When 31-year old Chester Gould, after trying for years to create a successful comic strip, had the idea to mirror the Chicago gangland violence reported on the front pages of newspapers, he called his new creation Plainclothes Tracy.
It was former police beat reporter and Chicago Tribune comics editor, Joseph Medill “Captain” Patterson, who suggested switching out "Plainclothes" for "Dick," cleverly using the slang word for “detective” (in use since 1908, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
It sounded right, shortening the name and snapping together hard-edged sibilants like the crack and echo of a gunshot. Dick Tracy debuted in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday October 4, 1931 and thereafter ricocheted into pop culture history.
The stunning new collection from the esteemed Sunday Press, Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s, explores Gould’s first decade of four-color powder burn nightmares. Reprinted for the first time in their original sizes and colors, these impeccably restored pages brand into the brain unforgettable images of raging fires, murderous floods of water, hallucinogenic snowfalls and the grim rictus of evil carved into the grotesque faces of angry, wounded souls.
Edited by Peter Maresca and intelligently designed by the astonishingly talented Philippe Ghielmetti, this oversized, 11 by 16 inches, volume offers an exquisitely curated selection of full-page Sunday Dick Tracy comics from 1931 to 1939. With the support and assistance of Jeff Kersten―co-founder and President of The Chester Gould/Dick Tracy Museum―and Garyn G. Roberts (Dick Tracy and American Culture: Morality and Mythology, Text and Context, McFarland & Company, 2003) Maresca has lovingly crafted, yet again, a wonder cabinet of comic strip art.
Four-Color Powder Burn Nightmares
In these Sunday pages from the 1930s, we are a long way from the signature icons of Dick Tracy. The two-way wrist radio comes along in 1946. The Crimestopper’s Notebook starts in the early 1950s. Flattop, Pruneface, 88 Keys, Mumbles and the other trademark bizarre villains all come along after the 1930s. However, in this collection―hopefully the first of a series of decade-by-decade retrospectives―we can trace the evolution of Dick Tracy into one of America’s strangest and most compelling serial character narratives. You could call this book the blacktop to Flattop.
Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s presents four complete stories from the mid-to late 1930s, groups of about 25 pages/weeks each. The stories are each based around the rise and take-down of criminal masterminds: Boris Arson, Cut Famon (Gould’s second villain based on Al Capone), The Purple Cross Gang and Johnny Mintworth. Because Gould carried his stories through both Sundays and dailies, and because the daily strips are not included in this book, the continuities of these four cases are a little disjointed at times. Each Sunday, however, opens with a recap of previous events. I was initially disappointed not to see a case section on The Blank, a personal favorite from the 1930s Dick Tracy comics, or the nefarious Doc Hump, who caused one critic of the time to ask:
“Is a continuous diet of lurid melodrama told by pictures of brutal men doing brutal deeds good for children or for adults who are mentally immature and emotionally unstable?” (John Kenneth Ryan, “Are the Comics Moral?” The Forum, May 1936)
However, upon reading the selected cases, I was delighted to discover top-quality crime sagas that ultimately exceeded my expectations for this book.
For me, the first thrilling sense I got that the strip had slipped into the dreamlike territory it would fully embrace in the 1940s and beyond, comes in the climax to the first of the four complete cases, with Boris Arson, described by Garyn G. Roberts as the “premier rogue” of the 1930s Dick Tracy comics. A secret hideout is shown, hidden in an elaborate cave that resembles the secret lairs of James Bond villains to come along thirty years later. The entrance, a giant hallway, is guarded by unreal vicious striped big cats oddly called “wildcats” instead of tigers. “Man-killing Ozark wildcats,” to be exact. A long sliding cage can be moved through the entrance, protecting those inside it from the wildcats. In this moment, the strip assumes the hyper-obsessed and fetishistic qualities for which it is known, although I doubt Gould, himself would have approved of those terms. I think he was reaching into his imagination to tell a good story, something he succeeded at dozens―if not hundreds―of times.
The Blacktop to Flattop
The Sunday Press volume also offers a section of extremely rare pages from 1931-32 when the Dick Tracy Sundays squeezed a whole crime story in a single Sunday episode. In these first pages, Gould’s style shifts and grows weekly. For a brief while, these pages ran another Chester Gould creation, the single-tier topper, Cigarette Sadie, a gag strip I quite like about a nightclub cigarette girl.
As if that weren’t quite enough, a third section in Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s offers a file of annotated Sunday pages from the 1930s, each presenting an example from the steady parade of increasingly monstrous criminals that may have influenced the bizarre villains in the early superhero comic books of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Included in this section are strips that feature Big Boy (Gould’s first version of Al Capone), the sadistic Doc Hump, and The Blank, whose featureless face is more disturbing than any imaginable disfigurement.
The three sections of the book feature introductions by Dick Tracy expert Garyn G. Roberts. In the front, a long illustrated essay by Jeff Kersten provides background and context for understanding and appreciating Dick Tracy in the 1930s. (In full transparency, I also contributed a mini-essay to this volume, but otherwise had nothing to with it).
A bonus insert (Sunday Press books come with extras) offers a replica of a large four-page color promotional sample sheet the Chicago Tribune News Syndicate sent to potential subscriber newspapers.
Why Sunday Press is Important
Sunday Press is something special, I think. The importance of reading and studying American newspaper comics in their original sizes, especially the ones that ran in the color supplements, cannot be overstated. Restoring visual context brings the art alive. Most publishers cannot (or choose not to) make the economics of this enterprise work, and so opt to reprint the large older comics in smaller formats, sometimes even recoloring and editing them. Sunday Press publisher Peter Maresca miraculously pulls off the hat trick of presenting the glorious newspaper comic art of times past as it was meant to be seen.
This expertly curated selection of feverish early Dick Tracy Sundays, restored and presented in their original sizes and colors, enhanced with informative essays and rare art, is a delight to read and an important resource for understanding the full brilliance of Chester Gould’s dark vision in Dick Tracy.