Another classic comic strip just ran out of panels: Brenda Starr is ending its run on January 2. Writer Mary Schmich and artist June Brigman have decided to end their run on the strip, and the syndicate decided to end the strip with them. The death of Schmich’s mother is said to have been the turning point in deciding to move on.
“There’s sadness about stopping, but no regret and no ambivalence,” Schmich said. “It came to me really clearly that I was done. … I don’t think the character is dead. But the comic strip in this form is.”
Chronicling the globe-trotting deeds of a snoopy reporter, Brenda Starr began its run on June 30, 1940, mixing Winnie Winkle-type fashion with Terry and the Pirates exotic jeopardy. Perhaps most famously, its creator was a woman — Dale Messick, whose struggle to get work was so discouraging that — as many pioneers did before her — she adapted a gender-ambiguous name to get her work taken more seriously. Although the Chicago Tribune syndicate picked up the strip, it did not run in the Tribune — allegedly because syndicate head Captain Joseph Patterson didn’t like the idea of a dame doing a comic strip. Fortunately he was proven wrong and glamorous reporter Brenda and her sexy man of mystery Basil St. John — who she pursued for some 30 years before they married — joined the ranks of comics beloved characters for a run of just over 70 years.
Messick drew the strip until 1980, when it passed to a succession of women creators — Ramona Fradon, Linda Sutter and eventually Schmich and Brigman. Through it all, Brenda remained plucky and fashionable, a female adventurer who never shied away from danger or a handsome stranger. Adaptations over the years included a serial, a failed pilot starring Jill St. John, and a rather lame movie starring Brooke Shields. She also got her own postage stamp in 1995.
The strip was something of a lightning rod for all the “Can women do comics?” arguments over the years. Messick’s well documented fight against sexism made her a real pioneer, and one of the few truly successful female cartoonists in America for the second half of the 20th century. But Brenda’s lush adventures didn’t go down too well with the geek crowd, and Messick’s oddball art came in for much criticism. In truth, it was never as bad as its detractors said and had its own quirky charm and power. To all the haters, I say only: Brenda is an icon and you’re not.
As a kid I loved Brenda Starr, even as I was puzzled by her sidekick Hank O’Hair, whose indeterminate gender and unwavering beanie hat were two mysteries whose code I could never crack. And of course, who didn’t want a dashing beau with an eye patch who popped up whenever things were getting dull?
At the end, Brenda Starr was only carried in 20 papers, yet another signal of the end of an era of serial entertainment and vivid characters who became daily friends in the newsprint world. And perhaps it was just time. Asked for a comment, comics historian/cartoonist Trina Robbins, who has written much about Messick and her work, said:
Wellll…you won’t be surprised to read that I believe a strip should be retired when its creator retires. Much as I love June Brigman and Ramona Fradon, nobody could really replace Dale’s Brenda. Since Dale retired, Brenda Starr, no matter who drew her or wrote her, has basically been the walking dead. I’m glad she will finally be able to rest in peace, and I hope the syndicates will eventually allow certain other strips to finally die a natural death.
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Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.