“What did you do as Gould’s assistant?” I asked, shifting the subject somewhat..
“I did all the backgrounds,” Locher said, “—and the machine guns,” he chuckled. “In the last year I was with him, his wife Edna came to him and said, ‘We’re going to Hawaii.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He never took a vacation. Never. He’d take a day off, but no vacation. She says, ‘We’re going to Hawaii.’ And he says, ‘No, we’re not.’ And she says, ‘Dick’s going to put in the figures for you.’ And he said, ‘No, he isn’t,’” Locher laughed.
“He never let anyone touch the figures,” he went on. “But she insisted. So I did the figures while he was gone for a week. And he came back, and he looked at ’em like that [over his glasses], and he took a razor blade and scraped a lot of them off and said, ‘Naw, that’s not right.’
“But he didn’t scrape all of them off,” Locher continued jubilantly. “He liked some of my drawings. And he let me do more and more. His brother did all the lettering. Ray. And I did all the backgrounds and helped with story.”
Gould used a Locher story idea once—the one in which Tracy gets stranded in a canyon on a desert island with Inspector Whitehall from Scotland Yard. The canyon had sheer rock walls, impossible to climb out of. The story originated in the usual fashion:
“Gould said, ‘Let’s put Tracy’s tail in jeopardy,’” Locher explained. “That was his method, and I give him credit for it. So anyway, I said, ‘Let’s have him on a deserted island.’ ‘Good idea,’ he said, ‘—I haven’t done that before. How’ll we get him there?’ ‘Well, I said, ‘let’s have him on a plane with a hijacker who makes him jump.’ And he said, ‘Fine.’ It was his idea to put Whitehall there. He’d been there for a long time and he’d lost weight. He was skinny, had a white beard, long white hair.
“’Now,’ Gould says, ‘How are we going to get him out of here?’ That was right about the time the U.S. Army was doing a lot of missile firing, so I said, ‘Let’s have a wayward missile land in the canyon and the army will follow it, find Tracy, and take them out of there.’ So that’s what we did. It was fun. I was sitting on a cloud.”
In his story conferences with Kilian, the length of the stories is also a consideration, Locher said.
“We’re finding out that some of the short ones are very enticing to people,” he said. “And then if it’s too short, people get mad. They say, ‘We didn’t get to know the characters.’ So that’s the down side of a short story. The down side of a long story is that you can lose the readers’ attention.”
I wondered about that. “Do you really feel that you are losing their attention?” I asked. “Do people write in and say, ‘You lost me on that one.’ Or, ‘I stopped reading that three weeks ago.’ I know that the short story idea originated in the fifties when television started being big competition and editors were saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to have a story that’s short because people can get an adventure on tv in a half-hour, so you’ve got to have a six-week story or a three-week story, something short enough to compete with television.’ And I wonder if there really is any truth to that, particularly these days.
“These really are two different media here,” I ranted on. “You can’t clip out an episode from TV and put it on the refrigerator door—that was Chet Gould who said that, by the way—and you can with a comic strip. They are different. So I wondered if you ever have any real evidence—if anyone has ever got any evidence—that the reading public’s attention span is so limited that it can’t follow a story that lasts longer than six weeks.”
“None that I’ve seen,” Locher said. “However—newspapers are confronted with the fact that people under thirty don’t read much. People under thirty don’t buy newspapers much. They get their fix on the news with the tv news the night before. And they read headlines. You talk to anyone under thirty and ask them what’s going on, they’ll give you a headline in response. And they’ll have an opinion, but it won’t be in depth. And the newspaper gives you the story in depth.
“Now, an editorial cartoon is an entirely different thing,” he continued. “This is six seconds worth of information right here [holding up his editorial cartoon for the day]. I think that’s why it survives in the paper today. Young people gravitate to it real fast.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, “because not only is the editorial cartoon surviving, it seems to be thriving.” [A circumstance true in 1994 but no longer true: the reverse, in fact, is the status quo as newspapers seem intent on divesting themselves of their staff editorial cartoonist to save money.]
“Oh, absolutely,” Locher said, “but the point I want to make is that each feature is distinctive in its own way. We find a lot of 10-12 year olds who are discovering the comic strip. Incredible. Young people will write in and say, ‘We just found Dick Tracy—what’s he been doing? What’s his job?’ The sort of thing.
“But we won’t get young marrieds at all,” he said. “Marketing surveys on Dick Tracy show no young marrieds. About age thirty, it starts to pick up. But from age twenty to thirty, that’s when they read For Better or For Worse, Calvin and Hobbes. But that’s the nature of each individual cartoon strip. If we were all alike, we’d have the same readers.”
I observed that there was very little verbiage in the strip these days: “Obviously, that’s deliberate,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” Locher said. “It reflects the amount of time people are willing to spend on the strip. There’s a fine line to walk—the amount of verbiage. If you don’t put in enough, people don’t feel satisfied. Or you ruin the story. Can’t tell a story without some words.”
Locher told me that he shoots for daily strips with no more than 35 words in them. Length of story and speech balloons are not the only considerations Locher and Kilian must weigh.
Locher reviewed the “ten commandments”: “These were things you couldn’t do in a comic strip in the old days,” he said. “All these have gone by the wayside now. But it used to be that you couldn’t show a character falling-down drunk. You couldn’t show somebody being massacred by machine-gun—probably because of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre here in Chicago. Couldn’t show a couple in bed. Couldn’t show the inside of a woman’s thigh. Couldn’t show a woman drunk. And you couldn’t show somebody being stabbed. And Chester Gould never paid any attention to any of those,” he chuckled.
“Yes,” I grinned, “—as you were ticking those off, I was thinking of the incidents in Dick Tracy that showed Gould just doing them all.”
“Exactly right,” Locher laughed. “He had somebody impaled on a flagpole once. That violates every rule there is. We can’t show that now. We can’t show somebody being shot, directly. Syndicates won’t stand for it. Readers won’t either.
“On the front pages of our newspapers, we can show robbery,” he continued. “We can show rapes. We can show arson. But only on the front pages. Not in the comic strips.
“There are so many groups out there now,” he said, “just waiting for you to do something. And they’ll boycott the paper, and they’ll march out in front. They just can’t wait. And the syndicates say, ‘We don’t need that kind of aggravation. And we don’t need a lost client paper.’ The papers say, ‘You’re giving us so much aggravation, we’ll just cancel.’ And the syndicate doesn’t want that. So you have to tow the line. Action like that happens off-screen. Sam Catchem can say to Tracy, ‘Oh—nice shot, Tracy,’” he said with a laugh, “—but the shot isn’t pictured in the strip.
“And that’s a handicap to work under in a detective strip” he went on. “Even in Sherlock Holmes on television, they can show somebody being killed. We can’t do that. And, boy!—that’s working with your hand tied behind your back.”
Modern technology has eased the strip cartoonist’s burden in one area, Locher explained. It used to be that while daily strips were produced four to six weeks before publication date, the Sunday strips had to be completed ten weeks in advance in order to give engravers time to prepare the color plates and matts. Writing a seven-day continuity under those circumstances seemed to me extraordinarily difficult. (I used to imagine that the Sundays had to be done as the trail blazers of the story: they sort of laid out bread crumbs of plot along the way, and then the dailies had to come along and pick them up.)
But now computers color the Sundays, and so these pages are submitted about the same time as the dailies—six weeks in advance. And that means the seven-day continuity can be written all at the same time.
In addition to these technical and sociopolitical concerns, Locher feels the responsibility of his stewardship of an American icon.
“You can’t have Tracy do anything out of character,” Locher said. “People wouldn’t believe in him. You say Dick Tracy to anybody in the United States, and they know what you’re talking about. They may not have read the strip, but they know who Dick Tracy is. Like Kodak. Like Kleenex. You might not use the product, but you know what it is.
“It’s a weighty, hefty thing,” he said. “It’s like if someone took Grant Woods’ American Gothic and made a comic strip out of it. You’ve got to protect it. The syndicate looks at everything we do, and they look at it with a pretty critical eye. You have to use a political eye, a commercial eye—and a storytelling eye.
“And an eye on Tracy’s character,” he continued. “If he gets out of a parked car, would he open the door on the traffic side? No, he wouldn’t.”
He’s really that straight arrow, I wondered.
“Absolutely,” Locher said.
Returning to the topic of divorce, I observed that the resolution of the crisis seemed a little too easy. When Tracy returned to Tess after wrapping up a case, he brought flowers, but she seemed adamant against reconciliation. Then he said he was planning to go on vacation—pause—and wanted her come with him. Suddenly, she melted into his arms.
Yes, Locher admitted, that could have had more sparks. “But we’re off into another story,” he said. “And we’re going to have Tess get a job. She wants independence.”
“She may have learned something from the divorce experience, then,” I said, “but Tracy hasn’t learned anything from it. They go on that vacation, a second honeymoon really—to a tropical beach, and on the third day of their stay, he’s chasing after some new mystery.”
“Oh, yes. That was for the benefit of a story, of course,” Locher said. “But we wanted to keep him still in character: ‘There’s a possible crime going on; I can’t ignore it. Even though Tess says I should ignore it, I can’t.’ We thought that was staying within character. As the story evolves—and it’s developing now—he’s giving her excuses, little white lies, so he can continue his investigation, but it ends up and they’re lovey-dovey, and they go back home, and Tracy goes back to work. Both back where they should be. We’re going to get back to characters—fast. The divorce story’s over.
“And the characters are central,” he concluded. “Dick Tracy is the main pole in the big top; the performers are all below.”
Chester Gould’s story about how he invented and sustained the strip for 46 years is rehearsed in Harv’s Hindsights for the fall of 2001 at RCHarvey.com.