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.
Even during the romance decades, Brenda had remained a working journalist—and, in a gender reversal, regularly rescued Basil.
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.
The media satire extended to cable: Brenda became the liberal voice of a screamfest hosted by conservative Slash Burns (a Bill O’Reilly lookalike), but it turned out that he loved the abuse; it hooked viewers. Forced off his show after the murder of his mistress/junior staffer, hyperambitious hottie Très Smart, Burns does the Washington version of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, working the analogous shtick as a liberal cable host who had seen the error of his ways. (Poor Très violated a core Brenda Starr mistress principle: Buy a large life insurance policy even before you go out to buy milk.) Plots could be prescient: A fake janitor stole The Flash’s unpublished scoops for a competitor years before Rebekah Brooks’s similar trick for News of the World came to light.
Brenda’s villains were Nietzschean Superman-wannabes ripped straight from the headlines, like preachy environmentalist/guitarist/artesian water adulterator Spring Chicwater (with a striking resemblance to rock star Sting) and celebrity chef/ex-con/Paul Prudhomme clone Rock Roquefort. Most memorably, Schmich created what she calls “a string of shrewd older women.” Mrs. Burns (Slash’s mother) was so retro that she never even got a first name. Channeling Maggie from Bringing Up Father, she wielded her rolling pin to smash three skulls into oblivion before plying Brenda with home-baked poisoned cookies. (Mrs. Burns ultimately lost the mother of all mother-in-law/daughter-in-law battles, dueling Slash’s wife with shovels over Brenda’s open grave as she sought to bury Brenda alive.)
Most of the women were high-powered professionals. Game-fixing Viennese sports psychologist Dr. Anna List (“Etics is like BMW—nice but not necessary”) comforted tearful athletes with a box of tissues next to her Freudian couch—and hypnotized Brenda to kill on command at the word “Pulitzer.” Emotionally desperate Dr. Dolores Pain spirited Basil from her EMT unit to a remote mountain retreat, where she danced around his IV gurney singing “I Feel Pretty.” Book editor Snootella, with a stable of bestselling fake authors and an exquisite pageboy hairdo that shimmered and danced as if auditioning to join Anna Wintour, killed to keep giving readers the false truths they craved.
Most shaded was Lady Trumpster, who, like her doppelgänger Katherine Graham, earned her newspaper empire the old-fashioned way: through her husband’s sudden death. Lady Trumpster’s professional success came at a family cost: Lear-like, she constantly lamented the limitations of her twin henchmen sons. In a London speedboat chase set against a fast-receding Tower Bridge (one of Brigman’s best sequences), one son failed to drown Brenda despite dumping her, drugged, into the Thames, while the other, zooming behind, betrayed his mother by fishing the star reporter out of the deep.
Brenda was constantly in peril: clapped with earphones blasting Springsteen’s hits at killer decibel levels; bound with chicken-basting thread as Rock ignited a grease fire (“I’ll bet Ellen Goodman doesn’t get tied up this much,” she whined); awaiting defenestration in a fake murder-suicide. Messick had bequeathed Schmich a
character who was a bit of a ditz. But where that other working-woman comics ditz, Cathy, could only say “Ack!” at each reverse, Brenda—a combination of Nick and Nora Charles without the money, Philip Marlowe without the gloom, Don Quixote without the illusions, and Columbo with an inner life—unditzed herself to expose the corruption behind the luxurious façades.
Brenda Starr finally married Basil St. John in 1976 (President Ford congratulated the couple), and then divorced him, but the mystery man kept coming back. (Readers demanded it, Schmich reports.) Endlessly ruminating over the relationship, Brenda couldn’t move on, even while comatose in the hospital, mumbling about decades of failures to the excruciation of her visiting colleagues.
Typically for the postfeminist world, Brenda’s solace was a constructed family: When not rescuing Brenda,
gay hairdresser-turned-entertainment-reporter Uncle Spiff would engage her in long philosophical walks.
Spy-turned-Oprahfied-talk-show-host Wanda Fonda was a close friend—and, awkwardly, the mother of Basil’s son Sage. When Basil vanished yet again, leaving Wanda on her own, Brenda, like any devoted turn-of-the-century pre-stepmother, was present for the birth of the child, and later chaperoned the eye-patched, mixed-race boy on a journey to find his father in the mythical Central Asian republic of Kazookistan.
Down to about 30 papers by the end, Brenda’s satire was too unconventional for the editorial pages and too complex for the gag-a-day comics pages. Occasional movie and TV incarnations over the last few decades ignored the character’s steel and wit in favor of the glamorous ditz. Although Brenda, burned by Basil, became the ultimate anti-cougar—in a recurring joke, each storyline ended with the handsome male lead throwing himself at her, only to be rejected—maybe television’s Age of the Cougar will find a place for this postfeminist icon.
Jay Weiser is associate professor of law at Baruch College.