Happy 75th Birthday, Dick Tracy

Featured Article, Odd Jobs, People
on October 1, 2006

Dick Tracy, the stern, upright, big-city police detective in the bright yellow fedora who snagged some of the most sinister criminals known in the comic-strip world, turns 75 years old this week.

But bad guys beware: Age hasn’t slowed him down. In fact, the eternally vigorous crime buster continues to thrill a new generation of fans—and chase down an ever-growing gaggle of crooks—in 52 newspapers across the nation, as well as many others overseas.

Tracy first appeared during a time when gangsters’ violent shootouts made real-life headlines and big-city police departments became tarnished by corruption. “Al Capone in Chicago owned the entire police department,” says New York Daily News editor Jay Maeder, who’s also a Dick Tracy historian. “Tracy was the guy who couldn’t be bought. He was incorruptible. All through the 1930s, he was a huge hero.”

Created by the late cartoonist Chester Gould, Dick Tracy debuted in 1931 in the Detroit Mirror and was carried by more than 700 other papers within five years. Readers fell in love with this tough, tenacious character who became a police officer at age 34 after witnessing armed robbers murder the father of his beloved fiancée, Tess Truehart, who then patiently waited 18 years for a wedding while Tracy pursued his passion for crime-fighting. After all, there could be no true happily-ever-after as long as demons such as Pruneface, a disfigured Nazi agent, and Mumbles, a mush-mouthed con man, roamed the streets.

Tracy’s popularity grew during the next decade, when he emerged as a mainstay in radio and film as well, both in his own shows and as a reference in others. “On the radio, Jack Benny and all of these programs would always insert, ‘Who do you think you are—Dick Tracy?’” recalls Gould’s daughter, Jean Gould O’Connell, 79, of Geneva, Ill., who is completing a book about her father for release early next year. “Dick Tracy came up all the time.” Tracy appeared on television in the early 1960s in The Adventures of Dick Tracy, an animated series featuring the voices of Everett Sloan, Paul Frees and Mel Blanc. He was depicted on the silver screen in 1990, when Warren Beatty portrayed him in a movie.

“The original Tracy was an earnest caricature of American manhood facing hard times and legions of bad guys,” says Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art. “For some, he still is.”

In some ways, the world that Tracy patrols today is much different than the one featured in the Depression-inspired panels that launched the detective into legend. Corporate crimes and international espionage influence today’s Dick Tracy artist and writer, Dick Locher, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who took over the strip after Gould retired in 1977. Locher collaborated on Dick Tracy initially with journalist and crime novelist Mike Killian, who died in 2005.

Locher, 77, who lives in Napierville, Ill., says his goal is to create a story that people want to read—and return to—each day. “I like something you don’t give away right away,” he says. “We pick a theme. It might even have a chase, it might have romance or spying, phone taps, theft or endangerment, like Tracy hanging from the top of the Sears Tower, things like that that would keep your interest.”

The topic for Tracy’s Oct. 4 birthday was easy: “We have a whole panel just saying ‘Happy Birthday,” Locher says. Also in honor of the anniversary, Classic Media is releasing a collector’s edition DVD set that includes episodes from the 1960s animated series.

“Dick Tracy remains appealing to today’s population because he represents the timeless values of justice, law and order, and honesty, but not in a way that is too good to be believable,” says Steve Tippie of Chicago’s Tribune Media Services, which syndicates the Dick Tracy strip. “I think his hard-nosed conviction—that it is the forces of the law that stand between the public and the criminals who threaten them—resonated with the public in the era of Al Capone, and still resonates in the era of Al Qaeda.”

From 1920 until 1931, cartoonist Gould couldn’t sell any of his 60 ideas for a humorous comic strip. One evening after dinner at home in Woodstock, Ill., as he was reading the newspaper, the headline “Another Gangster Killing” shifted his thoughts to a serious strip. Crime was rampant in Chicago. If police couldn’t catch the crooks, Gould would create a character that could. Dick Tracy—originally called Plainclothes Tracy—was born, modeled after Gould’s childhood hero, Sherlock Holmes.

“He asked himself, ‘What would a Sherlock Holmes look like in present day?’ Well, he wouldn’t wear a deerslayer hat; he would wear a fedora and trench coat,” O’Connell says. “He gave him a sharp nose for ‘tracing’ clues—that is where the name Tracy came from. He gave him a strong chin for strength. Dick Tracy stood for everything my father stood for: truth and honesty. And the fact that crime does not pay was the major reason for Dick Tracy.”

Perhaps Gould, who died in 1985, also looked in the mirror for inspiration. “My dad was Dick Tracy,” O’Connell says. “He could be so gentle and loving, and he could be so strong; not like Hercules, but strong when he needed to use strength. He had everything a human being needed.”

Tracy is indeed human—not a superhero, like other comic book crime-fighters such as Superman—so he always had to rely on his smarts and persistence to catch the crooks. “He also used the latest police procedures and technology to battle crime,” says Jim Johnson, director of the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum in Woodstock, Ill. “Chester Gould consulted and even had staff assistance of police officers to make sure everything Tracy did was in accordance with appropriate police procedures and technology.”

Gould kept Tracy on the cutting edge of technology, introducing futuristic devices in his strip that later became reality. Tracy introduced his crook-finding “electronic telephone number pickup” in 1954; the rest of us didn’t get Caller ID until years after its 1982 patent. Tracy went to the moon in 1962, seven years before the first Apollo moon landing, and his ever useful “two-way wrist radio” preceded such later innovations as cellular phones and pocket-size computers.

But gadget-savvy Gould was first and foremost a storyteller who mastered the art of continuity, an idea that was new to comic strips at the time. Readers couldn’t wait to get the next day’s edition to see how Tracy was going to escape his latest predicament, whether he had been shot, stabbed or frozen, or what evil deeds those despicable crooks were going to do next.

“Gould made the villains intentionally grotesque because he didn’t feel that crime or criminals were beautiful, with a few exceptions, like Breathless Mahoney,” Johnson says. “But generally they were characters like The Brow or Pruneface or Flattop. They were ugly as crime is ugly.”

Locher is committed to maintaining Gould’s integrity in today’s strip, so while Tracy’s crime-fighting technology has evolved, it still is driven by vivid characters and the philosophy that crime doesn’t pay, whether it’s in corporate high-rises or seedy back alleys.

“Chester Gould said if we don’t obey laws, we are in big trouble, and I wholeheartedly agree,” Locher says. “The laws are there for a reason, and that’s the backbone of Dick Tracy.”