REVIEWS

Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s

Peter Maresca’s books celebrate what I call the art of looking. Their generous page size and crisp full-color presentation invite us to regard comics as more than a diversion—something to vacuum down in between checking Facebook and binge-watching Westworld.

Via these lavish books, we get a window into the original impact the newspaper comics had on their eager readership. In this tabloid format, details abound from panels that are at least 200% larger than their prior reprinting in the early (and smaller than the present size) volumes of IDW’s ongoing Tracy reprint project, which shrunk Sunday strips shrunk to Kleenex size on a single 7” x 9” page. These dimensions hampered Dick Tracy. A magnifying glass is required to retrieve any information from these undersized images, and made me inclined to skip the Sunday strips altogether—a disservice to Chester Gould’s fascinating, endlessly eccentric work.

Sunday Press has given Gould’s work of its first decade a rewarding reconsideration. These pages are full of information. With an average word count of 500, and gridlock visuals anchored with cross-hatching, precisely ruled lines and a masterful use of chiaroscuro and silhouette, Chester Gould’s average Sunday Dick Tracy page of 1936 can offer 10 minutes worth of close examination. Gould was a ritualist (as are most newspaper cartoonists), with a trick-bag of quirks and themes that compel the reader with their dogged recurrence. The serial revisit of these rituals is a major component of Tracy‘s mesmeric pull.

Gould’s Tracy shed its skin many times during its 1931-1977 run—from brassy Warner Brothers-style dramady and newsreel-flavored attacks on gangsterism (what we see throughout this volume) to the heavily mannered villains of the 1940s; the doom-laden, often brutally bleak narratives of the 1950s; and the more SF-fantasy flavored storylines from 1964 onward. Gould could revert to any of these Tracy iterations as a narrative suggested; a reading of the strip shows several important stages, each wholly different yet part of the long, (in)coherent scroll that is its creator’s work.

Peter Maresca and lead writer Garyn G. Roberts focus here on Gould’s mid-1930s work. Gould was on fire within the first year of Dick Tracy, but by 1935/6, he reached an early peak as artist-writer. The awkward body language and elegant department-store catalog drawing has ratcheted down into fluid, commanding panels—images that don’t need color to work, but look great with their fiery reds, blunt blues and piercing yellows.

 

Gould was part of a grotesque-cartooning school endemic to the Chicago Tribune/New York News’ syndicated strips. Like Gasoline Alley, Winnie Winkle, Little Orphan Annie and Smilin’ Jack, Dick Tracy is far removed from realism. Arch exaggeration, disproportionate body parts and sometimes-crude drawings give these strips a raw vigor that clicked with the public. Frank King’s Gasoline Alley,  the most visually accomplished and elegant of the lot, offers characters with hands larger than their heads and other distortions that are a far cry from the tame proportions of rival syndicates’ strips.

Many of Trib-News cartoonists were capable of more realistic work than their public face let on; some of them, Gould included, learned to make the most of a limited but powerful skill-set. Gould’s background in catalog illustration gave him more solid footing than, say, Martin Branner (whose Winnie Winkle is among the ugliest of all syndicated comics). If Gould could draw something well, he did so. If he had to fudge it—as with his botched drawings of wildcats during the finale of the Boris Arson case, seen in this book—so be it.

Drive and delivery gave the Trib strips their readership. They exploded a daily bombshell on newspaper pages across the continent. Gould, like Harold Gray with Little Orphan Annie, was given an additional challenge. Their Sunday strips had to work independently of the dailies, since some newspapers (and many readers) only saw one or the other. The syndicate understood  its audience, and expected its creators to deliver their goods to order.

This volume allows us to read Tracy’s Sunday peaks, minus the interworkings of the 24 panels of daily narrative between each episode. Each Tracy page is a relentless grid—four rows of three panels, always the same size. Within each panel is a network of black and white, from the bold lines accorded human figures to the filigrees of backgrounds and the dark march of Gould’s cross-hatching. Slathered atop this scheme are large areas of solid black.

Compositions are sometimes static, but often surprisingly dynamic. Panels can be weighted down by masses of text in speech balloons and captions. The Sunday Tracy is a wordy strip. In compressing a week’s worth of narrative while giving daily readers new information, it had to be so. Each strip is a satisfying read. You don’t scan these pages—you live in them for a few minutes. They are diagrams, blueprints and maps in comic-strip form.

Maresca and Co. have chosen wisely among Dick Tracy’s 1930s exploits. The ominous caper of Boris Arson kicks this book off in high gear. One of Gould’s best narratives, it moves faster than a James Cagney gangster flick and is a cat-and-mouse game of the highest order. With its nightmarish visuals—in particular, an underground lair in the middle of nowhere that’s guarded by ferocious bobcats—it portends the endless cycles of doom in Tracy‘s 1950s narratives.

But this is the mid-1930s, and the fears that drove post-war America are not present. Gould traded on a national fascination with the cult of the gangster, and sought to (literally) shoot it down. Though Boris Arson is a villain more akin to Harold Gray’s paranoid sensibilities, with his plans for national terrorism, he, like all Gould antagonists, succumbs to a baptism of hot lead as he scrambles from hiding place to hiding place, and the long arm of the law closes in.

The 29-week stretch of the Arson case, with its collision of odd characters (a native American, the melodrama of “Junior” Tracy and his long-suffering mother, Mary Steele, those queerly-drawn bobcats) is a master class in peeking through the eccentric lens through which Chester Gould viewed the world. This is credulous storytelling and balls-to-the-wall melodrama. Driven by instinct, the narrative throttles through these Sunday installments.

Though I’ve read the complete story several times, I found this Sunday-to-Sunday jaunt a revelation. This is how a certain percentage of America read Dick Tracy—a few minutes’ diversion after church service on Sunday afternoon. It’s likely that much of Gould’s readership had no idea the daily strip existed. Few post-Depression households could take on the added expense of seven newspapers per week.

The book’s main section features three other prime 1936/7 cases, including “The Purple Cross Gang,” the earliest of Gould’s fantasias of cult-like organized crime—a theme he returns to several times through the 1960s, culminating in the stunning “52 Gang” sequence of  1962—a sequence that introduced the Space Age to Tracy‘s firmament while harking back to the strip’s early roots. Lurid pulp through and through, “Purple Cross Gang” gains gravity through its constant threat of death and doom, its heady paranoia and the increasing bits of real-life police business that butt their head against the nightmare vision of Gould’s world.

Like Dragnet‘s Jack Webb, Chester Gould sought to present his version of a world of law and disorder—an irreal world—against a factual layer of police intel—ballistics, fingerprinting, voice ID. This mix adds mightily to the nutty layering of Tracy, and, by the 1940s, is a vital part of the Gould Trifecta—violence, doom, realism—that makes the strip’s masterful 1950s episodes so effective and haunting.

Two appendix sections give other glimpses of the emerging Dick Tracy. A long selection of the first Tracy Sunday strips reveal a delicious dichotomy. Gould kept the Sunday action confined to weekly installments. Minute mysteries were popular at the time, and the brash, eager Tracy solves simple cases that usually hang on some minor O. Henry-school plot twist.

Beneath the law and order of Tracy is the heady underworld of “Cigarette Sadie,” a gag strip set in a speakeasy, in which the title character cons horny booze-hounds of out cash tips that she spends on frocks, furs and other frivolities. The gleefully immoral Sadie, sassily drawn in a low-cut bathing suit, with curves galore, is a shocking presence on the Dick Tracy Sunday page, but proof that Gould knew what he was doing. “Cigarette Sadie” is the best of Gould’s many attempts to create a humor strip. Sadie meets with Gould’s approval, though her racket of petty larceny would have eyed by Tracy with, at best, contempt. This cutting loose is liberating stuff, and it’s fun to see Gould genuinely enjoying himself, taking a breather in this throwaway topper. I hope to write here soon about “The Gravies,” “Sawdust” and Gould’s other off-the-wall comedies, but the inclusion of “Sadie” on these 1931-32 pages is a revelation.

These early Sundays are Chester Gould at his most larval. At this point, he had only a vague notion of what Dick Tracy would become—enough to work from, but nothing that would suggest the agenda of doom, pursuit and entrapment that will quickly tie the strip together by 1935.


The second appendix covers 1932-39 and offers a cook’s tour of various characters who didn’t merit a narrative-long examination. Here, most of all, the art of looking flourishes. We have little to no connection with these pages, and can enjoy them as diagrams and maps. The visual and verbal information, abstracted by our disconnection from the narrative, takes on a new dimension. It is spellbinding to simply sit and stare at these pages, to peer into their secrets and statements and take in the color, line and words. Comics as hieroglyphics, anyone?

Dick Tracy: Colorful Cases of the 1930s is arguably the most important collection of Gould’s work aside from the invaluable IDW series, which has finally cracked the kooky mid-1960s period. Sunday Press’s lavish display of these early pages offers us a chance to assess the curious world of Chester Gould in a way that smaller-sized reprints can’t afford. Just as John Doe of 1935 sat in his armchair and gazed at the Tracy abyss in his Sunday paper, so can we—and it’s liberating.


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