HAPPY 80th ANNIVERSARY!
The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy: Dailies & Sundays, Volumes One-Ten (2007-2010)
Is there a more iconic policeman than Dick Tracy? Tracy is one of the most recognizable fictional creations in the world; he's right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Mickey Mouse. The creation of artist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy made his debut on October 4, 1931, making this week the strong-jawed cop's 80th anniversary. Let's celebrate.
For several years now IDW Publishing has been releasing marvelous books with the complete newspaper comic strips in published order. Eleven volumes (each containing about 500 strips) have been published so far, taking Tracy's exploits to September 26, 1948. I've read the first ten; number eleven is in the queue.
In the beginning, it was organized crime that provided the villains in the comic strip. Henchmen of crime boss Big Boy (modeled on Al Capone) murder the father of Tess Trueheart, Tracy's girlfriend. Big Boy is one of the few villains who got off easy: he was sent to prison -- most of Gould's villains die, often in horrible ways.
As the strip progresses, Gould gets more sure of himself, mixing larger stories featuring master criminals and spies with stories of minor crimes. Tracy goes after murderers and dognappers, bicycle thieves and madmen -- all with the same determination and focus. The focus of the strip began to include humor and personal relationships. Tracy may be a fearsome cop, but he's a complete jerk at romance. At one point, Tess is so disgusted that she marries someone else! Of course, her husband turns out to be a villain and soon meets his gruesome fate. All record of the marriage is expunged and Tess comes to Tracy on her knees (literally) begging forgiveness.
It's the above attitude (among others) that may put off today's reader. There is a strong conservative tendency and 1930s sensibility that runs throughout the strip. The law must be held above all others, even if it means stretching legalities. Tracy can kill the bad guys without remorse. In one scene, Tracy thinks a villain is hiding in a shed, so (in a just-in-case mode) he riddles the shed with machine gun bullets without checking to see who is in the shed.
But Tracy also has a heart and shows sympathy for some of the crooks he catches. When Brilliant, the blind scientific genius, vows to take vengeance on Diet Smith, the industrialist he blames for the death of his parents, Tracy senses some good in the young man. He takes Brilliant to Smith's hospital room. Brilliant pulls out a gun and shoots several times into the hospital bed. Realizing what he has just done, Brilliant collapses in remorse. Tracy tells Brilliant that he had merely fired into an empty bed; Tracy had had Smith moved to the room next door. This was something you had to get out of your system, he told the young man, now you can get on with your life.
The Dick Tracy strips were also known for using the latest technical and scientific advances in crime prevention. Laboratory procedures are well-explained. In the 1940s, the strip sometimes ventured into science fiction land. Villain Yogee Yamma used a mind-controlling gas to steal thousands and to evade the police. Brilliant created the famous wrist radio that was soon to be used solely by the police. He also created a light that would blind people for eight minutes. An underwater battle tank was developed by a gang that was about to sell it to an enemy country. (This SF trend would continue and culminate in the discovery of the moon people late in Gould's career.)
Gould's drawings looked crude, his characters stiff. In reality, the drawings were quite sophisticated and worked for the purposes of the strip. Gould's attention to detail help propel the plots. A few simple character strokes could speak volumes. And -- course -- his style helped to create some memorable and bizarre villians...Steve "The Tramp", "Stooge" Viller, The Blank, Yogee Yamma, Little Face, The Mole, BB Eyes, Pruneface and Mrs. Pruneface, Flattop, The Brow, Shakey, Measles, Itchy, Breathless Mahoney, Mumbles, Nilon Hose, Gargles, and many others. For a while Gould used an old conceit of spelling names in reverse for his characters: John Lavir, Mr. Natnus, Nuremoh, Mr. Kroywen, Junky Doolb, Jerome Trohs, Mr. Toirtap...(Yawn! Good characters, dreadful names. I'm reminded of an Emily Loring character who was alway refered to as "B. Ware, the Widow".)
Life was not easy for Tracy or his pals. Tracy was shot numerous times and often left at death's door. His right hand was crushed in a vise. He was chained and left to starve. Villains devised elaborate and hopefully fatal traps for him. When he wasn't falling into these traps, he often found himself trapped by circumstances about to be gassed or drowned. His young protege, Junior, had his body shattered when run over by a truck. Diet Smith took two in the chest. Tess Trueheart is chased by a murderous villain.
A lot happens in these first ten books. Remember, though, that the strips were designed to be read daily. There was often a lot of repetition to keep both daily and Sunday only readers up to speed. This slows the action down only somewhat. Gould managed to keep a fast pace that is sustained in the collected strips. The 1940s strips show Gould at his best. So far.
The tenth volume in the series is a real gem for two reasons. First, it features the wooing of Gravel Gertie by B. O. Plenty and their eventual marriage. It's my opinion that B. O. Plenty is one of the best characters Gould created. And speaking of great characters, this volume also introduces Themesong, a tough-as-nails, independent seven-year-old girl who takes no guff from Tracy or anyone. She's the type of kid Little Orphan Annie (no creampuff herself) could only hope to be.
Each volume in the series features an introduction by consulting editor Max Allan Collins, who took over the writing of the strip when Gould retired. Also, each book features an article on Tracyania -- toys, ties-ins, radio shows, popularity, and so on. These are great books and I hope the series continues through to Gould's retirement in 1977.
Bring on Volume Eleven!
For more Forgotten Books this week, go to Pattinase.