Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more.
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Chester Gould created “Plainclothes Tracy” in 1931. His boss changed the name after a few trial strips to “Dick Tracy” which, when published as a newspaper comic strip, utilized pulp era violence with Elliott Ness/Al Capone inspired gritty law and order storylines.
Dick Tracy was certainly a law and order character, who even had a positive relationship with controversial FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover as head of the comic’s Washington Bureau with whom Dick would check in on for Federal Investigations.
He also is pretty quick about depicting some of the more gruesome elements of criminals like mobsters for example. Check out this scene where the mobsters are torturing an informant. Only God knows whats going on in the background!
This foreshadows some of the the dirty realities of humanity’s underbelly that Chester Gould would deal with for example human trafficking in his Dick Tracy Newspaper strip in early 1938. What is interesting is the contradiction between the cartoonist style vs the graphic content which makes for an interesting read.
Despite these scenes, Gould explores this teethgrinding boat further by portraying the unclothes sick emaciated victims and their oder in the ship’s hold.
This depravity is continued with references to famous criminals of the day. In 1934, John Dillinger humiliated the cops by escaping out of jail using a Wooden Gun crafted in his cell, shortly after this picture was taken showing how he had charmed his jailers. In 1935, straight from the headlines, Chester Gould depicted this with the criminal Arson who escaped from jail using a fake gun made from a potato darkened with iodine in the Dick Tracy daily strip. Both criminals are even wearing the same shirt and vest in a newspaper shot.
The criminals start to incorporate more sadistic and even outlandish qualities that would later make it into comic books. Evil bald mad scientist alert! Dick Tracy Daily from 1934 had an evil doctor who experimented on both humans and dogs to further his plans to conquer his enemies. This is a niche later occupied by mad scientist Luthor from the early Superman stories.
Check him out above cracking up with crazy laughter as he talks about his test tube full of rabies germs that he will use to conquer the minds of his enemies.
Dick Tracy and company can barely believe how disgusted they become when looking at him choke a dog and then inject him with rabes on purpose, only to sick him on his prisoner. What a sicko!
Don’t worry though, this germ warfare bacteriologist gets his just deserts when the rabies infected dog, tears out his throat in front of a powerless Dick Tracy. But the fun doesn’t stop there.
It’s fun to see examples of pre-comic book costumed villains, and we see hints of that in these newspaper strips. One of the first ones that Dick Tracy would use, if you dont count 1932 Broadway Bates that we spoke about in the strips to comic books episode, is 1936 the Purple Cross gang who would seem to be a great bridge between a crime comic character and a costumed criminal endeavor. This gang was ruthlessly cruel.
Chester Gould finally went all in on the costumed criminal with the Blank in 1937 before Batman. Much like the 1960s Question or 1980s Rorschach he led a relentless war on other criminals. The Blank was more like Rorschach and killed them one by one through sadistic methods. His name is Frank Redrum and his motive was revenge on criminals who rejected him for being too ugly to work with since he got his face shot off years earlier. His brutality is somewhat amazing to look at, tying criminals under a car so they can die from carbon monoxide poisoning, throwing them out of a 50 mile per hour moving car, or out of a plane to crash through a barn meanwhile maniacally laughing at their suffering and death. He mystified detectives by disappearing in puffs of smoke, and murdered anyone who got in his way. Eventually Dick Tracy would use forensic methods to unmask and question him.
But how would Dick Tracy find these criminals in order to punish him? They would use forensic methods that were used in the early days of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. for example the lie detector test. In the early 1900’s Benussi started looking at physiological changes during the act of deception. In 1913, William Moulton Marston (Wonder Woman’s Creator) studied systolic blood pressure in oscillatory methods increasing during criminal lying, then in 1921 John Augustus Larson modified the sphygmograph (invented 1854) to give a continuous blood pressure and pulse curve to study thousands of criminals. In 1935, Chester Gould puts this lie detector (polygraph) into his daily strip showing how it may be used in criminal investigations.
11/1932. Sometimes he would have to track down criminals using inanimate clues as well. The process that Dick Tracy goes through to identify which gun shot him is beautifully shown in the strips. It’s Detective work like this that made Tracy the best comic detective before Batman came along 6 years later.
In this stip, he explains using ballistics to calculate from where a bullet came from to reduce his list of suspects.
Although there was a proliferation of criminals in Dick Tracy, make no mistake the cops had no mercy and once Dick used forensics to find the criminals, there was generally no sense of understanding and sending them to some ineffective asylum only for them to return and kill more innocent victims. Dick and the cops were generally out for blood!
Dick Tracy dailies by Chester Gould in 1934 show the city’s greatest plainclothes detective in heated battle with organized crime.
The car explosions and shootings show that this was Chicago style gang warfare. Chester Gould has his character Dick Tracy demonstrate to 1938 newspaper strip readers that Crime Doesn’t Pay. Something “striking” about these two panels is the contrast between the glossy sharp cartoonist ink line with the sudden graphic violence. An intriguing combination.
Here are some more fun strips of Dick Tracy and his fellow policemen gunning down more bad guys. Bullets were flying everywhere!
1938 Dick Tracy dailies by Chester Gould show that in the Crime Genre, the hero more often kills the villain as compared to the Superhero books. Often times, these criminals would kill or torture many innocent people before Tracy pulled the trigger.
In the mid 1930’s, Chester Gould made sure that Dick Tracy always got his man. No matter what it took, the mafiesque villains inspired by real mobsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde or the Ma Barker Gang were either arrested or outright killed. Wow! I can’t look! and I can’t stop turning the page! Here’s a criminal getting chewed up by a bear, and a helpless underworld prisoner tied down with chains until they died and decomposed!
Don’t worry, there were also room for laughs. Batman and Robin slept in the same bed in the 1950s, and so did their predecessors, Detective Dick Tracy and his young adopted orphan ward, Junior here shown in 1935. Dick also has Junior dress like a girl at times to… fight crime.
Considering that Dick Tracy was made for the Chicago Newspaper Syndicate, similar to Little Orphan Annie, there is little doubt that Chicago mobs affected its content. There is no doubt that this strip started out as Chester Gould’s manifesto on the war on crime. Similar to Batman, also another detective, but one key difference is that Dick Tracy generally gunned down and killed his enemies.
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Dick Tracy ©Tribune Media Services 2020