Before I loved novels and movies and plays, even before I loved comic books, I loved newspaper comic strips; before I could read, they were read to me, by my mother and grandmother, and certainly long before I turned seven I was reading dozens of them every day of the week myself in the papers we got at home–the Bayonne Times, the Newark Evening News, and the New York Journal-American–as well as the papers I borrowed from obliging neighbors–the Jersey Journal, the Hudson Dispatch, the New York Daily Mirror, and the New York Daily News. The News was, hands down, my favorite paper because it carried my favorite strips–“On Stage,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Moon Mullins,” “Smilin’ Jack,” “Brenda Starr,” “Winnie Winkle,” “Smitty,” as well as my very favorites, Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” and Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy.” (I always wanted to like George Wunder’s version of “Terry and the Pirates,” but I just didn’t get it.) To me “Dick Tracy” was the pinnacle of strip comics; I remember lying in bed at night wondering what mayhem tomorrow’s installment would contain, and also wondering how old I’d have to be (17? 18?) before I could show up at Chester Gould’s front door (but where did he live?) and beg him to let me be his assistant.
Comic strips were, and continue to be, a major part of my imaginative life, although these days, with very few exceptions, the newspaper strips that I read and enjoy are decades (and decades!) old and are published in pricey reprint books. The heyday of the American Comic Strip is long past; the gag-a-day strips appearing now in newspapers and online just make me cringe, and the few remaining story strips are almost all narratively lamebrained and visually grotesque (and not grotesque in a good way). For a long time, the post-Gould ”Dick Tracy” strip was so incoherent and abysmal that I wished that somebody–please!–would just put the damn thing out of its misery. But then in March of 2011, the new creative team of Joe Staton (art) and Mike Curtis (scripts) took over, and while still suffering under the draconian thematic and size restrictions of American comics, they revitalized the 80-year-old feature in ways I never thought possible. It was fun to read “Dick Tracy” again, and for the first time in more than 30 years I found myself following the strip day by day by day.
So imagine my surprise on the morning of November 16, 2011 when I started my computer, clicked on Favorites, then clicked on Dick Tracy, and read the strip that’s reprinted above–a strip in which Tracy’s partner Sam Catchem casually tells Tracy that his favorite comic strip is “Derby Dugan”–a comic strip that never actually appeared in newspapers but which was the central motif of my trilogy of novels about cartoonists: Funny Papers, Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, and Dugan Under Ground. I was gobsmacked. What th–!? How on earth had such a shout-out come to pass? I didn’t know either Staton or Curtis, I’d had no inkling this was coming, and yet–there it was. There it was. My character mentioned in “Dick Tracy.” I’ll be damned. I posted a thank-you note at the comments section on the “Dick Tracy” GoComics site, then printed out a copy of the strip and taped it over my desk, but I remained completely puzzled by this delightful surprise until, months later, I got a phone call at my university office from–of all people–Mike Curtis. Turns out–ain’t life interesting?–that he’s a fan of my Derby Dugan books, and that Sam Catchem’s remark had been a genial cross-media hello to me. (I often forget that some people actually do read my fiction.)
Mike and I have kept in touch, and he frequently sends me emails with attachments containing previews of daily and Sunday “Dick Tracy” strips that won’t be appearing yet for weeks or, sometimes, months. Strips that I read with relish, feeling again like an excited 7-year-old.