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Art HERstory: Dalia “Dale” Messick

For this week’s Art HERstory post, I thought I’d share a little on the life of an amazing comic book illustrator…

Dale Messick (1906–2005) is one of the most important woman cartoonist of the 20th Century. She was America’s first woman syndicated comic strip artist, best known for her long-running “Brenda Starr, Reporter” series. The strip ran in 250 newspapers at its peak in the 1950s —something almost unimaginable for a woman in the male dominated industry of comics.

Dale Messick was a representative of her time, she changed her name from Dalia to “Dale,” years before the popularity of Brenda Starr, as a first step in competing for her place in the world of newspaper comics.

Messick was witty and had spunk and style, making her worthy of having a comic strip named after her! Read on…

Dale Messick was born in South Bend, Indiana to a seamstress and commercial artist. She had an interest in writing and drawing since childhood. She studied briefly at the Ray Commercial Art School in Chicago but left to begin a career as a professional artist.

She began working for a Chicago greeting card company and was successful but quit when her boss lowered her pay during the Great Depression. She moved to New York City and found work at another greeting card company at a higher salary, and began assembling a portfolio of comic strips after work.

Dale Messick premiered “Brenda Starr, Reporter” on June 30, 1940. The flamboyant redhead was impeccably dressed and traveled the globe on one exciting assignment after another for her newspaper, The Flash. Each adventure was filled with glamour, romance and intrigue but like any heroine she was torn between the demands of her career and the many loves of her personal life.

Dale’s inspiration for Brenda Starr was Rita Hayworth and the character also reflected herself. Brenda was feisty, sexy, and had gorgeous red hair which always looked good even after her adventures. Brenda Starr stayed popular during times such as the Depression, World War II and the 50’s when most heroes were men and represented girl power, like Rosie the Riveter. The comic strip was known as far away as Australia and had a readership of 60 million.

Brenda Starr showed readers a new type of heroine. She fought, from the very first day on the job at The Flash, for her right to be treated as an equal. Always on the cutting edge of fashion, Brenda has a sleek and sexy style that conveys the allure and independence of a working woman at the top of her career.

In 1995, Brenda Starr was one of twenty comic strips honored by a series of United States postage stamps. Ms. Messick was the only living creator.

As popular as Messick’s comic strip became a doll was inevitable!

Pictured above are Effanbee’s Brenda Starr and Daphne Dimples vinyl/hard plastic dolls. They’re the fancy kind with jointed arms and legs, fly wardrobes (feel free to get your Summer inspiration from them!), hand painted eyes and rooted saran hair.

“I’m a half-assed celebrity—everyone knows Brenda Starr but nobody knows me. I still get fan letters after all these years—five or 10 a week. They all want a sketch and an autograph because people collect these things. People collect anything. That’s why I never take my [dental] bridge out—they might collect bridges!”

Dale Messick retired in her late 70s. Miss Messick joked about writing her autobiography, “Still Stripping at 80,” never completed but retitled a decade later to “Still Stripping at 90.” She did write a single-panel strip “Granny Glamour” until age 92.

In 1985, Mary Schmich, took over writing the strip, and Ramona Fradon drew it. Schmich still write the strip, which is syndicated by Tribune Media Services, but it is now drawn by June Brigman (I love how it stayed an all-female comic strip!).

Dalia “Dale” Messick passed away only days before her 99th birthday in 2005.

I end today’s Art HERstory post with a quote by Ms. Messick:

“When you quit and just sit, that’s it.”

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