Comic strip journalist calls it quits after 70 years of reporting
Brenda Starr was born June 30, 1940, full-grown into a big-city newspaper office where she was an oddity, a female reporter.
Also gorgeous, a fiery redhead, as they say, with a glamorous if out-of-place wardrobe. Straight away Brenda Starr demanded respect in a man’s world, insisting on hard-hitting news assignments.
Hers was a call to arms for women entering the workforce. She became a cultural icon from the funny papers. A career woman with an important and adventurous job, Starr exposed the rich and famous, although she never entirely overcame a slightly ditzy streak.
The comic strip heroine was heralded as a “girl reporter,” but the term did not offend Mary Schmich back when Schmich actually was a girl, reading the comics pages.
“There was something thrilling about that,” she says.
Globe-trotting Brenda Starr retires. The headstrong, glamorous Brenda Starr charted new courses for women in the world of work. (June Brigman/MCT)
Yes, thrilling. Schmich is a longtime journalist in Chicago who had a side job for the past 25 years as the writer of the Brenda Starr comic strip. Her comment helps explain the devotion Starr earned from generations of women.
And men. Tom Henderson, a reporter and a self-described ardent Brenda Starr fan and feminist, wrote an essay several years ago after the death of Brenda Starr’s creator, Dale Messick. He called it, “Brenda Starr Made a Man Out of Me.”
Now, Brenda Starr is gone.
Schmich and June Brigman, the strip’s artist for the last 15 years, decided they had ventured as far as they could go with the globe-trotting newspaper reporter, and Tribune Media Services opted to end the strip’s 70-year run rather than find a new writer and illustrator. The final strip was published Jan. 2.
No ace reporter to wear pearls and show a bit of cleavage in the newsroom of The Flash.
No more hasty departures to Belize or London to track the big, improbable story.
No more rendezvous with eternal love interest Basil St. John, the Man of Mystery ― although a boxed black orchid did arrive, mysteriously, from “BSJ” in the final strip. (Serum from the rare South American orchid kept him from going mad, recall.)
Never mind, because Brenda Starr will forever hold an esteemed place in comic strip history.
Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, says the museum has showcased “Brenda Starr” as a great adventure strip, noteworthy for the rarity of having a woman as the creator and for its longtime excellence in artwork. Both Ramona Fradon, the artist for 15 years after Messick, and Brigman have a strong body of work as comic book artists, Farago says.
“And the strip has always had women at the helm, which has been a terrific thing,” he says.
Schmich, born in 1953, recalls reading “Brenda Starr” as a youngster, when the excitement of Sunday morning was spreading the comics out on the floor.
What wasn’t there to like about Starr? Schmich says, especially compared with “Nancy,” who was “weird, androgynous,” and “Mary Worth,” who was “elderly and dispensed advice.”
As Schmich got older, she lost track of the funny pages, as people do. That is why, back in 1985 when she was working at the Orlando Sentinel, and an editor asked her if she wanted to meet with the features syndicate people ― in one hour ― about a job as the new writer for “Brenda Starr,” she rushed to the racks of newspapers in the lobby and read all the strips she could in 60 minutes.
“How could you say ‘No’?” she says. “Something this ridiculous crosses your path and you’re not going to pick it up?”
After she got the job, she needed something for Starr to cover in her first strips. Schmich had just written about motorcycle events at Daytona Beach, so Starr covered bikers on the beach, too. That, naturally, led to an investigation of suntan lotion moguls. About that time Schmich moved to Chicago to work for the Tribune.
When Schmich took over the strip, Starr seemed stuck in the 1950s. Other female pop culture characters had long passed her by, from Marlo Thomas’ “That Girl” in the 1960s to Mary Tyler Moore’s TV newswoman, Mary Richards, in the 1970s.
“They were Brenda versions 2.0,” Schmich says. “My mission was to bring Brenda into the 1980s. But there were limits to how I could manipulate Brenda Starr. She just pushed back.”
That is, Starr could be less ditzy, she could cry less, she could obsess less about men. But she still could not grow suddenly stoic or forsake her love life.
Schmich also knew that she could not turn Brenda Starr into Mary Schmich and that Starr’s career could not mirror the typical newspaper journalist’s duties.
“I’m sitting at my desk wearing jeans, hair unkempt, no makeup on. That character was not going to be an icon,” Schmich says. “And for as much as every day in the newsroom is a crisis, the drama and suspense are really not there.”
When Messick was criticized years earlier for Starr’s unlikely assignments of international intrigue, she did not apologize: “Authenticity is something I always try to avoid.”
But Schmich, a working journalist, could not help but inject a little authenticity. She was awash in current events, in the troubles of the newspaper industry and in the atmosphere of a typical newsroom ― from reporters’ rivalries to their love-hate relationships with editors to their junk-piled cubicles.
“That’s what I had in my head when I sat down to write,” she says.
Brigman sought out and won the drawing job 15 years ago after hearing that Fradon wanted to retire. She, too, had read “Brenda Starr” growing up, and she connected with Schmich’s tweaking of the Starr character. She liked that Starr “still had sparkly eyes but wasn’t quite as starry-eyed,” that she was more about career and less about shopping.
Brigman decided to dress Starr in less-frilly outfits, more suits with boot-cut pants and a lower waist line.
“But one thing stayed the same,” she says. “She always had the classic pearl necklace and matching earrings.”
Her job was to make the strip visually entertaining, and Schmich’s new characters helped, including a dog for Starr. Brigman decided on a Jack Russell terrier, she says, because Jack Russells are natural-born troublemakers. His markings included an eye patch, “just like the other man in Brenda’s life.”
She liked drawing Patch, so Schmich kept working him into plots, including a series in which Patch ended up with an atomic bomb in his stomach.
“Don’t ask me,” Brigman says, “I just draw the pictures.”
Many journalists are also among the strip’s longtime fans. Henderson, beyond admiring Starr as a strong woman character, loved the news media backdrop.
“I like to think we’re still a heroic profession in some regards,” Henderson says. “The strip speaks to that idealism and romanticism we all had when we got into newspapers in the first place, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
As a former newspaper guy who now writes online articles for www.parentdish.com, he admired Schmich and Brigman’s gigging of journalism in the Internet age.
Henderson recalls a comment from The Flash’s gossip columnist, Gabby Van Slander: “What kind of a nitwit would buy a newspaper these days? Is he buying a horse and buggy business, too?”
Van Slander was a Schmich creation, and her quote is one of many Henderson has collected. He has used them as an instructor in high school and college journalism courses. In one story line, Starr rights the wrongs of blogger Rat Sludge, which rhymes with Matt Drudge. In another, Starr and colleagues are involved in a “Survivor”-style reality TV show. The strip shows people watching the show when one viewer comments: “This is ridiculous. Who even reads newspapers anymore?”
“I like the storylines that you can tell there’s a real-life reporter kind of winking behind the scenes,” Henderson says.
Some 250 newspapers once carried “Brenda Starr,” but at the end that number was down to about three dozen, plus online.
By Edward M. Eveld
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)