About ten years ago, Al Ashforth, a successful thriller writer and my friend, stopped by my house on our way to lunch and a chat about the state of the publishing industry. As I was reaching for my purse, I saw him staring with melting puppy-dog eyes down at a book on my coffee table. The title was: BRENDA STAR. REPORTER by Dale Messick.
To the right of the title, big, brash, and bold, occupying an entire half of the book cover, was beautiful red-headed, blue-eyed, and completely captivating Brenda Starr ... unmistakable to anyone who grew up in any part of the last half of the 20th Century.
Al said (as I have heard many men say before and since of this totally made-up comic strip female), “I was in love with Brenda Starr when I was growing up.”
Hell. I’m a girl, and I was in love with her, too! She was my heroine and my role model. She was the gorgeous, fearless, feminine, and sexy daredevil that 14-year-old me wanted to grow up to be... a Joan of Arc of journalism in stiletto heels who triumphed over evil with headline-grabbing stories, instead of being captured by bullies and burned at the stake.
I looked at my friend Al.
He was staring goo-goo eyed at book-cover-Brenda: hair as red as fire. Eyes as blue as sapphires.
I did what any friend would do under the circumstances. I said, “Al. You can have the book.”
I never saw it again until, inexplicably, a few months ago, the urge came upon me to once again possess the publication that paid tribute to my favorite reporter. So I found a reasonably priced edition (Hermes Press. Copyright 2012) in excellent condition on the Internet, and ordered it. When it arrived, I read it from cover to cover, enthralled as ever by Brenda’s adventurous spirit, courage, and resolve.
Last Friday, when my friend Ralph was picking me up to go out to dinner, he stepped into my living room and espied BRENDA STAR. REPORTER, just as Al had done 10 years earlier. Same Book. Same coffee table. Ralph said, “I never read those comics when I was a kid. Superman and Sergeant Rock were more my style. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a crush on her.”
Who wouldn’t have a crush on her?
I’ll tell you more about the book in a few seconds. First, though, I want to quote from one of my favorite scenes in Brenda’s long and varied career.
She had been captured by Dr. Pierre, a nefarious plastic surgeon conniving to operate on twins. One had a grotesque face, but a beautiful body. The other had a goddess-like face, but monstrous torso, arms, and legs. Having tricked Brenda Starr into captivity, Dr. Pierre intended to decapitate her and put her gorgeous head on the twin with the ugly face, and her beautiful body on the twin with the contorted limbs.
Even tied down and imprisoned on a slab, however, Brenda was indomitable. She exclaimed, “You can have this body. Take this face. But please. Please. Don’t take the most colossal front page scoop a girl reporter ever had!!!”
Gotta love her.
BRENDA STARR. REPORTER is a compilation of complete storylines from several of Dale Messick’s comic strips dating from 1940 to 1946. Dale continued to write about and draw Brenda Starr for over 40 years, until she retired in 1980. She died at the venerable age of 98 in 2005 and is credited with having created the first female action heroine (one year before Wonder Woman). Also notable, Dale was so bold in her depiction of the beautiful reporter – often in skimpy negligees and sexy swimsuits – that when she drew in belly buttons and cleavage, her stuffy, puritanical publishers edited them out.
In the preface to BRENDA STARR: REPORTER, cartoon historian Trina Robbins writes:
“Messick’s style is romantic and feminine, and there’s plenty of romance in the strips, yet Brenda Starr is an action strip. Brenda almost freezes to death on snow-covered slopes, and gets marooned on desert islands. In one 1957 story arc, the flame-haired girl reporter is tossed into the Amazon to be eaten by piranhas, then is drugged and placed into a canoe to drift to her death – and survives.”
But Brenda isn’t just a hard-headed reporter. She also had a heart throb, Basil St. John, the mystery man who saved her life when she was snow blind and stranded on an icy mountain top. He has a patch over one eye (of course), grows black orchids for the serum he extracts from them ... the only antidote to an unnamed disease threatening his life, and he comes and goes in and out of Brenda’s life as unpredictably as a tornado.
Brenda Starr is strong, gorgeous, ambitious, fierce, feminine, and invincible. In one panel, she storms into her editor’s office and demands, “I’m fed up on this sissy stuff. If you don’t give me a real story, I’m through.”
In another, she finds out that a competitor in her office has stolen her scoop, shouts, “Get out of here!” and throws a book at him that lands dead center on the back of his head.
When imprisoned by bad guys, she taps out an S.O.S. on the radiator; and saves her own life.
If Brenda Starr feels that she had been underestimated or cheated, she has loud, torrential, and undiplomatic tantrums. She throws flower-filled vases, coffee cups, crumpled sheets of newsprint, and even a silver trophy that she won as an undercover model in a fashion show.
She gets battered, bruised, beaten, kidnapped, tricked, trapped, and bamboozled, but she always lives to track down another story on another day.
Brenda is a fictional heroine from another era. She is braver, tougher, smarter, stronger, and much more honest than any of the female role models we have today, movie stars and politicians included. She doesn’t wait for permission, approval, closure, validation, or a group hug. Her integrity, spirit of adventure, and courage are the only affirmation that she needs. She...
Better than describing what she is like, I’ll let her tell you herself with this dialogue from one of her many comic strips.
BRENDA: “There’s only one way to solve the Black Orchid legend! I’m going to climb that mountain and see if there really is an orchid farm. Could you get me a guide?”
CONSIERGE: “That’s impossible. No one ever goes up there.”
BRENDA: “Then I’ll have to go it alone.”
In the long run, we all have to go it alone. But with role models like Brenda Starr, it can be a lot more fun, and much, much easier.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com