Dick Tracy became a household name decades ago. For people born in the ’70s and ’80s, like me, it’s easy enough to associate the name “Dick Tracy” with the 1990 Warren Beatty film, but it’s harder to conjure up an anecdote about the original source material. That’s no great failing on my generation’s part, though, considering the original Dick Tracy source material first saw publication nearly 90 years ago.
DICK TRACY – Looking Back
I’ve always enjoyed looking back at the creators and characters who helped form our contemporary understanding of comic strips and comic books, and you can’t get much more formative than Chester Gould’s work on DICK TRACY. Although, by his own admission, Gould’s initial work on DICK TRACY was not his best, the DICK TRACY strips from 1931–1933 are easily some of the most influential comics ever printed.
After Tracy’s appearance in the early ’30s, his signature fedora and trench-coat became common garb for nearly every hard-nosed detective to grace the silver screen or printed page. But it wasn’t just Tracy’s sense of style that would be imitated: Tracy’s origin story should sound familiar enough to seasoned readers of comic books.
The Original DICK TRACY – Vengeance, Best Served in A Fedora
Shortly after announcing to her parents Tracy’s intention to marry Tess Trueheart, armed thugs break into the Truehearts’ home. One of the mobsters demands the Truehearts’ life savings, but Emil Trueheart, Tess’s father, refuses and puts up a fight.
The mobsters blow the old man away, knock Dick out, and steal the Truehearts’ money. To add insult to injury, the bad guys also kidnap Tess. Upon awaking from his gun-butt-induced nap, Tracy swears a solemn oath: he will save Tess and avenge Emil Trueheart.
The Original DICK TRACY – Dick Spider-Punisher-Batman
This origin should sound pretty familiar, since Tracy shares its essential details with Spider-Man, Batman, the Punisher, the Rawhide Kid, Ka-Zar, and a host of other costumed vigilantes. Vengeance is a powerful motivator, especially when the bad guy has kidnapped your fiancée and killed her dad.
The Original DICK TRACY – Pushing the Envelope
Although, by today’s standards, the violence in DICK TRACY’s early strips is pretty tame, it was shocking to the strip’s original readership. On its second day of publication, PLAIN CLOTHES TRACY, DICK TRACY’s immediate predecessor, featured a thug using a blowtorch to torture a bound victim.
This particular method of interrogation may seem surprisingly gritty and realistic for the time, but this level of grit was exactly what readers were looking for. Although DICK TRACY is generally remembered for the strip’s grotesque villains, the first few years of publication saw few of these ugly and oddly named characters. Pruneface and other fan-favourite villains would appear later. During the first couple years of the original DICK TRACY comic strips, Dick’s de facto arch-nemesis was a heavy-set vagrant/conman simply named “Steve.”
The Original DICK TRACY – Dick Tracy or Dick Wolf?
Tracy’s enemies, including basically a carbon copy of Al Capone named “Big Boy,” weren’t the only elements that gave the original source material a sense of realism, though. DICK TRACY also served as one of the original procedural cop dramas, showing various forensic techniques that police of the day would use in the course of their duties.
Tracy didn’t just follow hunches, although he did every once in a while. For the most part, Tracy used ballistics tests, fingerprints, and other real-world investigative techniques to collar criminals.
The Original DICK TRACY – Did Someone Say “Boy Sidekick?”
Beating Batman to the punch by nearly a decade, Dick Tracy started endangering his ward’s life early. Dick Tracy Junior, under the care of Steve when he first appears, quickly develops a respectful relationship with Tracy, eventually becoming an honourary detective in Tracy’s precinct.
The Original DICK TRACY – Final Thoughts
I borrowed IDW’s THE COMPLETE CHESTER GOULD’S DICK TRACY DAILIES & SUNDAYS 1931–1933: VOLUME ONE from a friend of mine. The strips are excellent, if dated, and the supplemental material is a great addition to knowledge-hungry nerds like me. Volume One includes nearly 600 comic strips, but it also contains a great introduction by Max Allan Collins, who took over DICK TRACY writing duties when Gould retired at 77, as well as an interview that Gould gave to Collins and Matt Masterson.
Collins’s introduction provides some great contextual information for the creation of DICK TRACY, and the interview with Gould provides keen insights into Gould’s process and the struggle he endured in his journey to create one of the most influential comics characters of all time.
I have newfound respect for Gould and his legacy after reading this volume. And, unlike some other collections of Golden Age or pre-Golden Age material I’ve read, I’m actually considering buying Volume Two. After all, it’d be nice to meet a villain with a stranger name than “Steve.”