Dick Tracy

From Academic Kids

Dick Tracy USPS stamp
Dick Tracy USPS stamp

Dick Tracy is a popular character in American pop culture. The character of Dick Tracy is a hard hitting, fast shooting, and supremely intelligent police detective who has matched wits with a variety of often grotesquely ugly villains. Dick Tracy was created by cartoonist Chester Gould in 1931 for a newspaper comic strip also entitled Dick Tracy. The strip was distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. Gould wrote and drew the strip until 1977.


The comic strip

Early years

Chester Gould introduced a raw violence to comic strips, reflecting the violence of 1930s Chicago. Gould also did his best to keep up with the latest in crime fighting techniques and, while Tracy often ends a case in a shootout, he uses forensic science, advanced gadgetry, and plain hard thinking to track the bad guy down. It has been suggested that this comic strip was the first example of the police procedural mystery story. Others have noted that actual mystery plots were relatively rare in the stories since the comic strip format is a difficult one for that kind of plot. The real focus, they argue, is the chase with the criminal seen committing the crime and Dick Tracy figuring out the case and relentlessly pursuing the criminal who becomes increasingly desperate as the detective closes in.

The strip's villains are arguably the strongest appeal of the story. Tracy's world is decidedly black and white where the bad guys are sometimes so evil, their very flesh is deformed to announce their sins to the world. The evil sometimes is raw and coarse like the criminally insane Selbert Depool (Depool is "looped", spelled backwards, a typical Gould move). At other times it is suave like the arrogant Shoulders, who can't help thinking that all women like him. It can even border on genius like the Nazi spy Pruneface who is not only a machine design engineer but also dabbles with a chemical nerve gas. In an odd slip, one Gould's villains, Oodles (a jolly sort of character with a ballooning mop of black hair that hid his face), became too attractive. Gould had him hide out for a few weeks, lose over a hundred pounds, clip his hair and come out an unattractive, emaciated bum.

However, by far the most popular villian was Flattop, a freelance hitman who had a large head that was as flat as an aircraft carrier's flight deck. In a classis storyline, Flattop was hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy and he came within a hairsbreath of accomplishing that before deciding to blackmail his employers for more money before he did the deed. This proved to be a fatal mistake since it gave Tracy time to signal for help and he eventually defeated his assassin in a spectacular fight scene even as the police were storming the hideout. When Flattop was eventually killed, fans went into public mourning.

Reflecting some of the era that also produced film noir, Gould tapped into the existential despair of the criminals as small crimes lead to bigger ones and plans slip out of control and events happen sometimes for no reason at all, but because life can be unpredictable and cruel. Treachery is everywhere as henchmen are killed ruthlessly by their bosses and bosses are betrayed by jilted girlfriends and good people in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down.

Missing image
Dick Tracy strip, with Crimestoppers' Textbook

Evolution of the strip

Gould changed Tracy with the times, sometimes with mixed results as with the introduction of science fiction elements such as the two-way wrist radio which proved to be the first of a variety of personal wrist communicators and other futuristic gadgets provided by the eccentric industrialist, Diet Smith. This eventually led to what Gould thought was the logical conclusion in the 1960s of the Space Coupe, a spacecraft with a magnetic propulsion system. This started a much-derided science fiction period that had Tracy and friends having adventures on the moon and meeting Moon Maid and her race in 1964. This in turn led to an eventual sharing of technologies and the villains had to be even more exaggerated in power to challenge Tracy in an escalating series of stories that completely abandoned the urban crime drama roots of the strip. In the 1970s, Gould even less successfully tried to modernize Tracy by giving him a longer hair style and mustache, adding a supposedly "hip" sidekick, Groovy Grove.

More successful was the decades-long substory of the Plenty family, a group of goofy redneck yokels headed by former villains, B. O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie. The family provided a humorous counterpoint to Tracy's adventures. Their daughter, Sparkle Plenty, first gave the strip an infant character, and later a pretty young adolescent girl character, since, unlike most comic strip children, she was allowed to grow up. Another successful addition was that of Lizz the Policewoman as one of Tracy's sidekicks. She proved be to an active and formidable female character in a manner that was groundbreaking for comic strips of that era.

However, the later stories were often shackled with a stubborn grousing condemnation of the rights of the accused which often involved Tracy being frustrated by criminals because of legal technicalities and prosleytizing about it. The fact that newspaper comics were sharply reduced in space for each feature during that time also negatively affected Gould's storytelling abilities as he failed to adjust.

The strip often included a frame devoted to "Crimestoppers' Textbook", a series of handy illustrated hints for the amateur crimefighter; for instance, when attempting to memorize the face of an evildoer for later identification purposes, make sure to note the size and shape of the ears and earlobes.

Later years

Gould retired from the strip in 1977 and Dick Tracy was taken over by Max Allan Collins and longtime Gould assistant Rick Fletcher. Collins reversed some of Gould's sci-fi tinkers by having the character Moon Maid killed off in 1978, as well as doing away with other Gould creations of the 1960s and 1970s, and generally taking a less cynical and simplistic take on the justice system. Rick Fletcher died in 1983 and was succeeded by Dick Locher, who eventually took over the scripting duties as well.

In 1995, the strip was one of 20 included in the Comic Strip Classics series of commemorative postage stamps.

Other media depictions

Early films

The popularity and success of the Dick Tracy’s comic strip spread to radio and to movie serials. Ralph Byrd first played Dick Tracy in a movie of the same name in 1937. Byrd’s career continued through a series of B-grade Tracy movies. The best known of the films is Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, with the title's villain played by Boris Karloff.


The strip also had limited exposure on television with a short-lived live action series and two animated ones. In the first cartoon, Mel Blanc voiced several characters including a junior detective named Go-Go Gomez which was essentially a human version of his famous fast mouse Speedy Gonzales. Tracy would simply sit back and let Gomez and his other subordinate flatfoots mop up crooks like Pruneface, Itchy, Mumbles, Flattop, Cheater Gunsmoke, B.B. Eyes, and Tracy's other idiosyncratic villains. The show has not been seen in years because of its slightly racist undertones and use of ethnic stereotypes and accents. The second exposure to television was a feature in Archie's TV Funnies which adhered more closely to the comic strip. There was also an unsuccessful television pilot from the producers of the live action Batman television series.

1990 movie

Warren Beatty revived some interest in Dick Tracy with his movie version in 1990 entitled simply Dick Tracy. Beatty directed the movie and starred as Tracy. In the film, Beatty was after a surreal comic strip-inspired world with only primary colors, restyled automobiles, and extensive makeup treatments for Tracy's famed villians. However, some people complained that the "weak" storyline was slightly overwhelmed by the casting which included stars such as Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Dick van Dyke as well as many other notable cameos. Madonna's soundtrack album I'm Breathless: Music From And Inspired by Dick Tracy spawned two Top 10 hits including "Vogue" and "Hanky Panky". There were also several other unreleased Madonna songs that were recorded for the film but not used at all.

In August of 1990, Bandai America, Inc. made Dick Tracy into a Nintendo game based off of Beatty's film. It was also released in 1991 on the Game Boy. Sega also made a Dick Tracy video game for the Sega Genesis and Master System in 1991.

Although the comic strip's public profile has diminished since the Beatty film, it is still run in several newspapers and is popular enough that a new upcoming animated television series is in the works. Apart from that, it is a common allusion in North America for unusual-looking criminals often to be described as resembling the strip's grotesque villains, while the lead character's wrist communicator is a typical example used when the possibility of an actual communication device being developed along the lines of something from science fiction is raised.


External links

de:Dick Tracy


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