Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Dick Tracy is a newspaper comic strip created in 1931 by Chester Gould and distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate. Dick Tracy is a hard hitting, fast shooting, and supremely intelligent police detective who matched wits with a variety of often grotesquely ugly villains. Gould wrote and drew the strip until 1977.
Gould introduced a raw violence to comic strips, reflecting the violence of 1930s Chicago. But Gould also did his best to keep up with the latest in crime fighting techniques and while Tracy often ends a case in a shootout, he uses forensic science, advanced gadgetry, and plain hard thinking to track the bad guy down. It has been suggested that this comic strip was the first example of the police procedural mystery story. Others noted that actual mystery plots were relatively rare in the stories since the comic strip format is a difficult one for that kind of plot. The real focus, they argue, is the chase with the criminal seen committing the crime and Dick Tracy figuring out the case and relentlessly pursuing the criminal who becomes increasingly desperate as the detective closes in.
The Gould villains are the strongest appeal of the story. Tracy’s world is decidedly black and white where the bad guys are sometimes so evil, their very flesh is deformed to announce their sins to the world. The evil sometimes is raw and coarse like the criminally insane Selbert Depool (that’s "looped", spelled backwards, a typical Gould move) or the suave, yet arrogant Shoulders, who can’t help thinking that all women like him, or even bordering on genius like the Nazi spy Pruneface who is not only a machine design engineer but also dabbles with a chemical nerve gas. Tracy tackles all sorts of crime, too. Bicycle thieves, con men, pickpockets, gangsters, saboteurs, kidnappers, hit men, arsonists, junkies and, of course, twisted freaks hellbent on revenge. In an odd slip, one of his villains, Oodles, a jolly sort with a ballooning mop of black hair that hid his face, became too attractive. Gould had him hide out for a few weeks, lose over a hundred pounds, clip his hair and come out an unattractive, emaciated bum.
However, by far the most popular character was Flattop, a freelance hitman who had a large head that was as flat as an aircraft carrier's flight deck. He was hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy and he came within a hairsbreath of accomplishing that before deciding to blackmail his employers for more money before he did the deed. This proved to be a fatal mistake since it gave Tracy time to signal for help and he eventually defeated his assassin in a spectacular fight scene even as the police were storming the hideout. When Flattop was eventually killed, fans went into public mourning.
Reflecting some of the era that also produced film noir, Gould tapped into the existential despair of the criminals as small crimes lead to bigger ones and plans slip out of control and events happen sometimes for no reason at all, but because life can be unpredictable and cruel. Treachery is everywhere as henchmen are killed ruthlessly by their bosses and bosses are betrayed by jilted girlfriends and good people in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down.
Li'l Abner creator Al Capp had a great deal of fun with some of the oddities and extremes of Tracy, which Capp parodied within Li'l Abner as "Fearless Fosdick". In "Tracy," bullets invariably went clean through their human targets and exited, shown in mid-air with a dotted line tracing their trajectory. In "Fosdick," large circular pieces of the hero were removed by any projectile, often leaving him looking like Swiss cheese.
Gould changed Tracy with the times, sometimes with mixed results as with the introduction of science fiction elements such as the two-way wrist radio which proved to be the first of a variety of personal wrist communicators and other futuristic gadgets provided by the eccentric industrialist, Diet Smith. This eventually led to what Gould thought was the logical conclusion in the 1960s of the Space Coupe, a spacecraft with a magnetic propulsion system. This led to a much-derided science fiction period that had Tracy and friends having adventures on moon and meeting Moon Maid and her race in 1964. This in turn led to an eventual sharing of technologies and the villains had to be even more exaggerated in power to challenge Tracy in an escalating series of stories that completely abandoned the urban crime drama roots of the strip. The period ended with the Apollo 11 moon landing, which forced Gould to return to more earthbound stories. In the 1970s, Gould tried to modernize Tracy by giving him a longer hair style and mustache, adding a supposedly "hip" sidekick, Groovy Grove, a reformed former villian who had a literal deep groove within his person which could be used to hide objects, but was otherwise of somewhat conventional appearance, and some lesser low-brow criminals.
More successful was the substory of the Plenty family, a family of goofy redneck yokels headed by former villains, B. O. and Gravel Gertie, who provided a humorous counterpoint to Tracy's adventures. Their daughter, Sparkle Plenty, gave the strip first a baby character, and later a pretty young adolescent girl character, since, unlike most comic strip children, she was allowed to grow up. Another successful addition was of Lizz the Policewoman as one of Tracy's sidekicks. She proved be to an active and formidable female character in a manner that was groundbreaking for comic strips of that era.
However, the later stories were often shackled with a stubborn grousing condemnation of the rights of the accused which often involved Tracy being frustrated by criminals because of legal technicalities and prosleytizing about it. The fact that newspaper comics were sharply reduced in space for each feature during that time also negatively affected Gould's storytelling abilities as he failed to adjust.
Gould retired from the strip in 1977 and Dick Tracy was taken over by Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher. Collins reversed some of Gould’s sci-fi tinkers by having the character Moon Maid killed off in 1978 and generally taking a less cynical and simplistic take on the justice system . Artist Rick Fletcher was replaced by Dick Locher, who eventually took over the scripting duties as well.
Other media depiction
Dick Tracy’s success spread to radio and to movie serials. Ralph Byrd first played Dick Tracy in a movie by the same name in 1937. Byrd’s career continued through a series of B-grade Tracy movies, perhaps the best of which is Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome , with the titled villain played by Boris Karloff.
The strip had also limited exposure on television with a short-lived live action series and two animated ones. Mel Blanc voiced several characters, including a junior detective naned Go-Go Gomez, which was essentially a human version of his famous fast mouse Speedy Gonzales. Tracy would simply sit back and let Gomez and his other subordinate flatfoots mop up crooks like Pruneface, Itchy, Mumbles, Flattop, Cheater Gunsmoke, B.B. Eyes, and Tracy's other idiosyncratic villains. The show has not been seen in years because of its slightly racist undertones and use of ethnic stereotypes and accents. The second one was a feature in Archie's TV Funnies which adhered more closely to the comic strip. There was also an unsuccessful television pilot from the producers of the live action Batman television series.
Warren Beatty revived some interest in Dick Tracy with his movie version in 1990. Beatty was after a four-color universe effect, with clothes in bright primary colors but the movie was slightly overwhelmed by the casting which included Madonna. Madonna's soundtrack album I'm Breathless: Music From And Inspired by Dick Tracy spawned two top 10 hits including "Vogue" and "Hanky Panky". There were also several other unreleased Madonna songs that were recorded for the film but not used at all.
In August of 1990, Bandai America, Inc. made Dick Tracy into an NES game based off the Dick Tracy movie. It was also released in 1991 on the Game Boy.
Although the comic strip's public profile has diminished since the Beatty film, it is still run in several newspapers and is popular enough that a new upcoming animated television series is in the works. Apart from that, it is a common allusion in North America for unusual-looking criminals often to be described as resembling the strip's grotesque villains, while the lead character's wrist communicator is a typical example used when the possibility of an actual communication device being developed along the lines of something from science fiction is raised.
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