Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dick Tracy

This is not my typical bailiwick, as I typically cover the Silver Age of Comic Books, and mostly don't cover comic strips.

Dick Tracy is one of the longest-running comic strips in American history.  He first appeared in 1931, and is still going strong some 81 years later.  Tracy is a police detective who solves cases by dint of dogged perseverance, occasional solid sleuthing, and incredible coincidences.

Dick has fought an oddball assortment of criminals and racketeers over the years, most of whom have some physical abnormality. Flattop had a flat head.  Pearshape was skinny on top, but obese below the waist.  BB Eyes had tiny eyes.

One of the most interesting things about the Dick Tracy series was its focus on chase scenes.  In almost every case, Tracy's first encounter with the villain does not end with the capture or death of that crook, but in an extended chase.  Tracy's antagonists were ingenious in their methods of escaping justice (temporarily).  For example, consider Mousey, a female shoplifter who specializes in releasing white rats in a store to distract the shopkeeper.  After stealing a mink, she finds Tracy on her tail.  What does she do?
Yep, she hides in the dog-catcher's van, hidden under her stole.

The Tracy series was extraordinarily violent, especially compared to the books I normally review here.  Criminals often killed innocent bystanders, witnesses, and even their own spouses:
However, the series also had comic relief, generally provided by a hillbilly couple named B.O. Plenty  and Gravel Gertie, and their talented young daughter, Sparkle Plenty.  The series was not without its touching moments as well.  For example, on Christmas Day, 1949, it was announced that Dick had married his longtime girlfriend, Tess Trueheart:
Almost a year later, B.O. Plenty stopped four bullets intended for Tracy, and seemed on death's door.  And there came this moving scene:
Tracy's prayers are answered, and B.O. rallies, although he remains in a coma.  Dick realizes that perhaps hearing his daughter, Sparkle, singing might bring him around:

The series also had a lot of high-tech (for its time) gadgetry, most notably, Tracy's two-way radio wristwatch (which later became a two-way TV).

I didn't read a lot of Dick Tracy in my youth.  My parents didn't get a paper with a Sunday funnies, so the only time I got to read the color comics was on our monthly visits to my grandparents.  And of course then it was almost impossible to keep up with a continuous strip like this, or Prince Valiant.  I do remember that he used to fly around in what looked like a garbage can, and there was some kind of race of people on the moon that he interacted with.  And of course there was the 1960s TV cartoon show, which pushed Dick to the sidelines in favor of a rotating crew of sidekicks, like Joe Jitsu (a martial arts expert) or Go-Go-Gomez.  The two-way radio functioned in the cartoons like the time-stopping watch.

Still, if you get the chance, I highly recommend reading the earlier years of the Dick Tracy strip.


Anonymous said...

Dick Tracy had one continuous story line running through the daily and Sunday strips, but it was written so that if you only read one or the other, it still made sense. Jim Steranko said in his book The History of Comics that his family could not afford both a daily and Sunday newspaper at the time, but that he still remembered the Flattop serial vividly. A hardback book, The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy (Chelsea House, 1970) reprinted several classic stories (including Flattop) from the daily strips. DC published a tabloid edition in the 1970's reprinting the Flattop serial from the Sunday strip. Each seemed complete without the other.

Anonymous said...

The moon people got pushed into the background in the 1970's, maybe because the real-life moon landings had made them obsolete. In 1978, they were written out of the strip completely. Gould's successors probably wanted to return the strip to its roots, as an urban crime drama, without the science fiction.

Anonymous said...

I remember the TV cartoons. They were produced by UPA, the company that made Mister Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons. They probably are not widely shown today, because of the potentially offensive ethnic stereotypes (Joe Jitsu, Go Go Gomez). There was also a Tracy cartoon on CBS in 1971; it was a segment of Archie's TV Funnies, an anthology show that adapted various newspaper comic strips. The Tracy series freely adapted plots from the strip and used many of the familiar characters, although sometimes secondary characters like the Plentys seemed to be inserted arbitrarily.

NES Boy said...

Joe Staton and Mike Curtis are the current creative team behind Dick Tracy. Their run starts here:

hobbyfan said...

I spent many a day reading Tracy. However, the NY Daily News committed the unpardonable sin of dropping the strip in favor of trendier stuff aimed at younger audiences. Those same kids could learn a thing or twenty about the legal system just by reading Tracy. No paper in my area has the strip now, so I'm missing out on the Curtis-Staton series.

I fondly remember Tracy's run on Archie's TV Funnies, and, unfortunately, the clips that had been on YouTube have apparently been deleted, while the UPA shorts, while fun, are popping up on YouTube like pimples while airing in moderate rotation as filler on Retro during their Saturday morning block.

I also saw the movie with Warren Beatty. That was fun, but I wish they did a sequel.....

Miguel said...

Although this isn't your usual thing, I think it's great to write about these old comics. Dick Tracy is an influential comic book, especially over here in Europe, but it seldom gets the recognition it deserves. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

I unfortunately started Tracy during the SF Moon People period when even aside from that it was quite listless. It wasn't until I started reading collections of older strips that I appreciated how good Gould was in his prime.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't looked at Dick Tracy in a while, now is a great time to pick it up. After a slow and painful decline that lasted decades, a new creative team took over and has made the strip more interesting than it's been in a long time...they've even reincorporated the moon story into their continuity, a brave move.