Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Dick Tracy Turns 75

Seventy five years ago today, on October 4, 1931, the comic strip Dick Tracy made its debut in the Detroit Mirror. And while Dick Tracy would almost literally be an overnight success, its creator, Chester Gould, was not. Since 1920 Gould had tried to sell several ideas for humour comic strips. His fortunes would improve considerably when, on one fateful evening, he was reading a newspaper in which there was a story about yet another gangland killing. In 1931 Al Capone was still very much in control of Chicago. Dutch Schultz was still active in New York. Gangland violence was very much a part of the headlines in the early Thirties. Gould thought that perhaps he should create a character who combat the gangsters.

Gould modelled his new character largely after Sherlock Holmes, whose stories he had read voraciously as a child. He decided that if Holmes had lived in present day America, he would probably wear a trenchcoat and a fedora. The name "Tracy" came from Gould's thought that he should be able to "trace" down clues. Most of all, Dick Tracy would be stand for everything that was honest and good. Dick Tracy was then a product of its time, a response to the gangland violence that had taken hold in many of America's cities in the Twenties and early Thirties.

Dick Tracy proved to be a roaring success. Within five years of its debut it was carried in over 700 newspapers. Initially, there was a good deal of violence in the comic strip. It was not unusual for gun battles to break out within its panels. At the same time, however, Gould placed a good deal of emphasis on police procedure and forensic science. In some respects, Dick Tracy can be seen as the forerunner of both Law and Order and CSI. The archetypal, Dick Tracy story arc would be one in which a criminal is seen committing a crime and then Tracy's efforts to catch him.

Gould not only focused on Dick Tracy and the police, however, but on the criminals themselves as well. For Dick Tracy Gould created one of the greatest rouge's galleries of all time. Tracy's archnemesis is arguably Flattop Jones, a hit man with a head that is flat on top. In their first confrontation Flattop was hired to kill Tracy by black marketeers for an exorbitant fee. Among Tracy's other opponents were The Brow (a Nazi spy with a pronounced brow), Pruneface (an engineer with a deformed face who worked for the Nazis), and Mumbles (a con man who never speaks, but only mumbles). Gould did not want to glamourise Tracy's opponents, so he intentionally made them grotesque--not that the lives of the criminals were very glamourous to begin with. Often the criminals' scheme would spin out of control, with one thing after another going wrong. And treachery was part and parcel of being a criminal. It was not unusual in the panels of Dick Tracy for bosses to kill henchmen, for henchmen to turn on their boss, and so on. The rouge's gallery Gould created for Dick Tracy would have a lasting impact on the medium of comic books which would develop a few years after the strip's debut. Indeed, Batman's rogue's gallery perhaps owes a lot to that of Dick Tracy (The Joker, Two Face, The Penguin, and many of Batman's other opponents are physically deformed in some way).

Over the years Dick Tracy would change and evolve. While violence would always be a part of Dick Tracy, it would subside from what it was in the strip's early years. In 1949 Dick Tracy finally married Tess Trueheart. In the Fifties, then, the comic strip took on soap opera elements, with a good deal of time spent on Tracy's personal life. An equally big change in the comic strip came in 1946 when Gould introduced advanced technology into the strip with the 2-Way Wrist Radio (which would give way to the 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964). In 1947 the close circuit TV police lineup would first appear in the comic strip. With the Sixties Dick Tracy would very nearly become a science fiction comic strip. The invention of the Magnetic Space Coupe would take Tracy to the Moon many years before Apollo 11. There he would encounter an advanced civilisation which would exchange technology with Earth. This would result in even more gadgets, such as the famous air cars (roughly cone shaped vehicles that could fly through the air). Dick Tracy's dalliance with space came to an end not long after the Apollo 11 mission really took men to the moon, although much of the advanced technology (the air cars and so on) and characters who entered the strip as a result of Tracy's trips to the Moon would remain a part of the strip for years.

The Seventies saw Gould made attempts to give Dick Tracy more appeal to a modern audience. In 1973 Tracy actually began riding a motorcycle. In 1977 he actually gave Dick Tracy a moustache. The moustache proved unpopular with readers, and only lasted a short time. It was that same year, in December, that Chester Gould retired from the comic strip, staying on as a creative consultant. Dick Tracy was then taken over by mystery writer Max Allan Collins and Gould's assistant, artist Rick Fletcher. Collins would bring Dick Tracy back to its roots, erasing the remnants of the space stories of the Sixties and concentrating on police procedure and forensics. He made it a policy to bring back at least one classic Dick Tracy villain a year. Since then the strip has passed through various hands. Currently Dick Locher, who had once been one of Gould's assistants, both draws and writes it.

Nearly a success since the beginning, Dick Tracy was naturally adapted for other media. In 1937, Dick Tracy, a 15 chapter serial based on the comic strip, was released. It was followed by more serials: Dick Tracy Returns in 1938, Dick Tracy's G-Men in 1939, and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. in 1941. The serials departed from the comic strip in that they featured none of the continuing characters beyond Tracy and Tracy was portrayed as an FBI agent rather than a police detective. In all of the serials, Ralph Byrd played Tracy, and he would play the detective again in both feature films and a TV series. Curiously, Byrd did not play Dick Tracy in the first feature film based on the comic strip. That honour went to Morgan Conway. Released in 1945, the movie was much more loyal to the comic strip than the serials, featuring both Tess Trueheart and Chief Brandon. Conway would play Tracy again in the second feature film based on the comic strip, Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball, released in 1946. For the third and fourth feature films Dick Tracy's Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome(which featured Boris Karloff as the villain), both released in 1947, Ralph Byrd returned to the role. Dick Tracy would eventually get a big budget treatment in 1990 with Warren Beatty's adaptation of the Dick Tracy. Sadly, the movie failed at the box office, despite a bit name cast and being fairly loyal to the comic strip.

Dick Tracy was also a success on radio. The radio series started on NBC in 1934. It would run at various times until 1946 on CBS, Mutual, and ABC. Bob Burlen originated the role on radio, to be followed by Barry Thompson, Ned Wever and Matt Crowley. Sadly, Tracy never saw the success on television that he did in radio. From 1950 to 1951 there was a short lived syndicated series once more featuring Ralph Byrd in the role. The series featured many of Tracy's classic villains, including Flattop, The Brain, Pruneface, and The Mole. In 1961 there was a syndicated, animated series called The Dick Tracy Show. Sadly, Dick Tracy saw no action on the series, simply giving out orders to such cartoon characters as Heap O'Calory and Go Go Gomez. The series has not been seen very often since the Sixties because many of the characters (such as Go Go Gomez and Joe Jitsu were ethnic stereotypes. In 1967 William Dozier (best known for the Sixties Batman) series produced a pilot for a Dick Tracy series featuring Ray McDonnell in the lead role. The pilot was done in the camp style of the Batman series, but was otherwise fairly loyal. Sadly, it failed to sell. Dick Tracy's final appearance on television was in 1971 as a segment of Archie's T. V. Funnies. These segments were fairly loyal to the Dick Tracy stories of the time.

In addition to appearing on film, on radio, and on television, Dick Tracy has also been the subject of comic books, Big Little Books, and video games. The character has been parodied endless times, most notably by Al Capp in the comic strip Li'l Abner, which featured a comic strip about a tough detective called "Fearless Fosdick."

Dick Tracy continues to be published to this day. It is still running in 52 newspapers across the United States and in many other countries as well. The comic strip would have a lasting impact on American pop culture. It was among the earliest examples of the police procedural so popular on television today. The villains often featured in its panels would have a lasting impact on comic books, influencing the supervillains seen there. Alongside Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon, it would start a cycle towards adventure strips would last throughout the Depression. Although Dick Tracy may not be as popular as it once was, there can be no doubt that it made its mark on history. And I rather suspect it will be around for a long time to come.

1 comment:

Southern (in)Sanity said...

Wow, 75 years. I remember reading that strip in the newspaper when I was a kid. It was one of the few I read on a regular basis.