Dangerous Beauty: Brenda Starr’s Adventures Collected In New Book

Brenda Starr, Reporter: The Collected Daily and Sunday Strips: Volume One, from Hermes Press, is a slick and smartly-packaged reprint collection of the famous heroine’s earliest adventures. Created by Dale Messick in 1940, Brenda Starr has gone on to run in newspapers for over 60 years, and even spawned a feature film starring Brooke Shields. With its last strip published at the beginning of this month, now is a great time to look back at the world’s most iconic fictional female reporter (outside of, perhaps, Lois Lane).

As rendered by Messick, Starr looks like a cross between a pulp heroine and a fashion illustration — indeed, the lush, gorgeous art is one of the biggest reasons to buy this collection. With her sparkling-bright eyes, flowing hair, and epic wardrobe, Starr captivates every scene she is in. But lest you think that is where Messick’s talents end, she could also take a turn for the grotesque and dark, as in seen in what is easily the best story of this book, “The Curious Tale Of Mary Elizabeth Beastly.” Reprinted in sumptuous black-and-white, the art takes on the quality of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, complete with freakish visages and creepy masks.

The storytelling is a cross between a soap opera, with Starr facing the chore of having many attractive men in love with her, and action-thriller — the latter, thanks to the aforementioned creepy art and at times bizarre plot developments, almost give some of these tales a David Lynch type vibe. We’re talking men with small feet, disembodied heads, crazy underground civilizations, the corpses of dead women, cross-dressing villains, poisoned puppies, scary twins, and so on and so on. The dissonance between the (for lack of a better term) “girly” art and romantic storylines and the sheer weirdness of these elements makes, at least for  me, a very fascinating read — and very reminiscent of contemporary manga.

Much has been made of Brenda Starr as a feminist icon, her struggles being not just against villains but a society that wants women to “be in their place.” Starr is ambitious, brave, and has no intention of taking her amorous co-worker Tom Taylor’s advice to cease such a potentially dangerous life and “settle down” with him. But what really struck me about the strip was how much the title character struggled against other women. In this first volume of the reprint series we see extended storylines of Starr competing against the scheming niece of the publisher for a job, another female character who dresses like a man in order to kill women she is jealous of, Starr being beaten by jealous women who are angry that she won a beauty contest, and the reporter almost having her head chopped off so envious women can literally steal her body for their own. Following the beauty contest attack, Starr sports a big black eye for several strips, finally buying a pretty hat to make her feel better about the incident. With all the dangerous male characters she runs into during the course of her adventures, it is other women who inflict the most graphic injuries to her person.

In Starr’s world — at least in these early strips — most women are seen not as fellow females in the struggle for greater rights and freedom, but vicious competitors. It is notable that when the reporter finally gets a couple of sympathetic female associates, they do not fit conformist ideals of beauty: the very masculine Hank (who, reading the strip in the 1980s, I always assumed was a man), and the overweight Abretha (mostly played for laughs in the Etta Candy mold). These particular female friends and work associates are not “competition” because they are not as “pretty” as Starr — they are “safe” to associate with. This is a universe where one can be beaten, killed, and essentially cannibalized “for parts” by other women simply for being beautiful. This “femxiety” over other females is best encapsulated in the 1976 Blondie song “Rip Her To Shreds” — which ironically references Starr herself:

She looks like the Sunday comics!
She thinks she’s Brenda Starr.
Her nose job is real atomic…
All she needs is an old knife scar!
Yeah! She’s so dull, come on rip her to shreds.
She’s so dull, come on rip her to shreds.

Brenda Starr, Reporter: The Collected Daily and Sunday Strips: Volume One is a great book for those interested in anything from comics history to pop art to women’s studies, and is available in book stores right now.

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