A lifetime of adventure, romance, and unlimited budgets.
Sep 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 01 • By JAY WEISER
I first saw Brenda Starr at midnight, lured to a derelict pier by a promised interview. Suddenly the moon, skewing shadows on twisted steel beams, silhouetted yachtsman Broker Proffitt against the glinting bay beyond. (Brenda preferred her villains upscale.) As he drew a gun, Brenda was seized with regret: “If I had known my life would be this short, I would have picked a better-paying career.”
The pioneering heroine of the Brenda Starr, Reporter comic strip recently ended her 70-year quest for scoops, romance, and adventure. This volume reprints selected storylines from the strip’s early years, enhancing the color far beyond the muddy standards of 1940s Sunday supplements. A role model for mid-20th-century girls about to surge into the workforce, Brenda soldiered on in the late-century world of changing gender roles. In her last quarter-century, bruised by failed relationships and ensnared by office politics and budget cuts at a deteriorating newspaper, she became the heroine of a graphic novel that happened to run in the comics pages—a masterpiece unrecognized because it, like Brenda herself, was trapped in a dead-tree medium.
With the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington (a dead ringer for the astoundingly big-haired villain Vanity Puffington) aggregating print journalists into oblivion, Brenda’s day was done, even though she had served two stints as editor in chief of her own newspaper, The Flash. Strip creator Dale Messick, one of the first women cartoonists, had conceived Brenda as a proto-feminist heroine. This was less advanced than it seems in our supposedly more enlightened day: Late-19th-century journalists Nellie Bly and Ida Wells had actual adventures as hair-raising as Brenda’s, and Anne O’Hare McCormick and Martha Gellhorn were famed foreign correspondents at the time of the strip’s 1940 debut.
In the first strips, Brenda looks strikingly like Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (also 1940)—another aggressive reporter out to prove she is as good as any man. While Messick later claimed that “authenticity is something I always try to avoid,” the early Brenda worked in a realistic newsroom, volleying repartee with the boys before racing out for scoops.
The strip’s popularity peaked in the postwar decades, centering on Brenda’s endlessly thwarted romance with the dashing, one-eyed Basil St. John. A hereditary disease condemned Brenda’s mystery man to madness that only a serum made from rare black orchids could forestall, so the pair roamed the world in pursuit. (In glimpses over the years, the serum recipe resembled a trendy 21st-century cocktail, but without the alcohol or anchovies.) Basil’s 1945 arrival is no mystery; the original Brenda was too feisty for women pressed back into domestic roles after World War II.
By 1985, when Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich took over, she found the strip locked in a 1950s romantic sensibility where Brenda “was always crying about her love life,” even though characters such as sitcom journalist Mary Richards bestrode popular culture. Under Schmich (who had originally planned to become a novelist) and the veteran comic book artists Ramona Fradon (through 1995) and June Brigman (to the end), Brenda Starr sharpened into a satire, mocking thrillers, media, and postfeminist angst in wild storylines running up to eight months long. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) may have popularized the graphic novel form, but Brenda got there first.
Returning journalism to the fore, Schmich unknowingly restored Messick’s original character, with some twists. Brenda kept the starbursts around her eyes, her red hair and tasteful string of pearls, but dressed more simply, as befitted a postfeminist professional. Simpler clothes also reproduced better as the size of comic strips shrank. (The retired Messick, whose high-fashion illustrations had entranced girls for 40 years, groused, “She looks more like she works at a bank.”) No longer a girl reporter struggling to keep her job in a man’s world, Brenda became a legendary journalist of a certain age struggling to keep her job in an imploding newspaper industry.
Jeered at by a recurring Greek chorus of readers at the newsstand outside The Flash’s offices—they would disgustedly dump her Page One exposés in the garbage, or stare raptly at the vacant-eyed local TV anchorman on a monitor—she didn’t always succeed. When, in a circulation-building Hail Mary, publisher B. Babbitt Bottomline turned the newsroom over to the American Reporter reality show, Brenda emoted on quality journalism. But viewers of the show fired her in favor of scheming gossip columnist Gabby Van Slander.