The Many Faces of DICK TRACY

From the very beginning, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy character was a hit. His style of rough justice and commitment to the law struck a nerve with the readers, and his popularity grew. It wasn’t long before Dick Tracy branched out from the Detroit Mirror and started appearing in newspapers all over America, as well as in novels, on the radio and in TV serials.

Even after nine decades Chester Gould’s tough, crime-fighting hero still has a large audience which explains why IDW Publishing is about to release its second comic series based on the character.

Dick Tracy October 21 1931
One of the first Dick Tracy Strips from October 21 1931

New Man On The Block

Originally given the title Plainclothes Tracy, Chester Gould’s creation started as a young, suave love-struck man but all of that changed when his finance, Tess, was kidnapped and her father was shot by local gangsters. To find Tess and avenge the death of her father, Tracy joined the plainclothes squad and so began his war on crime.

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In the early days Chester Gould concentrated the stories on mobsters and petty criminals, while creating a world of characters for Tracy to interact with. This soap opera element of the strip enhanced Tracy’s appeal, and readers felt that they experienced his life right there, alongside him.

The sense of justice and determination that Tracy showed in the first story was to become his hallmark characteristics. The extras in the cast helped to define this aspect of him; whether it was the young Pat Patton idolizing his mentor or Tess Trueheart watching Tracy drift away from her, engrossed in his obsession with the law.

In that first decade, Tracy was a lawman, tracking down criminals and putting them behind bars. He was center stage in the strip. He was the man to look up to. That would start to change over time.

Dick Tracy
The Voice of Dick Tracy (Not Bob Burlen)

The Sound of The Man

Dick Tracy’s popularity was such that it wasn’t long before the character branched out into other media. In 1934 the first Radio Play was broadcast and America got to hear their favourite detective speak for the first time.

Played initially by Bob Burlen, the producers of the show picked up on the hard-nosed, no-nonsense elements of Tracy’s character. Burlen played the part with an authoritative voice, booming from the speakers. His strong physical presence always dressed in smart suits was translated into a powerful voice. Just like the first years of the comic strip, it was clear who the star of the radio series was; Dick Tracy front and center.

Although fans couldn’t see him, Tracy’s radio presence was still extremely popular and ran for many years. Tracy himself was played by a number of different actors, all with the same bombastic flair.

serial art work
Dick Tracy Vs Crime Inc. Artwork

The Father Figure: Ralph Byrd

The natural progression from radio was to Television and film. Several actors played the part over the numerous serials and movies but Ralph Byrd was the first and made the part his own.

Byrd was slightly different from the earlier interpretations of the character. He had a gentler approach as if the sharp features had been chiseled away. The character was also more of a mentor to the younger characters and, more importantly, the younger viewers.

The first serial, simply called Dick Tracy, saw the detective pit his wits against The Spider Gang. Each episode featured a separate case, but they were all linked back to the Spider Gang. The serial was obviously popular and more followed; the best of which is Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. It was an exciting cliff-hanger serial and showed off Byrd’s best performance. The villain, a character called The Ghost, was able to turn invisible and his identity formed part of the mystery of the serial.

The Crime Inc. serial took the best elements of the comic strip at the time and turned them into compelling viewing.

comic strip art
Dick Tracy Fights Flattop. Reprinted Strip

Enter The Grotesques

Meanwhile, back in Chester Gould’s comic strip a new era was to dawn on Dick Tracy; an era that was creatively Gould’s greatest period.

Gould’s workmanship had continued to improve, partially through repetition and partially through necessity. The overall style of the strip was beginning to change. It started to look more modern, and the stark black and white contrasts were used to great effect in the panels. Gould also became known for producing expressive environments.

In 1941 Gould introduced a character that was to change the direction of the Dick Tracy strip. Up to this point, the melodrama of the early years and the run from one story slowly into the next was becoming predictable. Although there were some great characters, the format itself need to be shaken up if Dick Tracy was to continue. Enter Little Face Finny.

Although he wasn’t the most outrageous character to feature in the comic strip and his crimes weren’t spectacular in any way, he was the first of Gould’s grotesques; a character with fantastical features that usually represented the characteristics of the villain. Little Face was the template that so many of Dick Tracy’s most famous villains followed for the 10 years that followed.

And with the introduction of a new type of villain, Tracy himself had to undergo a change. In the 1940’s Tracy became an action hero. Often chasing down the villain’s over several months, all across America. He faced death on a regular basis, often being injured in the line of duty. There was still the soap opera element, but Tracy was evolving into a James Bond type character. Stronger, faster and much more deadly. The violence in the 1940’s increased and Tracy dished out his fair share. He was still a shining example of justice, but he was becoming as cold as some of the villain’s he faced.

The 1940s were about excitement and violence. Gould produced some of his finest work depicting this new, headstrong Tracy. The attention to detail over this period was second to none. Visually and narratively, the 1940s is where Dick Tracy shined brightest.

Dick Tracy
Kyle Baker’s outstanding take on Tracy’s Violent World

The Mouse And The Detective

Warren Beatty had his eye on Dick Tracy for years. As early as 1975, Beatty had been thinking about what he could do with the character but it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that he managed to get his hands on the rights. Working with the reluctant Disney Studio (reluctant to work with Beatty at least) the Dick Tracy movie was made; over budget and with a massive marketing campaign behind it.

It has received mixed reviews over the years but one thing can be agreed on: the movie has an outstanding visual flair. Beatty often stated he was creating a piece of artwork and in that respect he was right. The look of the film is spellbinding.

Beatty played Tracy, and it harkened back to the early radio interpretations of the character: gruff, hard-faced and separated from the world around him. His obsession for justice blinded him to everything else. Surprisingly, however, Beatty created an air of romanticism around the character. In the movie Breathless Mahoney, played exceptionally by Madonna, constantly flirts for the detective’s attention but he only ever has eyes for one woman, Tess Trueheart.

This relationship was built up in the comic books that were released as part of the marketing campaign. The three issue run, written by John Moore and drawn by Kyle Baker, adopts a similar artistic style to the movie making it very different from the weekly comic strip. However, the tone and pacing of the comics, Truehearts and Tommy guns, is magnificent. The visual style is beautiful to behold as it captures the essence of the world that the movie is set in. Dick Tracy is a character that is larger than life surrounded by a cast of caricatures. They are the best and worst of us stretched to breaking point before being visually interpreted in unsettlingly bright colors.

Whatever your feelings towards the movie, the tie in comics are a work of art and some of the best Dick Tracy comics released.

cover art
Cover For IDW Publishing Dick Tracy Forever #1

Reprints And New Takes

In 2006, 75 years after the first strip appeared in print, IDW Publishing began reprinting the comics, in chronological order and in glorious, hard backed books. Each book comes with several pages of additional information in the form of essay’s and interviews all relating to Dick Tracy.

One of the additional bonuses of IDW Publishing having the printing rights is that they can, after 12 years, begin publishing new comics based on the characters. At the end of last year, the first attempt called Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive was released. Written by Michael and Lee Allred with Art by Rich Tommaso and Laura Allred, it had a challenging style and take on the character which may not have been the best way to launch a new line of comics.

However, the second mini-series starts this week. Dick Tracy Forever is written and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming with colors by Taki Soma and letters by Shawn Lee. Just like Warren Beatty, Oeming has been planning his take on Dick Tracy for many years. A publication was in production nearly a decade ago before the project fell through. IDW has now given Oeming the chance to realize his vision.

A different take to the Dead or Alive miniseries, Dick Tracy Forever is fun and exciting. It is packed with dynamic artwork and the melodrama that initially made the comic strip so popular. Oeming understands the importance of the supporting cast and gives them character. The comic is split into three stories which are all short and sweet but extremely moreish. They also reflect on how the central character changed over time. It is as if Oeming has condensed the first decade of Tracy strips into a single issue. Dick Tracy changes subtly from obsessive detective to bordering action hero in three short stories ready for his future in issue two, the cover of which implies it is the era of the grotesques.

Whether re-reading the classic strips, indulging in new stories or watching one of the many live-action interpretations, the character of Dick Tracy resonates with the audience. Just like any other popular, long-running franchise, not every incarnation will be to everybody’s tastes, but the chances are there will be at least one version of the character that you will find exciting and intriguing.

Dick Tracy subtly changes over time, becoming more relevant to the new audiences that start to follow him. The supporting cast does the same, especially the villains who have changed from Al Capone type mobsters, through larger than life metaphors and on to modern, cyber-criminals.

Dick Tracy has endured and will continue to do so for many more years.

Aside from the many comics that can be picked up, I would recommend the following:

Any of The Complete Dick Tracy volumes published by IDW Publishing. If you are new to Dick Tracy, I would recommend any of the volumes containing material from the 1940s. These are arguably the best of Gould’s work and contain the most famous villains like The Brow, Flattop, Pruneface, etc.

The Dick Tracy Depot website has news and reviews on all things Tracy. It also has links to youtube channels where you can listen/watch some of the old Tracy shows.

Darryll Robson
Darryll Robson
Comic book reader, reviewer and critic. A student of Comics Studies and still patiently waiting for the day they announce 'Doctor Who on The Planet of the Apes'.