Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, April 24, 2015


Dick Tracy and the Nightmare Machine by Max Allan Collins and Dick Locher (1991)

Here's a quick read culled from the daily comic strip Dick Tracy, slightly revised and edited to fit the paperback format, and published by Torin the wake of the major motion picture release of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.  Collins took over the writing duties of the strip in late 1975 following the retirement of the strip's creator, Chester Gould.  Locher, one-time assistant to Gould, began drawing the strip after artist Rick Fletcher died in 1983.

In this story, Tracy has been having nightmares of some of his old villains coming back for vengeance.  In the meantime, Diet Smith Enterprises has been funding research into dreams.  The  is head of the dream research is Dr. Morpheus, a brilliant and, sadly, mad scientist.  One of Diet Smith's advisors, Dr. Citpecs, has been recommending the the Morpheus research be de-funded.  Just as a decision was made, Citpeks dies in his sleep and the Dream Research project has a stay of execution.  Diet introduces Tracy to Morpheus, who tells the detective that he may be able to help him.  Morpheus' theory is that one can learn to control one's dreams and, eventually, two people can share the same dream.  The hope is that, through dream control and sharing, diseases can be cured by convincing the individual mind to erase them -- sort of a high-tech Christian Science-ish approach to disease control.  But, remember, Dr. Morpheus is mad.

One of Morpheus' sleep subjects is hired killer Nick Eramthgin, a.k.a. Nick Nightmare, a.k.a. The Wraith.  The Wraith uses a machine that Morpheus has invented to enter the dreams on his "contracts" and murder them, leaving the victims dead from apparent heart attacks.  Morpheus uses The Wraith to eliminate his own enemies.  Soon Tracy susses all of this, leading to a final showdown against The Wraith in tracy's own dream.

Entering another's dreams is an old science fiction  concept and has been used effectively by John Brunner, Philip K. Dick, and many others.  Collins' use of the theme in a comic strip demonstrates the maturity he brought to Dick Tracy.  Under Gould, Tracy had always been up-to-date (and even up-to-dater) with technological devices.  Toward the end of Gould's run, however, he jumped the shark by introducing a race of moon people and their futuristic technology.  This, combined with efforts to make the strip more "hip" and Gould's increasing conservatism, brought Tracy to his nadir.  Collins managed to eliminate much of this claptrap while keeping Tracy very much up to date.  He sparingly integrated SF tropes into some of the strip's story arcs, beginning with the advent of Putty Face, while honoring the spirit of the strip.  Tract, under Collins, is a more fleshed-out character -- Gould's Tracy would never be so affected by nightmares, for example.  There is more complexity to the strip while still covering a variety of crimes and master criminals, ingenious ways of murder, and unique and deadly traps for Tracy and his fellow detectives.  There remains a tongue-in-cheek hokiness (i.e., giving some shady characters a reversed spelled name -- Dr. Citeps, Nick Eramthgin) and a wry sense of humor in the background.  Plots seem better thought-out than in Gould's day when action scene piled on action scene at a snowballing and careening pace.

The artwork by Locher seems more comic strip-y than Gould's, and perhaps less menacing.  Still, Locher's  art meshes comfortably with Collins' take on the characters.

Enough of comparisons.   Dick Tracy and the Nightmare Machine is an entertaining exercise, guaranteed to please any Tracy fan.

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