Dick Tracy is a long-running comic strip featuring a popular and familiar character in American pop culture. 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. Created by cartoonist Chester Gould in 1931, the strip made its debut appearance on October 4, 1931, distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. Gould wrote and drew the strip until 1977.
This seminal crime strip is being reprinted, from the beginning, in hardcover editions by IDW Publishing.
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 that 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 ("looped" spelled backwards, typical Gould). At other times it is suave like the arrogant Shoulders, who cannot 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.
Gould's most popular villain was Flattop Jones, a freelance hitman with a large head as flat as an aircraft carrier's flight deck. Flattop was hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy, and he came within a hair's breadth of accomplishing that before deciding to first blackmail his employers for more money. 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. Plans slip out of control and events happen sometimes for no reason at all because life can be unpredictable and cruel. Treachery is everywhere as henchmen are killed ruthlessly by their bosses, bosses are betrayed by jilted girlfriends and good people in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down.
Towards the end of the 1940s, Gould took steps to shake up the status quo of his strip. In late 1948, for instance, a botched security detail led to the death of the semi-regular character Brilliant, the blind inventor of the 2-Way Wrist Radio (among other devices) and son of industrialist Diet Smith. Chief Brandon, Dick Tracy's superior on the police force and a presence in the strip since 1931, voluntarily resigned in shame. Pat Patton, heretofore Tracy's rather buffoonish partner, was promoted to police chief in Brandon's place. Gould later explained this seemingly improbable turn of events by stating that, within the strip's reality, Tracy was offered the job first but had declined, personally recommending Patton instead. To take Patton's place as Tracy's sidekick, a new character, Sam Catchem (based on Gould's old friend, Al Lowenthal), was introduced.
In 1949, on Christmas Day, Dick Tracy and Tess Trueheart finally married, after a rocky courtship lasting the 18-year history of the strip to that date.
Gould changed Tracy with the times, sometimes with mixed results. Successful additions included topical storylines about television, juvenile delinquency, graft and other new developments in American life as the 1950s wore on. Less successful were elements of soap opera that began to permeate the strip, as much time began to be spent with Dick, Tess and Junior (along with the Tracy's new baby daughter, Bonnie Braids) at home as a family. Some stories from this period began to resemble an early sitcom, albeit one with dark underpinnings of crime drama in the shadows that would rise up to attack the family directly, such as the kidnapping of Bonnie Braids by fugitive Crewy Lou, or when Junior's girlfriend, Model, was accidentally shot and killed by her brother. In addition, Gould incurred some controversy when he had Tracy live in an unaccountably ostentatious manner, with a large home complete with a personal Cadillac automobile on a police officer's salary. As a result, Gould had to create a story where Tracy was accused of corruption and had to explain the origin of his possessions in detail such as stating he used personal savings he frugally accrued for his house while the Cadillac was a prototype he was test running for Diet Smith. Although Gould's critics were largely unsatisfied by his explanation, the scandal eventually faded and the cartoonist downplayed Tracy's home life considerably to sidestep a recurrence of the issue.
As technology progressed, so too did the methods Tracy and the police used to track and capture criminals. These took the form of increasingly fanciful atomic-powered gadgets and devices developed by Diet Smith Industries. This eventually led to what Gould thought was its logical conclusion in the 1960s with the advent of the Space Coupe, a spacecraft with a magnetic propulsion system. This started a much-derided series of stories, known informally as the strip's "Space Period," that 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 becoming standard issue on Tracy's police force, including air cars, flying cylindrical vehicles. This meant, logically, the villains had to be even more exaggerated in power, resulting in an escalating series of stories that completely abandoned the urban crime drama roots of the strip.
The escalating scope and scale of the stories led to the advent of the character Mr. Intro, who never appeared except as a disembodied voice. His goal was nothing short of world domination in the vein of a James Bond villain. Tracy eventually had to resort to an atomic laser beam to annihilate Intro and his island base. Many readers felt that this effectively spelled the end of storytelling in Dick Tracy; if Tracy had that kind of power at his disposal, how could any Earthbound foe ever believably challenge him again?
Many believed Gould had written himself into an inescapable corner with the Moon stories, but he kept on with them. In October of 1964, Junior actually married Moon Maid, and the couple eventually produced a daughter, Honey Moon Tracy, who had antennae and magnetic hands. In the spring of 1969, Tracy was offered the post of Chief of Police in Moon Valley, meaning the strip was likely to soon abandon Earth entirely if Gould had continued unabated.
And then, reality intervened. The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 put an end to the Space Period, as Gould felt obligated to bring his ostensibly reality-based strip back down to Earth when the Moon was found to be barren of all life. However, the accoutrements of the abandoned science-fiction stories, such as the Space Coupe and much of the high-tech gadgetry, remained for many years afterward (and Junior and Moon Maid were still married, although the latter greatly receded from the storyline).
In the 1970s, Gould even less successfully tried to modernize Tracy by giving him a longer hair style and moustache, and by adding a supposedly "hip" sidekick, Groovy Grove. Unfortunately, Groovy was designed to appeal to young college-age people of the period, but Gould had misread exactly how much his strip, with its unflinchingly conservative views of the police and society (mirroring Gould's own views), was seen by that audience as being part of the establishment many of them were rebelling against. Groovy's first appearance in print, as it happened, occurred during the same week as the Kent State shootings. Older readers and those who shared Gould's viewpoint disliked Groovy on the grounds that, his allegiance to law and order aside, he still looked and talked much like a typical hippie. Nevertheless, Groovy remained with the strip, off and on, until 1984, when he was killed off by Gould's successors. As for Tracy's mustache, apparently even Gould realized this had been a mistake on his part, as eventually he drew a strip in which Sam, Lizz, and Groovy held Tracy down for an enforced shave.
Later, during one of Max Allan Collins' first stories as the strip's writer, the gangster known as the "Big Boy," whose gang members had killed Tess Trueheart's father years ago (making him, effectively, the first Dick Tracy villain of all) learns that he is dying and has less than a year to live. Big Boy, still seeking revenge on the plainclothesman who sent him up the river, decides he wants to live just long enough to see Tracy precede him in death. To this end, he puts 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 rigs Tracy's car to explode, but inadvertently blows up Moon Maid instead (she had to use Tracy's car to run an errand). A funeral strip for Moon Maid explicitly states that this has officially severed all ties between Earth and the Moon, thus formally and permanently eliminating the last remnants of the Space Period. (The lone exception was Honey Moon, who received a new hairstyle to cover up the antennae that betrayed her extraterrestrial origins, and was never again referred to as being anything more than a normal human girl; eventually she was phased out altogether.) Junior later marries Sparkle Plenty (Daughter of B. O. and Gravel Plenty) and has a daughter named Sparkle Plenty Jr. In the 1990s Tracy's own son Joseph Flintheart Tracy take on a role similar to Junior in the earlier strips.
More successful was the decades-long substory of the Plenty family, a group of goofy redneck yokels headed by former villains, Bob Oscar "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; unlike most comic strip children, including Dick Tracy's own Junior for many years, she was allowed to grow up (albeit slowly) and eventually marry. Another successful addition was that of Lizz the Policewoman (she was never given a full name, but see below) 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.
The Plenty family appeared with Tracy in a story that was sort of a Crimestopper's Textbook item expanded to fill one Sunday strip; it occurs in a bank and illustrates a way "B. O." found to foil sneak thieves who might snatch an envelope containing money from a counter.
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 proselytizing about it. A not at all atypical sequence from this period saw Tracy, having caught a gang of diamond thieves red-handed, forced to let them walk because he could not prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the diamonds were in fact stolen. As he saw the thieves get off scott-free, Tracy was heard to grumble, "Yes, under today's interpretation of the laws, it seems it's the police who are handcuffed!"
Gould's plots had also started to meander beginning in the late 1960s, often going off on odd tangents (that had nothing to do with the main story being told, Gould including them mainly because he thought they were amusing) and featuring characters whose motivations and goals seemed to change from strip to strip. Since Gould usually did not plot Dick Tracy stories in advance, feeling that if he himself could be surprised at the twists and turns of a given plot then the reader would be as well, this was most likely unintentional on his part. Further working against him was the sharp reduction in size and space of newspaper comics that occurred around this period; for example, the Dick Tracy Sunday strip, which had traditionally been a full-page episode containing twelve panels, was drastically cut in size to a half-page format that offered, at most, eight panels. Gould never really adapted to these new restrictions, and Tracy plotlines, heretofore usually lasting months, could be told in weeks or even days as he struggled to tell meaningful stories within the limits imposed on him. All of this combined to make comics stories that, while still somewhat entertaining when read in daily installments, do not read nearly as well when brought together as a collection.
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 crimefighter. 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 continued until Gould retired from the strip in 1977, though Max Allan Collins would later reinstate it (and it continues to this day). 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.
Collins reversed some of Gould's late-career changes, including putting a final end to the Space Period (which had actually been aborted by Gould some years before, but Collins was keen to formally close the books on that era) by killing off Moon Maid in 1978 (as previously mentioned), as well as doing away with 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 he expired). He also took a generally less cynical view of the justice system than Gould had adopted in his later years; making Tracy come to accept its limitations and requirements as a normal part of the process he could manage. In addition, the more extreme examples of Tracy's advanced technology were phased out like the Space Coupe in favor of more realistic, yet still futuristic, tools such as the 2-Way Wrist Computer in 1987 which could do field forensic processing and had a lie detector function on top of its communication role.
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 (he was eventually killed off as well); Wendy Wichel, a smarmy newspaper reporter/editorialist with a strong anti-Tracy bias in her articles, created to address real-life concerns about the strip's often excessive violence; and Lee Ebony, an African-American female detective. Vitamin Flintheart, the aged ham actor created by Gould in 1944 (originally as a bit player during the Flattop story) but who had not been seen in the strip for almost three decades, was resurrected as an occasional comic-relief figure. The Plenty family (B.O., Gravel Gertie, and Sparkle) were also brought back from virtual limbo to become semi-regulars as well; following the death of Moon Maid, Junior and Sparkle were married, and soon produced a daughter of their own, 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 also began bringing back at least one "classic" Gould villain per year, although many were dead beyond the power of even comics to resurrect credibly, or else inventing a now-grown family member who would be out for revenge. An obsession developed of including, with the revival of the Gould villains, of providing them with full names, and often evidence of marriage and children (sexual activity) or other family connections, bringing a "warm, fuzzy" feel to many of the originally grotesque brutes. "Flattop", particularly, had a number of relatives, all with his characteristic head structure and facial attributes, who one by one turned up 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.
In 1992, following a financial reorganization of their comic strip holdings, Max Allan Collins was fired from the strip, and Tribune staff writer and columnist Mike Kilian took over the writing. Kilian, according to various sources, was paid less than half of what Collins was making per strip, and continued on the strip until his death on October 27, 2005. Since January 9, 2006, Dick Locher has been receiving sole credit on the strip, meaning he is now drawing and authoring the storyline.
In 2005, Tracy was a guest at Blondie and Dagwood's 75th anniversary party in the comic strip Blondie.
On CBS, with Sterling Products as sponsor, the serial aired four times a week from February 4, 1935 to July 11, 1935, moving to Mutual from September 30, 1935 to March 24, 1937 with Bill McClintock doing the sound effects. NBC's weekday afternoon run from January 3, 1938 to April 28, 1939 had sound effects by Keene Crockett and was sponsored by Quaker Oats, which brought Dick Tracy into primetime (Saturdays at 7pm and, briefly, Mondays at 8pm) with 30-minute episodes from April 29, 1939 to September 30, 1939. The series returned to 15-minute episodes on the ABC Blue Network from March 15, 1943 to July 16, 1948, sponsored by Tootsie Roll, which used the music theme of "Toot Toot, Tootsie" for its 30-minute Saturday ABC series from October 6, 1945 to June 1, 1946. Sound effects on ABC were supplied by Walt McDonough and Al Finelli.
Directors of the series included Mitchell Grayson, Charles Powers and Bob White. Cast members at various times included Walter Kinsella as Pat Patton, Helen Lewis as Tess Trueheart and Andy Donnelly and Jackie Kelk as Junior Tracy. Announcers were Ed Herlihy and Dan Seymour.
On February 15, 1945, Command Performance presented "Dick Tracy In B Flat," or "For Goodness Sakes, Isn't He Ever Going To Marry Tess Trueheart?" Billed as "the world's first comic strip operetta", it starred Bing Crosby as Dick Tracy, Dinah Shore as Tess Trueheart, and Bob Hope as Flattop Jones. The cast also included Jerry Colonna (police chief), Frank Morgan (Vitamin Flintheart), Jimmy Durante (The Mole), Judy Garland (Snowflake Falls), The Andrews Sisters (The Summer Sisters--May, June & July), Frank Sinatra (Shaky), Cass Daley (Gravel Gertie), and Harry Von Zell (narrator).
On July 8, 1945, during a New York newspaper deliverers' strike, New York mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia read a complete Dick Tracy strip over the radio.
The sequels were produced under an interpretation of the contract for the first, Dick Tracy (1937), which gave license for "a series or serial." As a result Chester Gould received no further money for the sequel serials.
In these serials Dick Tracy is portrayed as an FBI agent, or "G-Man," based in California, rather than as a detective in the police force of a Midwestern city resembling Chicago, and, aside from himself and Junior, no characters from the strip appear in any of the four films. However, comic relief sidekick "Mike McGurk" bears some resemblance to Tracy's partner from the strip, Pat Patton; Tracy's secretary, Gwen Andrews (played by several actresses in the course of the series, including Jennifer Jones), provides the same kind of feminine interest as Tess Trueheart; and FBI Director Clive Anderson (Francis X. Bushman and others) is the same kind of avuncular superior as Chief Brandon.
In the first cartoon series, produced from 1960 to 1961 by UPA, Tracy employed a series of cartoony subordinate flatfoots to fight crime each week, contacting them on his two-way wristwatch radio. Everett Sloane voiced Tracy, while Mel Blanc voiced many of the other characters, including "Go-Go" Gomez, Joe Jitsu, Hemlock Holmes and Heap O'Calorie.
These 130 five-minute cartoons were designed and packaged for syndication, usually intended for local "kid's shows".
This package was pulled from syndication in the mid-'70s, due to ethnic stereotypes and accents.
A second cartoon series, produced in 1971, was a feature in Archie's TV Funnies, produced by Filmation, which adhered more closely to the comic strip although hampered by cruder animation, typical of the studio's production standards, than the UPA shorts.
Madonna's soundtrack album I'm Breathless: Music from and Inspired by Dick Tracy spawned two top-ten hits, "Vogue" and "Hanky Panky"; neither was actually used in the film. Only three tracks from the album actually were used in the film, but most were performed in a style to reflect the film's setting. In addition to Madonna's album, an album of the film's score by Danny Elfman and an album of songs "inspired" by the film were released.
Dick Tracy was then revived in 1986 by Blackthorne Publishing and ran for 99 issues. Disney produced a series of three issues as a tie in for their 1990 film. This miniseries, entitled True Hearts and Tommy Guns, was drawn by Kyle Baker and edited by Len Wein, and the first two issues were well received by comic fans and critics alike. The third issue was hampered by the fact that it was a direct adaptation of the film, and suffered from the same flaws that many felt hampered the film.
Although the comic strip's public profile has diminished since the 1990 Beatty film, it is still run in several newspapers. 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.
Dick Tracy video game was developed by Titus Software in 1990. It was ported to many platforms including Amiga, Commodore and MS-DOS. Dick Tracy is a side scrolling action shooting game. Player controls Dick Tracy through five stages.