Comic books may seem like a male bastion, but women have always been part of the industry. Whether as artists, editors, publishers, or writers, women have been active, if underrepresented. If you say that one person can be a role model for her work but also provide role models for future generations through that work, then you might be talking about Dale Messick.
Dalia Messick was born on April 11, 1906, in South Bend, Indiana. Her father, Cephas Messick, was an artist, but he taught art and worked as a sign maker to support his family. Her mother, Bertha Messick, was a milliner and seamstress. Both of her parents’ professions impacted Messick’s interests and probably contributed to her innate talents.
Messick’s family included three brothers and two sisters. Her family moved to Hobart, Indiana, and Messick had to repeat two grades (third and eighth), so she didn’t graduate until she was 20. She was always drawing and took one summer of courses at the Ray Commercial Art School in Chicago before diving into the job market. Messick had a career before many white women did. She worked at two different greeting card companies as an artist. She quit her job in Chicago because they cut her pay (during the Great Depression) and moved to New York City for a better paying job that allowed her to live well but also send money back to her parents.
In the 1930s, comics were increasing in popularity, appearing in almost every newspaper. While women cartoonists were rare, they were visible in major newspapers and magazines, so it makes sense that Messick tried her hand at moving into that profession. She tried repeatedly to get her comics published, but all were rejected. Messick had a hunch that her first name might be contributing to her rejections, so she started using her gender-neutral nickname “Dale” when she submitted her next comics. The second one she submitted, Brenda Starr, Reporter, was accepted in 1940 by the Chicago Tribune.
At first, Brenda Starr, Reporter suffered from rampant sexism. The character was only accepted as a paper doll to be dressed up in the newspaper. Within a few weeks, the comic was published in a comic book supplement issued only on Sunday even though all the other comic strips in that booklet also had a daily run. However, it became popular, and by 1945 it was also running as a daily comic strip. In the 1950s, this comic was at its height of popularity, running in 250 newspapers, and even when it ended in 2011 it was still in 65 newspapers. It even appeared in international papers.
In Messick’s hands, Brenda Starr was fashionable, even sexy, but her career was the focus. The cartoon reporter constantly got into dangerous situations during her investigations, but that was common for most comic characters. Sadly, Messick was the product of a sexist culture, so Brenda Starr was also stereotypically emotional. That didn’t lessen the fact that the comic showed reporting as a viable career for women during decades when women were struggling to be taken seriously in the field. Messick also used her character to comment about social and career issues from time to time.
The daily strip was so popular that four Brenda Starr movies were made. They included a 1945 film starring Joan Woodbury, a 1976 TV movie starring Jill St. John, a 1979 TV movie starring Sherry Jackson, and 1989 flop starring Brooke Shields that erased Messick as the writer and claimed a man was the comic creator.
Messick stopped drawing Brenda Starr, Reporter in 1980 and then stopped writing for the strip in 1982. Later writers and artists toned down the sexiness and tried to increase the seriousness. That didn’t kill the strip, but Messick wasn’t thrilled with the personality changes, though she still felt the comic was good in 1998.
Messick never again saw as much success as the Brenda Starr strip generated, but she continued drawing until a stroke in 1998 forced her to quit. Her last comic was a weekly single panel called Granny Glamour, published by the Oakmont Gardens Magazine. Messick continued talking about her life and career for many more years until her death on April 5, 2005, only a week before she would have turned 99.
It only takes one amazing work to make an impact, and that Messick certainly had. She won the National Cartoonists Society’s Story Comic Book Award in 1975, and in 1997 she received the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award from that same organization. In 1995, Messick was the only living cartoonist whose work appeared in a 20-strip series of United States postage stamps.