Sunday, September 2, 2012

DICK TRACY COMIC STRIPS, 1931-1932

Dick Tracy Reprint Volume One
I grew up watching and reading Dick Tracy. Mostly because the Warren Beatty movie was released in theaters and everyone was on a Dick Tracy kick. The local TV station began televising the old 1960s cartoons (boy, are those awful) and Burbank Video and other companies began releasing the four RKO Dick Tracy movies on VHS for $3 at Ames. How could I resist? And the comics in the newspapers? Flat Top Jr. attempted to seek revenge against the flatfoot who murdered his father. Mumbles supposedly being cloned only for us to discover the cloning process was fake and Mumbles was still alive. Junior's wife, Moon Maid, is blown up in a car bomb meant for Dick Tracy. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Those were the Max Allen Collins stories and today we'll center on the earliest years of Dick Tracy from 1931 to 1932.

The golden era of comic strip reprints has been fruitful over the past few years. Along with this handsome volumes of early Dick Tracy from IDW Publishing, fans can enjoy beautiful, hardcover editions of Gasoline Alley (from Drawn and Quarterly Press) and complete reprints of Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, and Popeye (all from Fantagraphics Books). Some of these titles, like the aforementioned Gasoline Alley and Dick Tracy, are multi-volume, multi-year projects. At the time this blog post appears on the web, the first thirteen volumes of Dick Tracy in chronological order have gone to print. IDW does not have intentions of reprinting most of their volumes so once they become available you need to grab them quickly. Volumes 5, 8 and 9 are now officially out of print -- the latter of which has an asking price of $200! (I e-mailed IDW personally and a rep stated that they have no intention of reprinting the volumes once they are sold out.)

IDW is also responsible for Little Orphan Annie and Terry and the Pirates, both of which I find myself highly entertained. The print quality is superb and the dates of publishing is listed on each page so you can always keep track of where you left off. Originally the Dick Tracy Sunday funnies contained individual stories and brief detective yarns that were separate from the dailies but in May of 1932, it was decided to blend the Sunday strips in with the story arc of the dailies. For this reason, the earliest Sunday strips are reprinted in the back of the book, isolated from the rest of the long continuous storyline. Some of these Sunday shots are quite amusing. In the November 29, 1931 strip, for example, "Duke" Magatto is arrested for smuggling vials of dope in loaves of bread -- a plot device Gould would later work into the weekly dailies with Junior. In the December 27, 1931 strip, criminals use the speaker system of a radio to shoot tear gas into Tracy's eyes while they make a getaway. This kind of clever weaponry would later become a staple for the Dick Tracy strips-yet-to-come.

The first volume of Dick Tracy is perhaps the only volume that has gone into reprint and is perhaps the easiest to acquire on the market. It appears the schedule involves two or three volumes a year so IDW won't even get to the end of the Gould years for quite some time. But since the suggested retail price is $49.95 per volume, that totals less than $10 dollars a month. You can shop around and easily acquire most of the volumes today for an average of $32.

Dick Tracy comic book
What makes these years of Dick Tracy so compelling is that Chester Gould was one of the first comic strip artists to bring both a sense of realism and violence to the comic page -- with an emphasis on violence. Men and women where shot dead on the panels of Dick Tracy, portrayed in brutal black and white at the moment of terminal impact. In one story arc, a mob boss ties Tracy to a chair, removes his shoes and socks, and goes to work on his bare feet with a blowtorch. It is noteworthy to mention that Tracy cracked under this torture, adding a layer of realism. There are certainly a lot of scenes and dialog that makes this volume of comic reprints fit the definition of "hard-boiled."

In the first story arc, Tess Trueheart's father is shot dead during a robbery and Dick Tracy, Tess' boyfriend, vows to find the culprits and bring them to justice. The Police Chief, realizing Tracy's determination, enlists Tracy as a member of their Plain Clothes Squad. Tess, meanwhile, is kidnapped by "Big Boy" and his goons. Tracy takes up a new identity in a rooming house and meets Ribs Mocco, who mistakes the detective as a shady individual and enlists Tracy as a member of the gang, unaware of the detective's true intentions. While transporting a package of money from one side of town to another, Tracy manages to rescue Tess. Angry over the betrayal, having discovered who Tracy works for, Ribs Mocco sets up a trap designed to kill the back-stabber. The trap backfires and Ribs is shot to death from a rain of machine gun bullets. Detective Pat Patton, Tracy's right hand man, is shot in the head by Big Boy when the police attempt to arrest the kingpin, who escapes from the law via means of a secret passage. Pat recovers, but not before spending a few weeks bandaged in the hospital and a couple months sporting an eye patch. In an attempt to convince Trixie, Big Boy's moll, now behind bars, to tell him where Big Boy is hiding, the following takes place:

Texie: "Oh - you're such a sweet kid - I think I could do wonders for you - That is, if you'd let me - Think what you could do with a thousand dollars."
Tracy: "Yeah? I could roll it up in a wad and cram it right down your slippery throat."
 
In the second story arc, Tess attempts to gain confidence with her boyfriend but Tracy will not divulge any inner workings of the police force. He simply does not trust women. This creates a temporary strain on their relationship, regardless of the fact that Tracy wants to protect her from the criminal element. On December 30, 1931, Tracy proposes to Tess with a diamond ring and the two celebrate the New Year with an expensive New Year's dinner. Weeks later, after a quarrel with Tracy, Tess throws the ring over a bridge and informs him that the engagement is officially over. Tracy's attitude as a result of the breakup is not welcome in the police station and causes him to be demoted and walk the beat while Pat tries his best to patch things up. The relationship is eventually patched when Tess learns of a secret rendezvous with underworld criminals and leaks the info anonymously to Tracy, who soon figures out what she did for him. The relationship is stronger now than ever.

Tracy actually gives in to the villainous torture of a blowtorch!

In the third story arc (we're in February 1932 now), Heinie is helping widow Trueheart run the delicatessen but it doesn't take long for Dick Tracy to discover Broadway Bates and Belle are planning to cheat Heinie (and Ms. Trueheart) out of business. Discovering Tracy is snooping too close, the crooks plot a suitcase of bricks to be dropped from a high rise window and Tracy is knocked unconscious. The detective wakes to find himself tied to a chair and wooden beam. With his socks and shoes stripped off, the gangsters apply a blowtorch to Tracy's feet. (If this isn't violent enough, earlier in the story when Tracy encounters Belle, she tells him off in vulgarity resembling stars and exclamation points.) Thanks to Heinie, Tracy is rescued and the crooks are arrested.

In the fourth story arc, Tracy discovers the whereabouts of Big Boy, the criminal czar, and sneaks on board the ocean liner, Alonia, in disguise. Big Boy and his female companion have kidnapped "Buddy" Waldorf of the wealthy Waldorf family in an attempt to cash in on a ransom. The captain works alongside with Tracy but before the detective can arrest the criminals and rescue the boy, Big Boy catches Tracy in the midst of a thick fog on the upper deck, ties the detective's hands behind his back and pushes him overboard. Tracy is rescued by Norwegian fishermen and returns to the Alonia before the vessel docks. Desperate to lose the evidence, Big Boy knocks his female associate unconscious and throws her out the port hole into the ocean. Before he can succeed in tossing the small boy overboard, Tracy barges in and saves the youth. With the door closed, Tracy applies his fists on Big Boy until the criminal is thrown through the door of his stateroom. This story arc was obviously inspired by the recent headlines of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Unlike the real life kidnapping case which did not end favorably, the Waldorf boy is returned home safely.

The resolution to a kidnapping case mirroring the Lindbergh kidnapping.

With Big Boy in jail, numerous attempts on Tracy's life continue -- all with failed results. At least two attempts to free Big Boy from jail also fail, adding even more of Big Boy's associates behind bars. Pat Patton masquerades as an organ grinder, in order to infiltrate a gang hideout, only to be forced against his will to deliver a truck of goods at the point of a gun. Tracy, unaware that Pat is the driver, shoots and wounds his assistant. Tracy and Pat eventually discover the whereabouts of a secret printing press responsible for a rash of counterfeit money -- hidden in the back room of a lion's cage at a private zoo. The master criminal, Penn, remains elusive for a short time. Yes, lots of gun play and the shooting of lions save Tracy and Pat from a grisly demise.


In the sixth story arc, Tess Trueheart and her mother go on vacation in the pine laden North Woods. Tracy joins them for a little R&R only to discover Tess's friend, Marge, is the intended victim of a blackmail ring. Tracy quickly uncovers the scheme and saves the girl from two murder attempts. The culprit, Kenneth Grebb, attempts to dislodge a boulder to start an avalanche of rocks meant for Dick Tracy. The rocks fall the opposite direction and Grebb is crushed to death and buried under thousands of pounds of stone.

The seventh story arc introduces "The Kid," whom Tracy eventually names "Dick Tracy Junior" (or "Junior" for short). In spite of the Kid's crudeness and lack of "bringin' up," his sincerity and frankness completely win over Dick Tracy, who chooses to adopt the boy as his own. After rescuing the boy from Steve, the tramp, the detectives, the men are put on guard to protect the kid. Steve used Junior to steal food for him and he needs his meal ticket returned. Junior, however, is the one who cleverly outwits Steve multiple times and the tramp eventually leaves town. Texie returns to the story and under employment of Dan Mucelli, befriends Junior. Dan needs young boys to deliver loaves of bread across town and has his eyes set on Junior. What Junior quickly discovers is that vials of dope are baked in the loaves of bread and the drug trafficking is soon brought to the attention of Dick Tracy. When Dan Mucelli discovers the boy is a police informant, he kidnaps the kid and flees the scene. Tracy rescues Junior, only to be shot and wounded and lying in a hospital for many weeks during recovery. As a result of quick thinking on the part of Mucelli, Junior is framed for the shooting and until Dick Tracy wakes and applies a new technique to police investigation known as "ballistics" is Junior cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Juveniles being harmed in such a brutish manner? Of course!
Junior, meanwhile, escapes from detention before he is notified that he is cleared of the shooting and accidentally stumbles on to a stolen car and accessory ring masterminded by "Larceny" Lu and her gang. Junior finds Tracy and reports what he learned while Tracy explains to Junior that he is no longer wanted by the police for the shooting. Larceny Lu and her men attempt a getaway but thanks to Junior and his quick thinking, the air is removed out of the tires to prevent further escape. Tracy arrives in disguise and arrests the culprits as Junior shouts, "Oh boy, what a Christmas dis is!" (December 25, 1932).

The art of these strips was never as crude as some people criticize. I will agree that Gould would later develop beautiful and dramatic brushwork as the strip progressed. The difference in style for the earliest strips is a bit jarring at first for people familiar with the later strips... but this is common with most newspaper dailies.

The first volume also includes an introduction by Max Allen Collins, author the Dick Tracy comic strip from 1977 to 1993. The first part of an interview with Gould conducted by Collins and Matt Masterson in September 1980 is also included. Here, Gould talks about his career before Dick Tracy, including his childhood and earliest jobs for the newspapers. Perhaps the cream of the crop is Plain Clothes Tracy, the initial comic strips Gould created to pitch his new hero to newspaper syndicates. Naturally, these were not printed so it's a rare treat to see the initial "pilot" offering. While many of the strips have been reprinted in various forms, paperbacks and comic books, these hardcover reprints are the end-all do-all collection worthy of buying a couple just for enjoyment. And if you ever get a chance to listen to the 1935, 1936 and 1937 radio broadcasts of Dick Tracy, you'll discover how they are just as enjoyable as the comic strip. I wish more Dick Tracy radio shows would surface (along with Quiet, Please and Popeye, the Sailor.) But enough of my endorsement. Visit Amazon.com or Coverout.com today and buy the first volume and enjoy Tracy's earliest adventures.

The most recent Dick Tracy reprint, Volume 13.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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