75 Years Ago: ‘Brenda Starr’ Broke New Ground for Women in Comics
On June 30th, 1940, a new feature named Brenda Starr: Reporter debuted in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday Comic Book Magazine. The Tribune syndicate had introduced this insert in March of that year as a compliment to their regular Sunday comics, assembling adventure and humor strips in a handy pull-out, and piggybacking on the comic book craze that was sweeping the nation. (The Tribune's crosstown rival, The Chicago Sun, had recently launched their own stand-alone comic section with Will Eisner's The Spirit as the headliner.) Features such as The Drums Of Fu Manchu and Old Doc Yak sat side-by-side in a colorful jumble of newsprint, and while the supplement had proven a modest success, it lacked a break-out hit.
To be honest, the deck was stacked against this new strip, too. Creator Dale Messick faced systematic discrimination in the newspaper industry, to the point where she began signing her work "Dale" instead of her birth name of Dalia, in order to make her gender less apparent to editors. Her initial attempts at at selling a syndicated series were met with rejection, and having this new strip about a girl reporter buried in the midst of the Tribune's second-string offerings didn't bode well.
But Brenda Starr would go on to make a fruitful career out of beating the odds. Messick's mix of adventure and romance proved irresistible to readers, and by 1945, it was syndicated nationwide, having expanded from its initial Sundays-only format to a regular daily strip. Ensuing years brought a filmed adaptation from Columbia Pictures and the first of many Brenda Starr comic book series. By the mid-'50s, it was one of the country's most popular comics, running in 250 papers nationwide.
Messick made a point to keep the series changing and evolving, updating the strip's look to reflect current trends and fashions, and introducing an extensive cast of supporting characters over the decades. In 1980, after a forty-year run as writer/artist, she hired legendary creator Ramona Fradon to take over the strip's illustration, and stepped away from her creation entirely in 1982, bringing on Linda Sutter to handle writing duties.
Brenda Starr would continue for another two decades, weathering changing times and shrinking comic sections, undergoing another switch of creative team (Sutter relinquished the writing to Mary Schmich in 1985, and Fradon remained on the strip until 1995, when June Brigman took over the art), all the while defying expectations and making history. The final installment of the series ran in newspapers on January 2nd, 2011.
So today, on the anniversary of Brenda Starr's first appearance, we pay tribute to a truly groundbreaking work of comics --- a syndicated strip produced entirely by women that ran for over seventy years, won generations of readers, inspired numerous adaptations, and helped lay the groundwork for all the strong female characters that would follow.