The following article was written by long time Dick Tracy police collaborator and crimestopper writer Jim Doherty as part of his column on the Mysterical-E website on hard-boiled and noir crime fiction. Jim has been kind enough to allow us to reprint it here.
I LIKE ‘EM TOUGH
75 YEARS OF CONTINUOUS CRIME-STOPPING
By Jim Doherty
Okay, we’ve defined out terms. We all know what we’re talking about when we say “hard-boiled” and “noir.” You should be ready for our first pop quiz. So here’s a question for you. Now that you know just what a hard-boiled detective is, who’s the single most famous hard-boiled detective? Not your favorite. Not even the best, necessarily, though to be that famous he’d probably have to at least be one of the best. Just the most famous. The one who’s familiar to the most people, whether or not they’re mystery fans. The one who’s virtually an iconic emblem of hard-boiled crime-fighting.
Sam Spade? Philip Marlowe? Mike Hammer? Lew Archer? Spenser? All good guesses, but the character I’m thinking of isn’t a private eye.
James Bond? Mack Bolan? Reasonable suggestions, although some might argue that Bond is too much the cultured British gentleman to be truly hard-boiled. But neither of them is the character I’m thinking of.
Okay, here’s a hint. He wasn’t originally created for the medium of prose fiction.
Joe Friday? Dirty Harry? A little warmer. The character I’m thinking of is a cop. But he wasn’t created for TV or movies, either.
Did I hear someone say Dick Tracy? Give the man a cigar! Because Dick Tracy is not only the single most famous detective in the hard-boiled canon, he is, with the single exception of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous fictional detective. Period.
And in October of 2006, he celebrated his 75 th year of continuous service in law enforcement.
Chester Gould, who created Tracy, and both illustrated and wrote his adventures for the first 46 of those 75 years, was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma , in 1900. His father was a small-town newspaper publisher, and early on, Gould decided he wanted to be a newspaperman, too. Unlike his dad, though, Gould, fascinated with comic strips from his early childhood, formed an ambition to be a cartoonist. At 16 he made his first sale, a one-panel gag about a soldier and a farm-worker each envying the other, which appeared in the national magazine The American Boy . He went on to do editorial and sports cartoons for his dad’s paper, slowly building up his resume. His ultimate goal was to have a nationally syndicated cartoon feature.
In 1921, after two years at Oklahoma A&M, Gould moved to Chicago , the Midwest ‘s newspaper mecca, determined to place a feature in the city’s top paper, the Tribune . One of the wheels who ran that paper, Joseph M. Patterson, “Captain” Patterson as he was always known after his term of Army service, also handled all the features syndicated by the Trib and its sister paper, the New York Daily News . And he took a particular interest in the comics his papers published and distributed. As well he should have, because the strips owned by the Tribune syndicate were the most popular and prosperous in the newspaper business. Dozens of hopeful young cartoonists were continuously trying to convince him to give their ideas a try, and, consequently, Patterson had built up a lot of sales resistance. But Gould, who was finishing up his degree at Northwestern, knew a little something about salesmanship. His major, after all, wasn’t art or journalism. It was Commerce and Marketing. And his personal Holy Grail was selling the Captain a feature Gould had created.
For the next ten years, he sent Patterson idea after idea. Very rarely, Patterson, impressed by the young man’s dogged persistence, would respond with an encouraging note, but he never bought anything. Over that same decade, Gould worked on every other paper in the Windy City . He had a strip in Hearst’s Chicago American called Fillum Fables , a burlesque on the motion picture industry that was clearly modeled on Ed Whelan’s Minute Movies . Also in the American , he had a strip called Radio Catts , a “funny animals” gag-a-day strip in the tradition of Mickey Mouse or Pogo . Later, he had a strip in the Chicago Daily News called The Girl Friends , a “cute babe” feature in the tradition of Winnie Winkle and Tillie the Toiler . Plus editorial cartoons. Plus sports cartoons. Plus commercial art for the various businesses advertising in the papers. And the whole time, he was submitting trial strip after trial strip to Patterson. A “mischievous kids” strip called Jarley , in the tradition of Skippy or Dennis the Menace . A “married couples” strip in the tradition of Blondie . An adventure strip about aviators in the tradition of Tailspin Tommy or Smilin’ Jack . At one point, Hearst’s King Features Syndicate offered him the chance to take over the already running Little Annie Rooney , a strip about the picaresque adventures of a red-haired orphan girl with a dog (in the tradition, as if you couldn’t guess, of Little Orphan Annie ). Gould turned the offer down. He wanted to do a feature that he created himself.
All he needed was the right idea.
Like many cartoonists, the second-generation newspaperman turned to the front page for inspiration. And in Chicago , the front page was filled with stories of crime and gangsters, and, particularly, one specific gangster. The Gangster-in-Chief himself. Al Capone.
Gould had grown up in Oklahoma when it was still something of an untamed territory. The memories of straight-shooting lawmen like Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas, and no-nonsense jurists like Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge,” were still fresh in the minds of most Oklahomans, and the notion that a guy like Capone, a man clearly guilty of scores of murders and the Lord only knew what else, could walk around free, paying no penalty for his crimes, deeply offended Gould’s sense of frontier justice.
Gould had long been a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and avidly followed a then-popular radio series that dramatized the famous sleuth’s adventures.
Holmes. Capone. Was the right idea staring him in the face?
“What,” he thought to himself, “if Sherlock Holmes were alive today and fighting Al Capone.” Might be a notion there at that. Maybe it was time to quite submitting strips that were “in the tradition” of something that had already been done. Maybe it was time to try something entirely new.
Gould went to his drawing board and prepared five sample strips of a feature he called Plainclothes Tracy . The titular hero was the Chief of Detectives in a city not too very unlike Chicago , whose hawk-faced profile was patterned on Holmes’s. The villain was a fat slug of a mob kingpin called “The Cleaver,” obviously modeled on Capone. Tracy had a sidekick named Pat. The Cleaver had a moll named Texie Garcia. And in those five strips there was all manner of gunplay and torture and violence the like of which had never before been seen in the funny papers.
Early in June of 1931, Gould sent the trial strips off to Patterson. It was his 61 st submission.
Two and a half months later, enough time that Gould had probably written the Tracy strip off as yet another failed attempt, Patterson sent the hopeful young cartoonist a telegram from New York .
“YOUR PLAIN CLOTHES TRACY HAS POSSIBILITIES STOP WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU WHEN I GO TO CHICAGO NEXT STOP CALL TRIBUNE OFFICE MONDAY ABOUT NOON FOR AN APPOINTMENT.”
On August 20 th , 1931 , Gould was shown into the Captain’s office. Patterson greeted him with a cordial handshake, and immediately let Gould know that his hero needed a first name. George Tracy. Frank Tracy. Jim Tracy. None of those seemed right. It occurred to Patterson, who’d been a police reporter during his early years in the news game, that a common colloquial term for “detective” was “dick.” Dick Tracy? That had a ring to it. They’d call him Dick Tracy.
And rather than have him be a cop, make him a civilian at first. Have him join the force when his sweetheart’s father is killed during an armed robbery. That would be a great story to open the feature with.
The meeting ended and Gould got to work on the strip. Incorporating Patterson’s changes, he worked in a few of his own. The straw boater Tracy wore in the try-out strips was replaced with a snap-brim fedora. Texie Garcia went from blonde to brunette. “The Cleaver,” Gould’s Capone analog, became “The Big Boy.” And Tracy ‘s assistant, Pat, shaved off his mustache, lost a bit of weight, and acquired the surname of “Patton.”
The strip debuted on Sunday, October 4, 1931 , in one single paper, the Detroit Mirror . At its peak, Tracy would run in more than 600 papers, but when it got its start, the Mirror was the only paper carrying it.
Until the feature got rolling, the Sunday pages would be run separately from the daily strips, and that October 4 debut was a complete story told in twelve panels. Tracy, still a civilian, is called down to police headquarters to give a witness statement about a crime he saw the night before. While there, he’s able to see through the disguise of a wanted criminal, “Pinkie the Stabber,” and identifies him to the top cop, Chief Brandon.
By Tracy ‘s second appearance, the following Sunday, October 11, he’s a full-fledged member of the police department’s detective bureau, raiding a night club run by Big Boy (making his first appearance). Tracy leads the raid and is able to thwart the Big Boy’s escape. Another story completed in only twelve panels, with no explanation of how Tracy had gone from the concerned citizen of the first Sunday strip to the fully sworn badge packer of the second.
For the lowdown on just how Tracy joined the force, readers had to wait until Monday, October 12, when the first daily strip appeared in both the Mirror and the New York Daily News . Tracy, still a civilian, visits his girl, Tess Trueheart, joins her and her folks for dinner, and, per Patterson’s mandate, is present when a pair of home invaders, in the pay of the Big Boy, break in, shoot down Mr. Trueheart, steal the family’s life savings, and abduct Tess. Tracy tries to intervene, but gets clocked by one of the thugs for his trouble. Later, Chief Brandon offers him a position on the city’s detective squad on the spot, and assigns him to find the hoods who killed Emil Trueheart and kidnapped Tess.
That was the beginning of a long, wild and wooly, hard-boiled ride that Gould would steer for the next forty-six years, a ride that is still continuing under Gould’s successors (though the ride is no longer either as wild or as hard-boiled).
Several things would characterize the strip throughout its run. First, the level of violence. Not only was there a lot of it, but it had consequences. People died, or were maimed or crippled. And not just bad people. Good, decent people like Tess’s dad.
But though the violence was always unsettlingly vicious, it was also, surprisingly, understated. Dick Tracy used few of the comic strip “sound affects” so mercilessly parodied in, for example, the mid’-60’s Batman TV show. You’d just see a line of smoke flashing out of the end of Tracy ‘s pistol, or see a fist connecting with a jaw, sans the POW!, BANG!, CRUNCH! so common in other strips. And this understated approach served to make the violence more real, more ugly. And more effective.
Second, the colorful villains. Real-life gangsters in the Prohibition and Depression eras, the strip’s formative years, had colorful nicknames spread all over the nation’s front pages, names that, as often as not, described their features, or character tics, or some disfigurement. “Scarface” Capone. “Baby-Face” Nelson. “Pretty Boy” Floyd. “Three-Fingered Jack” White. “Mad Dog” Coll. “Greasy Thumb” Guzik. Gould took this underworld tendency to brand its members with colorful monickers and ran with it. Over the years, perhaps the most memorable feature of the strip has been its grotesquely deformed villains. “Little-Face” Finney. The Mole. The pock-marked “Measles” Enog. The hunch-backed “Doc” Hump. Scardol. The Rhodent. And, of course, the most famous Tracy villain of them all, “Flattop” Jones. Interestingly, few of these criminals recurred, in sharp contrast to characters such as the Joker from Batman , or Lex Luthor from Superman , always inevitably jailed at the end of each story and always, just as inevitably, escaping to wreak more havoc a few months later. Usually, when a Tracy bad guy was cornered, he resisted. When that happened, Tracy had no compunctions about the use of deadly force. And when Tracy killed ‘em, by God, they stayed dead.
Third, the “ripped from the headlines” immediacy. Aside from basing so many of his criminals on real-life gangsters, Gould got plot ideas from current events. During the years of his run, he used plots clearly inspired by the Lindbergh kidnapping, John Dillinger’s escape from jail using a home-made toy gun, the cornering of “Ma” Barker and her boys at their hideout, the stories of the Mob’s “Murder Inc.” death squad, the revelations about Axis spy activities on the home front during World War II, the Brinks armored car robbery, the Kefauver hearings on organized crime, the exposure of police corruption in Chicago, and even the space race.
Fourth, the “inescapable” death traps. Tracy ‘s enemies, whenever they got him in their power, were never content to simply shoot him and have done with it. Instead, they’d contrive some Rube Goldberg-style torture to make his death slow and painful. Then, instead of sticking around and watching the fun, they’d leave, certain that Tracy ‘s doom was sealed. Tracy always managed to figure a way out.
Fifth, the mildly science fictional elements, like the two-way wrist radio that became the strip’s trademark. Actually, more often than not, when Gould introduced such an element into the strip, he managed to predict new technology with surprising accuracy. In the course of his run, he anticipated such developments as closed-circuit security TV cameras, cellular camera phones, heart transplants, voice-prints, and caller ID, in each case years before the real-life counterparts were introduced.
Finally, the strip was marked by its realistic depiction of police procedure. When no less an authority than Ellery Queen declared Gould the originator of the “police procedural” sub-genre, predating pioneers like Jack Webb, Lawrence Treat, John “J.J. Marric” Creasey, and Ed McBain by years, often by decades, it may have seemed like nothing more than a complimentary exaggeration, but, really, Gould was making a genuine effort to sweat the details. He consulted with police reporters on the staff of the Trib , as well as with actual police officers. He enrolled in a course on criminology at his old alma mater , Northwestern. He subscribed to professional police journals like The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin . Ultimately, he’d hire a retired Chicago police officer, Al Valanis, as a technical advisor. Valanis was a pioneer forensic sketch artist, and it’s been suggested that, when Tracy ‘s adopted son, Dick Tracy Jr., finally grew up and became a cop himself, Gould made him a police artist as a compliment to Valanis.
The radio-TV series Dragnet is often pointed to, and quite correctly in my view, as the real root from which the modern police procedural sub-genre grew. But it’s entirely possible that Jack Webb was heavily influenced by Tracy when he was developing his idea for a semi-documentary cop show. In his youth, Webb, like Gould, had wanted to be a cartoonist, and he actually was a fairly gifted artist. Further, he grew up during a time when Tracy was a major force in popular culture, so he had to have been aware of it. Joe Friday, the main character in Dragnet , is a thoroughly dedicated, thoroughly honest, straight-arrow cop living for little aside from his profession. In other words, a character who evokes Tracy . And Friday’s various partners, Frank Smith, Bill Gannon, et al, are all quirky, humorous, but absolutely dependable assistants, quite similar, when you think about it, to guys like Pat Patton and Sam Catchem. So if Webb is clearly the father of the police procedural, Gould is the likely grandfather.
Tracy ‘s immediate success wasn’t lost on rival syndicates. Within a short time, everyone was fielding their own cops-and-robbers strips. Hearst’s King Features jumped on the bandwagon (or, perhaps, more appropriately, paddy-wagon) in the biggest way, hiring no less a luminary than Dashiell Hammett to create Secret Agent X-9 about a mysterious, implacable FBI man; persuading Zane Grey to give his name (though not, apparently, his creative genius) to King of the Royal Mounted , which depicted law enforcement in the contemporary Canadian northwest; assigning Boston Daily Record night editor Eddie Sullivan and staff artist Charles Schmidt to create Radio Patrol , about uniformed squad car cops; and, for good measure, hiring Will Gould (no relation to Chester, but the fortuitous coincidence of having the same family name probably wasn’t lost on them) to write and illustrate Red Barry – Undercover Man . Lank Leonard’s Mickey Finn , for the McNaught Syndicate, concentrated on the home life of a hard-working cop. Norman Marsh’s Dan Dunn – Secret Operative 48 , distributed by Publishers Syndicate, was the most slavish of all the Tracy imitators, depicting a square-jawed detective wearing a black business suit and a yellow fedora, who had a chubby Irish sidekick just like Pat Patton, and an orphaned kid tag-along just like Junior.
But Tracy predated them all, and outlasted them all. He remains the King of the Hill, the most famous fictional policeman in any medium.
Ask most people how they became mystery fans, and you’re likely to hear something about the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Well, Frank and Joe were certainly present during my own formative years as a devotee of crime fiction, but before them, before I could even read, I was getting exposed to exciting tales of crime and punishment when my Dad read Dick Tracy aloud to me every Sunday. Chester Gould, in fact, could be said to have had a major influence on my life. I became a cop partly (not exclusively; I come from a family of cops after all, but partly) because I wanted to grow up to be someone like Tracy , and I became a mystery writer partly (not exclusively, but partly) because Chester Gould’s expert story-telling was such an inspiration.
I’m not the only one. One of Gould’s successors on the strip, Max Allan Collins, was also introduced to the mystery genre through Dick Tracy , and actually had the wonderful fortune to grow up and do the strip that had so inspired him as a six-year-old. Some of Collins’s stuff actually came close to doing justice to Gould’s work.
Gould, and occasionally his replacements, managed, despite the disposable nature of the medium in which they worked, to produce stories that stand the test of time as well or better than novels, movies, and TV shows on the same subjects. Gould’s story-telling ability, his pacing, his plot twists, his colorful characters, and his incisive social commentary are almost Dickensian.
Here’s my personal list of the ten best Tracy stories, the Tracy stories I can read over and over again and still get the same kind of thrill I once got at my father’s knee.
• “Dick Tracy Meets the Big Boy” (October 12, 1931, to December 30, 1931)
This was the first fully-developed continuity in the strip, and, on that basis alone, deserves a spot on this list. Tracy, newly hired by the police force and put on the trail of the Tess and her kidnappers, goes undercover in the City’s underbelly, gets himself recruited into Big Boy’s gang, thwarts a major crime, rescues Tess, kills Mr. Trueheart’s murderer in a shoot-out, and exposes a crooked politician who winds up committing suicide. An awful lot of plot crammed into a bit less than three months, particularly considering that the Sunday strips weren’t part of the daily continuity at this point. At the end, though the Big Boy’s still at large, he’s been driven out of town, leaving his moll, Texie, to hold the bag, until he can figure out what to do about this new flatfoot who’s clearly taking his job too seriously.
The Big Boy, Tracy ‘s first villain (not counting “Pinkie the Stabber,” who was, after all, pretty inconsequential), would go on to become Gould’s most frequently recurring bad guy. He’d return in April, 1932, for “The Kidnapping of Buddy Waldorf.” He wound up jugged at the end of that one, but would crash out in October, 1933, for “Big Boy’s Escape.” He was also the featured villain in the autonomous Sunday stories of October 11 and October 18, 1931 , and May 30, June 5, and June 26, 1932 , after which the Sunday strips were fully integrated into the daily continuity.
Moreover, throughout the first two years of the strip, even in those stories in which he wasn’t the featured villain, Big Boy seemed to function as a kind of “gray eminence,” the power behind virtually every bit of criminal activity Tracy was pitted against. No other criminal in the entire history of the strip loomed as large. He’s neither the most popular nor the best-known member of Tracy ‘s Rogue’s Gallery, but he is, arguably, the most important.
• “Homeville’s New Police Chief” (September 26, 1935, to March 7, 1936)
When Waite Wright, a reform candidate, is elected mayor of the corrupt, gangster-ridden suburb of Homeville (apparently a fictionalized version of the notoriously mob-dominated town of Cicero, Illinois), he knows he needs a ass-kicking, name-taking fire-eater to shape up his community’s inept police force, so he asks Tracy to take a temporary leave of absence from the City’s detective bureau and sign on as the reform slate’s police chief.
At just about the same time that Tracy’s getting sworn into his new job, notorious racketeers “Cut” Famon and his brother “Muscle” move into town with their tough-as-nails mother and it’s clear sparks are going to fly, because there’s not enough room in Homeville for both Tracy and the Famons.
When Tracy ‘s not busy thwarting the gangsters’ schemes, he’s firing drunken or crooked cops, initiating a program of strict traffic safety enforcement, and delivering hellfire-and-brimstone speeches about law and order to civic groups. Along the way, another recurring character is inducted into the strip’s cast, Tracy ‘s FBI buddy, Special Agent Jim Trailer.
Ultimately, in a sequence mirroring the FBI’s shoot-out with “Ma” Barker and her sons, it all leads to one hellaciously blistering gunfight between the Famon family and Tracy and his suburban cops. From there, like many of the strip’s best yarns, it settles into several weeks of manhunting, as the fugitive Famon gang tries to stay a step ahead of Tracy . The story ends, as many Tracy stories do, with our hero fighting for his life after sustaining serious wounds in the running battle.
This is probably my single favorite continuity from the ‘30’s. Aside from being a hell of a good story, it’s also interesting, given Tracy ‘s real-life model, how much this story parallels events in Eliot Ness’s life. After leaving federal service, Ness also became a local police chief, though of a much bigger city. As the Director of Public Safety for Cleveland , Ohio , Ness, like Tracy , fired crooked and drunken cops, initiated a comprehensive traffic safety program, and made life hell for the Mayfield Road Mob, Cleveland ‘s local Mafia family.
But what’s really interesting about this is that the Tracy story was not mirroring Ness ‘s experiences. If anything, Ness’s experiences were mirroring the Tracy story. Tracy was sworn in as Chief of the Homeville Police in October of 1935. Ness didn’t take the oath as Cleveland ‘s Safety Director until two months later.
A case of life imitating art. Or art anticipating life. Or something like that.
• “Flattop” (December 21, 1943, to May 21, 1944)
Without question the most popular Tracy story featuring the most famous Tracy villain. And it truly is one of the best things Gould ever did.
Flattop Jones is a free-lance hit man, brought in by local organized crime figures to rub out Tracy , whose investigations into black marketing activities are getting uncomfortably close to bearing fruit.
But Flattop decides to double-cross his clients. He captures Tracy , all right. But he doesn’t kill him right away. Instead, he keeps him a prisoner, than demands a much higher fee for completing the contract than was originally agreed upon. If his employers don’t meet his price, he’ll release Tracy .
The mobsters finally acquiesce, but before Flattop actually pulls the trigger on Tracy , the hard-to-kill cop lunges at the hit man, grabs a gun, and shoots his way free.
From then on, it’s one of the best “manhunt” scenarios ever run in the strip, as Flattop bounces from hideout to hideout, meeting such colorful supporting characters as Barrymore-like actor Vitamin Flintheart (who’d become a recurring figure in the years to come). Finally arrested, Gould decided he was too good a character to use up that quickly, and had him escape almost immediately, so that the hunt could continue.
Flattop, like most of Gould’s criminals, dies at the end, but Gould, for once, seemed to have regretted not keeping him around for return engagements. He compensated by giving Flattop a large family who’d plague Tracy in future scenarios. An older brother, the easily angered Blowtop, showed up in 1950, and a delinquent teen-aged son, Flattop Jr., in 1956. Max Allan Collins would add a daughter, Angeltop (1977), a grandson, Hi-Top (1990), and another brother, Sharptop (1993).
• “The Brow” (May 21, 1944, to September 26, 1944)
After the US entered World War II, a large number of prominent comic strip characters, Joe Palooka, Scorchy Smith, Skeezix from Gasoline Alley , Terry Lee and Pat Ryan from Terry and the Pirates , Captain Easy from Wash Tubbs , and a host of others, went into uniform for the duration. Even Flash Gordon returned to Earth long enough to get commissioned into America ‘s Armed Forces.
Tracy ‘s stint of military duty was served stateside, as a lieutenant in the Office of Naval Intelligence assigned to plainclothes counter-espionage duties. It was in this capacity that he went toe-to-toe with the Nazi spy known as the Brow.
The Brow’s mission is to observe the movements of troop ships leaving the City’s harbor, and he’s using a pair of scrumptious-looking, pocket-picking twin sisters, May and June Summer, to courier information. Tracy, with the help of the Summer sisters, breaks up the Brow’s espionage ring in fairly short order, but the Brow himself escapes, and the story then settles down into “manhunt” mode, as Tracy inexorably closes in on the Nazi, who’s taken refuge with a widow named Gravel Gertie, destined to become one of the strip’s most popular recurring characters.
This continuity also gives us a chance to see Tess looking quite fetching in her own military uniform (she’s a Tech Sergeant in the WAC’s), and even more fetching in a swimsuit. We’re also introduced to Tess’s old school friend, Jean, reportedly modeled on Gould’s own daughter, Jean Edna Gould.
Many Tracy fans regard 1944 as Gould’s “golden year.” He started out with his most famous villain, Flattop, whom he followed immediately with the Brow, another of his best and most popular villains, finishing the year with “Shaky,” another strong villain in another strong story.
Of the half-dozen or so Tracy stories Gould did that had an overtly wartime theme, “The Brow” is certainly the best.
• “Crewy Lou” (May 22, 1951, to November 4, 1951)
Many Tracy fans regard the ‘40’s as Gould’s strongest period. Not only was that the decade that produced his most famous villains (the Mole, Pruneface, 88 Keyes, Itchy, Mumbles, as well as the aforementioned Flattop and the Brow), some of his most popular recurring characters (B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, their daughter Sparkle, billionaire industrialist Diet Smith, and his new partner, Detective Sam Catchem), and gadgets that would become trademarks of the strip (the two-way wrist radio), it was also the decade in which Tracy’s status as a pop culture icon was firmly cemented, with movies, radio shows, toys (the Sparkle Plenty doll being perhaps the most successful plaything of the decade), books, and dozens of other licensed products making him one of the most ubiquitous characters in fiction. To say nothing of being spoofed by everyone from Daffy Duck to Bing Crosby.
However, I think most readers will find, on close examination, that it was in the ‘50’s that Gould created his strongest story-lines. If there was no villain who was quite as memorable as the great line-up of “Grotesques” from the ‘40’s, there was some of the sharpest plotting, best pacing, and crispest artwork Gould ever accomplished. And if the ‘40’s brought us the Plentys and Diet Smith, the ‘50’s introduced Bonnie Braids, the daughter of newlyweds Dick and Tess, and rookie cop Lizz Wentworth, a distaff detective who, in becoming a valued member of Tracy’s staff, prefigured not only fictional characters from Christie Opara in Dorothy Uhnak’s Edgar-winning novel, The Bait (Simon & Schuster, 1958) to Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect , but the changing face of law enforcement in real life.
And if the1944 trifecta of Flattop, the Brow, and Shaky is often pointed to as the feature’s best year, I’d argue that the best continuous, sustained period for Tracy was from May 1951 through January 1953, as Gould churned out four of his finest stories, one right after the other, non-stop.
The first of this great quartet of continuities was the best. Indeed, it’s probably the best single story Gould ever did in his nearly half-century on the strip. It begins as the Tracys arrive home with their newborn daughter, Bonnie. Louise Brown, a crew-cutted, pony-tailed commercial photographer solicits the
Tracys ‘ business. She’s trying to break into the baby photography line, and with the famous cop’s family as clients, she’ll have a resume that will get her into exclusive homes.
Thing is, “Crewy Lou,” though she really is a talented photographer, has no intention of trying to make a legitimate living. She wants to get into those exclusive homes, on the pretext of taking baby pictures, in order to burgle them.
One of the homes she burgles, however, belongs to Fortson Knox, who just happens to be a major league gangster, and this puts her at odds, not just with Tracy, but with “The King,” a shadowy, mysterious individual who is the single most powerful figure in Organized Crime. Crewy Lou, though, is not impressed and not intimidated, and, just to prove it, she personally shoots the King down when he demands tribute. This, not unsurprisingly, puts her at the top of the King’s excremental roster.
Tracy and Sam have the double job of bringing in the now-fugitive Crewy Lou and deposing the King. And, in the course of the ensuing pursuit, they also have to recover Tracy ‘s ride, a spiffy Cadillac convertible that Crewy Lou has carjacked, and rescue Tracy ‘s infant daughter Bonnie, who was in the car when the trigger-happy photographer made off with it
The story moves like a runaway wildfire as Tracy , in the course of the story, goes from cerebral sleuth, to scientific investigator, to gangbuster, to concerned parent. It all ends happily. This time. But in Tracy’s world, where a sweet guy like Emil Trueheart got shot down like a dog during the first few days of the strip, and innocent victims routinely pile up like cordwood, no character’s survival is ever guaranteed.
• “Dick Tracy – Crooked Cop?” (November 5, 1951 to January 22, 1952)
That swanky Cad that Crewy Lou stole got a lot of readers thinking. How could an honest cop afford a car like that? And, come to think of it, that Frank Lloyd Wright-style house he and Tess lived in seemed just a bit grand for a humble civil servant. It became something of a running gag as comedians, commentators, and columnists began to observe that Tracy seemed to be living a tad above his means. At one point, Chicago ‘s DA, Cook County State ‘s Attorney John S. Boyle, even wrote a letter to the Tribune suggesting that perhaps a Grand Jury investigation was called for.
Gould, typically, took the controversy and made use of it, churning out a tight little story about police corruption.
Pat Patton, Tracy ‘s former partner and now the Chief of Police, has been forced to investigate Tracy ‘s finances. A trifle nonplussed, Tracy cooperates fully, making a full financial disclosure to Patton as well as the Sheriff and the DA.
Boiling down his explanation, he can afford to live large basically because he shops smart and invests wisely. But Tracy ‘s lavish lifestyle is only a side issue. Evidence from two of Tracy ‘s recent cases has gone missing, hundreds of thousands in stolen cash and valuable stolen jewelry, and the signed receipts make it look like Tracy ‘s the only guy who had access to the stuff. Tracy knows he didn’t steal anything, but how can he prove it?
There actually is a crooked cop in the woodwork, but it’s not Tracy . It’s the Department’s evidence custodian, Charlie Pilfa, who has, for years, been stealing items out of the evidence vault and fencing them through his partner in crime, music store owner Spinner ReCord. And they’ve also decided that, as the revelation of the shortfalls becomes imminent, an apparently high-living copper like Tracy is the perfect fall guy.
Tracy emerges with his integrity intact, but the predicament of this cop’s cop sweating out an investigation into his finances as he tries to clear himself makes for one of Gould’s most compelling stories.
• “Model” (January 23, 1952, to March 31, 1952)
I’ll be honest, I’ve never really liked kid sidekicks in the comics. Batman’s Robin, Captain America ‘s Bucky, the Human Torch’s Toro, Aquaman’s Aqualad, the Green Arrow’s Speedy, even Pat Ryan’s Terry Lee all leave me pretty cold. And Dick Tracy Jr., the root from which all those adolescent crime-fighters sprang, is probably my least favorite character in Dick Tracy .
But this story, the story of Junior’s first love, is inarguably his best moment. And one of the best stories ever run in Tracy .
Finally a teen-ager after some twenty-odd years of hanging around the master detective, Junior, now working part-time at the Department as a sketch artist (this would become his law enforcement specialty when he reached adulthood and joined the Force as a full-fledged cop), has met a great-looking girl, Model Jones, and fallen hard. Model, for her part, seems to feel the same way.
Problem? She comes from a family that could be the poster models for dysfunction. Her parents are both out-of-work alcoholics who depend on Model’s salary for their support. And her brother, Larry, is a small-time delinquent who petty racket is breaking parking meters apart and stealing the change.
When a passing beat officer catches Larry and his gang looting some meters and attempts to arrest them, Larry suddenly breaks into the big leagues. Now he’s a cop-killer, at the top of the personal “Most Wanted” list of every policeman in the City.
Junior and Model break up over her brother, get back together, and then are pulled apart forcibly, as Larry, attempting to escape, accidentally shoots her. How does it end? Well, remember what I said. In Tracy ‘s world, no character, however sympathetic and innocent, is ever guaranteed survival.
• “Mr. Crime” (March 27, 1952, to January 19, 1953)
If the King, in “Crewy Lou,” was a slicker, more sophisticated version of the Big Boy, then George “Mr. Crime” Alpha is a more fully realized depiction of Big Boy’s secret second-in-command, “Boss Jim” Herrod. Herrod, an elder statesman in City political circles, and, to all appearances, a champion of “Good Government,” was actually the guy running the Outfit while the Big Boy was in stir. When Tracy exposed him, and brought him down in a blistering gun battle right in the City Hall/County Building, no one could believe that the sterling reputation of Herrod was the front masking so much corruption.
George Alpha, the King’s apparent successor a the top of Organized Crime’s pyramid, seems to be a legitimate, civic-minded businessman, but in reality he is, as another character puts it, “the head of all crime in America,” and he’s surrounded himself with all kinds of “mastermind of evil” trappings right out of Sax Rohmer or Ian Fleming, hidden rooms, swimming pools filled with man-eating fish, etc. Putting him out of business is going to take Tracy the better part of a year in an unusually long continuity.
It starts as Tracy and Sam investigate an apparently unrelated case. Dude Doorne, a minor Mob figure, is trying to quit the rackets so he can manage an up-and-coming pop singer named Tonsils.
No one really quits the rackets, though, and Doorne’s former colleagues think a Dude Doorne on the comparatively straight and narrow is a liability, so, on Alpha’s orders, he’s killed. And a contract is also put out on Dude’s client, Tonsils.
Tonsils manages to dodge both Tracy and the gangsters, but he causes some havoc, and one death along the way, becoming a criminal fugitive.
“It’s a race between us and the underworld,” Sam tells Tracy . And, in this case, the underworld wins. Alpha decides that, since Tonsils is now a wanted man, he’s perfect for the job of being Tracy ‘s hit man. Tracy represents a major danger to the Syndicate, but a hit by someone unattached to the rackets would be preferable to an obvious gangland murder.
Tonsils reluctantly agrees to carry out the contract, and he’s close to successful. Stalking Tracy , once more on vacation in the North Woods, he shoots him from a sniper’s perch with a high-powered rifle while he’s steering a speedboat in which his daughter, Bonnie, and her friend, Sparkle Plenty, are passengers. For weeks, readers got another helping of missing persons angst. Only this time, it’s not just Bonnie who’s missing. It’s Tracy and Sparkle, too. And the gunshot heard from the resort hotel make the likelihood that they’ll all be found dead much more probable.
Tracy survives, though, thanks to the help of a marvelous backwoods character, Rifle Ruby, and returns to the City to spend the rest of the year, and part of the next, dodging more assassination attempts, wrecking more of “Mr. Crime’s” enterprises, and edging ever closer to unmasking the mysterious gangster’s true identity.
It all ends, as it did for “Boss Jim” Herrod, with a blazing shootout in the City Hall/County Building.
• “Big Boy’s Open Contract” (June 11, 1978, to December 30, 1978)
Gould’s output for the rest of the ‘50’s was great, but nothing ever quite compared to that sustained twenty-month burst of excellence beginning with “Crewy Lou” and ending with “Mr. Crime.” He’d come close in 1956 with the introduction of Lizz the Policewoman, and the pursuit of James Dean-like hoodlums Joe Period and Flattop Jr.
In the ‘60’s, Gould surprised everyone, and not pleasantly, when he greatly expanded the science fictional trappings of Dick Tracy to the point that the strip seemed virtually unrecognizable. Suddenly, instead of chasing down gangsters in a squad car, Tracy was routinely making trips to the moon in a magnetically powered craft called a Space Coupe, hidden civilizations were being discovered there, cops were patrolling their beats in things called magnetic air cars that looked like a flying garbage cans, Junior was getting married to an extra-terrestrial, Tracy’s granddaughter was being born in outer space, and the whole thing seemed jaw-droppingly surreal. Gould always thought it was one of the best things he ever did, but many, arguably most, of his fans considered it the strip’s nadir.
Tracy ‘s “space period” does have its defenders, particularly among fans who grew up when that was the strip’s paradigm. And Gould’s graphic abilities were as sharp as ever. Indeed, they were probably improving, even as the canvas he was forced to create on grew smaller and smaller. Further, though a space-faring Dick Tracy may have seemed as odd as a Buck Rogers suddenly transforming into an earthbound cop, the ever-creative Gould was still serving up with great villains in the ‘60’s, like Haf-n-Haf (who evoked the Batman’s foe Two-Face), Scorpio, Piggy, Mr. Bribery, and syndicate hit men Two-Finger and Nicky the Assassin.
Granting Gould’s artistic talent and creativity, I have to count myself in the camp of those who dislike the Moon stories. It didn’t work. It was too radical a shift. And, most importantly, it turned out Gould was wrong.
When humanity actually set foot on the moon 1969, no hidden civilizations were found there, and Gould had to retrench. In consequence, the ‘70’s, with Gould cutting back on the outer space references (though some of the “magnetic” technology remained present) were something of a return to form, with Tracy getting back to earthbound crime-fighting and contending with a final cadre of strong villains, like Pucker-Puss, the Brain, and Z.Z. Welz. Artwise, Gould, ably assisted by Rick Fletcher, was looking better than ever.
Still, Gould seemed to be reusing devices over and over again. The Tracys ‘ house was burned down by criminals attempting to kill the detective (as it had been twenty years earlier). Tracy was struck blind and had to learn how to function as a sightless detective (as he had been thirty years earlier). Tracy welcomes a new rookie cop onto the Force and changes his hair style (both of which he did fifteen years earlier). Good stuff, but not up to the level of his best ‘50’s material. And Gould’s constant carping about courts giving criminal defendants too much of a break grew tiresome, even to people who avidly agreed with him.
In December of 1977, Gould finally retired and the strip was turned over to his long-time assistant, Fletcher, who handled the artwork, and mystery novelist and long-time Tracy fan Max Allan Collins. The new team hit the ground running with an excellent story about Angelica “Angeltop” Jones, the daughter of Flattop and the sister of Flattop Jr., who’s out for revenge on the cop who’s cause her family so much grief. They followed that with the return of ‘60’s villain Haf-n-Haf.
The third Collins/Fletcher story is their best. Collins brings back Tracy ‘s original foe, the Big Boy, for one final rematch. Released from prison a few years earlier, Big Boy has just learned that he’s dying, but he wants Tracy to precede him into the sweet by-and-by. Knowing that his colleagues in the Mob won’t approve of putting out an official hit on such a high-profile target, Big Boy instead makes it a personal offer. The underworld equivalent of a bounty. An open contract. One million dollars to anyone who kills Dick Tracy.
Tracy spends several weeks dodging random attacks by criminals both petty and major who suddenly see the square-jawed sleuth as a winning lottery ticket. And tragedy strikes when one attempt on Tracy instead kills his daughter-in-law (Collins’s way of officially ending the “Moon Period” once and for all).
In response to all the bad publicity, the Mob puts out the word that there will be a second million dollar open contract on anyone who attempts, successfully or not, to kill Tracy , thus negating Big Boy’s offer. But the attempt to counter Big Boy’s offer backfires.
One free-lance professional hit man, Johnny “The Iceman” Snow, has gotten bored with his profession in recent years, and finds the prospect of simultaneously murdering the hard-to-kill Tracy and facing the syndicate’s consequent wrath just the kind of challenge he needs to pique his interest.
At the same time, for one of the very few times in the strip’s history, Tracy is dealing with a whodunit. Somewhere in the Department’s elite Organized Crime Unit, a crooked cop is passing info to the Mob, and Tracy has to identify him.
All in all, a great swan song for Tracy ‘s oldest enemy, a great new enemy to oppose, and a satisfying puzzle, all delivered with art that would do Gould proud.
• “Who Shot Pat Patton?” (August 16, 1982, to March 3, 1983)
The final complete continuity finished by the Collins/Fletcher team before Fletcher’s untimely death, is almost as good as “Big Boy’s Open Contract.” And it features something that, considering Tracy ‘s status as America ‘s most famous detective, is surprisingly rare in the strip, a whodunit plot. Tracy stories are primarily chases, with the villain known to the audience, and usually to Tracy , very early in the game. Indeed, when you have colorful criminals like Flattop, the Brow, and Pruneface, keeping their identity hidden until the end fails to make use of the one of the greatest advantages of the comic strip medium, visually interesting characters.
Moreover, a puzzle plot doesn’t really work well in a daily strip. It’s too difficult for audiences to keep track of clues over the course of a story that may run many months.
In the 75-year history of the strip, there have, consequently, been very few whodunits. Gould wrote a special script called “The Mystery of the Black Bag” in the late ‘40’s. This was not part of the regular strip’s run. It appeared in the Tribune and a few other papers as a promotional gimmick to increase subscriptions, as, over the course of the serialized story, readers were invited to compete for a cash prize awarded to anyone who came up with the correct solution before Tracy did. But that was not part of the regular strip.
Collins had a whodunit element in “Big Boy’s Open Contract,” as Tracy tried to identify a crooked cop from a limited roster of suspects, but the puzzle aspect was not the main focus of the plot.
In “Who Shot Pat Patton?” Collins, for the first time, presents a story, within the regular run of the strip, in which the villain is kept hidden until the end, the clues needed to identify that villain are fairly presented, and the puzzle is the main plotline.
Pat Patton has decided to retire as police chief, and announces that he will be spending his retirement writing his memoirs, memoirs in which he intends to blow the lid off the municipal corruption he’s fought his whole career.
Shortly after making that announcement he turns up missing. Tracy and Sam find him shot, near death, and in a coma. Identifying the person who shot Patton is Tracy ‘s top priority, but he’s overruled by a superior, Deputy Chief Climer who, while Patton is injured and possibly dying, is the Acting Chief of Police.
Jealous of Tracy ‘s reputation, Climer wants the Patton shooting handled by someone with no personal stake in the case, while Tracy , as Chief of Detectives, sticks to the administrative duties more appropriate to his rank. Tracy ‘s having none of that. If he can’t investigate Patton’s shooting as a cop, he’ll do it as a private citizen. He quits the Force and sets up shop as a private eye (making this continuity one of Collins’s early forays into the private eye sub-genre, a sub-genre he would later master with his comic book character Ms. Tree and the hero of his historical mysteries, Nate Heller).
Patton’s new wife, the former Toby Townley, is Tracy ‘s first client. But she’s also a suspect. So are the two teen-aged nephews, both sullen punks, who have been living with Patton and his bride since his brother’s death. So’s the publisher who was caught cheating Patton on his book contract. So are the politicians who stood to lose if Patton’s expose was ever published.
With such a wide array of suspects, can Tracy identify the right one?
He does, and, in doing so, finds himself in an “inescapable deathtrap” that would do Gould proud.
A great story and, while Fletcher’s art is not quite as sharp as it was when he first took over, it’s still top-notch.
Political cartoonist Dick Locher, who had been Gould’s assistant on Tracy , in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, has performed the art duties on the strip since Fletcher’s death. He’s a capable artist, but his version of Tracy has never grabbed me the way Fletcher’s did. Still, he and Collins made an effective team.
Gould died in 1985. In his final years, he was celebrated as a deservedly legendary figure in the fields of both cartooning and crime fiction. He didn’t live to see the way his creation is being handled now, and that may be just as well.
When Collins left the strip in 1993, Tribune columnist Michael Killian took over the writing. He had nothing like the kind of devotion or feeling for the strip and its heritage that Collins did, and Dick Tracy suffered as a result. In many cases Killian didn’t even seem to know something as basic as how the characters’ names were spelled. Tribune Media Services didn’t help, emasculating the strip so that it has little of the punch, the action, and the sense of danger and foreboding doom it had in its glory days. The syndicate has instead opted to “broaden” Tracy ‘s appeal, reaching out to female readers and children by mandating simpler, shorter storylines, little violence, more humor, and lots more focus on family with a concurrent lessening focus on police work.
Even with the number of newspapers dwindling, and the continued serial strip form becoming less popular (at least with editors) as a medium for story-telling, the number of papers carrying the strip always stayed in triple digits throughout Collins’s run. Since his departure, TMS’s attempts to broaden Tracy ‘s appeal has caused the number of papers carrying it to drop below 50. Even the New York Daily News , one of the two papers most identified with the strip, has discontinued it. TMS’s policies have alienated Tracy ‘s base, lost papers, and failed to pick up new fans.
With Killian’s death in 2005, Locher has handled both the writing and art chores, the first person since Gould to wear both hats. Unfortunately, despite an association with Gould and the strip dating back more than forty years, he’s carried on TMS’s policy of emasculation.
Nothing done since the Collins era is on this list. None deserves to be.
Nevertheless, the post-Collins team does deserve credit for keeping the feature going. Dick Tracy , thanks to the efforts of Locher and Killian, made it all the way to 75, and is still a continuing feature in dozens of papers. Whatever one thinks about the current state of the strip, that’s a significant accomplishment.