Earlier this year struggling comic strip writer Vera Alldid introduced Dick Tracy to parody of himself in the form of J Straightedge Trustworthy. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton gave us Straightedge’s insulting funny paper appearance in full form one Sunday in March and long time readers know this is not the first time we’ve seen a strip inside the Dick Tracy comic. Tracy’s creator Chester Gould featured two fictional strips himself during the 60’s and 70’s. The first was Sawdust, written by Chet Jade who was himself a parody of Gould. In Sawdust, many motes of sawdust (dots on paper) tell wood themed jokes and the lovely Moon Maid later became a key writer of Sawdust strip. The other comic within a comic was Vera Alldid’s first strip, The Invisible Tribe. A lazily drawn comic strip that mimicked Alldid’s demeanor, the Invisible Tribe featured invisible characters telling jokes to each other.
While continuing the tradition of a strip within a strip, Alldid’s J Straightedge Trustworthy is also homage to Al Capp’s famous Dick Tracy parody, Fearless Fosdick. As Li’l Abner’s favorite comic crime fighter and “ideel” role model, Fosdick first appeared in 1942 and was promptly shot. Fosdick could not be bothered by “mere scratches” however, and reported back to his corrupt Chief and over the next decade went on to battle an absurd succession of Dick Tracy-esque enemies like Rattop, Bombface, the Chippendale Chair and Sidney the Crooked Parrot.
In addition to battling villains, Fosdick maintained a rich love life with a perpetual 17 year engagement to his very own Tess Trueheart, here named Prudence Pimpleton. Unlike Tracy, Fosdick would never marry. Fosdick’s crime-fighting style was incredibly violent, excessive and dedicated to the extreme. Drawn wearing suit and cap with a razor-sharp jawbone, Fosdick was according to his creator, “pure, underpaid, purposeful” and of notorious bad aim. “When Fosdick is after a law-breaker, there is no escape for the miscreant,” Capp wrote in 1956. “There is, however, a fighting chance to escape for hundreds of innocent bystanders who happen to be in the neighborhood – but only a fighting chance. Fosdick’s duty, as he sees it, is not so much to maintain safety as to destroy crime.” A prime example of this is “The Case of the Poisoned Beans”, wherein Fearless Fosdick proceeds to slaughter dozens of citizens to protect them from consuming tainted beans. You can read 20 full pages of the Poisoned Bean case here.
Of course while Fosdick started as a direct parody of Dick Tracy, Capp could not help but develop the character into a complex satire of American society. With Fearless Fosdick, Al Capp could comment on the treatment and nature of our public servants and the unpredictable attitudes of Americans towards them. Ten years after creation and possibly owing to his increased exposure as the spokesman for Wildroot Cream-Oil, Fearless Fosdick branched out into television with a 13 episode NBC-TV puppet show. The puppet show was honestly a bit creepy with the outlandish characters and violent plots and it’s no surprise the show ended after 13 episodes. Granted, this opinion might have more to do modern perceptions of puppets, which saw frequent use in 1950’s television. Once thought lost, rare episode recordings have begun to show up on Youtube and other sites.
Fearless Fosdick was almost certainly one of Harvey (of the Harvey Awards) Kurtzman’s inspirations for creating his Mad Magazine, which began in 1952 as a comic book parodying other comic books and strips in a similar style. By this time Capp would have been doing Fearless Fosdick for a decade and the parallels are everywhere. It’s also noteworthy that Kurtzman resisted parodying either Li’l Abner or Dick Tracy despite their prominence of the time.
As a bonus, some of you might be aware the Depot has been collecting old film in a quest to get our hands on all old black and white Dick Tracy series, movies and television episodes that are now in the public domain. We come across a lot of other interesting pieces, including this here 1940’s or 50’s Amateur film titled Fearless Fosdick and The Case of Smuggler’s Cove. The black and white film runs about 8 minutes with only mood music for audio but it is an interesting relic from the Fosdick’s past.