Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The most iconic comic strip hero has just kicked down the door and socked me on the jaw. Ye gods!
225. Dick Tracy
“Tracy, Tracy, Tracy!”
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Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the man in the yellow coat and hat, the guy with the squarest jaw in the funnies, the dude with the two-way wrist radio/TV/computer– yeah, he’s the best hero in the newspapers. He debuted in 1931, joining the police force to catch the crooks that killed his girlfriend Tess Trueheart’s father. From then on, he’d prove himself to be the toughest cop on the force, chasing down an unending number of crazy criminals.
It’s the bad guys that really sold the strip, after all– a parade of bizarre freaks whose faces were as deformed as their black souls. These classic characters included Flattop, Big Boy, Breathless Mahoney, Littleface, B-B Eyes, the Brow, the Mole, Mumbles, Spots, 88 Keys, and my all-time favorite– Pruneface! The villains were gloriously despicable. I’d say Dick Tracy has one of the finest rogues galleries in all of fiction, after, say, Batman and Spider-Man. Gould defined what would become the police procedural during these strips, and also introduced grisly violence onto the comics page. Dick Tracy lived in a rough world, and his enemies often met gruesome fates.
(“A piece of paper! In the sandwich!” is the second-finest bit of dialogue to appear in the strip. The best? “He has the strength of ten babies!” from a ’60s story.)
Tracy’s also had a huge supporting cast come and go over the years, from sidekicks like his adopted son Junior and pals Pat Patton and Sam Catchem to his wife Tess Truehart and their kids to friends like Diet Smith, B.O. Plenty and his daughter Sparkle, to, er, space aliens from the moon. Lots of ‘em have been great fun, however, and have been fully fleshed out over the decades. In the Dick Tracy universe, characters get to age and grow and change– up to a point, anyway. After all, Tracy’s looking pretty spry after having been fighting crime for three-quarters of a century.
Now, about those moon people. Yes, Gould changed the strip with the times, and constantly introduced new gadgetry for the police to combat the criminal element with. Quite often, he predicted the introduction of similar devices into reality. Things went a bit overboard in the ’60s, however, as the cops started using space ships and hanging out with aliens from the moon. Tracy’s kid Junior even married one of them, by the name of Moon Maid, and they produced a daughter. The strip got more and more over-the-top until the real-life moon landing proved that there was no such thing as a race of moon people and Gould phased them out of the strip, returning to earthbound crime. Gould’s successors blew Moon Maid up with a car bomb and permanently swept the sci-fi era under the rug.
Chester Gould retired in 1977, and, since then, several excellent creators have followed, including the great Max Allan Collins, along with Rick Fletcher, Mike Kilian, and the current Tracy-runner, Dick Locher. Some eras have been better than others, but Dick Tracy is still going strong.
I always loved that “Crimestoppers” bit, introduced by Gould– cool little tips to protect oneself or spot and thwart crime. Great idea.
Dick Tracy has had quite a few spin-offs in other media, from radio series to movie serials to a few cartoons (now on DVD), to the 1990 Warren Beatty film. Maybe you didn’t like it, but I love this movie. Heck, I even dug the board game they made from it. The film had fantastic sets and colors to reflect the old-timey Sunday comic strip tone, and it featured a pile of classic Tracy baddies. This film fueled my fondness for Dick Tracy. It also spawned a tie-in comic with art by Kyle Baker, which is cool. Usually, Tracy’s involvement in the world of comic books is through reprints, but this was original material. I’d like to see something of the kind these days– maybe a “Dick Tracy Begins” kind of graphic novel? That’d be interesting.
Numerous Dick Tracy collections are available. Recently, IDW’s begun to put out “The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy,” two volumes of which are currently available, with a third coming this autumn.
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