Friday, April 19, 2013

Dick Tracy: 1934 Year in Review

Even with automobile rackets and drug addicts, the comic strip of Dick Tracy was still seeking super villains and Chandler-style prose, but the soap opera melodramatics was what made the early years enjoyable in their own right. When we left off 1933, Jimmy White (a deliberate rip-off to screen actor James Cagney) was apprehended courtesy of Junior’s smarts, placing the kingpin of juvenile stick-ups behind bars. His attorney, Spaldoni, pays Jimmy a visit to inform him that he won’t be representing him. Jimmy’s father refused to finance his legal fight and has disclaimed any interest in the case. That leads us to an act of desperation on the part of Jimmy White…

Claudette Colbert meets James Cagney
In January 1934, Jimmy’s girlfriend, Jean Penfield (an artist rendition of Claudette Colbert), daughter of a friend of Chief Brandon, is writing a book and wants to make a close-up study of criminals for an expose. She wants to interview Jimmy White. When Jimmy attempts to strangle the broad because she once squealed on him, the author asks Spaldoni for help. She will post bail money in exchange for an interview with Jimmy White. Spaldoni makes the arrangements, Jimmy consents to the interview and later, after reading the manuscript, Spaldoni warns Jimmy. If this book gets published, a number of crooks in town will be out of commission -- Jimmy included. Hoping to uncover Jean’s involvement, Tracy breaks the rules and wiretaps her phone without a court order to overhear conversations between Jean Penfield and Spaldoni.

Big Boy (yes, he’s back!) returns after Spaldoni phones him up about material in Jean Penfield’s manuscript. Spaldoni, you see, managed to acquire half the manuscript. He wants the other half and hires Jimmy to sneak into Jean’s house late at night to steal the manuscript. Jean, however, shoots Jimmy in the arm in an attempt to shoot to kill. Dick Tracy, meanwhile, attempts to avoid the romantic interests of Jean Penfield while at the same time keeps her from getting killed. Two attempts on her life (including an exploding car) suggests the entire underworld is after her.

In February, Tracy arrests Big Boy, once again putting him behind bars. Jimmy attempts to kill Jean Penfield by jumping in her car and forces her to drive out into the country. Jean, taking desperate action, forces the roadster into a concrete viaduct, steering out of control and crashing into a huge storage tank. Jimmy is killed and dies in the flames and explosion. Jean’s body is nowhere to be found.

Dick Tracy shows Pat how to unfold a number of ashes, press them onto a plate of glass and using a new photo development system, uncovers what appears to be a railway ticket to Canada. A footprint made from plaster of paris adds to the mystery. Who walked away from the flaming auto crash? Meanwhile, the newspapers start printing an expose of the underworld and politics, authored by someone known as “The Phantom.” Through the month of March, Tracy tries to solve the mystery but anyone with an I.Q. higher than room temperature knows Jean Penfield is alive and well and printing the expose for the papers. Pat uses a Benzidine blood test to prove the presence of blood on Jean’s clothing, to verify the stains found on her clothing. (Yes, by this time is was obvious that Gould was applying modern-day police procedures to assist Dick Tracy in his investigations.)

Saving the newspaper from sabotage, Dick Tracy shoots and kills “Tony the Bomber,” finds himself engaged to Jean Penfield, Tess Trueheart catches them in the act of kissing, and the women start a cat fight in the streets over the love of Dick Tracy. Spaldoni, catching wind of the burned act of jealousy, arranges for a very clever frame-up using Tess Trueheart’s fingerprints on a .38 which is used to shoot and murder Jean Penfield. Tess is framed for murder. Dick Tracy spends some time using police methods to prove Tess is innocent, while Junior spots Spaldoni in the streets and follows the crooked lawyer and his goons leaving town, bound for an abandoned steel mill where they have a secret hideout. Dick Tracy follows Junior’s trail and a confrontation of violence, involving Tracy being buried in a pile of scrap iron and the exchange of gunfire, results in Spaldoni’s death -- but not before he makes a death bed confession that he framed Tess for the murder.
The month of May introduces J. Scotland Bumpsted, a secret operative from England, an equal in detective work which almost rivals the efforts of Dick Tracy. Steve the Tramp, having read about an Indiana thug who escaped from stir with a wooden gun, mimics the same to escape from prison. Police start a modern-day posse to apprehend Steve, Dick Tracy is shot and wounded, and Steve Brogan, bleeding to death, manages to escape and seek shelter in a battered house where Larceny Lu and his assistant, Curley, are operating a hot automotive racket. Steve is bleeding to death and needs them to fetch a doctor. Doc Hump is called for but J. Scotland Bumpsted holds the doctor at bay and takes his place. Larceny Lu recognizes Bumpsted and unmasks the detective, turning the tables on him. “Scotty” is beaten about the head and shoulders and on the back. His legs are paralyzed and it will take many months for him to recover.

By July, Larceny Lu has operated on Steve, resulting in one eye being larger than the other. When Scotty’s mother catches a glimpse of Steve the Tramp, she arms herself, sets after him and shoots and wounds the criminal. The doctors later operate on Steve and Dick Tracy visit’s the prison to check on him. Steve the Tramp will eventually be fitted with a peg leg as soon as he is well, but he won’t be escaping from prisons any time in the future. (I’d like to stop and pause for a moment to state that during this adventure, a stool pigeon named Mickey Dunn attempts to leak information to Dick Tracy. When Tracy opens the door to his house, Dunn is dead stiff, tied up, and falls to the floor on his face ala James Cagney in Public Enemies (1931).)

Hoping to lay low for a while, Larceny Lou spends the month of August traveling to California, with her assistant named Mortimer. Before Steve went back to prison, he gave Larceny Lu some information about Junior, whom he adopted many years prior. The location of Junior’s mother. Since Junior’s father is dead, her mother stands to inherit a fortune and armed with this knowledge, Lu sets out to the sunny West Coast to meet the woman. Mary Steele owns and operates a roadside diner known as the Coffee Pot, shaped like a Coffee Pot. Larceny Lu finds Mary, explains her reason for visiting, convinces the woman to sell her diner and travel back to the East to meet Junior.

Throughout the month of September, Doc Hump communicates with Steve the Tramp, but Dick Tracy is aware of the communications, intercepting the letters and discovering that writing invisibly with a toothpick, using milk for ink, delivers encoded messages. Mary Steele, however, hesitates introducing herself to Junior, after discovering the swell living conditions he presently has. Angry because of her hesitation, Larceny Lu orders Mortimer to visit Mary in her hotel room and apply a whip to her back (later depicted as brutal lacerations on her bare back) to persuade her to do her job and introduce herself to Junior.

Dick Tracy meets Mary and discovers her secret, promising not to tell anyone. Larceny Lu and Mortimer are apprehended at the midway, thanks to Pat Patton’s clever crime deductions, which also saves the life of Dick Tracy from a sniper up in the ferris wheel. Mary Steele, not wanting to take Junior away from his home, buys a small Scottish terrier and has it mysteriously dropped off on Dick Tracy’s doorstep. Junior adopts the dog.

In recognition of Halloween, October and November 1934 offers an exciting story arc, involving Doc Hump who manages to get out of jail thanks to a fast-talking attorney named Twillbrain. Seeking revenge against Dick Tracy for putting him behind bars, Doc Hump turns mad scientist and creates a vial of germs and cultures, injecting rabies and other diseases into a dog. His plan is to have the dog attack Dick Tracy, killing the detective. In order to test out his theory, a butler once owned by Hump’s family, is requested at the old abandoned mansion. Chained to the wall, he is about to be attacked by the dog when Dick Tracy arrives, thanks to a tip-off from an alert policeman. Chasing Doc Hump through the catacombs, Tracy and Junior fall into a trap. A fish net is dropped on the two, lined with hundreds of fish hooks. The crazed Doc Hump is about to let loose his dog but the beast attacks the doctor, tearing his throat out.

Mary Steele, hoping to earn enough money to venture back to California, has meanwhile signed for the job of a maid for Boris Arson, a master criminal. It doesn’t take long before she discovers who her employer is… or his mad scheme to bomb six banks in six major cities all at the same time. Stealing the plans, Mary Steele escapes and flies to Washington where Government men investigate the plans and immediately phone Dick Tracy. They ask Chief Brandon to please allow Dick Tracy to investigate and the Chief agrees. Tess Trueheart, who by this time has made up to Dick Tracy, understands the scenario and agrees he should leave for a few weeks.
The remainder of the calendar year involves the mad Boris Arson and Dick Tracy, employed by the Secret Service, to investigate and capture the master criminal. This involves an inspection of the famous “Della-X” nitro-glycerin plant, where Pat and Tracy discover who is embezzling vials of nitro from the plant… a trail that leads straight to Arson and his gang. Tracy is captured and taken alive while Pat proves his worth on board the airplane filled with gallons of explosive liquid. Tracy tricks the crooks and turns the tables on them, just in time to return home for Christmas.

Arson, however, steals the keys from Pat and escapes jail. After a death-defying car chase, Arson escapes and quickly changes his appearance by shaving off his beard. Arson sets a price on Tracy’s head and one criminals fails -- but manages to find Mary Steele… someone Arson would love to seek revenge against for spilling the plans to the U.S. Government. Dick Tracy has to come to the rescue, but not before he finds himself trapped in a closet and Arson waits patiently as the closet fills with chloroform. Tracy outsmarts him, however, but sucking air through the keyhole. The police arrive and nab the villains (hoping this time they’ll stay behind bars) and Junior meets the lady… still unaware that she is his mother. But that won’t last very long…

Dick Tracy Comic Reprints (Volume 2)
I would like to add that IDW Publishing has been reprinting the comic strips in chronological order. The plots for this blog post originate from volume two. At present, they are in the mid-fifties and have intentions of doing another two decades so please support them and buy these wonderful hard cover volumes. None of the volumes undergo a reprint so once they are sold out, the price starts to skyrocket. Buy the earliest volumes today and start your collection.