Chester Gould’s imagination was as relentless as it was strange and even strangely mundane. His four decade run of Dick Tracy was distinguished by his signature villain grotesques, striking graphic violence and often arch-conservative politics. Reviewing Tracy’s first year of strips lately, I was struck by a few scenes that both veered from the strip’s eventual form but also practiced many of its regular notes. In the image above, for instance, Tracy pumps himself up for the coming challenge of bringing down his first major nemesis, Big Boy, and rescuing a kidnapped boy. The later Tracy would of course become a rock of resolve that wouldn’t have admitted even this kind of self-encouragement. At this point, even for Gould, Tracy is still human and not yet iconic.
And yet the two-fisted and eccentric manliness of Tracy and many of his pulp fiction counterparts was central to the character from the beginning. And Gould’s politics clearly were already set as early as 1932. Tracy was conceived as a lawman who necessarily had one foot outside police institutions. In fact, before the murder of fiancee Tess Trueheart’s father Emil, Dick was a civilian who had not yet found his calling. He swears upon Emil’s dead body that he will avenge the murder, which sets him on a quick path to becoming a leader among the “plainclothes” unit of the city police department. But his impatience with the bureaucracy is apparent in his unconventional methods and capacity for personal revenge and violence upon his villains. When he finally corners Big Boy, we get a crescendo of police brutality that stretches across several days. It ends with Tracy sending Big Boy crashing through a ships’ cabin door.
The twisted genius of Gould was in having it both ways with Tracy. He professed a deep respect for the law, and Tracy’s straight-backed uprightness was a feature of the strip’s characterization as well as it’s blocky noir style. And yet vigilante justice was meted out both by Tracy and Gould alike. Indeed, his colleagues in the force like Pat Patton and subsequent colleagues are seen as relatively timid and even feminized by their institution in a way that the indomitable masculinity of Dick is not. And the overall violence of the strip is clearly an extension of Tracy’s own vengefulness. The protracted chase of villains on the lam became a part of the Dick Tracy formula, and it was punctuated by the villain’s gruesome torture by nature along the way, often ending in grisly death. Violence for Gould always seemed to be the ultimate social purifier.
By Gould’s own admission, he often made it up as he went along, rarely knowing where his plots were headed and how he would get Tracy out of a jam. And so from its early days the plotting and devices often feel ham-handed, implausible or genuinely weird. His pursuit of Big Boy onto an ocean liner leads Tracy to knock out an innocent staffer to don his uniform and to dress in drag just to get onto the boat and get close to the kidnappers. Less tortured paths clearly are available to his characters, but Gould’s love of novel, unlikely story paths usually wins out.
By 1942, a decade after its launch, Gould’s visual signature for Tracy is fully established. His hawklike nose, perpendicular chin and straight lips are as much a statue as a figure, more chiseled from stone than drawn in ink. And in this self-portrait Gould himself sweats under Tracy’s command. He has created a caricature of law and order, authority and masculinity that would become a lodestone. Al Capp soon would mock his violence and surreal story and villainy. His love of authority and violence, impatience with countercultural trends would make him seem a relic by the end of the run. Yet, as much as Gould himself seemed a straight arrow defender of formal institutions, Dick Tracy itself was grounded in a surreal imagination that eschewed simple realism, broke violently with the propriety of the comics page and took us into very strange places.