Known as the “Grand Dame of the Funnies,” Dale Messick is America’s first syndicated female cartoonist for creating the popular adventure comic strip Brenda Starr Reporter in 1940. Messick was born in South Bend Indiana to Cephas Messick, a sign painter and teacher, and his wife Bertha, a milliner.
Messick had four younger brothers and was the beloved only daughter. Her mother taught her to sew and gave her an appreciation of fashion that she carried with her the rest of her life. Messick later attributed her mother’s gorgeous creations—hats and dresses as her inspiration to make Brenda Starr so chic and fashionable.
Though Messick was never very academic, she was an avid reader. She would go to the library after school and read Punch magazine, a British humor publication that first coined the term “cartoon.” “The Perils of Pauline” a popular serial of the day mesmerized Messick. In the stories, the femme fatal was always rescued in cliffhanger fashion. Messick loved adventure, romance, action and the beautiful female heroine who could fight back in high heels.
Like most schoolgirls after World War I, she idolized the artwork and feminine designs of Nell Brinkley. Young Messick entertained her friends by writing and producing plays in the family’s backyard inspired by Nell Brinkley’s weekly serial. She was the art editor and illustrated much of of her high school yearbook in 1921.
Messick studied art at The Art Institute of Chicago and soon got a job creating greeting cards. Despite being the family’s sole provider during The Depression, she quit her job when her boss threatened to lower her salary so he could hire another “pretty” girl. Eventually, she landed a job at another greeting card company, this time in New York City for fifty-five dollars a week, but there would be more . . .
Though she had drawn comic strips during her school years, she began several cartoons with women as the lead characters. By 1940 she had already tried in vain to sell four comic strips.
After hearing about a contest searching for new comics in The Chicago Tribune’s New York Daily News, Messick submitted a strip with a beautiful girl bandit who was a dead ringer for Brenda Starr.
The head of the New York Daily News, Joseph Patterson, swore he would never publish a woman cartoonist—and went so far as to throw away anything sent in by a woman. But his female assistant, Mollie Slott, saw things differently and pulled Messick’s work out of the trash. She encouraged her to make a few tweaks; she thought her female bandit should be a reporter and, according to lore, she also suggested Messick change her name from Dalia to Dale to sound more like a man. Messick took Slott’s advice and resubmitted Brenda Starr as a red-headed reporter who worked for a newspaper called “The Flash.” She also signed it Dale Messick.
Brenda Starr, Reporter debuted in June of 1940 and was an immediate hit with young women and girls. Brenda Starr’s name came from a 1930’s debutante, Brenda Frazier, and her body, fashion sense, and persona mirrored leading Hollywood actress, Rita Hayworth, complete with matching long red hair and a curvaceous figure. Each week for the next 40 years Messick created imaginative and often gripping story lines that sent Brenda Starr on assignments to exotic places that only male reporters were given, which ironically mimicked real-life journalism. The audacious reporter would free herself after being kidnapped, and jump out of airplanes, landing just outside her editor’s window. And once she even filed her completed story with the newspaper’s cleaning woman. Starr also talked back to her managing editor. In addition to drawing her strip, Messick also would include Paper Dolls of Starr that became very popular with young girls who sent in fashion ideas. She also included an African-American paper doll, Lona Night, in 1948.
At its peak, Brenda Starr, Reporter was included in 250 newspapers and read by more than 60 million readers. When Starr and her long-time “Mystery Man” boyfriend, whose very survival depended on the serum found in the fictitious but famous black orchid, finally married after 36 years in 1976, President Gerald Ford sent a congratulatory telegram.
In recognition of her work, Brenda Starr, Reporter was one of 20 comic strip characters—and the only female character—chosen to be on a postage stamp during the U.S. Postal Service’s 100th anniversary. The strip had also been turned into a movie serial in 1945, a madefor-television movie in 1976, and a film that starred Brooke Shields in 1992.
In honor of her groundbreaking work, the National Cartoonists Society awarded Messick with the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.