After 28 years drawing and/or writing Dick Tracy, Dick Locher is giving up stewardship of the iconic cops-and-robbers comic strip, which turns eighty next October 4. Born just two years before the cleaver-jawed sleuth, Locher, who has Parkinson’s, told Michael Cavna at the Washington Post ‘s Comic Riffs blog that it’s time to move on; he plans to do “normal things” with his family, to travel and to paint the American Southwest. Locher’s last Tracy will be published March 13, a Sunday. My adventure with Locher transpired in 1994, when I interviewed him and he talked about producing one of the most famous comic strips in the world. I thought this might be a suitable occasion to post the article that came out of that interview.
Tess Tracy née Trueheart filed for divorce from her ever-sleuthing husband Richard on February 7, 1994. All across the land, brouhaha broke out in the so-called news media: it was as if the law and order icon was being somehow defrocked, leaving laws in complete disarray—that is, dis-ordered. Dick Locher was then drawing Dick Tracy, and when I met him at the Popular Culture Convention in Chicago that April, the infamous divorce was still in process. I asked him if I could come and see him sometime to discuss this shattering development. It was several months later before we finally got together in his office in the Tribune Tower to which he resorted more-or-less daily to produce an editorial cartoon for the Chicago Tribune and its syndicate. By then, Tracy and Tess were reconciled, but the scandal was still fresh enough to justify an interview.
In the summer of 1994, Pulitzer-winner Locher had been editooning for over twenty years, longer than he’d drawn Tracy. And Tracy wasn’t his only experience at syndicated stripping: for a short while in the late 1940s after he got out of art school (and before enlisting in the Air Force, where he was a test pilot), Locher had assisted Rick Yager on Buck Rogers. And just before he inherited Dick Tracy, he had been working with Jeff MacNelly, the other Tribune editorial cartoonist, on a topical commentary strip called Clout St, which he left soon after starting work on Tracy.
When I arrived in his office, Locher was at his drawing board, finishing that day’s editorial cartoon. He was correcting a misspelled word and muttering: “Was it Lincoln? No, it was Mark Twain who said it’s a damn poor individual who can’t spell a word more than one way.” He finished fixing the error and we talked about Dick Tracy’s divorce. Afterwards, I wrote it up in an article for Jud Hurd’s Cartoonist PROfiles; here’s the article (with a few minor emendations I made for clarification or to heighten the drama).
It did not start as a gimmick to hype attention to the strip. It started with a fact. A fact and a feeling.
“We hoped to add another dimension to the character,” Locher told me.
“It all started with a statistic,” he continued: “In New York City, the divorce rate among policemen is 85%. That’s extremely high. And Tracy is a cop. He had taken his job for granted for so long that he didn’t think much about Tess. So we thought, Let’s show another side to Tracy that nobody’s ever seen before: the fact that he can be hurt, emotionally. For the first time, he won’t be in control.”
So early in 1994, Dick Tracy’s wife of 44 years served him with divorce papers because she felt neglected by the 24-hour-a-day cop who was her husband.
The idea had implications for story as well as character, Locher said: “If Tracy is thinking about his wife, will it jeopardize his job? Will criminals be able to take advantage of him? That’s something Chet Gould had never done in Dick Tracy. Nobody’s done it. Criminals taking advantage of Tracy—because his guard was down. So that was the reason for it. We never thought it would get any media play at all. We thought a few old die-hards will call in and say, ‘Are you nuts? Are you crazy? What are you doing to Tracy?’ But it didn’t work out that way.
“USA Today picked it up first and put it on the front page—What? Tracy Divorced? And from then on, it just grew. Newsweek picked it up. We ended up on sixteen tv stations and five networks. Katie Couric taped an interview for the Today show right here in this room,” Locher said, gesturing around us in his office.
Dan Rather phoned. “I was looking up at that clock,” Locher recalled. “It was after five o’clock. I never like to answer the phone after five o’clock: it’s never good news,” he said with a smile. “It rang and rang, so I picked it up, and it was Dan Rather. He said, ‘I want to be the first to know when the reconciliation happens.’”
Canny Rather, I thought: he said “when” not “if.”
Some reader reaction was surprising.
“The old die-hards thought we were out of our minds,” Locher said. “Tracy getting a divorce? And Tess? Tess Trueheart? Tess Trueheart is Tess Trueheart—the name says it all. You don’t mess with that. Well, we did. And we caught hell from some people. But the pluses outweighed the minuses.
“Fifty-three percent of Tribune readers are female,” he continued. “And we got a lot of really positive response from them. Many of the women blamed a lot of it on Tess. They said, ‘Why doesn’t she understand what he’s going through?’ And that was a surprise. One caller on the phone said, ‘It’s about time he divorced that old bag. She’s nothing but an anchor around his neck,’” Locher laughed.
“One of the biggest reactions we got was when Tess threw a book at Tracy. The spousal abuse people—oh, Christ: they were outraged. There were editorials in newspapers about spousal abuse: they were looking for an excuse to write about spousal abuse, and they found the excuse in Dick Tracy.”
Locher believed the divorce case had its roots in reality, not publicity, but when his writing partner, Mike Kilian, was interviewed about it, he admitted the whole thing had been concocted to drum up excitement and interest in the strip. Maybe for Kilian that was indeed the reason. But Locher had been living with Tracy longer and thought he knew the character and the ambiance well enough to believe a divorce could happen.
Locher inherited the drawing job on Dick Tracy when Rick Fletcher died in early 1983. Fletcher and Max Allan Collins had been doing the strip after it creator, Chester Gould, retired in 1977. Locher continued with Collins until 1993, when the syndicate elbowed Collins out of the picture and hired Mike Kilian to do the writing. Kilian was a journalist by day, and by night, the author of a series of mystery novels set during the Civil War.
Locher’s connection with Dick Tracy goes back to 1957, when he began a four-and-a-half year stint as Gould’s assistant. When they parted in 1961, Locher set up his own art agency in Chicago, which he operated until 1972, when he was hired by the Chicago Tribune as editorial cartoonist to replace the retiring Joe Parrish. At the time, Locher had no experience at editorial cartooning, but Gould recommended him, and he got the job on the basis of Gould’s say-so and a half-dozen sample cartoons he’d produced overnight to show at his interview.
He and Gould used to meet for lunch about once a month. “Those weren’t short lunches,” Locher recalled with a grin. “We’d get together at noon and probably break up around 3:30 or 4 o’clock. We talked about the good old days, and what fun we had when I was working with him, and all the things we used to do.”
One of those things Locher delighted in recounting was his adventure with Gould’s machine gun.
“We had to draw a machine gun one day,” he said, after ascertaining that I’d never heard the story. “Gould said to me, ‘Up on the top shelf there in the closet there’s a German paratrooper’s gun, and you might want to use it as a model.’ This was a Monday evening, just as we were getting ready to leave the office. He said, ‘Why don’t you wrap it up and take it home with you so that you can put it in Tracy?’
“I climbed up and there was the gun, with clip but no bullets, and a police department tag on it. I imagined that he had gotten it from the police department to use as reference, long before I started to work with him. I wrapped it up in brown paper, got my briefcase full of drawings, and said, ‘Goodbye,’commenting that I’d see Gould on Wednesday out at his place in Woodstock [where Gould worked every day of the week except Mondays and Tuesdays, when he went to his office on the 26th floor of the Tribune Tower].
“I left the building and was walking toward Union Station,” Locher went on, “and when I was about a hundred feet out of the door, I heard someone say, ‘Sir!’ Out of the corner of my eye I could see a police car nearby. I kept right on walking, and I knew these eyes were staring at the back of my head, but I kept going. Then I heard, ‘Sir, I’m talking to you.’
“All of a sudden, I was grabbed by the arm—gently but rather firmly—and a voice said, ‘Have you got a minute?’ I said I was rushing to catch my train [to Naperville, where he lived], and the voice said, ‘This won’t take but a minute—would you step over to the police car.’
“The officer said, ‘What’ve you got in the package?’
“‘Leftover pizza,’ says I.
“‘Would you show it to us?’
“I thought this was ridiculous and that I ought to tell him the truth and take whatever was coming to me. I unwrapped the package.
“‘Sir,’ said the cop, ‘you know you can’t carry a machine gun around on the streets in Chicago—that’s totally against the law, and we’re going to have to take you downtown.’
“I said, ‘Let me explain.’ And then both officers started laughing. Gould had phoned the police department and told them I was coming out with this machine gun in a brown paper bag.”
LOCHER CONTINUES to do five editorial cartoons a week as well as Dick Tracy. He arises at 6:30 a.m. and works on his editorial cartoon until noon, aiming at a one o’clock deadline; then he does the strip in the afternoon, working with his assistant. I asked at the time if he would tell me the name of the assistant, but he said, “No—it’s too early.”
The production of the strip is a genuine team effort by Locher and Kilian.
“We talk twice a week,” Locher said. “On Mondays, we do story for the week. Write dialogue and so forth. And on Thursday or Friday, we’ll talk again and say, ‘How did we do? How’s it look?’
“Before that, though, we pick a theme,” he said. “We have a general theme. We get together about three or four times a year, face to face. I go to Washington, or he comes here. And we sit down and write out two or three themes that we’d like to pursue. We don’t do anything else. We each go our own way. And then we stack up stories behind the themes— intricacies, sidetracks. We compile folders, story ideas, for each theme. And then when we get together, we’ll pick a theme. And then, we’ll start writing.”
What does he mean by “theme,” I wanted to know.
“Oh, revenge,” Locher said. “Hardcase Harry, who was getting out of prison and said he wanted to get Tracy. We just picked the word revenge to start with. Then we pick a character. Then we develop a story.
“Recently, we had clues as the theme,” he said. “Let’s have Tracy find clues and put together the solution to the crime. We did that with Pig E. Bank. The clues were on the currency. The clues on the currency evolved after we had settled on just the notion of clues. Another thing might be to bring back an old character. Here’s the grandson of a famous crook. People love that.” Some months later at another meeting, Locher and Kilian compare the notes they’ve assembled on each of the theme possibilities.
“We pull out the folders,” Locher said, “and we sit there in a nice restaurant from one o’clock until four, and we take out little pieces of paper, we add new ones until we have a story. Kind of a funny way to develop a story, but it works. Writing is the key. And after that is the character. It’s not easy. If it were easy, everybody’d be doing it.”
“So you dope out a story,” I said, summarizing, “you know that there are certain incidents that will take place, who the characters are, maybe even how it’s going to end—and then, once a week, you get together and dialogue the strips?”
“Right. On Mondays. On the phone.” he said. “When I worked for Gould, Monday was nothing but story. We never put pen to paper on Monday to draw. We wrote the whole week’s strips on Mondays. Get Tracy into trouble. Then try to figure out how to get him out. Mike, being an author, had never worked this way, but he seems to like it. Find out what’s the worst thing that could ever happen to Tracy, and then work backwards.”