He made his first appearance in October, 1931, a newspaper funnies character who wasn't particularly funny. He visits his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, at her parents' delicatessen and encounters a robbery. The criminals kill Mr. Trueheart, knock out the young man, and kidnap Tess as a hostage, in case the police follow. The poor Mrs Trueheart ends up in the hospital, in shock.
Dick Tracy decides to do something about it.
After vowing to avenge an honest man's senseless death, Tracy becomes a detective. In no time at all, he rescues his girlfriend, fatally shoots the killer, and sees the rest of the crooks die in a car crash. Only their boss, a gangster known as "Big Boy," escapes. For a time.
Chester Gould originally called the strip, Plainsclothes Tracy, but he'd already established his sleuth's full name. "Dick" was slang for "detective;" "Tracy" referred to his ability to trace clues and find the culprit. Square-jawed, axe-nosed, and metal-tough, he would become the most famous profile in the funny pages and battle some of the genre's most memorable villains. Later, he would become an ultraconservative space-cop in a surreal alternate reality where his daughter-in-law was an extraterrestrial, and the nation that controlled magnetism controlled the world. Finally, new writers and artists would re-establish something like the earlier Tracy, but as a shadow of his former self, a bit player in the comic universe.
But in the 1930s, he was on his way up.
Gould often took ideas straight from the headlines, so when Charles Lindbergh's son was kidnapped in 1932, Dick Tracy's world experienced the kidnapping of the Waldorf Baby. In this fiction, things would turn out all right, at least as Gould reckoned them. Tracy learns that his old enemy, Big Boy, is behind the crime, and circumstances bring the two face to face, moments before the gangster is about to dispose of the last piece of incriminating evidence, little Waldorf himself. Big Boy has neither gun nor accomplices. Tracy tosses his own gun aside and, on behalf of all that is decent, challenges Big Boy to a fist-fight. Over the next couple of installments, Big Boy loses the fight in spectacular fashion, and then gets thrown through a locked door before being taken into custody.
That incident set the tone for the strip that followed. For more than forty years, Gould would trace out the tough cop's adventures in a world of moral absolutes, rough violence, and stern justice.
Gould's ad hoc approach certainly kept the strip's lively, but it also meant that Tracy frequently had to escape impossible death-traps thanks to completely implausible circumstances, even by comic book standards. That became part of its charm, too; Dick Tracy was a daily cliffhanger, a morality tale, and a wild shoot'em up, where innocents often died, but justice ultimately prevailed, no matter how many implausible coincidences and narrow escapes had to occur to make it happen.
Most of Tracy's villains died in the end, though a few were able to reform. Early thugs Stooge Viller and Steve the Tramp would win redemption, at a price. Lips Manlis would change his ways and help the cops bring in his former associates. The Mole, a genuine tortured soul, would be allowed a lengthy prison term and a fair bit of sympathy, even from the stern Tracy. Finally, B.O. Plenty, initially a criminal, became a regular in the strip, a rustic, smelly advocate of law and order.
But most of the time, crime brought its perpetrators to gruesome and final ends. Take, for instance, the Axis spy known as "the Brow." While being chased over rooftops, the man who would see the United States brought low finally falls, literally, off the edge of a building. A conveniently-placed flagpole, flying the Stars and Stripes and boasting a nasty, pointed ornament on top, impales the scoundrel. Newspapers received letters of complaint, but Dick Tracy fans loved it, and Gould remained unapologetic. Over the decades, unrepentant criminals would be drowned, immolated, pulverized, vaporized, blown up, riddled with bullets, and scalded to death.
Chester Gould loved these kinds of endings.
The Rogues Gallery
"Most criminals are ugly people with obvious features that make them easy to copy."
--Moon Maid, when she displays her sculptures of Tracy's Rogue's Gallery in 1970.
Gradually, as Tracy went on to become the most famous fictional cop in North America ("More nerve than Dick Tracy" became a stock saying), the Grotesques appeared, men and a few women, twisted in body as well as mind, whose names matched their physical deformity.
In the 1930s, we caught glimpses of them. In 1934, Tracy faced Doc Hump, a mad, hunchbacked villain. The Blank appeared in 1938. He is a problematic case. The killer, whose real name was Ankel Redrum, appeared to lack facial features, but he in fact merely covered them with a cheesecloth mask. The face beneath the mask, however, was not terribly appealing. Ankle's last name, of course, is "murder" backwards, so he has the classic Grotesque feature of a name which reflects some aspect of his character.
The 1940s saw the triumph of the Grotesques. They included the deformed Scardol (1939), the vertically-challenged Jeremy Trohs, the tiny-featured Little Face (1941), the subterranean Mole (1941), the squinty B.B. Eyes (1942), the hysterical Laffy (1943), the wrinkled Prune Face (1943), the monstrous Mrs. Pruneface (1943), pockmarked Measels (1945), rash Itchy Oliver (1945), inarticulate Mumbles (1947), badly-drawn Wormy (1949), rat-like Rhodent (1959), and speech-impaired Lispy (1976), to name just a few. The most famous was Flattop, a hired killer who appeared at Christmas, 1943 and occupied Tracy for much of 1944. Despite his inevitable death, he would reappear; Gould introduced a lookalike son in the 1950s, who teamed up with the embarrassingly-named juvenile delinquent, Joe Period.
Fans debate the connections between Tracy and Batman. Dick Tracy had Grotesque villains first, but some of the development appears to have been simultaneous. (An interesting exception is the late Gould Grotesque, Haf-and-Haf, who not only follows Batman's Two-Face, but seems to be Gould's response to him. Whereas Two-Face was a good man before an accident left him deformed, Gould goes to great lengths to let us know that Haf-and-Haf was already a criminal before facing his disfiguring accident, and that he must be held entirely responsible for his actions). Bob Kane, Batman's creator, has acknowledged another key influence of Gould's: the youthful sidekick, of whom Robin is undoubtedly the most famous, he borrowed from Dick Tracy, who acquired Dick Tracy, Junior in 1932.
The Dick Tracy Family
Tracy adopted the street urchin he met in 1932, and thereafter "Junior" became a major player in the strip. Although of rough origins, he cleaned up his act and speech, and he and his new, clean-living buddies frequently helped Tracy, often at a personal cost. Criminals regularly captured the lad and subjected him to frightening tortures (he once had a blowtorch applied to his feet), and he was struck down by vehicles more times than seems probable, even given his dangerous lifestyle. No matter: Junior always rebounded. Tracy's second partner, the garrulous Sam Catchem (introduced in 1949) became like a brother to Dick, and he and his wife regularly socialized with the Tracys. In this respect, Gould was far ahead of other cartoonists; the Catchems were Jewish, and every bit as respectable, clean-living, and morally upright as those characters who shared Gould's Protestantism.*
Tracy and longtime fiancee Tess Trueheart finally married, and in 1951 had a daughter named Bonnie Braids. Hygienically-challenged rustics B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie married, and inexplicably produced a spectacularly beautiful child, Sparkle Plenty, who would ultimately grow up to become the second Mrs. Junior Tracy.
The first was a space alien.
Lift-off and Crash
Several factors contributed to the strip's decline from the late 1950s to the 1970s, when Gould finally surrendered it to younger talents. These including a deepening of Gould's own fears and paranoia, a surfeit of SF elements which fundamentally changed the strip, and a loss of touch with the strip's core readers.
Tracy always had its share of science-related gimmicks. A benevolent capitalist named Diet Smith marketed the famous two-way wrist radio in Tracy's world, beginning January 13, 1946. It would later be replaced by a wrist-tv and later still a computer. Granted, Tracy was well ahead of his time in having, in essence, a cell phone in the 1940s, but it was a small advance, and only enhanced the strip. Indeed, it characterized it for many people, with no ill effect on plot or sense of reality.
But then in 1962 Smith Industries invented the Space Coupe, an engineless ship that worked by taking advantage of the "magnetic forces" of the planets. By 1963, the strip was fast ceasing to resemble anything it had once been. Dick Tracy visited the moon, and encountered a stowaway, an antennae-sporting blonde in a body suit with superhuman abilities. She turned out to be the daughter of the Moon's governor, and she eventually married the now-grown Junior and bore him a half-human daughter, Honey Moon. Increasingly, Tracy worked in space, "moonlighting," as he put it. And thanks to interplanetary trade, the cops now travelled about in Air Cars that resembled flying garbage cans. These were occasionally seen being used by others (firefighters, for instance). Dick Tracy's world had always been a highly stylized, cartoon version of ours; now it was alternate history.
And Gould, at times, seemed to really believe in his imaginary technology. Diet Smith groused about NASA's fooling with mere rockets, when his magnetic propulsion system worked just fine. Gould, in interviews, hinted that he was onto something, while the phrase, "the nation that controls magnetism controls the world" kept appearing in the strip, regularly, often for no compelling reason.
While that was the strangest of the strip's rants, it was not the most commonplace. Gould was no civil libertarian, and he had always despised criminals and distrusted lawyers. He personally advocated more, rather than less police brutality. But as time went on, these became less assumptions under which Tracy lived and worked than part of an ongoing polemic. A gangster called "the Fifth" (as in "amendment") was assisted in 1959 by a corrupt lawyer, Flyface, whose body literally crawled and swarmed with vermin. Panel after panel was dedicated to Tracy complaining about the poor backing cops received, criticizing parole boards, damning spineless judges. Crooks tried to eliminate Moon Maid, because her tendency to immolate muggers caught in the act, they said violated their civil rights. As people increasingly questioned the real-life equivalents of Tracy's methods, Gould hardened, and moved further to the right. If all of his audience could not follow, (readership dropped from 1959 onward), his fictional characters were right behind.
Sam Catchem had worked very well over the years, but he was a character first, with his own personality traits and quirks. His Judaism was merely one facet of the man. Policewoman Lizz, introduced in 1955, showed that Gould could accept a strong woman in a heroic role; Lord knows Tracy encountered his share of criminal females, strong in will and often body as well. But the strip's later attempts to integrate and bring "relevance" failed miserably. Groovy Grove looked and occasionally talked like a hippie. For all his "hipness," he spouted the same litany as Tracy, and was never developed much as a character. He eventually died in the line of duty.
By the 1970s, Gould was considering retirement.
Tracy After Gould
In the summer of 1978, a car-bomb killed Moon Maid. The Governor of the Moon swore no further contact with earth, and young Honey Moon began growing her hair so as to cover the visible signs of her half-alien heritage. The Space Coupe and the Air Cars vanished. Junior eventually married the now-grown Sparkle. Other talents worked on Dick Tracy, and they have carried the strip since the late 1970s. Gould himself died in 1985. Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher took over the strip in the late 1970s, and Dick Locher and Michael Kilian have since taken their place. Newspapers still carry the strip, but fewer than ever, despite a brief resurgence of interest in the wake of a 1990 movie.
Dick Tracy has generated hundreds of items of merchandise, including several versions of the Dick Tracy two-way wrist-radio watch, and wildly successful Sparkle Plenty dolls. Tracy has also shilled unrelated products; in the 1980s, he appeared in a commercial for Maxwell House coffee.
Books have reprinted and developed his adventures. He appeared in Super Comics from 1938 until 1961, published first by Dell and later Harvey Comics. In the 1970s, DC Comics secured the rights to reprint the most famous of the strips, and produced a giant-sized comic about the detective. He was never, however, incorporated into the larger DC Universe.
Tracy also appeared, parodied, in Al Capp's Li'l Abner. The titular character hero-worshipped the Dick Tracy-inspired Fearless Fosdick. Warner Brothers turned Daffy Duck into Duck Twacy in 1946, and more than once referenced the strip in their 1940s cartoons.
In 1960 Dick Tracy starred in his own, unsuccessful cartoon, and appeared animated again in 1970 as part of Archie's TV Funnies.
From 1935 to 1948, a radio series chronicled his adventures.
Republic Studios serials and b movies portrayed the detective's adventures, with both Ralph Byrd and Morgan Conway playing the character. The most famous of these is 1947's Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome; Boris Karloff played the grotesquely-named villain. Byrd also starred in a short-lived Dick Tracy tv series, which lasted from 1951-52.
Most famous now may be the 1990 film starring and directed by Warren Beatty. Beatty used the same eight colours for everything, from buildings to cars to clothing, to reflect the comic-strip origins. Prosthetic make-up recreated several Grotesques, though most of these made only brief appearances in the film. The story retold Tracy's early days: the acquisition of his sidekick, and his battle with Big Boy's criminal enterprise. Madonna makes an appearance as "Breathless Mahoney," a 1940s she-villain who here becomes a nightclub singer and gangster's moll, and whose destiny is entangled with that of the Blank, though a very different version of the character than appeared in the strip.
In 1995, Tracy appeared on a U.S. commemorative stamp. More recently, Cynthia Miller and Sabrina Belle have marketed a Dick Tracy Role-playing game.
Tracy no longer enjoys the popularity and cultural status of his glory days, but he shows no sign of disappearing entirely.
*This is not to say that Gould's early work is free of the period's racism. On several occasions in the 1930s, Tracy met up with minstrel show-style African-Americans, usually played for comic relief. And no, it shouldn't be a big deal that Catchem was both a hero and an individual. In the context of the time, however, and Gould's stern Protestant background, his handling of this character is an achievement. We have different standards now, of course, or we ought to.
Chester Gould. The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy.. Introduction by Ellery Queen. Secaucus, New Jersey: Wellfeet, 1990.
Chester Gould, interview in a magazine from about 1962 which was around our house during my childhood and which I read about a zillion times but damned if I know what the title was or when someone finally threw the damned thing out.
Dick Tracy ComicsPage. http://www.comicspage.com/dicktracy/
Jay Maeder. DIck Tracy: the Life and Times of America's No. 1 Crimestopper. New York: Plume, 1990.
Don Markstein. "Dick Tracy." Don Markstein's Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/tracy.htm
Cynthia Miller and Sabrina Belle. Dick Tracy: the Role-playing Game. http://www.tracyrpg.freeservers.com/