The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod  

Dale Messick, Original Creator of "Brenda Starr"

June 30, 2010

Vivaceous, curvaceous, smart and glamourous, "Brenda Starr" was an immediate fan favourite in the comics pages in 1940. Cartoonist Dahlia "Dale" Messick made history as the first woman to receive comic strip syndication. Creating her adventurous heroine for 40 years, she retired in 1980. "Brenda Starr" did not retire . The comic continues under Tribune Media Services.

Very much like her Brenda Starr character, Dahlia Messick had a certain glamour about her. Coiffed red hair, perfect make-up, a love of fashion and an elegant demeanour hid a strong determination to make a success as a cartoonist in what was then a man's world. One of the first steps in that direction was to change her first name from the feminine "Dahlia" to the gender unspecific "Dale."

That small change got the talented but unrecognized cartoonist's foot in the door.

Dahlia Messick

South Bend, Indiana was the birthplace of Dahlia Messick on April 11, 1906. Her father was a sign painter and her mother a milliner, making hats. Perhaps an outcast from her schoolmates, Messick was short-sighted and "couldn't see the looming face of the classroom clock, slowing her mastery of time-telling at an age when such skills ae an important social factor," said Daedalus Howell in the essay, "Starr Gazer" on (Feb 19, 1998). Art was not particularly appreciated in the locale, and worse yet, Dahlia was left handed, something that could cause punishment.

Brenda Starr 1949

Endowed with a sturdy spirit, Messick drew and sketched anyway, cultivating her natural talents. Her efforts were worthwhile. When finished with school and a short stint at the Ray Commercial Art School, she found a job as a greeting card designer in Chicago.

During the Great Depression, her employer tried to cut her wages in order to give another artist a raise. Messick would have none of it. She quit the $35 a week job and found another in New York City, one that paid nearly a third more. Earning an impressive salary of $50 a week, she sent $20 of that home to care for her family, who were struggling to survive the poverty of the time. (The average annual income was between $500 and $1,500, giving Messick a very comfortable living at over $2,500 a year.)


While creating greeting card art, Messick developed samples of comic strips. Under her own name, Messick was ignored. "If I sent in my stuff and they knew I was a woman, they wouldn't even look at it," she said. Submitting a comic strip about an adventurous, beautiful bandit, the young woman was once again rebuffed. On advice of Mollie Slott, editorial assistant to Chicago Tribune's then-editor, Joseph M. Patterson, Messick changed her first name from Dahlia to Dale. The main character was changed from bandit to star reporter and given a new name.

"Brenda Starr," submitted by Dale Messick, was accepted for syndication.

In a Sunday strip on June 30, 1940, "Brenda Starr" made her debut in the Chicago Tribune. The date was momentous. Dale Messick was the first woman in cartooning history to receive syndication. The comic's appearance was well-timed - women were streaming into the workforce to replace men sent to fight overseas. They were hard-working, independent women, looking for better lives. And there was "Brenda Starr", taking them on intriguing escapades, into dreamy romances and rescuing the day, by herself. The strip was made into a daily in October of 1945. Messick herself was no wallflower. She dyed her hair red to match her character's locks and had the aura of a sophisticated celebrity.

Not worried about sticking to reality or authenticity, Messick was quoted as saying, "Authenticity is something I always try to avoid," said Dennis Wepman in The Encyclopedia of American Comics, 1897 to the Present (Promised Land Productions 1990). Messick did not consider herself a good artist. While she formulated the plots and drew the main characters, especially the women's fashions, Messick hired John Oleson in the 1950s to cover the action scenes, backgrounds and lettering. Another artist, Jim Mackey, drew the architecture and automobiles.

Brenda Star 1943

Crafting the saucy, daring and feisty woman reporter, the soap-opera-style "Brenda Starr" kept audiences captivated to the comics page and kept Messick busy until she retired in her 70s. At its height of popularity, the strip ran in 250 newspapers. Later, Messick developed a few more strips that did not catch on, and wrote a book entitled, "Still Stripping at 90" when she was a very senior citizen.

Awards came in for the wonderful work and advancements made by Dale Messick. The National Cartoonists Society presented the Reuben to Messick in 1975 under the category of Story Strips and in 1997, she was honoured with the prestigious Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award. The United States Postal Service honoured "Brenda Starr" in 1995 in a series on comic strips. The comic strip was made into movies in 1945 and again in the 1990s, but did not have great success.


On Messick's retirement in 1980, two other women took over the glamourous life of "Brenda Starr." Ramona Fradon created the dazzlling art and LInda Sutter wrote the mysteries, romances and adventures.

Moving to California to be near her daughter and family (Messick was married and divorced twice), Dahlia Messick suffered a stroke that ended her artistic skills. She died just before her 99th birthday, on April 5, 2005.

"Brenda Starr" shines on in a small market of 20 newspapers today under the creative hands and minds of Mary Schmich and June Brigham. Still popular with readers, Schmich noted in Messick's obituary in the Washington Post on April 8, 2005 that, "I am constantly amazed by how many female reporters of my age tell a story of spending Sunday morning stretched out on the living room floor, racing for Brenda, the one place in the ocmics where you could find women having an adventurous life." The other strips just don't have it.

Dahlia "Dale" Messick left a great legacy of independence and woman-power, one that is still hard to top.

Catch up on the latest exciting instalment of "Brenda Starr" daily at GoComics.

Photo and art property of Tribune Media Services.

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© Susanna McLeod 2010