On Chester Gould and “Dick Tracy”

Is this the best p.r. photo of a cartoonist ever? It’s gotta be up there. It has the artist, his most famous creation, and his signature all in the same shot.

Chester Gould (1900-1985), creator of Dick Tracy, was born on this day.  Dick Tracy has always been on my shortlist of favorite comic strips, and is easily my favorite manifestation of noir/ gangster/ mystery/ police procedural culture. While Gould was still drawing it when I was a kid, I came to know it almost entirely in reprints. I was quite young, maybe around ten years old, when I stumbled upon the dark, morbid pleasures of this strip. DC Comics came out with a large, over-sized comic reprint of many of the classic Tracys, and around the same time I picked up a paperback containing many of the old strips at a yard sale. Later I found hard cover volumes of still others.

I found Mrs Pruneface to be one Dick Tracy’s scariest villains. If I recall correctly, she’d been disfigured in the war.

Gould drew the strip from 1931 through 1977. It continues to be carried by some papers (drawn by other artists) to this day. The reprints I loved focused on the peak era of the 1940s and consequently that’s the era I know best (or at all, really), the time of Gould’s grotesque, terrifying, freak show villains Pruneface, Flat Top, Mrs. Pruneface, The Brow, The Blank, B.B. Eyes, the Mole, Little Face, Mumbles, etc etc etc. And of course Breathless Mahoney turned the usual formula on its head by being a beautiful villain. She is Tracy’s Catwoman, or Irene Adler, if you will. B.O. Plenty was a hillbilly villain (with an aroma), although he later turned good. Plenty’s wife Gravel Gertie was a dupe of the Brow at one point, but mostly the Plenty family became comic relief in the strip. Almost as a form of repayment, the top hillbilly strip, Li’l Abner, drawn by Al Capp, often featured a Dick Tracy parody called Fearless Fosdick.

Vitamin Flintheart

Not all of Tracy’s colorful characters were villains: Tess Trueheart was his Lois Lane; his sidekick was Junior, a teenage orphan boy; his cop partner was the derby-wearing Pat Patton. One of my favorite Dick Tracy characters was an aging ham actor named Vitamin Flintheart, who, much like the Plenty family, provided comic relief and often found himself accidentally on the wrong side of the law. Vitamin Flintheart — that was the part for me. He said things like “Egad!” and “Zounds!” So the strip was educational! It was through the eponymous ivory-tickling Dick Tracy villain that I learned that a piano has “88 Keys”.

Tracy himself was tough and resourceful, and though surrounded by friends, a bit of a loner. The original name of the strip had been Plainclothes Tracy — there was more cloak and dagger to the idea of being a cop in civvies than there is now that we’re much more used to the idea.  There was also a little bit of a sci-fi angle to the strip. The coolest part was Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, completely speculative when Gould introduced it, and now a part of all our lives. I am pretty flabbergasted at how much we take this technology for granted. When I was a kid I would have assumed that when such a thing became available we would all use it all the time. Instead, I find that we all use it sort of sparingly. Isn’t that true? Just from time to time? Maybe that will change. I continue to consider it thrilling, and my kids will tell you — I unfailingly mention Dick Tracy during video calls and sometimes call it a “Two Way Wrist Radio”, as though I were 40 years older than I actually am.

In addition to sci fi stuff (including later moon visits), Gould was interested in actual police procedures, and researched the subject relentlessly. As fanciful as the strip was, there is a foundation of truth underneath a lot of it. When you read it, you get a strong sense not just of the gangster films and mysteries that were so popular in the ’30s and ’40s, but also the news of the day. Gould himself was based in Chicago — gangster central! Above all, Dick Tracy was not just lurid in the physiognomies of its villains, but in its violence. It may have represented the outer limits of its day. Certainly no movies could show what Gould showed. People weren’t just shot and beaten and burned and stabbed, but you saw the result, the blood, the bruises, the scars, the broken bones. He lingered on the ugliness. There were always kidnappings, and torture sessions. It wasn’t pretty. It was grim. Tracy always caught the malefactor, but before he did, there was a serious toll in human life and limb. Just a random incident that sticks out in my memory that seems representative of the tone of the strip: Tracy or someone is strapped down on a kitchen floor, with a block of ice above him supported by two chairs. Encased in the ice, a dagger pointed at his heart. Beside him, the oven door is open, heating the room. It was at once diabolical and quotidian, imaginative and yet happening in a kitchen just like yours.

A franchise this successful was inevitably going to be adapted into other media. Ironically, given the visual nature of the strip, it was most artistically successful on radio, where it was popular from 1934 through 1948. Picturing those terrifying villains in the mind’s eye was vastly more effective than what happened in film and television, where facial make-up might or might not be sufficiently bizarre, but was just as frequently silly or simply bad-looking. Still, there were many film serials and B movies from 1937 through 1947 and a TV series 1950-51, most of them starring Ralph Byrd. The live action version of Tracy also falls short, for if you think about it, with his distinctive hawk nose, Tracy himself too was a bit of a grotesque. Byrd, and most actors who’ve played him, have lacked this feature.

Still these classic old pictures, with their low-rent grit, are vastly more enjoyable than Warren Beatty’s misguided 1990 adaptation. I’ll always scratch my head over this project. So expensive. So against type for the actor (which was probably part of his objective, but don’t bore ME with it!). Beatty doesn’t seem to like or respect the genre (if you did you’d make it darker than dark, instead of a light-hearted semi-spoof, like this). It has always looked to me like he was envious of Tim Burton’s Batman, from the previous year. The thing is, Beatty, and co-stars like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, they’re from the previous generation. There’s no punk in their souls. Their idea of Batman was the 1966 TV show, and they brought an attitude not unlike that to Dick Tracy. Dick Tracy is not fun or funny. If your version of it is, you are doing it very, very wrong. (Needless to say, anyone who only knows this version will drive me berserk if they tell me that, worse still if they like it.)

In between the original era and 1990 there was also an animated TV version in the early ’60s. I recently came across this ad:

Gould himself was a native of Oklahoma. All four of his grandparents were pioneers, and his father was a Christian minister. With his gritty, urban crime strip Dick Tracy, Chester Gould definitely turned his back on horses and buggies.