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Goodbye, Brenda Starr: A Role Model to Girl Reporters Everywhere

4 years ago
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Brenda Starr -- the original girl reporter -- has lived the life.

Glamorous and brave, Starr, with her flowing red hair, basked in an adventurous career and passionate romances long before graphic novels came on the scene.

But after 70 years, the original girl reporter is stashing her notebook in the desk and writing "--30--" at the end of her story. The Brenda Starr comic strip is retiring in January, and popular culture will be without a fictional journalism ambassador.

Countless female journalists have named Starr as a guiding muse and role model in their careers, myself included. And what wasn't there to love?

Starr traveled around the world. She landed front page stories. She saved the day many times without help from a man. She told the boys in the newsroom where to go -- and it wasn't someplace nice.

She eventually found happiness with a mystery man named Basil St. John, who wore an eye patch and sent her black orchids, which she loved. Later on, the couple had a baby girl named Starr Twinkle St. John. (Note to Starr creators: Couldn't Starr Twinkle follow the daring path of her parents and have her own comic book? Just a thought.) Starr later divorced Basil who had a child, Sage, with a talk show host.

Starr emerged at a time when women were trying to figure out their place in society. World War II raged and women were discovering they could do a lot more than stay at home. Starr perfectly captured that independent daring streak that brewed in American women at the time.

In journalism, Starr took courageous lessons from real-life Nellie Bly -- an American journalism pioneer who took a record-breaking trip around the world. She adopted the glitzy look of 1940s Hollywood movie siren Rita Hayworth. Armed with fearlessness and great hair, Starr took on the world.

The combination made for a character who wasn't an unattainable super heroine like Wonder Woman but a real career possibility for girls who loved to write and explore.

Starr's creator was very conscious of the realities of sexism. Dahlia Messick had to change her name to the gender-neutral "Dale" just to get her foot in the door of the man's world of comic strips in 1940. "If I sent in my stuff and they knew I was a woman, they wouldn't even look at it," she said in an interview once.

Messick, like her altar ego Starr, broke barriers. She was the first woman in cartooning history to receive syndication -- at first, weekly, then in 1945, daily. She also received numerous awards for the strip and the U.S. Postal Service created a stamp in 1995 to honor Starr.

But her biggest gift was to female journalists who wanted to write more than obits and cover society events.

In one of the original strips set in Chicago, Starr sits at her typewriter. "Ho-Hum. Birth and Death notices are all I ever get to supply the Globe with. What I'd really like to get my teeth in -- is a story with some real meat in it!"

Two of her male colleagues approach her desk and tease her about daydreaming. "I've had just about enough of your wisecracks! I'm fed up on this sissy stuff."

"Gee! The Hurricane's headed straight for the chief's office," says one of the male reporters.

The other one retorts, "She hasn't red hair for nothing."

Brenda Starr busts through the editor's office and says she wants a real story and she's leaving. The editor tells her that her tantrums are wearing him down and for her to get Silky Fowler's story by midnight. "Silky Fowler, no reporter in town's had any luck with that guy. He won't talk."

The editor challenges Starr to land the story or she's fired. So her adventure as a hardcore reporter begins.

Sure, Starr found herself in situations that most reporters, even war correspondents, seldom do.

Once she was kidnapped and placed in an ice chest. On any adventure, she could be held at gun- or knifepoint. She knew to always be prepared because as she duly noted in one strip, "A girl needs a backup plan in case Prince Charming stumbles." She attracted men who were attracted to her not just because of her looks but also because of her fiery streak. And she always maintained independence with her eye on the next story, deadline and lover.

Starr chose career over housekeeping. "My house is a landfill," she said. Starr liked drama over calm, she said in one comic strip. She knew her life was far from perfect, but it was certainly exciting.

Her fashion and hair changed with the times and so did her career. She moved from reporter to editor.

Then, in 2009, Starr found herself in the same territory as many longtime reporters across the country. Her newspaper put her on furlough because of the paper's budget cuts. Starr's boss, B. Babbitt Bottomline, said, "I can't afford to pay you anymore."

In true Starr style, she traveled to India for more escapades as she connected with an old newspaper friend who gave her a job. But she later returned to the United States to conquer more stories of corruption and crime and face the world of bloggers in the newsroom. She didn't stay long. Once again she gathered up her passport and suitcase and headed to Belize.

Over the last seven decades, the Starr comic has had numerous writers -- all of them women (no small feat in the comic world).

Messick retired in 1980 and a series of women took up the comic, including Ramona Fradon, Linda Sutter and June Brigman. It's currently written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich and drawn by June Brigman.

Schmich said on Starr's retirement: "Everything comes to an end. It's really that simple. ... But I'm ready to spend my time doing something new now. And Brenda, who has a life of her own, tells me so is she."

Maybe Starr said it best last year while on her adventure in India, "I'm getting too old to risk my life for journalism."
Filed Under: Woman Up
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