Dick Tracy: A Durable Hero The Live Version Of "Dick Tracy\" Reaches Movie Screens Today, But The Character Is No Dick Without Dossier; He's Been Part Of The American Psyche For More Than Half A Century. In His New Book, \"dick Tracy, The Official Biography," Author Jay Maeder Chronicled The Life Of The Comic Strip.

Posted: June 15, 1990

It was 1931, and thugs roamed the streets unchecked. Every pol was plainly

scum. Every judge was bought and sold like a can of tomatoes. Gang lords ran the cities and had a good hoot about it.

And a citizen could get indignant sometimes.

"I came from Oklahoma," the cartoonist Chester Gould would remember many years later. "Justice was quick and severe when they caught a red-handed culprit. . . . I would read in the paper about a continuance and another continuance, and then the judge finds a flaw in the indictment or something. I used to say to myself, 'They know this fellow's a crook. They know that he did this. They know that he is dangerous. Why don't they just take him out and shoot him?' "

One night Gould angrily sat down and started to draw an honest policeman - brave, incorruptible, pledged to rub out crime wherever it rattled, sworn to make the world clean again, a relentless, square-jawed, crime-stopping instrument.

His name was Plainclothes Tracy.

When he finally appeared in print in the nation's funny papers on Monday, Oct. 12, 1931, Gould's plainclothesman had been renamed Dick Tracy, and from virtually the first minute he was charging into a clamorous collection of goons, torpedoes and sleek gang bosses. In a world fed up, Dick Tracy was an instant sensation.

Here at last was a hero for the age, a man who was going to stand up against the rats of the land, jaw thrust forward, guns blazing. The strip was defined by fast-action story lines, arrestingly stylized artwork that was both super-realistic and weirdly cartoonish, a famous rogues' gallery of villains, an unrelievedly grim Calvinist conscience - and always, always, the pathological mayhem.

Chester Gould did not technically invent violence in the funny papers, but he pretty well cornered the market early on. Dick Tracy was a dark and perverse and vicious thing, sensationally full of blood-splashed cruelty from its first week: There has never been another newspaper strip so full of the batterings, shootings, knifings, drownings, torchings, crushings, gurglings, gaspings, shriekings, pleadings and bleatings that Gould served up as often as he possibly could.

Tracy himself was regularly starved, speared, poisoned, frozen, blown up, buried alive, thrown to bulls, abandoned in wells, entombed in wax, suffocated, boiled, bludgeoned, blinded, electrocuted, dragged behind cars, and hung out to dry.

The strip ran in hundreds of newspapers, and Tracy enjoyed a successful crossover to radio, movies and television. The theme: Crime didn't pay, criminals

couldn't win.

For decades, America's schoolyards were full of lads inspecting clues with their Dick Tracy detective kits, but scoutmasters and PTA members were forever mewling at the strip's unwholesomeness. Gould's standard riff to soothe them: The criminal impulse was an ugly thing, and to soften the ugliness was to be dishonest with one's children. The critics scratched their heads; sometimes they even changed their minds and presented Gould with awards.

Later in the 1930s, after repeal had largely put the old Prohibition gangsters out of business, maverick interstate bandit gangs were suddenly sticking up banks, and Tracy was named a G-Man. He battled the John Dillingerlike Boris Arson. He battled Cutie Diamond, Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, that bunch. He shot it out with Maw Famon and her thug boys, plainly modeled after Ma Barker and her brood.

Ultimately, the strip became dominated by Chester Gould's legendary Grotesques, a memorable gallery of deformed and disfigured misfits possessed of visages and tics as repulsive as their rotten criminal souls - Flattop, Prune Face, Little Face, Flyface, B-B Eyes, Shaky, Oodles, Spots, The Brow, The Blank, and dozens more through the '40s and '50s and into the early '60s - spellbindingly awful creatures.

On the other hand, always strewn through the strip were decent, honest, good-souled people who happened to be maimed or misshapen. There were aberrations in this life. Some people didn't have jaws. Some people rolled around on skateboards.

In the early '60s, the Dick Tracy strip as anyone had known it effectively ceased to exist. All at once, Tracy threw himself into the Space Age and became interplanetary in his concerns; suddenly he was flying through the void in a cockamamie machine called the Space Coupe, fighting crime on the moon. An entire generation of readers grew up knowing Dick Tracy only as a space cop.

Man walked at last upon the moon in July 1969. The elderly Gould, who had spent the decade imagining himself to be a modern Jules Verne, at last gave up the game. The great detective returned to Earth, and the moon period came to an end.

Meanwhile, Gould had been growing cranky on the subject of what he viewed as modern criminal-coddling, and through the '70s in his strip, the cops would catch some crook and then have to let him go and would sit around grumbling about Supreme Court decisions. Dialogue was regularly reduced to platitudes: ''Law-abiding citizens have rights, too!" "Court decisions won't help you when you're being mugged!"

So Gould went into the twilight, in collision with a modern world he had never bargained for.

He had shepherded the Great American Crime Stopper through a celebrated career in the nation's popular entertainments, and now he saw his life's work the subject of jeers in a time when geometrically increasing numbers of citizens were learning to equate domestic law and order with the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and international supremacy with My Lai. It wasn't quite the same as taking out Baby Face Nelson.

By the mid-'70s, Dick Tracy had lost hundreds of subscriber newspapers (but never The Inquirer, which has carried the comic for generations and continues to do so). On Christmas Day 1977, Gould's final strip appeared in print, and he retired. He was an old man. His back was hurting him. He couldn't sit at the drawing board anymore. He died at 84 in May, 1985.

Gould's successors, writer Max Allan Collins and artist Rick Fletcher (who died in 1983 and was himself succeeded by Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist Dick Locher), have been pointedly respectful of the great Tracy traditions, and the strip is currently widely circulated.

Under their stewardship, many classic Gould characters have been resurrected - the Shakespeare-quoting ham actor Vitamin Flintheart, the G-Man Jim Trailer, the villains Big Boy, Haf-And-Haf and Mumbles - while at the same time the feature has kept itself timely.

The old Two-Way Wrist Radio has become a Two-Way Wrist Computer.

Modern villains have included Wall Street swindlers, environmental terrorists and computer pirates.

With today's release of the first Dick Tracy film since 1947, fanfare has accrued once more. Many of the classic Gould stories are being reprinted. The current Tracy strip is actively selling in new markets. Store shelves are full of Dick Tracy toys and other merchandise.

Nearly 60 years after Chester Gould created Plainclothes Tracy, another generation is coming to know the Great American Detective, and the aura of popularity surrounding the character glows once again.

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