Dale Messick

The idea of making a woman newspaper reporter a comic strip heroine was still novel, when a feisty woman named Dale Messick started “Brenda Starr” in Chicago in 1940.

Now that some are ready to write an epitaph for the entire newspaper industry, the whole notion seems a little quaint.

And while newspapers are still here, the Brenda Starr strip is ending after a 70-year run, it was announced this week.

The event means something extra to those of us who got to know Messick after she retired to the Santa Rosa area in the early 1980s.

I still have a Messick original, a clean, sharp drawing of a black-haired woman in a very smart hat. The woman in the drawing isn’t Brenda Starr. All ardent fans, including my mother for many years, knew that Brenda was a fiery redhead.

Messick was pretty tough and determined herself. During an interview in 1982, she told me that she had “barely made it through high school,” but she went on to become America’s first syndicated woman cartoonist. Born Dahlia, she changed her first name to Dale so that readers, and editors, wouldn’t necessarily realize she wasn’t a man.

At its zenith, from the ’50s through the ’70s, “Brenda Starr” reached 60 million readers in 200 newspapers. Brenda’s marriage in 1976 to her longtime mystery man, Basil St. John, made national news.

After Messick’s retirement, other cartoonists continued “Brenda Starr,” starting with a talented comic book artist named Ramona Fradon (anyone remember “Metamorpho”?) Messick worked for awhile on a local strip she called “Granny Pineapple.”

Messick’s granddaughter, Laura Rohrman, wrote a play about Messick called “Girl Reporter.”

Messick died in Penngrove in 2005, at the age of 98.  But mention of her name still conjures an instant image of the crimson-haired “news hen,” out for a story.

Lois Lane had Superman, but Brenda Starr had style.