By Rob Lamberti
Look who’s 90. Dick Tracy. Still looking good with his razor-sharp chin and nose. And let’s hope he didn’t replace his wristwatch radio/tv/computer with a snazzy iWatch. That would be, well, disappointing, considering he led the way in tech.
Creator Gilbert “Chester” Gould, born in Pawnee, Okla., created the detective in 1931, but just as much fun as the cop were the list of villains he moulded. He launched his career as an artist with the Chicago Tribune in the same year, but Tracy would first appear in the morning tabloid Detroit Mirror.
There was a definitive line between good and evil in Gould’s strip. The artist was afraid of using violence, but it was also fertile ground for ideas. There was a list of firsts where art led the way in scientific ideas, including that wristwatch two-way radio revealed in 1946. Let’s put that into perspective. That wrist radio concept was introduced just 13 years after police began using two-way radios in the U.S.
The wrist radio was updated to closed circuit television on his wrist in 1964 and finally a wrist computer in 1987.
Gould also had the first murder in comic strips, that of the father of his girlfriend Tess Trueheart. The slaying motivated Tracy to join the police in the early strips.
Gould continued the deaths in the comic strip and dispatched villains with regularity, apparently worried their longevity would create complacency among readers. Mrs. Pruneface and Flattop were drowned. The criminal Brow was impaled on a flag pole (oh, my!) while Doc Hump was mauled to death by a dog. Midget was scalded to death in a Turkish steam bath and B. B. Eyes was smothered on a garbage scow.
Readers complained about the violence in Dick Tracy strips — reflecting the 1930s Chicago of Al Capone, whom Gould characterized in Big Boy — but Gould countered that police work is difficult and real cops see much worse than what’s in the strip. “Any policeman on night duty sees far more blood than I ever put in my strip,” he said in a quote cited by the New York Times in the comic artist’s 1985 obituary. “Of course, brutality for its own sake is taboo.”
That seems to be a fine line, but nevertheless the character and the strip have longevity. Gould plotted and drew the strip from its inception in 1931 until his retirement in 1977. Other artists and writers continued the character’s appearances in comic strips, reprint volumes and online on GoComics.com, now drawn by former Charlton Comics artist Joe Staton and plotted by writer Mike Curtis.
The character appeared in all mediums of the era, in newspapers’ comics pages, on radio, movie serials, and Tracy’s first appearance in a comic book was in 1936, Popular Comics 1 by Dell, an anthology of comic strip reprints that included Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley and the first appearance of Don Winslow.
David McKay Publications then published Dick Tracy in a comic book titled Feature Books in May 1937. It’s a non-numbered, 100-page edition and is considered rare with less than ten known copies in existence. It was reprinted as Feature Books 4 in August 1937 with a new cover design. Tracy also appeared in Feature Books 6 in October 1937 and in Feature Books 9, dated January 1938.
Dell Publishing then published the character under a number of different titles, including Large Feature Comic, Four Color and as Dick Tracy between 1939 and 1949. Harvey Publications, famous for titles including Richie Rich and Lola, took over the rights to the title in March 1950 carrying on the numbering sequence from Dell at number 25. The last issue by Harvey was 145 in 1961.
A number of give-away promotional comic books also featured Dick Tracy, the first in 1939 for Buster Brown Shoes, featuring reprints. Motorola, Ray-O-Vac flashlights, Tastee Freeze and Top Bread, among others, also used the character in promotional comics.
There have been a number of reprints of Tracy’s comic strips since, in particular by Blackthorne Publications in the 1980s. Disney published the comic version of the 1990 movie that starred Warren Beatty, along with a long list of top actors, in the same year. Gould drew his last comic strip for Dec. 25, 1977.
The appeal for the comic strip appears focused on Tracy’s adversaries and how they react knowing the detective is closing in. “The evil sometimes is raw and coarse, like the criminally insane Selbert Depool (‘looped’ spelled backwards — typical Gould),” according to the Harvey Comics database. “At other times, it is suave, like the arrogant Shoulders, who cannot help thinking that all women like him. It can even border on genius, like the Nazi spy Pruneface, a machine design engineer who dabbles with a chemical nerve gas.”
Gould dabbled in various themes throughout the decades, including Tracy’s marriage to Tess, going to space, growing a mustache in the ‘70s and the character’s reactions to court rulings favouring suspects’ rights. The artist was a hard line supporter of law and order and introduced Crime Stoppers, a kids’ program in the comics to become law abiding citizens that spilled over into real life in his hometown of Woodstock, Ill. Kids gathered every weekend to earn a Crime Stoppers badge. The concept spread across the U.S.
His daughter, Jean Gould O’Connell, penned a biography of her father in 2007.