworked Messick's adventuresome red-headed heroine from a bandit into a reporter and named her Brenda, after Brenda Frazier , a glamorous debutante of the time. Starr, as in star reporter, was added as her last name. Though Patterson was still not interested in printing the strip, he allowed it to be sold to other newspapers. "Brenda Starr, Reporter" first appeared in June 1940 as a Sunday strip in several papers of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate, and became a daily strip in 1945. It was only after Patterson's death that it appeared in the Daily News. Brenda Starr remained the number one comic-strip heroine for 40 years, at one time appearing in over 100 papers in the United States, five foreign papers, and boasting a readership exceeding 40 million.

Brenda was as feisty and unpredictable as Messick herself. Modeled on Rita Hayworth , Brenda Starr arrived as a full-blown reporter who was tired of covering ice cream socials and longed for action. The first episode showed an irate Brenda demanding a truly challenging assignment, and finally landing one so tough that no man on the paper would take it. So began the adventures that would take Brenda Starr from jungles to the Arctic, with encounters with demented scientists, ravenous animals, and other assorted scoundrels along the way. Messick never worked from a plot outline; instead, she relied on inspiration fueled by her imagination—or sometimes her dreams—to provide story

lines. Bits and pieces from her own colorful life also turned up from time to time.

One constant in Brenda Starr's otherwise unpredictable life was the mystery man Basil St. John, who was inspired by an assistant who briefly worked for Messick. "He was no good as an artist, but he wore this black patch over one eye, and I was fascinated," she said. Basil, suffering from a rare hereditary disease with "mental symptoms" that helped explain his frequent disappearances, came and went in Brenda Starr's life for 29 years, until Messick grew tired of finding ways to get rid of him and finally had the couple marry. Messick herself, wed and divorced twice, thought marriage the worst thing she ever did. "I'd like a new man every four years. I get bored sometimes, you know. Old-fashioned marriage is old hat."

In a career that spanned some 40 years, Messick never missed one of her 365 yearly deadlines. Extremely disciplined, she seldom vacationed and worked from a hospital bed when her only child Starr was born and while recovering from a car accident in which her jaw and collarbone were broken. Her working day routinely began at about 7 am with a song and a "costume," anything from a fluffy negligee and bedroom slippers to a Mexican Gypsy outfit with boots, depending on her mood. The creative process itself was aided by several assistants: one drew backgrounds, the male characters, and did the lettering; another was responsible for buildings and automobiles. Messick, wielding a pen and brush in her left hand, blocked the stories, did comic-panel roughs, and drew the figure of Brenda Starr, slimming her down or curving her out depending on her outfit. The strips were often passed back and forth among the drawing boards of the artists. The work environment was relaxed at best, with music blaring and Messick singing—or sometimes dancing—along. Meditative periods were punctuated with gasps or sighs, depending on Brenda's situation, and bursts of dialogue, tried out in what Messick imagined to be the voices of the characters.

Over the years Messick was criticized for her uncertain artwork, improbable story lines, and occasional improprieties. The now defunct Boston Post once had a staff artist draw a highnecked dress over Brenda's over-exposed attributes, and in 1949 Oveta Culp Hobby , publisher of the Houston Post, ordered the strip out of her paper when Brenda Starr took up smoking polka-dot cigars. Those in the newspaper business often voiced objection to Messick's ignorance of journalism and disregard for authenticity. One journalist called her "the dame who put press cards back in reporters' hats after reporters stopped wearing hats." Another executive editor flatly refused to run Brenda Starr, saying, "She does a disservice to the industry." Messick remained unconcerned. "I don't know too much about what's going on around me…. Authen ticity is something I always try to avoid."

Sutter, Linda (1941–1995)

American cartoonist. Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1941; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 18, 1995; daughter of Clifford S. Sutter and Suzanne T. Sutter; graduated from Vassar College, 1971; married; children: son Joshua C. Empson.

A former TV reporter for Channel 5 in New York City during the 1970s, Linda Sutter took over the "Brenda Starr" comic strip from 1982 to 1985. She went on from there to Harvard Divinity School, hoping to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but she was felled by cancer and died in 1995, age 54.

Fradon, Ramona (1926—)

American cartoonist. Born in New York in 1926; attended the Art Students League of New York.

Raised in Westchester County, New York, Ramona Fradon was one of the few women in the 1950s to land a job with a comic-book publisher. During her career, she drew many of the best-known superheroes, including Superman, Batman, and Plastic Man. In 1985, Fradon took over as artist for Dale Messick 's popular "Brenda Starr" comic strip, working with writer Mary T. Schmich .

Schmich, Mary Teresa (1954—)

American journalist and writer of the comic strip "Brenda Starr.". Born in 1954; eldest of eight children of a housepainter and homemaker in Savannah, Georgia; graduated with a liberal arts degree from Pomona College, Claremont, California; studied at Stanford; never married. UnlikeDale Messick , the original creator of "Brenda Starr, Reporter," Mary Schmich had 15 years of newspaper experience when she began writing the comic strip after Messick's retirement. Tribune Media Service, owners of the Orlando Sentinel, where Schmich was writing feature stories, asked her to take over Brenda's story line only, while an artist rendered the drawings. Schmich agreed, taking Brenda with her when she left Florida in 1992 to join the Chicago Tribune.

Schmich's approach was to keep the best of Brenda's checkered past, while easing her into the present. "I could not take a character with 45 years of life behind her and turn her into a character I would have invented 45 year ago," Schmich told Boston Globe reporters. "I mean, Brenda had a past—a lot of marks on her heart." Brenda's modern persona is a bit less vampy, works harder, and has aged to her mid-30s. Schmich admits to using Brenda as a sounding board. "The strip's a great way to vent all your thoughts about life," she said.

Brenda goes everywhere with Schmich, who even brought the feisty red-head with her when she went east in the fall of 1995, for a yearlong Nieman Foundation fellowship at Harvard University. While in Boston, Schmich put Brenda to work investigating Big Bucks Espresso, a coffee-bar chain, whose shady owner, Buzz Bucks, was up to no good.


"Names and Faces," in The Boston Globe. February 17, 1996.

suggested reading:

"Author! Author!," in People Weekly. August 25, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

Messick wrote one book based on the comic strip, Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter, and BrendaStarr, a movie featuring Brooke Shields , came and went in 1989. Messick retired in 1980, leaving Chicago for Santa Rosa, California, where she busied herself drawing caricatures of visitors to the Cygnet Art Gallery and taking painting lessons. (The strip was taken over by Linda Sutter .) Like Brenda, Messick clung to her youthful image. At age 69, she dressed like a 40-year-old and continued to dye her hair red in imitation of her famous character. "Never let another old bag outprop you," she often said. Dale Messick may have finally deserted her timeless heroine, but Brenda, eternally 23, lives on in the hands of artist Ramona Fradon and writer Mary T. Schmich .


Browning, Norma Lee. "First Lady of the Funnies," in The Saturday Evening Post. November 19, 1960.

Hurd, Jud. "Brenda Starr," in Cartoonist Profiles. December 1972.

Johnson, Flora. "Brenda Starr's Toughest Assignment," in Ms. Vol. 4, no. 6. December 1975, pp. 33–37.

Sujka, Sharon C. "34 Years in Chicago Tribune: Dale Messick Hasn't Missed Daily 'Brenda Starr' Deadline," in Editor and Publisher. November 23, 1974.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts