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Life With Brenda

A conversation with the Tribune's Mary T. Schmich, the writer who controls Brenda Starr's fate.

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Mary T. Schmich is a hard woman to find. Based in the Tribune's Atlanta bureau, she's usually on the road, writing news features on the offbeat in the southeastern United States. Originally from the beautiful old seaport town of Savannah, Georgia, she speaks with a soft coastal drawl, and many of her statements end with the upward pitch of a question. Her accent has been only slightly affected by her years in other parts of the south, and not at all by her two years (1985 to 1987) spent writing feature stories in Chicago.

I've tracked her down to ask about the dynamics of writing a comic strip--not just any comic strip but a story strip, Brenda Starr. Today's funnies don't usually ask anything more of their readers than a few seconds' attention, and perhaps the inclination to smile. But the story strips require the reader to keep in mind a running plot and assorted characters.

Schmich, in her mid-30s and unmarried, is not a lifetime funnies freak; she essentially fell into her job a little over five years ago. She was working for the Tribune-owned Orlando Sentinel when Tribune Media Services, which owns Brenda Starr, called her editor, Dave Burgin--"one of the few genius editors ever." He recommended Schmich. "He walked over to my desk, where I was typing away, and said, 'You read Brenda Starr?' And I said, 'Ah, Dave, not since I was a kid! It's sooo stupid!' And he said, 'Well, would you like to write it?' So I went over and talked to the syndicate, and that's how it happened."

Schmich and her artist partner, Ramona Fradon, have made major changes to the strip, cleaning up the overall look of this once junky, massively unrealistic soap opera. There are far fewer "twinkles" and a lot less froufrou in both art and plot these days than in the days of the strip's now-retired founder, Dale Messick. Schmich writes intelligent dialogue and has added sly reportorial in-jokes. She's invented one of the great comic characters of our day in gossip columnist Gabby van Slander, and an intelligent hunk for the 90s in ballet-dancer-turned-spy Mikhail Goodenuf. Together Schmich and Fradon have turned the strip into a worthwhile part of the comics pages of some 300 newspapers.

Bryan Miller: Writing Brenda Starr wasn't something you really went after, then.

Mary T. Schmich: No. It's not something you grow up saying--"Oh, yeah, I really want to write a comic strip."

BM: But you've turned it around.

MTS: [With a sigh.] Oh, I don't know if that's true. I changed it some. It's not quite as flaky as it used to be, but it's still kind of flaky.

One of the strange things about writing it is that I've realized that there are all these intangible, corny-sounding aspects to writing a strip that is this old and that therefore has its own life--you cannot walk in and change everything about it. You're walking into somebody else's house, and you cannot rearrange all the furniture. Brenda is Brenda. I feel like Brenda has evolved since I've been writing her, but she's still Brenda. She's very independent of my wishes, and sometimes of my taste. I don't know how to say it, but . . .

BM: You wouldn't live in a place called the Lovely Arms?

MTS: [Laughs.] Hey, I didn't make that up! She has all this history; she has her temperament; she has her character. If I invented a strip, a newspaper strip, today--in 1990--it would be different from this strip. But I didn't invent this strip. I have to deal with these characters who are in some ways very real people.

BM: Did you invent Mikhail Goodenuf?

MTS: Yeah. I invented a fair number of characters. And I'm most comfortable with the ones I invented. For example, I invented Gabby van Slander. Of all the characters in that strip, she's probably the one I'm the most comfortable with. When I'm writing her, I know exactly who she is. I know exactly how she talks, what she thinks. I think she's extremely smart--I think she's probably the smartest person in the strip. I know her in a way that I don't know Brenda, and--

You know, it really sounds so stupid to talk about Brenda as though she's a person? But she is. I continue to get to know her, and the better I get to know her, the more she becomes who I want her to be.

BM: And who do you want her to be?

MTS: [Laughs.] Me!

I don't really want her to be me. But I would like her to be more like the women I know, and the women I like. And to some extent that's what I've tried to do with her, but I haven't fully succeeded in doing that--I won't kid myself. Because--she's Brenda! She polishes her nails! I mean, I don't polish my nails. My friends don't polish their nails. Brenda does. I can't change it. My friends and I don't wear high heels, but Brenda does. That's Brenda, as defined by me.

BM: How accurate is this newsroom picture today? I never had a feeling, in reading Brenda Starr as a girl--at least after I got past the stage of believing everything I read--that it was that good a picture of a real newspaper.

MTS: No. Until I wrote it, it absolutely had nothing to do with real-life newspapering. I think Brenda is a disturbingly accurate rendition of a newspaper right now.

BM: That line about being surrounded by insane people in the loony bin sounding just like the news-room . . .

MTS: Yeah. It's still farcical--every now and then I'll still hear, thirdhand, that some newspaper person has complained that this isn't how newsrooms are, this isn't how reporters are; but in fact I think the most factual thing in the strip right now is the way the newsroom operates. It has a new editor that I created, named B. Babbitt Bottomline, whose whole mission in life is to make money and save money. Reporters fret about getting sent out to the suburbs. They fret over sexist photos and tacky headlines, and about all the prominence given media critics instead of investigative reporters. A lot of that stuff's actually too esoteric for the average reader, I sometimes think. If you really know a newsroom, you know how accurate that stuff is. The way Brenda thinks about editors--believe me, these are things reporters think about editors!

BM: Oh, yeah--"Those who can, write; those who can't, edit."

MTS: [Laughs.] That's right.

BM: It seems to me that there have been more newspaper in-jokes in the strip--making "Pulitzer" the word that snaps Brenda in or out of a trance, for example.

MTS: I try not to do too much of that, but enough so that it's really about newspapers. I sometimes stray into excess, then it's "Whoops, got to pull back." And I do, for a while.

BM: So you have striven to make the strip a more accurate picture of a news organization than it was in the old fluffy days.

MTS: I couldn't even claim that I have striven to make it that way. I just make it that way because that's the newsroom that I know.

Dale Messick never worked at a newspaper. So of course she invented a newspaper according to her fictional needs and fantasies, and I've had the fortune or misfortune of actually having inhabited a newsroom the majority of my adult life. So I know how it works. That's the easiest part of writing the strip--when Brenda's in the newsroom, I know how it works.

BM: Are the characters that you've introduced--Mr. Bottomline, Gabby--based on anybody in particular?

MTS: No, they're generic inventions. But when I invented Gabby van Slander, a number of my friends at the Tribune accused me of having modeled her on someone we all know. And I was truly distressed to think that people thought I'd actually done that!

BM: She comes across as a combination of Miss Piggy and Michael Sneed--although I base that on no personal acquaintance whatever with either of them.

MTS: [Laughs.] Trust me, neither of those people were in my mind! I was living in Orlando at the time I invented Gabby van Slander.

BM: How about Mikhail?

MTS: Ah, you know, he comes out of a liberal fantasy life. I don't know where he came from.

Actually, I do know where he came from. I invented him in Orlando, too. Someone--a friend of mine--had given me a great shot out of something like Vanity Fair of Alexander Godunov, and had tacked it to my terminal. And we had all agreed this was just the most remarkably attractive man we'd seen in a decade or so. And I was just looking at this picture one day, and all of a sudden Mikhail Goodenuf appeared.

BM: Is it realistic that he could go back to dancing after years as a secret agent and be believable onstage?

MTS: Of course it's not realistic! [Laughs.] We're not concerned about realism!

BM: How much concerned with realism are you in a strip like this? How much of it is fantasy?

MTS: That's a real tricky question. Brenda is a weird strip that way. The other story strips tend, in an often extra-plodding way, to adhere to a kind of trivial reality. Brenda has never been that way. Brenda has always been kind of farcical and fantastic--I mean fantastic in the most precise sense of the word, with the talking birds, and Brenda flying around on Arabian rugs, and all that stuff. I'm trying to cut down to merely the level of the absurd, to move it down a notch or two.

But it's still not realistic! Of course these situations don't happen. But on the other hand, sometimes I'll berate myself with a "Mary, you're lettin' this get a little out of control here. The situation is too stupid."

BM: Can you give me any examples of situations that were too stupid?

MTS: Well, I'll give you an example of something I thought was too stupid at the time, and reality came back to remind me that it wasn't too stupid. Brenda was involved with this drug lord named Kingpin, in the Latin American country of Cocarumba. She was battling with him, and Mikhail Goodenuf was there. And Basil and Mikhail decided to dress up like Elvis. Essentially, by playing Elvis songs to this drug lord, they made him surrender. Well, after I wrote that--when it was too late to do anything about it--I said, "Oh, Mary, that is just impossibly ridiculous! It's a cinch that it's too stupid!" And then, when Noriega was holed up in wherever it was, the nunciature? And they were playin' rock music? And one of the feelings was that they were playing this rock music really loud to get him to give up? I thought, "You know, this is not that different from that stupid thing I wrote and thought was preposterous!" Yet this was real--they were blasting rock music at Noriega.

BM: Do you ever write yourself into a corner, and find you have to do something preposterous to get yourself out of it?

MTS: Oh, all the time. All the time. A comic strip like this is like life. [Laughs.] It unfolds however it unfolds, and sometimes you realize you've gotten these characters into a situation--and how in the hell are you going to get them out of it? Because they're there now, they're just flat-out there.

But I will never solve a difficult situation by having Brenda wake up from a dream, and just wash it all away. It has been done in the strip in the past, but it will never be done as long as I'm writing it!

BM: How closely do you work with Ramona Fradon?

MTS: Ramona and I are in constant communication; I don't know how to describe how closely we work. I send her a script, and she draws it. I send her a fairly detailed script, panel by panel.

BM: So basically you're telling her what to draw?

MTS: Right. I'll write, "Monday, panel one," and describe the room, what Brenda looks like, what Mikhail looks like, how they're standing relative to each other, and then write the dialogue. Then I'll write "panel two," and do the same thing.

Ramona is great; she's really talented. She has a real knack for catching nuances and expression. I'll sometimes write these absurd directions, some awful ones sometimes. I will describe four different emotions passing over Brenda's face at once, which is perfectly plausible on a human being but impossible to draw in a comic--you'd think. To my amazement, Ramona will often manage to do it. And I asked her once, "How do you do this?" She said, "Well, I go to the mirror, and I make faces in the mirror. I imagine these emotions, and I make faces in the mirror until I get it."

BM: Where does she work?

MTS: She lives in New York, in upstate New York.

BM: Do you fax things back and forth, or depend on the mails?

MTS: We Fed Ex a lot.

BM: What kind of deadline are you working under? How far in advance do you have to get your scripts to Fradon, and in to the syndicate?

MTS: We work several months in advance--I'm never quite sure how many.

BM: How many strips do you do at a time?

MTS: I tend to write a week's worth in a sitting. I write a week in a sitting, and I write a Sunday in a sitting.

BM: Do you discuss story lines with Fradon before you send her the scripts?

MTS: No, I spring them fully formed on her. She indulges me. And every now and then she'll say, "Now, Mary . . ."

BM: Do you talk often on the phone?

MTS: Oh yeah, we're in good contact. And she's an interesting woman. I really like her. She's in her early 60s but looks and acts a good 20 years younger. She's been doing comic strips since she was in her 20s, and she's one of the few women--if not the only woman--who has been in comic strips that long.

BM: When I first talked to you about doing this interview, and I told you that I like story strips, you told me, "You are not normal." Would you like to amplify that statement? Are story strips a dying breed?

MTS: All you gotta do is look at comic-strip polls to know what people are reading. They're not reading Judge Parker, Rex Morgan, Brenda Starr, Dick Tracy. They're just not. They're reading Blondie--the unkillable Blondie--Cathy, For Better or for Worse, Peanuts. I would say Doonesbury, but Doonesbury, interestingly enough, does not do that well in the comic-strip polls, although it's in a lot of newspapers. But they're reading your gag-a-day strips. I could wax academic here about the TV age and stuff . . .

BM: Go ahead!

MTS: But it's true. People have much shorter attention spans. They have other ways to get stories now. They watch stories on television. And the patience it takes to follow a story in a newspaper comic strip is just too much for the late-20th-century American.

In a story strip, you've got three panels a day, seven or eight on Sunday. You have to write a story strip so that, number one, people who don't read it during the week and only read it on Sundays can understand it; number two, so that people who only read it during the week and don't read it on Sundays can understand it; and number three, so that people who go away on vacation for three weeks and then come back can still know what's going on. You have to create the illusion of movement without moving very fast at all, and it's tricky.

I go back and forth about this. One of the things that I wanted to do, and was told to do, was to speed the strip up some. I think I have speeded it up some. I think it's speedier--whatever that means--than most of the story strips. But the longer I write it, the more I slow it down, because I have a feeling that you really have to work on reverse principles here--that if you run through these stories too fast in the comic strips, and run through the characters too fast, you don't give people time to get attached to the characters, because you're only giving them three panels a day.

You know, there's an argument for making a comic-strip story about nine weeks long, and sometimes I think, well, maybe that's what I should do. The theory is that in the age of MTV and TV, shorter is better.

BM: What is your average?

MTS: It varies. It goes anywhere from 13 to 20, but it just seems to me that 20 gets a little too long. I think 16's about right. But if you don't do it at least 16, people don't know who these characters are. They just have not had time to get used to them and to get involved with them.

BM: Can you give me an idea of the average story length for some of the other few surviving story strips?

MTS: I haven't really measured them, but I think some of them go on too long.

BM: I think Spiderman must be about 52 weeks per story.

MTS: Yeah, you pick the strip up in December, and you could swear they're having the same conversation they were having on February 2! They haven't even gotten out of the room!

BM: When you accepted this assignment, did you have to sit down and read back through years of the stuff and study how you were going to do it? Or did you have a pretty good idea to start with?

MTS: I went back some. I didn't read years and years, but I read a fair amount. But I wasn't studying how to do it--I was just trying to get to know the characters. I was trying to get the feel of the strip, more than to understand the art of the strip. I don't even know how I learned to do this. I have a sense of how you're supposed to write a strip like this, but I don't always write it according to the way I think you're supposed to write it. I think that every day--every single day--you leave these people hanging just a little bit. And that can be very hard to do, particularly because you're moving really slowly. But you never want to leave that third panel on a flat note. I don't know that I've learned that reading other strips; it's just kind of an obvious thing.

It's like writing a good feature story. You always want the last sentence in the paragraph, in every single paragraph, to be your strongest single sentence. That's how I feel about the strip.

BM: Is the first panel a recap of what you did the day before?

MTS: No . . . but that depends on what you did the day before. Definitely on Sundays you have to somehow recap what went on during the week, and then on Mondays you have to recap what went on on Sunday, but you want to do it without repeating exactly the same dialogue. Again, you're creating the illusion of movement, even though you're not really moving.

BM: What's the story on Little Red [the roller-skating juvenile-delinquent Brenda look-alike]? Is she really Brenda's long-lost daughter, the ingloriously named Starr Twinkle?

MTS: No. Many people thought so, and at one point I considered making her that. But I have other plans for Starr Twinkle.

BM: Is she going to come back to haunt us?

MTS: Oh, eventually. She's gonna come back when she's of an age to make extreme trouble. It's going to be a little while longer.

BM: What age is "extreme trouble"?

MTS: Ohhh . . . 14.

BM: For a comic strip and for any of the mass media, you've got a rare interracial couple in Basil and Wanda Fonda. Did you deliberately set out to offer up some miscegenation, or did that just happen?

MTS: It just kind of happened. It seemed like a natural thing between two relatively attractive people who are thrown together. Afterward a couple of people said to me, "I can't believe you did that!" But to me it didn't seem shocking in the least. After I got those comments I had just a flicker of concern that people would react badly, but if they had, I would have said it was just tough luck.

For a comic strip, having an interracial couple is weird. The presence of black people in comic strips is weird, because there are not a lot of black people in strips. I try to have a black person or two in every story. I put them in consciously, and I try to put them in in a way that's natural. It troubles me that there are no blacks in comic strips.

BM: You had an "interview" with Brenda in the Trib recently, and one of the things mentioned there is that she used to be 23, and now she's 35. So you've slowly aged her from Dale Messick's concept.

MTS: As far as I'm concerned, when I got her she was 35. I don't know when she got there, but I mean, this ain't no debutante, right? There's no way I could write this woman as if she were 23 years old. There's a trick to writing a character who's been around this long--Brenda has been having adventures, Brenda has been having romances, Brenda has been writing stories for a whole lot longer than you and I've been on the planet! So the ingenue aspect which she had back in 1940-whatever-it-was, she just can't have now. This woman has been around a few blocks, and you have to face that. But that's hard sometimes, because you want to face up to it without making her cynical.

BM: How has Brenda managed to avoid the lure of television, the "entertainment news media"?

MTS: Because Brenda, flaky as she is, is actually a purist in her way. She has standards; she understands that [writing for newspapers] is a more honest profession.

Actually, the woman who wrote this [between Dale Messick and me], who worked in television, did have Brenda briefly seduced by the TV world. But something didn't work. Brenda is a natural--she's great-lookin'--but the one thing that I like about this character, no matter how flaky she sometimes is, is that she really loves newspapers. She really, really does.

BM: Turning down Mikhail Goodenuf to continue to work for Mr. Bottomline.

MTS: [Laughs.] That fool. That's right.

BM: But I applauded.

MTS: Yeah, I know. [Laughs.] So did I. That was one of her few correct moves for the sisterhood.

BM: Do you hear from feminists about the strip?

MTS: Nah.

BM: Do you get a lot of mail on her?

MTS: Not a lot--some. It's sporadic. But mostly the people who write are the people who like it; I'm sure there are people out there who object violently to it. But there are people out there who object violently to just about every comic strip there is. The thing that's really amazed me about doing a comic strip is what you learn about people's passions, for and against comic strips. I realized I had my own irrational loathing for certain comic strips that I hadn't read, probably, in 15 years.

BM: Any examples?

MTS: No, because I wouldn't do that to anyone. But you learn that people have ideas about strips that they formed, God knows when, probably years ago, and it's really hard to break those preconceptions. If people read Brenda 15 years ago and said, "This woman is impossible!" they probably think she's still impossible.

BM: Do you find that you're still offending old readers? Are you collecting new ones?

MTS: It's really hard to know. I think Brenda readers tend to be older rather than younger, but I'm always amazed at how many people I've met in their 20s and 30s who read the strip. Most people in their 20s and 30s don't read the strip, but I'm amazed at just how many do.

BM: How much of your own experience do you put into the strip? You said the newsroom aspect is a lot more accurate than it used to be; do you ever work things that you can't get into your feature stories into the strip?

MTS: Oh yeah, all the time. I get in a lot of thoughts about being on the road--Brenda schlepping through airports with too many suitcases, buying trashy magazines at the airport newsstands, hoping nobody sees her but she's read everything else there is to read, and thinking about another exotic assignment, another exotic place, and she'd rather be home watching TV.

There's a lot of me in there, and my friends tell me there's more of me in there than I would admit. I just appropriate entire conversations I have with certain men in my life--and just put 'em right in there! [Laughs.] The problem with saying that is it makes people think that everything in there really came out of your life, and most of it didn't.

But it's like anything you write--it's all informed by something that you know, somehow. You don't know where you know it, why you know it, but you know it!

BM: Do your colleagues take your writing Brenda Starr seriously?

MTS: Ohhh . . . my friends in the newspaper business read the strip because I write it. They all comment on it. But take it seriously--no.

One colleague at the Tribune introduced me by saying, "This is Mary Schmich. The most interesting thing about her is that she writes Brenda Starr." I've never forgiven him.

Comic-strip writers are invisible. Oh, people can identify [Garry] Trudeau, [Cathy] Guisewite, Charles Schulz--but mostly comic strips are authorless creations. Readers can't name the people who write them, and they certainly can't visualize them. And I would just as soon they not connect a real face with this unreal story. It corrupts it just a little bit.

BM: Do you find yourself reading other strips more carefully now?

MTS: I did for a while. I don't so much any more. I read Mary Worth; I think Mary Worth is, of the story strips, the best. It's extremely well drawn. It's a real different strip from Brenda, but there's a sort of dramatic and emotional coherence to it that you don't find in that many of the story strips.

BM: Do you think there are some people who take comic strips too seriously?

MTS: Oh, there are a few people out there who do, but gosh, of all the plagues on the earth, that's hardly the worst one. I'd take someone who took comic strips too seriously waaay before somebody who took movies or TV too seriously!

BM: Were you a funnies fan before you started writing Brenda?

MTS: As a kid I was. But as an adult, I was like most people my age. I didn't really read the comics--I read a few, the new ones, the gag strips. I didn't start rereading the story strips until I started doing Brenda. And then when I did start rereading them, I really started liking them again! They're all annoying as hell in some way, Brenda included. But there's a bizarre comfort in the continuity of them. It's just every day, checkin' in with these familiar characters, who are plodding through their little lives. It's really an acquired taste. I think if I'm an example, I'm somebody who lost that taste and managed to reacquire it, because I got interested in it for personal reasons.

But I think that more people would find the story strips are a lot more interesting than they think they are if they just put their minds to 'em for a month. I think they would probably get hooked.

BM: Like they do with soap operas?

MTS: Yeah.

BM: Is this really a lot different than a soap opera?

MTS: No. I mean, it is a soap opera. I like to think that Brenda is a little less earnest than a soap opera.

BM: And it has a little less emphasis on sex.

MTS: We can't get away with that.

BM: Do you have definite guidelines on what you can and can't get away with?

MTS: No, they're not definite guidelines. There's an unspoken boundary there that should not be transgressed, and every now and then I transgress it, and am told that I've done that, and I say, "Oh. OK," and I change it.

BM: Verbal transgressions?

MTS: Yeah. Yeah. Verbal transgressions. You know, real 35-year-old people might say "shhhhiiit." But 35-year-old comic-strip people just can't say "shhhhiiit."

BM: Do you see yourself doing Brenda indefinitely? Or would you ever like to start a comic strip of your own?

MTS: I would really have to create [a new strip] out of whole cloth . . . You know, I've been five years doing this strip. I can't imagine not doing it--I can't imagine doing Brenda 20 years from now, but I can't imagine giving it up. It's become so much a part of my life.

BM: What are Brenda's plans for the future?

MTS: Well, you know, that one-eyed guy's come back in her life. So Brenda's going to have to work her love life out, and of course it will be an unsatisfactory solution, because that's just how it is.

BM: Happiness doesn't seem to work in these things, does it?

MTS: No! It couldn't. You'd have to shut the strip down. It's built on unpredictability, and a certain amount of dissatisfaction. Like real life, you know?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Murray Jr.; illustrations/courtesy Tribune Media Services Inc..

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