The Allure of the Sea-Shell Bra (Brenda Starr, v2 #3, 1948)
Conventional wisdom would suggest that certain genres of comic books (or popular culture in general) appeal to specific audiences. War comic books = boys, romance comic books = girls. Would this apply to leading characters in comics as well? Possibly, although this might be skewed somewhat. For example, if we speculate that “Lois Lane” comics were intended for a female audience, would this imply that “Superman” comics were strictly male-oriented? In that particular case, probably not. Genre would appear to trump gender if there was a conflict, although in most cases female-starring comics can be assumed to have had (at least) a certain added degree of interest for distaff readers. (Something like Crimes by Women might be an exception, but who knows?)
This brings us to the subject of this essay, Brenda Starr comics. “Brenda Starr” was a long-running newspaper comic strip (1940-2011) written and illustrated (mostly—virtually all major newspaper strip artists had assistants) by a woman, Dale Messick. (After Messick’s retirement, the subsequent writers and artists were also female right to the end of the feature’s run.) Starr was a reporter (a “star reporter,” get it?) and the strip often had a crime/adventure slant, although it also contained more romance (and fashion) than similar “adventure” strips with male protagonists, placing it in a narrow no-man’s land (heh) genre between “drama” (or soap opera) comics and adventure comics. ”Brenda Starr” certainly wasn’t unique even for the period, but the strip became quite popular in a relatively short period of time.
“Brenda Starr” made the crossover to other media, including a live-action serial, various feature films and TV-movies, a Whitman novelisation, hardcover books reprinting the comic strips, several comic book series, colouring books, paper-doll books, and other merchandising tie-ins.
The comic whose cover is featured here is Brenda Starr #3 (June 1948), published by Superior Publishers, continuing a short series (2 issues) printed in 1947 by Four-Star Publications (“Brenda Starr” newspaper strip reprints had earlier been featured in several omnibus titles). Superior’s Brenda Starr lasted only 10 issues before ceasing publication, although the rights to the red-headed reporter’s adventures were picked up by Charlton in 1955.
One of the interesting side notes is that Superior was a Canadian publishing company that sold its comics in the USA as well (a reversal of what one would expect). Superior’s books often reprinted American comics, but it did put out a fair number of original works. Brenda Starr was not a reprint of American comic books, but the stories themselves (at least for the first 6 issues) were adaptations of newspaper comic strips.
The cover of this comic (and in fact, all of the Four-Star and Superior issues) was not drawn by Dale Messick, but was instead supplied by the “Iger Shop,” a company which provided finished comic covers and stories to publishers. Messick’s art, which can be seen inside the comic, is much looser and casual, with thicker lines and less detail: she had a distinctive style but it is technically much less accomplished than the “good girl art” (GGA) by the unidentified Iger employee or employees who drew this cover.
Brenda Starr #3, although the first Superior issue, followed the cover style/content established by Four Star’s comics, which depicted a hugely busty Brenda (showing plenty of cleavage) on #1, and a (blonde!) Brenda in a tattered dress, tied up in a shabby room (#2). Brenda Starr #4 depicted a nude Brenda (covered by a sheet) on an operating table, about to undergo surgery performed by two sinister-looking doctors, and #5 showed Brenda in a bathing suit being shot at! Oddly enough, these cheesecake illustrations were followed by two humourous covers, several crime-oriented covers, and—for the last two Superior issues of the title—two romance-styled covers! [It should also be noted that somewhere between issues 6 and 9, Superior stopped reprinting Dale Messick’s newspaper comics and instead featured new adventures of a (short-haired) Brenda Starr, written and drawn by Iger Shop personnel.]
This inconsistency raises the question: who were the intended readers of Brenda Starr comic books? Presumably newspaper comic strips were enjoyed by a broad demographic, but it’s unlikely that a similarly large cross-section of American society purchased comic books, so the “Brenda Starr” branding was just one aspect of the title’s marketing: a bit of name recognition for potential buyers, but not the primary reason one would buy the comic. As I’ve written before (in fact, it’s almost the raison d’être for this whole blog), the cover (or poster, whatever) often sells the product. So even though (up to a certain point) the contents of the comic were reprints of a woman-created newspaper strip about an intrepid female reporter, Four Star and Superior cloaked this in good-girl art to (one assumes) attract male readers.
Looking more closely at the cover of Brenda Starr #3, the artwork in some ways resembles Fox’s jungle-girl and/or crime “cheesecake” covers of the same era, but also has a certain horror-comic feel (even though horror comics were not yet popular). On the one hand, we’ve got Brenda in a scanty, exotic outfit (more on this shortly), and on the other hand the setting is spooky (stalagmites, stalactites, a scary “pagan” idol—as it’s described in the story—and a pretty good approximation of a walking corpse). [The interior story, surprisingly, delivers most of these elements, as a vacationing Brenda stumbles onto the subterranean hideout of a mad scientist.]
Brenda’s costume is rather risqué, to say the least, a diaphanous harem-girl outfit, cut low enough in front to almost reveal if the carpet matches the drapes, not to mention an iconic sea-shell bra. Ah, the sea-shell bra, aka “mermaid bra!” When long hair isn’t enough to cover the naughty bits. I’m not sure when this imagery began to appear in popular culture (topless mermaids seem to have been the standard for many years), but the concept is not unlike the “brass bra” beloved of science-fiction pulps or the similar “Cleopatra”-style bra (otherwise known as the “Princess Leia Slave Girl bra”). Not being a woman, I can’t definitively say if any of these are functional or comfortable (the brass bras and sea-shell bras don’t look like they would be), but they are decorative.
Of course, a sea-shell bra is organically relevant for a mermaid, but why harem-girl Brenda is wearing one is open to debate. In fact, there is a slight possibility that it’s not even supposed to be a “sea-shell” bra, but rather some other design (palm-frond bra?). Dale Messick designed the costume and the cover artist reproduced it faithfully, but the upper part of the “shells” on the cover are more separated (like leaves) rather than connected (like a sea-shell) as they are in Messick’s art. In both cases there are clearly no bra straps nor any sort of connection in the back, so the bra must be glued to her breasts, I guess. Or held on by some sort of suction device in each cup? You’re not going to get much support out of this garment either way—it’s a triumph of appearance over function.
Those who would decry the “sexism” of this GGA and Brenda’s revealing costume should note that, as mentioned earlier, the cover art is based on Dale Messick’s original comic strip. In the story, “Brenda is pleasantly surprised” at finding the outfit, and says she feels like a “priestess” or a “bride.” In fact, it’s implied that there are multiple costumes available to her, because Professor Squell says “you have chosen the bridal gown.” [As an aside, in the story Brenda deliberately sets out to vamp the elderly Professor Squell so she and her friends can escape.]
Brenda’s expression on the cover is at odds with the interior story: on the cover she seems fearful, whereas in the original comic strip she is tough and assertive and doesn’t appear to fear Professor Squell at all. This reinforces the second aspect of the cover, the “horror” tone. In Messick’s story, Squell is sort of a pitiful, harmless character and is drawn with a rather prissy expression (his hair is also much longer than on the cover, and he’s wearing two huge, golden, hoop earrings, in the final panel!). The cover artist drew Squell as a grey/green-faced zombie with a dour expression, who (based on Brenda’s reaction) is a threatening menace. Inside the comic, he’s a fussy old fellow, lonely and isolated, who—after his hostages escape— accepts it “calmly, but rather regretfully…” and says “Ah-me…Fire Bright [his nickname for Brenda] would have made a beautiful queen.”
[He and Brenda somewhat resemble the bride-and-corpse groom on the cover of the Avon paperback version of “I Married a Dead Man” by William Irish, although that wasn’t printed until 1949, so there’s unlikely to have been any direction connection between the two covers.]
Thus, despite the close correlation between the elements of the cover and the interior strip which inspired it, the cover has a distinctly different “feel” than the contents. Readers wouldn’t be able to complain (too much) that the interior story didn’t deliver on the promise of the cover, because yes, you do get (a) Brenda in a revealing outfit, (b) in an underground location, complete with a “pagan” idol, and (c) a balding, elderly “villain.” It’s just not quite as…exploitative as the cover art implies.
But hey, you pay your dime and you take your chances, right?