Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Marilou Johanek

Starr went where no female cartoon had gone before

IT'S been years since I thought of the glamorous redhead and her mysterious man. But the recent death of Brenda Starr's creator, Dale Messick, released a flood of memories from an adolescent addiction. Once - never mind how many years ago - on Sunday mornings I had to get my fix from the star reporter at "The Flash." Everything else could wait. Brenda was no Blondie on the comic pages and the difference transfixed me and more than a few of my peers coming of age in the 1960s and '70s.

Brenda Starr was everything we weren't as awkward teenagers. First of all she was drop-dead gorgeous. Second of all this female character had more style, sophistication, and smarts than any other female character on the page. On top of everything else she was a professional working woman whose talent took a backseat to no man's - a rare occurrence in those (these?) days. Her breaking assignments were anything but fluff. If men didn't have to cover ice-cream socials, why should she?

We, her loyal teenage fans, liked her moxie and got caught up in her fearless adventures, from death defying stunts to escaping countless kidnappers. She was no femme fatale waiting for some superhero to save her from the big bad world. She did it herself, thank you very much. Of course, it goes without saying that no matter how harrowing the pursuit of a good story, Brenda Starr never looked worse for the wear.

Whether she was diving into the next outlandish plot, or beating back malefactors, or filing her story so late in the night that only a lone cleaning woman kept her company, she was as glamorous as the day was long. She had perfectly coiffed hair, a super-model profile, and a curvaceous figure to go with panache aplenty. Eat your heart out, Lois Lane.

Brenda Starr was light years ahead of Mary Richards or Murphy Brown. The comic strip heroine was a witty overachiever in a workplace dominated by men way before that combination was cool. She went where no female cartoon character had gone before.

She captivated every male in the comic strip with her Rita Hayworth beauty and controlled them with her don't-mess-with-me attitude. Women cheered. Men leered.

But no way would this ace reporter with the trademark starbursts accenting her dewy eyes be patronized or pushed around. No way would she take any guff from her blustering boss. Brenda Starr knew she was the best thing to ever grace Mr. Livwright's newsroom - and so did we. Just try getting someone to fill her stilettos or fight off monsters with as much Dior-style and cultivated sass as La Starr. Impossible.

Ironically, if "Brenda Starr, Reporter" had any weakness it was her prolonged loyalty to her man. Some things never change. Remember Basil St. John? He was the hunk to die for who was always at risk of dying young. The dark haired romantic with a sexy black eye patch had some unnamed but clearly exotic disease whose only cure lay in the serum of a rare black orchid. The flowering wonder could only be found deep in the Amazon jungle so Basil was always away in search of his salvation.

Yet whenever a black orchid would suddenly interrupt Brenda's frenzied life and many interim suitors, you knew old Basil was on the rebound.

It was an intoxicating soap opera on the Sunday funny pages, as we called them, and I was hooked. As a kid I never knew emerging feminists had a problem with the way the red-headed creation was depicted as more into fashion and love affairs than current events.

I also never knew Brenda Starr's creator changed her name from Dalia to Dale Messick to better break into the male-dominated newspaper cartoon business. I never knew she outwitted the sexists of her day to bring a gutsy, independent female journalist to life on the comic pages to capture the imagination of young girls. And others.

President Ford sent a congratulatory telegram to the cartoonist when Basil and Brenda finally hitched after nearly three decades of courtship. I love it.

When young female reporters complained to Ms. Messick that their lives were nowhere near as exciting as Brenda's, the pioneering newspaper cartoonist asked them who would read boring? They missed the point of the cartoon strip by a woman for women.

Brenda Starr was a hit because she was different, daring, and determined to prevail in life and love.

Like her creator, she was distracted on occasion by a good-looking man - it happens. But God bless Dale Messick for inspiring legions of young girls like me to settle for nothing less than their full expectations.

The late comics creator started something much bigger than Brenda Starr.

She opened the door to dreams.

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