Before Barbara, Diane, and Katie, There Was Brenda


Growing up, Sunday afternoons were my favorite time of the week. After mass, we would stop to pick up the New York newspapers and I would grab the comics to read Brenda Starr, Reporter. For a few minutes, I would lose myself in Brenda’s world, dreaming of becoming a newspaper reporter myself one day. Back in the 1950s, there was a dearth of working women role models for young girls. Brenda’s TV contemporaries—Margaret Anderson, June Cleaver, Donna Stone—spent their time cooking, cleaning, and raising children. As a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, The Flash, Brenda lived an exciting life, chasing stories, often placing herself in perilous situations, competing with her male colleagues, and enjoying a passionate romance with tall, dark, handsome Basil St. John, who turned wearing an eye patch into something sexy rather than sinister.

My bedroom desk was piled high with Brenda Starr comics, a way to keep in touch with my idol the rest of the week. Drawn by Dale Messick, Brenda had wavy red hair, sensuous lips, and, yes, stars in her eyes. Over the years, those eyes shed many tears, often over her on-again, off-again romance with Basil. In true soap opera form, everything and anything conspired to keep the two lovers apart. Oh, the drama! We loved it.

The comic strip inspired two films, one starring Jill St. John, the other Brooke Shields, with Timothy Dalton as Basil. Neither film was successful; the latter one, unanimously panned by critics, was an embarrassment to Shields. Attempts to bring the intrepid reporter to the small screen never happened. A Brenda doll introduced in 2003 failed to find an audience and was retired just a few years later.

At the peak of its popularity, Brenda Starr, Reporter was syndicated to 250 newspapers. As newspapers have died, so have outlets for comic strips. In 2010, only 65 papers, 36 of those outside the U.S., carried Brenda’s story. After 70 years in print, Brenda has finally put down her pencil. The final strip was published on January 2, 2011.

Besides featuring a female reporter, Brenda Starr, Reporter was unique because, from start to finish, women were responsible for writing and illustrating the strip. When the comic encountered initial resistance because its creator was a woman, Dalia Messick changed her name to Dale. Ramona Fradon illustrated the strip with Dale continuing to write from 1980 to 1982. Dale passed the writing baton to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in 1985, with Fradon continuing to draw until her retirement in 1995. Schmich and artist June Brigman, worked on the strip through its last installment.

Those of us who have worked as newspaper reporters are sad to see Brenda retire. She represented a side of journalism that enticed many of us to pursue the profession. We wanted the excitement of chasing the story, sure, but we also saw our role as privileged, even noble. Our readers depended upon us to find the truth, whether we were covering a lost dog story, crime, a school board meeting, the state legislature, or the White House. What we wrote was well read and we worked hard to maintain accuracy and integrity.

Towards the end of the strip, Brenda, returns to the U.S. after time abroad and is shocked to find that The Flash is now a free newspaper and has hired a blogger. Yes, Brenda, technology has changed how people receive the news but, even on the Internet, we can continue to uphold your standards—and hope we run into a sexy man sporting a black eye patch.

Tribune Media Services, along with Hermes Press, will publish a series of books, Brenda Starr, Reporter by Dale Messick: The Collected Daily and Sunday Newspaper Strips with the first one scheduled for June, 2011.

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