One Fan's Opinion: Issue #61

Fri, October 27th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Chester Gould
When he was four years old, my dad went and spoke with his mother. There was a solemn air about him. Something was troubling the child. There was a mystery to be solved - some unanswered question was burning in his belly - something his childish brain couldn't begin to fathom. How could his parents be so thoughtless, he wondered to himself - how could they be so cruel? The boy walked up to his mother, still fuming about the indignity of the situation, and asked her in a voice that was both hurt and deadly serious.

"How come you didn't name me Dick Tracy?"

A common lament.

Dick Tracy was introduced to the world on October 4, 1931 (a Sunday strip) in the pages of the Detroit Mirror. The strip started running on an ongoing daily basis on October 12th, 1931. Dick Tracy celebrated his 75th anniversary this year (2006, for those of you that are seriously out of touch or those reading this years after it was written, bound in a handsome book with gold foil and real leather) and he is one of the most well-known and popular characters to emerge from the comic strips.

(My Dad was introduced on December 24, 1933, just two years after Dick Tracy and he is one of the most well-known and popular characters to emerge from his mother. He looked considerably younger than Dick Tracy had when he debuted, but these days he looks somewhat older than Tracy. Mystifying).

Let nobody say that Chester Gould was anything other than doggedly determined to produce a daily comic strip. Radio Cats, Fillum Fables, The Girl Friends - he tried anything and everything, but nothing clicked. Until, finally, after submitting strips for a decade, the New York Daily News Syndicate finally caved in and accepted Gould's strip about a plainclothes detective.

Gould had titled his strip "Plainclothes Tracy," but the Syndicate suggested making it simply "Dick Tracy" and Gould didn't put up much of a fight. I don't imagine he was eager to sit it out for another decade.

In his initial appearance, Tracy visits his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, at her parents' delicatessen, Dick informs Tess that he has "something darned important" to tell her in the second strip and by the forth strip Dick and Tess break the happy news to Tess' parents that the two are engaged to be married. Their bliss is short-lived, however. Criminals enter the establishment in an attempt to rob the joint. Tess' parents have squirreled away a cool $1000 and these bandits are determined to get it. In rapid succession, the thieves kill Mr. Trueheart, knock out Dick Tracy and take Tess as a hostage. Poor Mrs. Trueheart ends up in the hospital, in shock.

But I didn't know all this until years later. I had encountered "Dick Tracy" via the funny pages. Our local paper carried the strip and it was there that I first got a glimpse of the chiseled features of the determined plainclothes detective. We didn't get the paper often enough for me to really follow the stories very well, but its creator, Chester Gould, was undoubtedly still at the helm. We'd get the Sunday paper, but not the dailies and that lead to some bumpy reading, but I liked what I saw.

My Dad was something of a fan himself (as the incident with his mother aptly illustrates) and so was his Dad. Some of Dick Tracy's adventures had made their way into comic book form and my Dad had a few issues of that kicking around the house. In those I could read longer sequences and get a whole story (or more often a sizeable chunk of one) in one piece.

In the early '70s, a book was released that would blow my little mind and forever alter the way I looked at comics. That book was "The CelebratedCases of Dick Tracy" and my Dad gave it to his Dad one year for Christmas.

The problem there was that Grandpa lived (and still lives, incidentally, now aged 101) in North Dakota while we lived (at that point) in Bellingham, Washington (and shortly, in Albion, California). But we visited them on a semi-regular basis and when I was there I would immerse myself in this glorious publication. It was an outstanding collection of comic strips - a veritable "best of Dick Tracy" and it featured some of Tracy's most evil villains: the Blank, Mary X, Jerome Trohs and Momma, Little Face Finny, the Mole, B.B. Eyes, 88 Keyes, Flattop, the Summer Sisters, the Brow and Gravel Gertie, Breathless Mahoney, B.O. Plenty, Mumbles, and Pear Shape. True, some stories were truncated to make room for others, but this book was packed to the gills with some truly outstanding comic strips.

Unlike the comic books I had grown accustomed to, Tracy often stumbled and failed, frequently stories would go off in wild, unexpected directions, characters would get badly hurt (including Tracy) even tortured (again, including Tracy) and more often than not the villains would meet a gruesome end.

Chester Gould wasn't setting you up for characters' return appearances - he knew that his boundless imagination would deliver more boffo bad guys, so he let these fiends get their just desserts and he delivered satisfying closure to their wicked existences time after time.

To a kid used to Scorpions and Jokers and Abominations and Luthors and Dr. Dooms coming back again and again to reenact the same tired plot, this was a major revelation. Characters can die? Characters can die and not be miraculously resurrected later on? How could that be?

But so it was.

"Dick Tracy" is and was a huge influence on me. The "Savage Dragon" was set in Chicago because that was the (unstated) setting of "Dick Tracy." Savage Dragon being a police officer owes as much to Dick Tracy as it does to an old school chum becoming a police officer. I've always thought of Savage Dragon villains as being the descendants of Tracy's to some extent (Which is why I'll often forego extensive origins for these evildoers - there must be something in the water that twists and disfigures so many of these black-hearted souls). And then there are the abrupt scene changes and unexpected plot shifts and the untimely demise of characters that readers might assume would become fixtures in Dragon's rogue's gallery.

I got a lot from "Dick Tracy."

As a kid, I drew my own comics. They weren't ever printed or sold - I did them for my own enjoyment. I folded typing paper in half and stapled them up the side. I drew the adventures of the Dragon years before he ever saw print. At some point I collaborated with a buddy of mine to create the Deadly Duo. Aaron Katz created Kill-Cat, I created his partner, the Kid Avenger and we'd take turns drawing issues. He drew #1, I drew #2 and 3, he drew #4 and 5, I drew #6, and he drew #7 and so on. And we used unauthorized guest stars in almost every issue (why not? It's not like we were making any money selling them). Dick Tracy became a recurring supporting character in my chapters.

(I eventually introduced the Deadly Duo at Image Comics, by the way, reinventing and redesigning Kill-Cat to suit the times. Aaron gave me his character to do with as I pleased and that was darned nice of him, I thought).

As strange as it may seem, one of the most compelling reasons for me to happily accompany my parents on their pilgrimage to North Dakota was the opportunity to be reunited with that Dick Tracy book again.

The thing is - for me - there really was no other source for Dick Tracy adventures.

The newspaper was frustratingly slow, and often, huge chunks of the story went unseen by me. The small number of comic books we had weren't sequential and often stories weren't complete in one volume so I was left hanging. Only the big collection at Grandpa's house truly delivered the goods.

DC Comics published a Dick Tracy treasury edition at one point and that was a relief. Finally there were a few stories I could have on hand. But there really wasn't a serious effort made to collect Dick Tracy stories at that time.

Dick Tracy was huge.

His strip was wildly successful. They cashed in on his strip with toys and movie serials and movies and cartoons. I can vaguely remember the Tracy cartoons from the '60s with racist stereotype supporting characters added as comic relief

Dick Tracy was parodied in Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" - the strip's main character idolized the Tracy-inspired Fearless Fosdick. Warner Brothers turned Daffy Duck into Duck Twacy in 1946, and the strip was referenced in other cartoons of theirs in the '40s as well. Dick Tracy was made fun of in "Mad" and lampooned in "National Lampoon."

But for me as a kid, Dick Tracy was hard to come by.

And life went on. I found myself doing comics for a living and I was able to find the odd books here and there.

When the "Dick Tracy" movie rolled around in 1990, I was illustrating the "Amazing Spider-Man" at Marvel. A studio mate of mine (Pete McDonnell, a commercial artist and sometime comic book artist who is and was the identical twin of Luke McDonnell, a comic book artist that drew "Iron Man" at Marvel and later the "Suicide Squad" and the "Phantom" at DC) was sent a number of movie stills and character designs because he was drawing the Dick Tracy Colorforms set. Colorforms are kids' toys where kids can arrange colorful cut out figures on a background. I was getting set to draw the return of the Sinister Six and the designs of these gangsters played a key role in the way I drew Dr. Octopus. Doc Ock had, up until that point, been drawn in either a lab coat or in colorful tights and it was my firm belief that his green and orange leotards was one of the main reasons the good doctor was often ridiculed by fans and not taken seriously. It was my opinion that a hero is defined in part by his villains and so I took it upon myself to update Dr. Octopus by putting him into a suit straight out of Dick Tracy.

There was another visual I concocted that, regrettably, got redrawn. In a gathering of thugs, I had the Kingpin surrounded by henchmen that were dead-ringers for members of Tracy's rogue's gallery.

The "Dick Tracy" movie was a disappointment. Warren Beatty looked little like Tracy and he was not made up to look any more like him. The other cast members were worked over with ample make up applied and it was a treat to see them brought to life (even if many of them were prematurely gunned down), but not Tracy.

A running gag in the film was Tracy's recurring attempts to get up the nerve to ask his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, to marry him. This flew in the face of the strip where the two were engaged right out of the gate (even if it took them a good 20 years to actually tie the knot).

Despite a big push from the studio, the "Dick Tracy" movie was not the huge hit they'd hoped for. It was no "Howard The Duck," mind you, but it was no "Superman, the Movie" either.

I bought a number of the comics that came out at the time, the Kyle Baker adaptation of the film and various books that reprinted some of the strips. The movie may not have set the world on fire, but it did get a few folks to publish a few Tracy books so it wasn't all bad.

And that was about it.

Until a few days ago.

I received in the mail a copy of an IDW publication called "The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy" from its editor Ted Adams. Now, I don't typically get free IDW comics in the mail. I'm not on their comp list and I'm not really a reviewer but Ted, having read my raves about the recent "Dennis the Menace," "Peanuts" and "Walt and Skeezix" publications took it upon himself to package up a copy of this weighty tome and fire it my way.

I was floored.

Here, at long last, was an attractive, classy book collecting Chester Gould's comic strip masterpiece from its humble beginnings. Here was the book I'd been longing for, waiting for and lusting after for most of my life.

Sure, these first few strips are a bit shaky, (and they even include the "Plainclothes Tracy" strips Gould used in his pitch to the New York Daily News Syndicate) Chester Gould was not at the top of his game and he'd be the first to admit it, but these early strips give an indication of what is to follow. Here's Tracy, as a young man joining the police force and vowing to avenge the senseless death of his fianc's father - an honest man, if ever there was one! Dick becomes a detective in short order and in the strips that follow he rescues his girlfriend, Tess, fatally shoots the killer, and watches the rest of the thugs die in a car crash. Only their overweight boss, a gangster known as "Big Boy," (clearly patterned after the real-live thug, Al Capone) escapes - for a short while.

IDW appears to be emulating Fantagraphics in terms of cover design. "The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy" is in a similar format as the wonderful Fantagraphics series "The Complete Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz (Volume 6 being the most recent release of that series).

IDW's Tracy is reported to be the first in a three-times a year series. The first book features roughly two years of strips and each successive volume should do much the same. It's an adventure strip, not a humor one, so it wouldn't be out of line to forego the strict format of the humor books that collect two years of strips starting with one dated January 1st and ending with one dated December 31st in order to collect full stories, but I'm not sure what they're planning on doing. I do know that this volume starts off in October of 1931 and goes up to May 20th, 1933 so I'd assume that they'd do something similar in subsequent books.

This volume has close to 600 strips, dailies and Sundays, most in vivid black and white. Yeah, the Sunday strips originally ran in color in the funny pages, but given the stark world Tracy inhabits, color isn't really necessary (this first volume includes a number of color Sunday strips at the end of the book, incidentally. When the strip began, the Sunday strips weren't part of the same continuity as the daily strips and the non-continuity strips are reprinted here, straight out of the comics section, in their original - if somewhat faded - color).

It's a terrific book, lavishly produced, which also includes an interview with Tracy creator Chester Gould from 1980.

Gould produced "Dick Tracy" for over 45 years. That means the complete Gould run would fill more than 27 volumes! That would take over 9-years if IDW is able to keep to their schedule of 3 books a year. Here's hoping they can pull it off.

The "good stuff" is on its way! Here's a rundown of what readers can expect in subsequent volumes. Much of this info is pulled from (and pinched from) various sources on the web - there are spoilers galore in what follows so tread carefully if you dare.

Volume one gets the ball rolling with the strip's humble beginnings. We're introduced to Dick Tracy, Tess Trueheart and the villainous Big Boy. Soon Pat Patton, a uniformed cop, joins the cast as Dick's pal. Other notable villains include: Dubbs, Haf-and-Haf, Hy Habeas and Ribs Morocco. In 1932 Gould introduces the idea of a telephone wiretap and Tracy puts it to good use. This comic strip invention is still in use by the FBI to this day (now more than ever, actually). In September of that year Tracy took a nine-year-old street urchin under his wing. Tracy adopts the child and gives him the name Dick Tracy Junior. 1933 gave us Stooge and Maxine Viller and Steve the Tramp.

1934 brought us Doc Hump and George Spaldoni. 1935 Cutie Diamond and The Arsons. 1936: Lips Manlis. 1937 brought with it the Blank, a notorious villain with no face (or rather, one cleverly concealed - he was eventually unmasked and he was no beauty).

And the hits kept coming over the succeeding years. By 1939 Dick and Tess were experiencing problems in their relationship. By the end of July, Tess married Edward Nuremoh (a former baseball player - his last name is "Homerun" spelled backward - no relation to the delicious snack pies). Tess tearfully declared that Tracy's true love is, and will always be, his job. But, as you might expect, Nuremoh turned out to be a stinker. The two-timing ballplayer married her for her inheritance and intended to divorce her to collect it.

In 1941 the Mole makes his first appearance. This villain was, no doubt, the inspiration for the similarly named Fantastic Four villain who is visually alike as well. Littleface Finney also makes the scene.

In 1942 the Second World War inspired Gould to create a number of Nazi villains, including The Brow and Pruneface. That year also gave us 88 Keyes, B-B Eyes and Tiger Lilly. 1943 brought the nightmare-inducing (just look at her) Mrs. Pruneface, also a vicious murderer. The year also brought Flattop Jones, a hired assassin. 1944 brought another notorious Nazi, the Brow - a wartime spy and informer. That year also introduced comic relief in the form of Gravel Gertie, who eventually married the malodorous B.O. Plenty. Shaky was introduced as were the conniving Summer sisters (May and June). And Vitamin Flintheart, a pill popping, Shakespeare-quoting old ham, joined the cast and becomes one of Tracy's good friends. 1945 brought Breathless Mahoney - a good-looking, money-hungry, blonde thief, fashioned after film star Veronica Lake. Also introduced were Itchy, Measles and Splitface.

In 1946 Diet Smith, an industrialist and electronics innovator, joined the cast. Diet and his son create futuristic gadgets to aid the crime-fighting team. Diet's son (named Brilliant) created the two-way wrist radio, Dick Tracy's most famous gadget. In 1947 B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie's daughter was born. She was named Sparkle Plenty. And Junior created Crimestoppers, a club introduced to get kids excited about safety. The year also gave us Mumbles, a nearly incoherent singer and conman (Mumbles was often accompanied by a couple of stooges, one of whom would repeatedly ask, "What did he say?" and the other would translate for the benefit of the ignoramus and the readers).

Every year introduced a gaggle of gruesome villains. Some have worked their way into the collective consciousness - some have not. And for every name I've dropped here there are a dozen more whose names I've neglected.

By 1948, Dick's old pal Pat Patton was named the Chief of Police. By year's end Sam Catchem joins the cast as Tracy's sidekick. He's Jewish, and at the time, including a Jewish character in a comic strip was considered pretty progressive.

In 1949 Gould introduced Pear Shape, a character based on… well… himself. And on December 24th, after an eighteen-year courtship, Dick Tracy and his long-time fiance Tess Trueheart finally got hitched. The blessed event took place nearly twenty years after the first strip where Dick Tracy came to visit Tess and her parents to propose marriage. That occurrence was followed by her father being gunned down, which, subsequently lead to Tracy to joining the police force.

The years ticked by and Tracy's rogue's gallery kept expanding as successive villains were introduced and disposed of. The immensely popular Flattop inspired a number of imitators including Blowtop, Flattop's hotheaded brother, Angeltop, his wicked daughter, Flattop Jr. his vicious son, Hi-Top, the illegitimate son of Flattop Jr. and an unnamed African American girl with whom he had an apparently off-stage affair, Sharptop, a third Jones brother who grew up right, became a college professor, and was apparently possessed by the ghost of his brother during a sance held by Gravel Gertie's new age enthusiast niece, Crystal and Poptop, the beer-guzzling father of Flattop, Blowtop, and Sharptop, the grandfather of Angeltop, and the great-grandfather of Hi-Top.

Whew.

In 1951 Tess gave birth to Bonnie Braids, Tracy's daughter, in the back seat of a cab while Junior drove.

In 1956 a policewoman named Lizz was introduced. Lizz (no given last name) became a permanent fixture. Tracy got a new haircut that year as well - a then-fashionable crew cut.

Gould's stuff got a bit goofy later on in his run. While the strip started as a pretty straightforward hardboiled adventure strip with exaggerated villains, by 1962 the strip included preposterous concoctions such as the Space Coupe (an engineless ship that worked by taking advantage of the "magnetic forces" of the planets) and by 1963, the strip was quickly taking a turn for the bizarre. Dick Tracy visited the moon! He even encountered an extraterrestrial stowaway - a cute blonde in a body suit with antennae and superhuman powers named Moon Maid. This sweet, young alien from Moon Valley turned out to be the daughter of the Moon's governor, and she eventually married that precocious redheaded kid that tagged along with Tracy in his early days, now grown to adulthood - Junior Tracy - and eventually the two had a half-human daughter, named Honey Moon Tracy (I kid you not) who had antennae and magnetic hands.

As time went on, Tracy increasingly worked in space and cops traveled around in weird Air Cars that looked like flying garbage cans. Dick Tracy's world had been pretty stylized from the start with its hideous villains and improbable cliffhangers but this was beyond anything in any reality.

In 1966 the Tracy family celebrates Christmas on the moon and in 1967 Tracy is offered police jurisdiction on the moon by the Moon Governor. In 1969 Dick Tracy is named Chief of Moon Security.

Tracy and his creator seemed to have lost their grasp on reality.

But things get more down to earth in the years that followed. Reality intervened when the Moon was found to be barren of all life in 1969 with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Gould felt obligated to bring his ostensibly reality-based strip back down to Earth and Tracy went back to tackling earthbound bad guys.

In 1977, in an effort to make Dick Tracy more contemporary, a "hip" sidekick named Groovy Grove was added to the ever-expanding cast and Gould changed Tracy's look, giving him a moustache and longer hair. Tracy's friends Sam and Lizz begged him to shave - legions of fans, upset about the change lodged their complaints as well. Eventually even Gould realized this had been a mistake, as he drew a strip in which Sam, Lizz, and Groovy held Tracy down and forcibly shaved off the offending lip adornment.

On Christmas of 1977, Gould retired from the strip. He stayed on as a story consultant as Rick Fletcher, Gould's assistant for 18 years, took on the task of drawing the strip on his own. Novelist Max Allan Collins, the new writer, ably assisted Fletcher. The strip returned to its roots.

And life went on for Tracy. The strip introduced still more villains and knocked off a few notables from the Gould years. Big Boy, one of the original Dick Tracy villains, was killed in 1978 and in doing so, he helped tie up a few loose ends. Big Boy, still seeking revenge against Tracy, put out an open contract on the detective's head worth a million bucks, which prompted a number of thugs to take a crack at the celebrated law enforcer. One of the would-be assassins rigged Tracy's car to explode, but instead of offing Tracy it killed Moon Maid (she was borrowing Tracy's car to run an errand). A funeral strip for Moon Maid stated that the tragic event officially severed all ties between Earth and the Moon, thus formally and permanently eliminating the last remnants of the Space Period in "Dick Tracy" (the lone exception being Moon Maid and Junior's daughter, Honey Moon, who received a new hairstyle to cover up the antennae on her head, which betrayed her extraterrestrial origins. Thereafter she was never referred to as being anything other than a normal human girl and she was eventually phased out of the strip altogether). Groovy Grove, who had married Lizz, was ultimately killed in the line of duty. Tracy's new creative team cleaned house.

Dick Tracy's son, Joseph Flintheart Tracy, was born in 1979. In 1981 Junior Tracy remarried, taking Sparkle Plenty as his bride, following a stormy courtship. In the grand Tracy style, wedding gifts included a ticking time bomb!

Cartoonist Rick Fletcher passed away in 1983 and was replaced by Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Dick Locher, who had assisted Gould briefly from 1957-61. Locher was assisted by his son, John, on the art chores. Chester Gould passed away in 1985 at the age of 84.

In 1988 Dick Tracy's granddaughter, Sparkle Plenty Jr., was born. She was the daughter of Sparkle Plenty and Junior Tracy.

Continuity and the passage of time in Dick Tracy is a slippery slope. The authors have attempted to set the strip in "real time," but characters often stay stagnant for years and while Junior has gone from being a child to man and Tracy has become a grandfather, Tess Trueheart, Tracy's long-suffering wife, remains a knockout to this day and several other supporting characters appear unchanged.

In 1992 Chicago Tribune writer Michael Kilian succeeded Max Allan Collins as the strip's writer. In 1994, Tess Trueheart filed for divorce from Dick Tracy. The couple subsequently reconciled and the two celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1999. Kilian died in 2005 and Dick Locher has assumed writing duties. He continues to draw the strip as well.

October 4, 2006 marked the 75th anniversary of the Dick Tracy comic strip and it continues to this day (which is, granted, just a few weeks after the 4th).

If you're even a little intrigued, I'd highly recommend "The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy Dailies & Sundays 1931-1933, Volume 1" from IDW. It's a terrific book - even if you have to pay for it. Get one for your Grandpa - I think it would make an excellent Christmas gift - and it'll give you a good excuse to visit more often.

But that's one fan's opinion - you may feel otherwise.

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