Dale Messick (search), whose long-running comic strip "Brenda Starr, Reporter" (search) gave her entry into the male world of the funny pages, has died at age 98.

Messick, whose strip ran in 250 newspapers at its peak in the 1950s, died Tuesday, said her daughter, Starr Rohrman, who had been caring for her mother in Sonoma County.

Messick once said Brenda had "everything I didn't have." But she charmed acquaintances with spunk and style worthy of her redheaded creation.

Approaching the century mark, she stunned interviewers with her youthful appearance, cheating time by decades.

At 96, frail but still formidable, she told The AP that she never watched "soap operas and stuff like that because I used to write them. In fact," she added, "I started them."

Mixing hot copy with high fashion, Brenda plunged from one thrilling adventure to another, sassing her tough-talking editor, Mr. Livwright (search), and sometimes filing her copy with the only person left in the newsroom, the cleaning woman.

As World War II raged Brenda did her part, parachuting into action -- every red hair in place.

"Most comics, the main characters are heroes, guys, and they don't write for women," Messick told The Associated Press in a May 2002 interview. "I was a woman so I was writing for women and I think that's what put her over."

Brenda would later come under fire for being too preoccupied with her looks and her men, and too far removed from the routine of real newspaperwomen: city council meetings and supermarket openings.

"I used to get letters from girl reporters saying that their lives were nowhere near as exciting as Brenda's," Messick told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986. "I told them that if I made Brenda's life like theirs, nobody would read it."

Young women looked at Brenda and dreamed of adventure. Young men liked the strip, too, and quite a few, thinking they were dealing with one of the boys, asked "Dale" for private sketches of Brenda in sexier poses than a family newspaper could bear. Messick obliged once by sending back a saucy picture of Brenda in a barrel going over Niagara Falls. Attached was a note: "Is this daring enough?"

Born in South Bend, Ind., on April 11, 1906, with the name Dalia -- a moniker she jettisoned to further her career -- Messick developed her artistic skills early, scribbling illustrations on her schoolbooks and telling stories to her classmates. She studied art and got a job at a greeting card company, only to quit in a huff -- in the depths of the Depression -- when her boss dropped her pay to make a new hire.

She cried all the way home, but regrouped, moving to New York and getting a job at another greeting card company, working on her strips at night.

Her break came when her work came to the attention of another woman, Mollie Slott, who worked for publisher Joseph M. Patterson (search). Patterson, reputed to be no fan of women cartoonists, wouldn't take the slot for daily publication but it began running in the Sunday comics in June 1940.

The name came from a '30s debutante; she borrowed the figure and flowing red hair from film star Rita Hayworth.

The love of Brenda's life was the mysterious Basil St. John, a man with an eyepatch and a mysterious illness that could be cured only with a serum taken from black orchids growing in the Amazon jungle.

The orchids were fantasy, but Basil was based on a real-life assistant artist Messick hired to help do lettering. "I was intrigued with him. He was so handsome," she said. But the real-life artist couldn't letter and was fired.

Basil courted Brenda for three decades. When they finally married in the 1970s, President Ford sent congratulations.

Messick, who received the National Cartoonist Society's Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, married a man in the art supply business, Everett George, with whom she had her daughter. She later married attorney Oscar Strom. Neither marriage lasted.

In old age, Messick moved to Northern California to be near her daughter and two grandchildren, Curt and Laura. She joked about writing her autobiography, "Still Stripping at 80," never completed but retitled a decade later to "Still Stripping at 90." She did write a single-panel strip "Granny Glamour" until age 92.

Messick had a stroke in 1998, her daughter said. "She just went into a decline after that. She couldn't draw anymore," Rohrman said.

There will be no services, and Messick will be cremated, Rohrman said.