Dale Messick: A Comic Strip Life

by Jackie Leger

Dale Messick, America's first woman syndicated comic strip artist, is a celebrity in her own time. Creator of the legendary Brenda Starr, Messick worked hard to become what "herstorian," Trina Robbins considers to be "the most important woman cartoonist of the Twentieth Century." Dale Messick was witty and energetic when I visited her a few years ago at her Santa Rosa home to interview her for a documentary film I was making about her unique life. At that time, she was still drawing daily, creating a new comic strip, Granny Glamour,for senior citizens like herself and selling her work at local charity events. Dale's dedication to the art of cartooning, her success as an internationally acclaimed artist and her lively and off beat personality bestow on her the title of the First Lady of Funnies.

Dale Messick. Courtesy of Jackie Leger © Dale Messick.

Finding Her Way to NYC
Her story began in 1906 in South Bend, Indiana where Dalia was born. Her mother was a seamstress and her father was an artist and sign painter who encouraged her to draw. Already drawing story-strips for her seventh grade class in Hobart, she always considered herself "a natural storyteller." Her ideas came from serial movies of the time with themes focusing on the lives of nurses and the dilemmas of World War I, saloons, dance halls, Germans and other subjects which would mark her work and that of other female comic strip artists in the 1920s. Dale didn't like high school finding it "dull" but after graduation, she continued her studies at the Ray Commercial Art School in Chicago. Her first job was working for a greeting card company for $10 a week. Her talent and innovative ideas, however, let her hop to another greeting card company and then another until she was earning about $35 a week. When one of her cards sold a bumper-crop of copies and she didn't receive a bonus; she quit and bravely moved to New York City in 1934. She was never poor from that day on. She worked for another greeting card company which gave her enough security and inspiration to work on her comic strips at night. When she was ready to show her portfolio, she had eight strips to her name and a lot of hope despite the fact that the world of comic strip art was a male dominated profession.

Messick's early strip Streamline Babies. Courtesy of Jackie Leger © Dale Messick.

A Rich History
The history of women in illustration and graphic arts is an interesting facet of American culture. In 1895, Rose O'Neill won a drawing contest in Nebraska which brought her to New York as America's first woman illustrator and soon to be creator of the famous, cute, innocent Kewpie. Other women followed and for years the pages of magazines like Harper's Magazinehired woman artists. They were best at drawing the cherubic children and angelic women needed for advertising everything from soap to Jell-O to soup and other products relating images of household bliss and economic prosperity. Women comic strip artists, however, were another breed. By 1901, comic strips by women appeared in the Sunday newspapers and popular magazines of the day, mostly catering to other women. However, many comic strip artists were not housewives presenting a view of home and family. Being single, working for a living and looking for a husband added a new dimension to their work. In Colorado, a young illustrator Nel Brinkley was working for the Denver Postfor seven dollars a week before coming to New York to work for the Hearst Journalwhere she created The Brinkley Girls,a flapper fad which set the tone for the new independence influenced by Hollywood glamour and elegance. The Roaring Twenties ushered in images of beautiful women with fun loving spirits like "Flapper Fanny" and "Mopsy," who were designed by Gladys Parker. Independent Flapper female heroines touched the hearts of women across the country and these strips caught on enough to allow women artists to explore wit and humor in a new graphic context.

This image of freedom changed in 1929 with the Great Depression. The insecurity of the times put a damper on the free spirit of Flapperdom and focused on day-to-day problems. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, social injustice, war, poverty and other political issues were showing up in comic strips giving women another challenge, to compete with their male counterparts. While women were expected to draw cute characters or family settings, they were rarely acknowledged as serious social commentators in the male dominated arena of comic strip art. To the surprise of many, Little Orphan Anniedrawn by Edwina Dumm, one of America's first political cartoonists, became widely popular and set the mood for somber comics relating a wartime world. Dale Messick was also representative of her time, and armed with several strips, she changed her name from Dalia to Dale as a first step in competing for her place in the world of newspaper comics. Her first submission, "Streamline Babies" about two women who come to New York in search of fame and fortune, was rejected by the then popular McNaught Syndicate for a strip based on a radio play of Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen. Dale was shattered but picked up the pieces and tried another project.

1 | 2 | 3

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to