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Dick Tracy is an American comic strip featuring Dick Tracy (originally Plainclothes Tracy), a tough and intelligent police detective created by Chester Gould. The strip made its debut on October 4, 1931 in theDetroit Mirror. It was distributed by the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate. Gould wrote and drew the strip until 1977. Since that time, various artists and writers have continued the strip, which still runs in newspapers today. Dick Tracy has also been the hero in a number of films, notably one in which Warren Beatty played the crime fighter in 1990.
Characters and story
Tracy uses forensic science, advanced gadgetry, and wits, in an early example of the police proceduralmystery story—although stories often end in gunfights just the same. Stories typically follow a criminal committing a crime and Tracy's relentless pursuit of the criminal. The strip's most popular villain wasFlattop Jones, a freelance hitman hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy. When Flattop was killed, fans went into public mourning, and the Flattop Story was reprinted in DC's series of Oversize Comic Reprints in the 1970s. The villains' small crimes led to bigger, out of control situations, reflecting film noir. Similarly, innocent witnesses were frequently killed, and Tracy's paramour Tess Trueheart was often endangered by the villains. As the story progressed, Tracy adopted an orphan under the name Dick Tracy Jr., or "Junior" for short, who appeared in investigations until becoming a policeforensic artist in his father's precinct. He also cultivated a professional partner, ex-steel worker Pat Patton, who gradually became a detective of skill and courage enough to satisfy Tracy's requirements.Tracy characters were often caricatures of celebrities. There was Breathless Mahoney, modeled afterVeronica Lake. Likewise, B.O. Plenty was inspired by George "Gabby" Hayes (with perhaps a nod toAl St. John also), Vitamin Flintheart by John Barrymore, and Spike Dyke by Spike Jones. Others include villains like Rughead (Robert Montgomery), Oodles (Jackie Gleason) and Mumbles (Bing Crosby). Gould even parodied himself as the out-of-shape Pear Shape.
On January 13, 1946, the 2-Way Wrist Radio became one of the strip's most immediately recognizable icons, worn as a wristwatch by Tracy and members of the police force, and may have inspired later smartwatches. The 2-Way Wrist Radio was upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964. This development also led to the introduction of an important supporting character, Diet Smith, an eccentric industrialist who financed the development of this equipment. In a conspicuous coincidence, the idea of a radio built into a wrist watch played an important role in the story line of "Superman – The Talking Cat" broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System on January 9 through 28, 1946 (episodes 878 through 891).
In late 1948, a botched security detail led to the death of the semi-regular character Brilliant, the blindinventor of the 2-Way Wrist Radio (among other devices). Whereupon, Chief Brandon resigned in shame, Dick Tracy's superior on the police force and a presence in the strip since 1931, and Pat Patton was promoted to police chief in Brandon's place, previously Tracy's buffoonish partner. A new character was introduced named Sam Catchem to take Patton's place as Tracy's sidekick.
Gould introduced topical story lines about television, juvenile delinquency, graft, organized crime, and other developments in American life during the 1950s; and elements of soap opera depicted Dick, Tess, and Junior (along with the Tracys' baby daughter Bonnie Braids) at home as a family. Depictions of family life alternated with the story's crime drama, as in the kidnapping of Bonnie Braids by fugitive Crewy Lou, or Junior's girlfriend Model being accidentally killed by her brother.
Gould incurred some controversy when he had Tracy live in an unaccountably ostentatious manner on a police officer's salary, and responded with a story wherein Tracy was accused of corruption and had to explain the origin of his possessions in detail. In his book-length examination of the strip, Dick Tracy – The Official Biography, Jay Maeder suggested that Gould's critics were unsatisfied by his explanation. Nevertheless, the controversy eventually faded, and the cartoonist reduced exposure to Tracy's home life.
Tracy's cases generally incriminated independent operators rather than organized crime—with a few exceptions, such asBig Boy, a fictionalized version of Al Capone and the strip's first villain. Tracy opposed a series of big-time mobsters in the 1950s, such as the King, George "Mr. Crime" Alpha, Odds Zonn, and Willie "The Fifth" Millyun, after events like theKefauver Hearings. As Tess faded into the background, Tracy assumed as assistant the rookie policewoman Lizz Worthington.
From 1956 to 1964, the Dick Tracy Sunday page was accompanied by a topper humor strip called The Gravies and drawn by Gould and his assistants.
As technology progressed, the methods that Tracy and the police used to track and capture criminals took the form of increasingly fanciful atomic-powered gadgets developed by Diet Smith Industries. This eventually led to the 1960s advent of the Space Coupe, a spacecraft with a magnetic propulsion system. This marked the beginning of the strip's "Space Period," which saw Tracy and friends having adventures on the Moon and meeting Moon Maid, the daughter of the leader of a race of humanoid people living in "Moon Valley" in 1964. After an eventual sharing of technological information, Moon technology became standard issue on Tracy's police force, including air cars, flying cylindrical vehicles. The villains became even more exaggerated in power, resulting in an escalating series of stories that no longer resembled the urban crime drama roots of the strip. During this period, Tracy met famed cartoonist Chet Jade, creator of the comic strip Sawdust, in which the only characters are talking dots.
One of the new characters, Mr. Intro, was only manifested as a disembodied voice. His goal was world domination in the vein of a James Bond villain. Tracy eventually used an atomic laser beam to annihilate Intro and his island base.
Junior married Moon Maid in October 1964. Their daughter Honey Moon Tracy had antennae and magnetic hands. In the spring of 1969, Tracy was offered the post of Chief of Police in Moon Valley. However, he ended up back on Earth when the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 showed that the moon was barren of all life. Many of the accoutrements of the space period stories remained for many years afterward, such as the Space Coupe and much of the high-tech gadgetry. Moon Maid receded from the storyline.
The stories of this period took an increasingly condemnatory tone pertaining to contemporary court decisions concerning the rights of the accused, which often involved Tracy being frustrated by legal technicalities. For example, having caught a gang of diamond thieves red-handed, Tracy was forced to let them walk because he could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the diamonds were stolen. As he saw the thieves get off without penalty, Tracy was heard to grumble, "Yes, under today's interpretation of the laws, it seems it's the police who are handcuffed!"
In the 1970s, Gould modernized Tracy by giving him a longer hair style and mustache, and added a hippie sidekick, Groovy Grove. Groovy's first appearance in print, as it happened, occurred during the same week as the Kent State shootings. Groovy remained with the strip, off and on until his death in 1984.
Shortly before his retirement, Gould drew a strip in which Sam, Lizz, and Groovy held Tracy down to shave off his mustache.
At this time, the standard publication size and space of newspaper comics was sharply reduced; for example, the Dick Tracy Sunday strip, which had traditionally been a full-page episode containing 12 panels, was cut in size to a half-page format that offered, at most, eight panels—these new restrictions created challenges for all comic artists.
The Plenty family was a group of goofy redneck yokels headed by the former villain Bob Oscar ("B.O."), along with Gertrude ("Gravel Gertie") Plenty. Gravel Gertie was introduced as the unwitting dupe (accessory) of the villain The Brow, who was on the run from Dick Tracy. The family provided a humorous counterpoint to Tracy's adventures. The Plenty sub-story was decades long, and saw Sparkle Plenty grow from an infant to a young married lady, eventually becoming a beautiful fashion model. Sparkle Plenty's May 30, 1947 birth became a significant mainstream media event, with spinoff merchandising and magazine coverage.
The Plenty family appeared with Tracy in a story that occurred in a bank, where "B.O." found a way to prevent thieves from snatching an envelope of money from a counter.
In the April 24, 2011 strip, B.O. and Gertie had a second child, Attitude, a boy who is as ugly as Sparkle is beautiful. His face has yet to be shown.
Beginning in the early 1950s, the Sunday strip included a frame devoted to a page from the "Crimestoppers' Textbook", a series of handy illustrated hints for the amateur crime-fighter. This was named after a short-lived youth group seen in the strip during the late 1940s, led by Junior Tracy, called "Dick Tracy's Crimestoppers." This feature ended when Gould retired from the strip in 1977, but Max Allan Collins reinstated it, and it is still part of the comic strip. After Gould's retirement, Collins initially replaced the Textbook with "Dick Tracy's Rogues Gallery," a salute to memorable Tracy villains of the past.
Chester Gould retired from comics in 1977; his last Dick Tracy strip appeared in print on Sunday, December 25 of that year. The following Monday, Dick Tracy was taken over by Max Allan Collins and longtime Gould assistant Rick Fletcher. Gould's name remained in the byline for a few years after his retirement as a story consultant.
In one of Max Allan Collins' first stories as the strip's writer, the gangster known as "Big Boy" learned that he was dying and had less than a year to live. Big Boy was still seeking revenge on the plainclothesman who sent him up the river, and he wanted to live just long enough to see Tracy's death. He put out an open contract on Tracy's head worth one million dollars, knowing that every small-time hood in the City would take a crack at the famous cop for that amount of money. One of the would-be collectors rigged Tracy's car to explode, but inadvertently killed Moon Maid instead of Tracy in the explosion. A funeral strip for Moon Maid explicitly stated that this officially severed all ties between Earth and the Moon in the strip, thus eliminating the last remnants of the Space Period. Honey Moon received a new hairstyle that covered her antennae, and she was ultimately phased out of the strip. Junior later married Sparkle Plenty (the daughter of B.O. and Gravel Gertie Plenty), and had a daughter named Sparkle Plenty Jr. In the 1990s, Tracy's son Joseph Flintheart Tracy took on a role similar to Junior's in the earlier strips.
In addition, Collins removed other Gould creations of the 1960s and 1970s (including Groovy Grove, who was gravely wounded in the line of duty and later died in the hospital; Lizz married him before his death). On a more philosophical level, Collins took a generally less cynical view of the justice system than Gould; Tracy came to accept its limitations and requirements as a normal part of the process which he could manage. Extreme technology was phased out, such as the Space Coupe, in favor of more realistic advanced tools such as the 2-Way Wrist Computer in 1987.
New semi-regular characters introduced by Collins and Fletcher included: Dr. Will Carver, a plastic surgeon with underworld ties who often worked on known felons; Wendy Wichel, a smarmy newspaper reporter/editorialist with a strong anti-Tracy bias in her articles; and Lee Ebony, an African-American female detective. Vitamin Flintheart reappeared occasionally as a comic-relief figure, the aged ham actor created by Gould in 1944 who had not been seen in the strip for almost three decades. The Plenty family (B.O., Gravel Gertie, and Sparkle) were also brought back as semi-regulars; Junior and Sparkle were married following the death of Moon Maid, and soon gave birth to their own daughter Sparkle Plenty, Jr.
Original villains seen during this period included Angeltop (revenge-seeking, psychopathic daughter of the slain Flattop), Torcher (whose scheme was arson-for-profit), and Splitscreen (a video pirate). Collins brought back at least one "classic" Gould villain or revenge-seeking family member per year. The revived Gould villains were often provided with full names, and marriages, children, and other family connections were developed, bringing more humanity to many of the originally grotesque brutes. "Flattop", particularly, had a number of relatives, all with his characteristic head structure and facial attributes, who turned up one by one to avenge their ancestor on Tracy.
Rick Fletcher died in 1983 and was succeeded by editorial cartoonist Dick Locher, who had assisted Gould on the strip in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Locher was assisted by his son John, who died in 1986.
Max Allan Collins was fired from the strip in 1992, following a financial reorganization of their comic strip holdings, and Tribune staff writer and columnist Mike Kilian took over the writing. Kilian was paid less than half of what Collins was making per strip, but continued until his death on October 27, 2005. Locher was both author and artist for over three years, beginning on January 9, 2006. On March 16, 2009, Jim Brozman began collaborating with Locher, taking over the drawing duties while Locher continued to write the strip.
On January 19, 2011, Tribune Media Services announced that Locher was retiring from the strip and handing the reins to artist Joe Staton and writer Mike Curtis. The new creative team has previously worked together on Scooby-Doo, Richie Rich, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Their first Dick Tracy strip was published March 14, 2011. Staton and Curtis are assisted by Shelley Pleger, who inks and letters Staton's drawings, along with Shane Fisher, who provides the coloring on the Sunday strips, and Chicago-area policeman Jim Doherty, who provides "Crimestopper" captions for the Sunday strips and acts as the feature's technical advisor. Doherty also introduced a new feature, "Tracy's Hall of Fame" (which replaces the "Crimestopper" panel approximately once each month), in which a real-life police officer is profiled and honored.
They reintroduced many of the characters of the forties through the sixties, including Mr. Crime and a reformed Mole, while introducing more deformed and grotesque villains such as Abner Kadaver, Panda, and The Jumbler. They have also brought back all the gadgets and plot elements of the 1960s space era, starting in early 2013. They have also done crossovers, with cameos from Popeye and Brenda Starr, and a long sequence involving Little Orphan Annie.