Dick Tracy, circa 1945. Artist: Chester Gould


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: Chicago Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1931
Creator: Chester Gould
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Steel-eyed and hawk-nosed, with a chin that could slice bologna, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy made his debut on …

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… Oct. 4, 1931 — and crime comics were never again the same. Before long, American newspapers were crawling with Tracy knock-offs, including but far from limited to Red Barry, Radio Patrol and Secret Agent X-9.

In the strip's first week, Tracy's girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, is kidnapped and her father murdered. Tracy joins the police as a plainclothes detective, tracks down the killers, and rescues Tess. He then decides to stick with the force. His determination, incorruptible honesty, and well-known willingness to use violence in excess of any that had ever before been seen in comics (devastatingly parodied by Li'l Abner's "ideel", Fearless Fosdick, Al Capp's strip-within-a-strip), combine to carry him quickly to the top of his profession — where he remains to this very day.

It was Captain Joseph Patterson, the Chicago Tribune Syndicate editor who decisively influenced the direction of such diverse strips as Little Orphan Annie and Gasoline Alley, who named the strip (Gould wanted to call it "Plainclothes Tracy"), as well as Tracy's girlfriend. Although he never contributed so much as a single pen stroke to an actual published strip, Patterson's effect on American comics was profound. It's anybody's guess how much a snappy title contributes to a work's success, but the fact that "Dick Tracy" rolls so easily off the tongue certainly didn't hurt.

The Tracy strip quickly became famous for more than just its unflinching use of gunplay. Its villains soon became proverbial for their bizarre deformities. The Blank (1937), Little Face Finney (1941), Pruneface (1943), The Brow (1944), Shakey (1945), Pear Shape (1949) — these are only samples of an endless parade of memorably ugly criminals defeated by Tracy. So recognizable was the Tracy style of villain that when, in 1946, Daffy Duck came up against Jukebox Jaw, Pumpkin Head and Neon Noodle, viewers would have known who was being parodied even if Daffy hadn't done it under the name "Duck Twacy".

The vast majority of those criminals appeared only once, because when Tracy kills 'em, he kills 'em dead.

Another thing Tracy has always been famous for is up-to-date technology. In 1964, he traded in his two-way wrist radio, which had been given to him in 1946 by inventor Diet Smith, for a two-way wrist TV; and in '86 he exchanged the TV for a two-way wrist computer. It was the technological bent that led to what many consider the strip's low point — during most of the 1960s, it was dominated by a magnetically-powered vehicle called the Space Coupe, and the horned people that device brought back from the Moon. Gould seemed to regain balance after Apollo 11, and the strip came back down to Earth. (It is perhaps significant that Gould's two Reuben Awards — 1959 and '77 — neatly flank the "Space Coupe" era, but do not occur within it.)

Tracy made an early and successful transition to comic books. He was the star of Super Comics (no relation), which also featured reprints of other Tribune strips, including Terry & the Pirates, The Gumps and Moon Mullins, from its beginning in 1938. Ten years later, he moved out into his own monthly title, still featuring reprints from the newspaper strip. Published first by Dell Comics and then by Harvey, it lasted until 1961. Since then, he has been published sporadically in that venue. In the late 1980s, Blackthorne Publishing undertook to put as much of the Tracy strip as it could into comic books, and before folding, succeeded in reprinting almost all of the pre-Space Coupe material.

Dick Tracy was a radio show from 1935-48, and the character was featured in a series of novels and Big Little Books during that time, as well. He made a leap into movies in 1937, when Ralph Byrd portrayed him in a 15-part serial from Republic Pictures. A long series of B-grade feature films followed, some with Byrd and some starring Morgan Conway as Tracy. They came out regularly for the rest of the 1930s and all through the '40s. A highlight was Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), in which the eponymous bad guy was played by Boris Karloff. Tracy's screen career came to a close with a 1951-52 TV show, starring Byrd.

In 1960, UPA, the studio that had done Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo, produced a seemingly endless series of five-minute TV cartoons of which Tracy was the titular star. For some reason, he never actually did any police work in these — his role was to assign each case to one of his assistants, who included such ethnically questionable detectives as Joe Jitsu and Go-go Gomez. Famous criminals from the strip, including dead ones, were used as recurring villains in this poorly produced and unfunny series. Tracy got a second shot at animated success in 1971, when he appeared in a few obscure segments on an Archie Saturday morning show, but that went nowhere.

After that, Tracy went back to being just a comics character, until 1990. That was the year Warren Beatty starred in a major motion picture, in which great effort was made to capture both the feel and the look of the strip. Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna played various villains in this film.

In 1995, when the U.S. Postal Service issued its "Comic Strip Classics" series of commemorative stamps, Tracy was right up there with The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo in Slumberland, Barney Google, and the rest of that select crowd.

Chester Gould retired in 1977, and died in 1985. The writing of the strip was taken over by Max Allan Collins, a detective novelist and long-time fan of Gould's work, whose other comics credits include Ms. Tree; and the art by Gould's assistant, Rick Fletcher. Fletcher died in 1983 and the strip was passed on to Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Dick Locher, who, teamed with writer Michael Kilian, draws it today.

The secret of Tracy's success? Not a great love of civil liberties, to be sure! No, Tracy has always been a tough cop — but an absolutely honest one, and compassionate toward the innocent and helpless. That's the combo that made him popular, and has kept him that way for eight decades.


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