This essay, which was published in Comic Art No. 9 (Fall 2007), is the second I wrote about the great cartoonist Chester Gould (the first one, entitled “Bud, Which Way to the Noble Hotel?” appeared in Nemo: the Classic Comics Library back in the mid-1980s). I’ve always maintained–because it’s the truth–that had it not been for my early discovery of, and infatuation with, Gould’s “Dick Tracy” comic strip, I never would have become a writer of fiction; that weird and compelling stuff of his just fired my imagination, made me want to make up stuff like it myself. His work is still inspiring to me and I still regularly reread the classic strips, now happily available in gorgeous hardcover editions published by the Library of American Comics. When I was preparing that article for Nemo 30 or so years ago, Chester Gould was still alive, and I spoke with him briefly, twice, on the telephone. It still makes me happy, remembering that I did. I’ve had quite a few heroes in my life, but none to compare with Chester Gould–and I actually got to talk to him!
“My production of Dick Tracy was mostly a case of constant application and continuous effort,” Chester Gould wrote shortly after his retirement in 1977. Application. Constant application and continuous effort. The phrasing sounds antiquated, heartfelt but antiquated, something rote-learned in school rooms during the first and second decades of the twentieth century. And in the home too, of course, certainly in the home. Constant application and continuous effort. It’s the phrasing, as well as the creed, of the morally Protestant man of his time, publicly educated in his time, a twentieth-century citizen with nineteenth-century values who never doubted the basic doctrine of American success or forgot its time-tested formula. Continuous effort. And constant application. The production of Dick Tracy was mostly a case of that. The production of Dick Tracy was. Not the creation, the production. Chester Gould, it should come as no surprise, earned a college degree in marketing from Northwestern. Commerce and Marketing. Night school. “Chet succeeded in everything he did,” his wife said of her man. “Nothing daunted him.”
Dauntless Chester Gould was born on November 20, 1900 in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Territory. Born there and grew up there during the last years of the Old West, the west of the cattle-drive cowboys, when the Butch Cassidys were giving way to the Pretty Boy Floyds; during the oil boom years, the First World War. His grandparents were bona-fide pioneers. His father was the owner, editor, publisher and printer of the regional weekly newspaper. When Chester was 10 or 11, “Mutt & Jeff” started to run in his dad’s paper. Practically from the moment he laid eyes on Bud Fisher’s strip about a racing tout and an escapee from the lunatic asylum, he decided that this, this, was what he wanted to do. As a teenager he sent off twenty bucks to the Cleveland-based W.L. Evans School of Cartooning and doggedly completed their home-study course. He was not a natural draughtsman, but he practiced and mastered the fundamentals, although in a wooden unimaginative way.
In 1921, he moved to Chicago, intending to make it big as a syndicated cartoonist. He had enormous self-confidence. He tried charming his way to success—pasting, for example, one of his own political drawings over the published drawing in an editor’s copy of that day’s paper. If his charm sometimes fell short, and it could, he still had moxey. He’d get out there and fight, every day. Give it his best shot, every day. How could he fail? He came from pioneer stock.
Over the next ten years, the lawless Capone years, Gould wrote and drew a number of comic strips that were locally published—“Radio Cats,” “Fillum Fables” “Why It’s a Windy City,” “The Girl Friends”—but nothing clicked, nothing lasted. To support himself and his wife Edna (a nice girl from nearby Wilmette), Gould freelanced for different art services, and did salaried work in the art departments of every-paper-but-one published in the city of Chicago. Like Harold Gray, he had a brief stint as Sidney Smith’s background man on “The Gumps.” All the while he kept bombarding his primary target, “Captain” Joseph Patterson of the Chicago-Tribune syndicate, with different comic strip proposals, new samples (Gould claimed 60 separate submissions: funny animals, funny kids, funny office boys, funny beautiful girls, funny…) only to be told, over and over again, no.
“Chicago in 1931 was being shot up by gangsters,” Chester Gould recalled much later, “and I decided to invent a comic strip character who would always get the best of the assorted hoodlums and mobsters.” He claimed that he developed “Plainclothes Tracy” in late winter, early spring of ’31. Warner Brother’s first talkie gangster movie, Little Caesar was released on the last day of that January, then played widely throughout the early months of the year—and not only did it feature a gang leader called Big Boy, as did Gould’s unsolicited submission, but Thomas E. Jackson, the rail-thin actor who played the detective hero Sergeant Flaherty, has the identical physique and Roman-nosed profile, the same mien, as the primordial Tracy. You just know Gould saw that picture. And probably more than once.
He worked up five dailies (in the first, Big Boy ignites a blow torch to burn the soles of a squealer’s feet) and dropped them at the Chicago Tribune. It took a while for Patterson’s response, but when it came, on August 31—Gould would always recall that it came while he was working a commercial job, laboring over a pen-and-ink drawing of a Persian rug—it was in the form of a telegram that started: YOUR PLAINCLOTHES TRACY HAS POSSIBILITIES…
Patterson liked the idea, the concept of Gould’s strip, but dismissed the title, too big of a mouthful. “Detectives are called dicks,” he told the nervous cartoonist, who’d gone out and bought a new suit for this momentous, life-changing meeting—“so call it ‘Dick Tracy.’”
The strip premiered in the Detroit Mirror on Sunday, the fourth of October. The daily debuted on Monday the twelfth. Patterson suggested the primal story: an undistinguished but upstanding young man—could be a retail clerk, could be a night-school student, we’re never told—arrives at his fiancé’s house for dinner. Her parents own a small grocery store. They all discuss the terrible neighborhood crime wave…and before the first week of “Dick Tracy” is through—on Friday—Emil Truehart, the father of Tracy’s girlfriend, Tess, is shot and killed during a robbery. When Tess is dragged off, and by implication raped, Tracy vows to avenge her father and snatch her back, and bring the entire lot of murdering kidnappers to justice. Once he completes all of these self-imposed tasks, acting unofficially, mind you, he is invited to join the police force. From the very start, Tracy is the man in charge, answering only to the Chief, first Brandon, then Patton. To hell with the seniority system and Civil Service exams.
Every day for 46 years, two months and eleven days, Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” was a never-ending serial of crime and punishment, law and order, black and white. Tracy himself had qualities (competence, doggedness, coolness under pressure), but no character to speak of, no personality quirks, nothing to particularize him, humanize him. He had no catch phrases, no hobbies, no reader-endearing preferences for things like exorbitant sandwiches or corned beef, he wasn’t a Romeo or a jazz buff. In the strip, everyone, even Tess most of the time, called him Tracy. He socialized only at Christmas, and some years the situation was too grim or precarious for Tracy to socialize even then. We almost never saw him at home when he was a bachelor and after he married Tess we saw him at home just very briefly before the house was blown up. At first and throughout the 1930s he was the consummate pro, straight out of Hammett’s Continental Op stories; later on he became a symbol. He was Pursuit, he was Vengeance. Either way he wasn’t your best friend. You couldn’t warm to Dick Tracy.
It wasn’t its star that quickly made the comic strip famous, but the casual violence. As time passed it became even more famous for its semi-annual sadistic slow-death traps (giant magnifying glass, hot paraffin bath, sinking room) and then, of course, for its rogue’s gallery of grotesques—Matty Square, the Mole, Ugly Christine, Mr. Bribery, Wormy, Smallmouth Bass, Flyface, Spots and Ogden, on and on.
In the beginning the strip was crudely drawn: the backgrounds seemed shabby, the figures were stiff, hunched, and everything was described monotonously by a thin magazine-illustrator’s line. But by the late thirties, after Gould had the experience of writing and drawing the strip day after day for several years, working out pictorial strategies, finding and changing rhythms, sharpening focus, “Dick Tracy,” had become glossily professional, confidently expressive, bluntly informational. It grabbed your attention, insisted upon it.
Great big masses of solid black anchored and organized every panel. Gradually there was less crosshatching, then far less, and then none. The brush line was fat and declarative. Gould developed a style notable for its selectivity, its subtractions; there was no clutter. It was spare, his filling of space, but not stark. There was a single source of intense light, always. Cartoonish figures existed, and behaved violently, in a world of geometrically precise objects; hyper-realistic things. Tracy’s plots often turned on the misuse or novel use of ordinary, instantly recognizable things. By 1940 both the strip’s graphics and narrative were indistinguishable, inextricable. During the Second World War the strip looked brutal and it was brutal, but it was also beautifully staged. The pacing was a chaotic down-the-staircase tumble. Breathers would occur now and then, for the birth of a baby or the celebration of an anniversary, but they never lasted long.
Forty-six years, two months and eleven days. That was the cumulative length of Chester Gould’s lifework. One new strip every single day for forty-six years, two months and eleven days. I’ve read most of them. I guess, at one time or another I’ve read every strip from the beginning through 1965 or ’66. After that I read “Dick Tracy” intermittently; it could break your heart, those final years. Tracy with that stupid mustache. And sloganeering against judges, Miranda, the Fifth Amendment. Very sad, most of the last years, the seventies. Very goddamn sad. So no, I haven’t read Gould’s entire run, but ’31 to ’66 is a lot of comic strips. And a number of favorite sequences I’ve read many times over. This qualifies as an obsession, I think.
I first fell under Gould’s spell in the middle 1950s. I was a young kid, eight years old, when I started following the strip in the New York Daily News, which I had to get, usually a day late, from the old lady in a wheelchair who lived diagonally across the street. My family took, as they used to say, the New York Journal-American, a Hearst rag but good for “Mandrake,” “The Phantom,” “Buz Sawyer,” Bud Sagendorf’s “Popeye,” “The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Drift Marlo,” and “Mr. Abernathy.”
Supplementing the new stuff that I read every day in a day old paper (Tracy versus the Kitten Sisters, the Clipso Brothers, Pantsy and his gang of buried-treasure hunters) was the old stuff that I found in Harvey comic books. The stories heavily edited and with color usually out of register, Dick Tracy Comics Monthly reprinted Gould’s strips from the 1930s, 40s and very early 50s. My first issue was Number 104. October 1956.
Gradually I developed a sense of, then got a handle on, the strip’s continuity, such as it was (Gravel Gertie and B.O. Plenty were villains first, then they were good guys), and came to recognize its graphic development. If the pictures had a lot of hay and the balloon pointers were dangling strings; if Tracy’s nose came to a point and Junior was a little hobo, a kid-kid, and if the villains looked like normal people (even if they did smash other people in the face with blunt objects), then I knew those stories were old, very old, dating from the strip’s first years. Gangbuster Tracy. Depression-era Tracy.
But if the drawings seemed rounder, more cartoonish, and if the prowl cars were long with dramatically curving hoods; if Dick Tracy’s nose was hooked but his hair on the sides and in back was indicated by tiers of short parallel lines; if Vitamin Flintheart was featured, and if—most importantly—if all of the bad guys looked like circus freaks or creatures from a Saturday morning horror movie, then for sure the stories dated from sometime during the 1940s. The Classic Period.
If, however, Tracy’s hair was wavy on top and solid black all over (except when he sported a crew cut), and if his head seemed small (in relation to his body); if the villains looked fairly normal but principally preyed upon, or committed vicious crimes with, their closest relatives; if Pat Patton was police chief and Sam Catchem was the sidekick; if the 2-way wrist radio was in use, and if various small children (one of them invariably being Sparkle Plenty) were regularly tortured/bludgeoned/poisoned/ shot or were lost in the wilderness or in some Weather Channel-type catastrophe (floods, fogs, blizzards), then I knew that those stories probably dated from the late 1940s through the early1950s. They most closely resembled the new stuff running in the daily paper. These particular stories I eventually came to call (precocious schoolboy that I was) the “modern stuff.”
I still call them the modern stuff.
Or when I’m trying to sound smarter, I’ll say that those bleak and fugue-like strips from the 1950s belong to the “Modern Period.”
I can even tell you, since I determined them, the exact years comprising Dick Tracy’s, or Chester Gould’s, Modern Period: 1950 through 1959, from the wedding of Dick Tracy (Christmas 1949) to the Matty Munkie storyline, where Lizz the policewoman is accused on live television of participating in police brutality and its cover-up—in other words, from the famous matrimony, which made Dick Tracy the head of an instant family that could then be threatened, to the first indisputable sign of paranoia and political aggression, which in only a few years’ time would poison the strip. I just as well could’ve started in ’49, with the resignation of Chief Brandon, the elevation of Pat Patton to Chief and the arrival of Sam Catchem, but I just like to think that Tracy’s marriage set the major theme of the Modern Period—the many ways a family can be dangerous or put in danger.
Everything that came after 1959—the space coupe, the Moon Maid, the law and order tirades, the mustache, the sideburns, the embarrassing senior moments, the senility—I call that period the “Post-Modern. (I’ve read that we have Gould’s fondness for the then-popular “Jetsons” to thank for the space coupe and all the rest of those Sixties science fiction trappings. So we have Hanna-Barbara to thank, indirectly, for the death of a great American comic strip.)
Since I’ve already mentioned two distinct Gouldd periods, I might as well go ahead—whew! scholarship is backbreaking work!—and mention the others, just be done with it. There are only two: the Primitive, lasting from 1931 till 1941, from the earliest lurching melodramas based on big-city gangsterism (at least as portrayed by the tabloids and Hollywood) to the appearance of the Mole, first of the major grotesques, at which point the strip ceases to be cops-and-robbers and becomes instead a repeating morality tale, an allegory, the individual sequences only kicking into high gear the moment the monster/criminal flees arrest with Tracy in hot pursuit. The trials and tortures—preposterous, slapstick, mutilating, painful, lethal—that great villains like Pruneface, Flattop, the Brow, etc. undergo before at last they’re brought to ground (usually dead) are real jaw-droppers, marvels of ingenuity and sadism, lacking utterly in compassion, what Bruegel might have dreamed up, if he’d drawn comic strips. (You look at those stories today and think, they actually printed this in the paper?)
For all of its nasty brilliance, though, the Classic Period is formulaic: despite their delightful bits of macabre business, Gould’s stories were pretty much all the same—crime/pursuit/pursuit/pursuit/the kill. Crime/pursuit/pursuit/pursuit/the kill. Endings were occasionally, and then always heavy-handedly, ironical (a Nazi spy impaled on an American flag pole). But much more often they simply were cruel and pitiless, bone crunching and/or filled with prolonged agony (suffocation, drowning, slow freezing). This is work done by the artist applying himself constantly, giving continuous effort, in his early middle age. He knows that he’s good, and good ideas come to him like the falling rain. So he showboats.
For my money, the best, most sustained work dates from the Modern Period, and I don’t really feel like arguing with those Classic era bullies. It just does. The work Gould turned out beginning in the late forties and continuing through the late fifties (his late forties, his late fifties, those feeling-your-own-mortality years) is darker than anything he’d ever done previously, by far, and not only because he used more black, which he did. He chose often to narrate now in silhouette, in long sequences of silhouette. But no, it wasn’t the ink, it was the spirit; the spirit of the strip had darkened. Tracy looked older, his squint was tighter, and his pained grimace in profile—two curving slashes, one above the other, a graphic clamshell—was almost scary. While characters good and bad still were perfectly named (Little Wingy, 3-D Magee, Dot View, Sketch Paree), and remained striking in appearance (Gould did some of his best mug work in the fifties), they no longer were necessarily grotesques. Most of the Modern Era antagonists (Spots and Flyface being notable exceptions) were not. A good number also happened to be women. Sleet, Pony, Mousey, Newsuit Nan, Miss Egghead, Aunt Soso.
Fifty through fifty-nine, Gould’s stories were longer than before, or very short, and far less formulaic. They were also, as I’ve said, more apt to revolve around families. Thematically, the fifties in “Dick Tracy” was about families, which Gould depicted alternately as being completely nuts, a source of anguish, a big nuisance, or just flat-out malignant. Big Frost arranges to have his irritating daughter Flossie taken for a ride and bumped off; Dew Drop smothers her rich old man with a pillow in his sick bed. Mother and son…father and sons…brother and sister…brother and brother…sisters…all commit crimes together. Poor wives rent out their babies, rich wives shoot their husbands. Or have their husbands shot. One even knocks hers on the head and then props him up on a soda crate in their basement home freezer
There is no safety, either, in families, or in family life. Junior Tracy loses his first girlfriend in ‘52, policewoman Lizz loses a sister in ’56. Both are murdered. Children keep being born, and then are put into immediate jeopardy, separated from their parents, menaced by killers and mountain lions, paralyzed by fire-ant venom. They are throttled, bruised, shot at, flung through high windows.
And over the course of the 1950s most of the teenagers who showed up in “Dick Tracy” were criminals. Whether the products of bad parenting or just bad seeds, Gould had no pity on them. None. Zero. In fact he seemed to heap unusual scorn on shiftless coddled punks like Joe Period (the strip’s James Dean figure), taking his first inevitable steps toward the soap box.
Oddly, though, this grimmest time in the strip’s long run was also its funniest. While Gould could, and often did, overdo it with the antics of B.O. Plenty/Gravel Gertie, a lot of that stuff was pretty good buffoonery, it really was, and done with perfect timing. But there is no better low comedy/black comedy routine in all of Gould’s work than when Vitamin Flintheart and his Indonesian shrunken head attached themselves to Flattop’s easily irritated brother Blowtop. Summer, 1951. Because of its inspired clowning as much as for the astounding achievement of milking the same one gag (shrunken head, ventriloquism) for nearly a month, it rivals some of “Thimble Theater’s greatest bits. You think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Look it up.
But why I most cherish those nine years of strips and hold them in higher esteem than the canonical “classic” years, are, finally—finally and most gratefully—the images.
There are dozens of pictures and short multi-panel sequences that have startled me every time I’ve seen them again over the past 50 years. Every time. A long-haired lunatic “drowning” a 6-inch dress-up doll by pressing it—smashing it against a sopping wet sponge-mask attached to his face. A swaddled infant fitted inside a tiny insulated and weather-stripped closet cut directly into a tree—a tree standing in the middle of a forest in winter at night. A blonde greaser with a haircut halfway between a Marine and a mullet peeling a derringer from a banana peel. A little girl who glows in the dark. A midget cobbler hunkered inside a supposedly automatic coin-operated shoe-heeling machine. A death threat printed vertically along a Popsicle stick: THIS IS YOUR LAST DAY. Crazy combinations, inspired situations. An elevator rising from the bottom of a swimming pool, its doors opening onto the diving board. A lion prowling a Playboy-style swinger’s pad, a black-jacketed juvenile delinquent with a D.A. standing to his knees in dill pickles and brine, one arm in a sling: he’s trapped in a giant barrel, his mouth is open and he’s screaming. A proto-beatnik girl (straight blond hair, Capri pants, cat’s eye glasses) gliding through the air, following her murder, as a see-through ghost. An old white-haired lady in a shawl feeding beef brisket and flank steak to a flesh-eating plant (which, if you look closely, holds a full skeleton of a man tangled inside its vines). For me, the stuff is indelible. A 400-pound fat guy weighing himself while wearing a Turkish towel and a two-gun holster, the laughing blond maniac leaping from a gym locker while bringing down a golf club hard upon the head of man in a tuxedo. Hip boots and a man’s legs emerging from the gutted carcass of a buck strung by rope from a barn’s rafters. A black Plymouth floating down a river on a cake of ice in a blizzard. Stuff like that has been turning up in my dreams for 50 years. I’m not saying that what Gould made was art (all right, I’m saying it’s art, but I’m not insisting), just that it can, and for me does, have the impact of art. That stuff is in there, those images, way deep inside, and two hundred years from now if I have any descendants they’ll be dreaming sometimes of twentieth-century Plymouths floating down a raging river on an ice floe. They’ll wake up and wonder what the hell that was all about.
In that same autobiographical sketch Chester Gould wrote soon after starting retirement, he said, “Of course, any work you like is not really hard work—it’s a happy operation.” Oh, I bet you it was—even during Gould’s last years as operations manager, when story strips like his were dwindling, headed for extinction, their dimensions cut drastically (or as he once memorably put it, “locked in tiny cells like drunks”); I bet you it was a happy operation; I imagine it was, even when his famous narrative power became blunted and groggy; when the strip turned into a lame brained right-wing polemic for tough policing, and the poor guy himself, Gould himself, after 35, 40 years of lucrative celebrity and high repute was being name-called everything from a dinosaur to a callous crackpot. (The very idea of letting Dick Tracy fight crime with a vaporizing laser cannon!)
Through his last woozy days on “Dick Tracy” and despite everything—declining chops, declining health, declining popularity—it always seemed to me that Chester Gould was having serious fun. He may have been one of the few people in the world by then who was—by the end of Gould’s tenure the stories made almost no sense—but you always felt that he was enjoying himself. Why wouldn’t he? He’d distilled the strip’s graphic until it was nearly as emblematic as “Beetle Bailey,” he could still design a killer Sunday page even drawing at less than half the size he used to, and while it wasn’t as reliable as before, his knack for image-making remained very goddamn impressive. Currency, a few million bucks worth, orbiting the earth in a solid heap. A farmer’s field where all of the cows are two-dimensional cutouts. Sparkly diamonds sailing away in helium balloons. Yeah, he could still knock ‘em out from time to time.
The only photographs I’ve seen that don’t show Chester Gould smiling, beaming, are the ones that show him drawing—and then he looks wholly absorbed. He often referred to himself as a mere newsboy (“The sole purpose of a comic strip is to sell newspapers; that makes me a newsboy”), but that was disingenuous modesty: Gould knew perfectly well what he was: a compleat comic-strip man. Which meant during his lifetime, a newspaper comic strip man. A syndicated newspaper comic-strip man. For some mysterious reason, the sum total of Gould’s scrappy driven personality plus his native talents, plus a lot of practice, plus luck, made him finally into a world-class cartoonist, a genius of his medium. Till he stopped, till he finally and for good stopped applying himself, till he quit making the daily effort, the effort daily, the man was in charge of his comic strip. “Dick Tracy,” Chester Gould, Prop. Of course he was happy.