This week sees the latest release of IDW’s continuing reprint of The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. This book contains the daily and Sunday strips from mid 1974 to early 1976 and feature a number of new villains and regular cast members.
This is volume 28 of the run and there is only one more book to go until the collection is complete. These have been a beautifully produced range of books and this volume is no different. They all are sturdy hardbacks with a simply designed, yet very effective and fitting, dust jackets. Each has a number of essays relating to the content and the larger Dick Tracy franchise. As a whole they are worthwhile books for any collector or fan of Chester Gould’s detective.
However, with arguably the best years of Gould’s tenure behind him, how do the mid-seventies strips compare with the earlier stories? After four decades of continuous storytelling, is Gould still managing to engage fans in a compelling way?
Transition To The 1970s
Dick Tracy had started as a street level crime fighter, convinced to join the police force to avenge the brutal killing of Tess’ father. As the years passed, Gould drew on real life criminals and their well documented behaviours as influences for his own detective stories. Throughout the 1940s and into the 50s the villains were grotesque caricatures of the criminals real newspapers often reported about.
Then the 1960’s happened and Gould’s guiding influences started to change. With a national obsession on space travel and the rise of Science Fiction across multiple mediums, Gould took his firmly rooted detective to the moon. There are as many opinions on this move as there are extras in the comic strip. It’s enough to say that opinion was divided.
In 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon and everything changed again for Gould. The images coming back massively contradicted the world that Dick Tracy was living in and Gould brought his hero home, returning him to the streets that had made him famous and popular.
Unfortunately the transition from Space Age Tracy back to his roots came with a number of hang-overs. The Moon Valley characters were slowly moved to the background but a large amount of the future tech hung around. Dick Tracy had always been ahead of the curve when it came to technology, take the famous two-way wrist radio as an example, but some of the creations were just a step too far. The comic strip was best as a grounded, crime fighting action story and some of the technical gadgetry simply got in the way. This is illustrated perfectly in IDW’s recent Dick Tracy: Forever mini series where the final issue, set in the future, is the weakest of the run.
Opening Ups and Downs
Volume 28 boasts on it’s cover two exciting new villains: Brains and Lipsy. The former, and his story, perfectly sums up this era for Gould, containing as it does, the best and worst of his work.
On the one hand you have a wonderful introduction to the villain as a backstory in another adventure. As Gould wraps up one story with the matter-of-factly named Mr and Mrs Fencer, he slips the mobster Bolton Gilz, aka The Brain, into the mix. Fencer was stealing from the mob and Brain wanted him out of the way. The murder attempts bring the mob into Tracy’s line of fire and as one villain is dispatched the detective’s focus shifts. This is a prime example of Gould’s talent for running one story seamlessly into another. This is one of those elements that make the earlier strips so addictive: it’s often difficult to find a good place to stop.
With Fencer and Brain the transition is a clever one but the characters aren’t as interchangeable. The Brain proves to be a lacklustre follow up to the often funny and ultimately tragic Fencer. The ineffectual crook is torn apart by the death of his wife and destruction of his home. Gould shows how this pushes him over the edge into a fit of despair. Unfortunately the lack of sympathy that Gould then shows the character, although in keeping with the hard-line policing, does not play out as well today. The goading of the cities inhabitants, encouraging Fencer to commit suicide is unnerving to read especially as the way it is written gives the impression that this is also Gould’s view.
Also within this opening story there are a number of inconsistencies in the art and the narrative. Plots holes become apparent when binge reading the strips as presented in the collection. These plot holes may have been easier to overlook reading them day to day. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the artwork where Gould’s attention to detail isn’t as finely tuned as it once was. There are some strips that aren’t pretty, especially with his depiction of women.
On the flip side, there are some outstanding strips within the story. The destruction of Fencers house is a tragic scene and when Mrs Fencer’s body is found in a tree, it is reminiscent of those earlier years where Gould excelled in the horrific and grotesque.
Frustrations And Violence
The Brain’s tale turns quickly into a straight forward track and chase story that many of Tracy’s adventures follow. It has its highs and lows but lacks the characters that other stories contain. The henchmen and Brain’s girlfriend Toots don’t amount to much more than nondescript extra’s there to fill space. Even Brain doesn’t really come far out of his shell with no explanation about his unique hat and nickname; he isn’t after all particularly clever.
The character moments in this story, and the ones that follow, come mostly from Tracy’s supporting cast. Characters like Liz and Groovy get some magnificent sub-plots with near death experiences and broken relationships.
What is more apparent in these strips is Gould’s own voice coming through, effecting the stories and the characters. Tracy becomes a mouthpiece for Gould’s own beliefs and frustrations towards society at large. In one scene Tracy steps on his soap box to express anger at the parole system. While looking directly at the reader Tracy exclaims:
“Are parole boards like this, motivated by sociological stupidity, bribery, or just an inferiority complex that puts them on a level with the murderer?”
Gould doesn’t even try to hide outbursts like this and they are clearly his views expressed through his art. There is even a short story in this volume that addresses the violence that the police force uses; the outcome isn’t favourable to those in society complaining. The Tracy of the 70s has no time for bureaucracy and almost revels in the violence. With the current state of the world, these Tracy strips are particularly jarring. There is plenty of great artwork and engaging narratives in this volume, however the delight of police violence and the glee at criminals suffering is a much harder pill to swallow.
Endings In Sight
After 40 plus years of non stop scripting anyone could be forgiven a few missteps along the way. As this 28th volume of Dick Tracy’s adventures unfolds it is packed with new crimes, such as Obscene Phone Calls, old family dramas, drug runners, and an expected amount of violence. The social commentary is more blatant and can be off putting in places, especially if you disagree with Gould’s politics.
It is also hard to avoid the character’s turn to religion and prayer in times of need. Liz prays at the bedside of Groovy when he is fighting for his life and there is even a scene where Tracy leads a group prayer before completing a test to prove the innocence or guilt of Vera, Sparkle’s husband. This religious aspect will delight or grate depending on your personal beliefs, although the obviousness within the scenes makes them difficult to avoid.
By this stage in the collection, most readers will be used to the ups and downs of Gould’s writing and art. There are more noticeable errors in this collection than earlier volumes but not to the detriment of the whole. There is enough great work on these 300 pages to please any fan, although not the best starting point for someone trying to get into the Tracy-verse.
The usual collection of essays are as exciting and informative as ever. At this point those elements are the highlight of the books, giving the readers something new and insightful to read. With only one more volume to go in the series, Dick Tracy fans will want to get as much mileage out of this one as possible because all too soon there will be no more to look forward to.