Born Dalia Messick, April 11, 1906, in South Bend, IN; died April 5, 2005, in Sonoma County, CA. Comic-strip artist. Indomitable and sassy are two words that describe Dale Messick. Her can-do spirit helped her become one of the pioneering female cartoonists who opened the door in a male-dominated profession. Her comic strip, "Brenda Starr, Reporter," was read by more than 60 million readers, and became the subject of both praise and criticism. She received a lifetime achievement award from the National Cartoonists Society.
Messick was born on April 11, 1906, to Cephas, a sign painter and teacher, and Bertha, a milliner. She was the eldest child and only daughter. Messick's love of drawing began at an early age. She had little use for school, and had to repeat both the third and eighth grades. She graduated from high school but only after her parents pressured her. In addition to drawing, she also helped her mother design and sew hats, a skill which she would later use for drawing Brenda Starr's wardrobe.
Messick studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. She followed that with employment as a greeting card designer. Despite being her family's sole provider during the early years of the Great Depression, she quit after her boss lowered her salary to give a raise to another employee. She freelanced for a while, and then won a position at another greeting card company in New York. Always the daring one, instead of taking a train or driving to New York, Messick flew in a single-engine plane that took eight hours to arrive.
Though she had drawn comic strips during her school years, she began creating a comic strip with a woman as the lead in earnest. After learning from the New York Daily News ' award-winning cartoonist C.D. Batchelor that his newspaper was looking for a new comic strip, Messick sent in her comic strip about a female bandit for consideration. It was rejected by the publisher of the New York Daily News , Joseph M. Patterson, who was also the head of the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. He threw away her work, but his secretary, Mollie Slott, recovered it and encouraged Messick. She told Messick to make a few changes including changing the female bandit into a reporter, and also changing her name from Dalia to Dale. She took Slott's advice, and resubmitted her work to Patterson. He did not give her a daily slot, nor did he allow her strip space in the New York Daily News, but he did run the strip on Sunday in other newspapers. "Brenda Starr, Reporter" debuted in June of 1940.
Messick, who had no journalism background and, according to Richard Severo in the New York Times, "refused to learn about it," created Brenda Starr as the woman who every woman fantasized about being. The character received her name from a 1930s 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. In time, Messick began dying her own hair red, and took on Starr's personality by being bold, daring, and outspoken. Adoring male fans of the strip often asked for a racier sketch of Starr. Messick obliged by sending a drawing of Starr wearing only a barrel and going over Niagara Falls.
Each week Messick had Starr take on various 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 jumped out of airplanes, landing just outside her editor's window. She 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 cut-out dolls of Starr. She also included an African-American paper doll, Lona Night, in 1948.
While many praised Messick's work as pioneering, others criticized "Brenda Starr, Reporter" for its unrealistic portrayal of the journalism profession, since most female reporters were delegated to covering social events or city council meetings. But many of her female readers, especially little girls, looked forward to reading the comic strip to see a woman do things that during the early part of the 20th century were typically assigned to men. The Los Angeles Times' Claudia Luther wrote that CNN anchor Charlayne Hunter-Gault said in an interview that she "wanted nothing more than for her life to have the 'mystery and romance' she associated with Brenda's big-time, big-city journalism."
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 boyfriend, the mysterious Basil St. John, finally married after 36 years in 1976, President Gerald Ford sent a congratulatory telegram. The strip also made its debut in the New York Daily News, but only after publisher Patterson's death.
Though Messick found success once her strip was in circulation, she still faced sexism with the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. Each time she drew in cleavage or a navel on Starr, her employer would erase them. Even during interviews, she met with opposition. Author Trina Robbins, who wrote A Century of Women Cartoonists, told Patricia Sullivan in the Washington Post , "Throughout [Messick's] life, she met a lot of resistance from men. Even in the early 1960s, [male interviewers] played her up as a dizzy dame instead of this brilliant comics creator."
The Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate forced Messick to retire in the mid-1980s. "Brenda Starr, Reporter" continued, but was written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, and drawn by June Brigman. Messick, who drew a salary and did not own the rights to the strip she created, was given a small pension for her retirement. She continued drawing, and created a single-panel comic strip, "Granny Glamour". It was rejected by AARP magazine, but she found a home for it in a Californian publication for the elderly. She continued to draw the strip until the age of 92.
Messick, who had married and divorced twice, moved to northern California to be near her daughter, Starr, and her two grandchildren, Curt and Laura. 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 made-for-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. She had wanted to write an autobiography, but only came up with a title, Still Stripping at 80!, then when she entered her ninth decade, Still Stripping at 90!. Her granddaughter was in the process of creating a one-woman show, "Reporter Girl," when Messick died on April 5, 2005, at her daughter's home in Sonoma County, California; she was 98. Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 8, 2005, sec. 1, p. 11; CNN. com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/books/04/07/obit.dale.messick.ap/index.html (April 8, 2005); Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, April 8, 2005, p. A25; Washington Post, April 8, 2005, p. B6.
— Ashyia N. Henderson