Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was created in the 1930s as a response to the romanticization of gangsters and declining respect for law enforcement. And throughout its run under the notoriously conservative artist made no secret of his disdain for many modern trends. In the 1950s when mania around “juvenile delinquency” dominated popular culture, Gould added to his famous rogues gallery a few of these teen terrorists. Most notable for its outright weirdness (even for Gould) are the 1956 episodes spanning Joe Period and Flattop, Jr., the son of one of Tracy’s most famous nemeses of the prior decade.
Joe Period was a small-time henchman for mob boss “Nothing” Yonson, whom he would eventually kill. Joe was an oddly formed Tracy villain, if you could even call him that. With exaggerated lips and eyelashes he looked more like a cross-dressing teen girl than a street tough. In most scenes he seems more desperate than deliberate, either diminished by other characters or, int he case of Flattop, Jr., and obsequious toadie. Murderous as he was (he kills a lawyer and Jonson), Gould seemed not to take him too seriously as a villain. And perhaps that was the artist’s point. Juvenile delinquency, at least as he portrays it here, seems more like accidental outpourings of inchoate rage than conniving criminality.
And one of the notable things about the Joe Period and Flattop, Jr. sequence is that Gould makes one of his rare dips (albeit light) into amateur sociology. When Joe is collared for Jonson’s murder, his mother comes to see him in jail, wailing about her failures in raising him. In a soliloquy that is as ham-handed and didactic as anything Gould ever drew, Mother Period bemoans her bad parenting – which so happens to be a litany of conservative complaints: neglecting her son by being in the workplace instead of at home, selfishly partying, forsaking church, etc. “Juvenile problem? What about the parent problem? Parents like me?” She rants while being led off. In Gould’s harsh cosmos, feelings of guilt rarely stand as their own punishment. When Joe rebuffs his mother she soon throws herself in front of an oncoming truck as a final solution to her pain.
The second and more interesting of Gould’s JD couple is Flattop’s son, Flattop Jones, Jr. While Tracy suspects the young Flattop is “headed in the same direction,” the boy seems to come from a different source. Unlike Joe, Flattop is brilliant, not undirected and hapless. His appearance is more stereotypically teen-like – a white T-shirt and rolled up jeans. And he is a master of 50s car culture. Joe meets him via Flattop’s self-made super car, a tricked-out sedan with built-in TV, police radio, bullet-proof windows, stove-top, sink, safe, and more.
Gould even seems a bit sympathetic, or at least admiring, of Jr.’s native genius for tech. While Joe, and we, marvel at the gadgetry in this boy wonder’s car, Gould juxtaposes these scenes with Tracy himself celebrating the tenth anniversary of the two-way wrist radio and introducing new police tech. The tech-driven surveillance state takes a bow in this episode, where remote, atomic-powered TV surveillance cameras are tied back to a central monitoring room of cops. Dick and Jr. seem to be on parallel paths of innovation.
Flattop, Jr. seems to fall into criminality out of a general amorality rather follow a deliberate villainy. And while one would expect the son of a super-villain to seek revenge on his assassin father’s ‘s famous pursuer, Jr. seems disconnected from Flattop’s history. In fact, unlike Joe Period’s JD roots, Flattop, Jr. comes from a generally loving and notable family. Single, self-supporting Auntie Flattop raised the orphaned boy, and her only mistake seems to have been an obliviousness to his petty dishonesty. Especially delicious in Dick’s questioning of the aunt are the background Flattop family portraits.
While Sam may think “truth is stranger than fiction,” the opposite seems to be the case as Gould resolves this Flattop, Jr. storyline in an uncharacteristically hallucinogenic way. While hiding from the law, Flattop gets entangled with the stylish art student Skinny, whom he eventually tosses to her death from a roof. And yet Skinny literally clings to Flattop, or at least his conscious, in the form of a transparent spirit who wraps around the delinquent’s neck. Gould rarely gives his villains a conscience, but in Jr.’s case he brings us inside the mind of a guilt-tormented boy, visualizes his conscience as an infatuated ghost, and dogs his villain to his death with these demons in place of Tracy himself. And unlike the grisly and poetic ends for most Tracy bad guys, the apparent death of Flattop Jones, Jr. is more tragic than punitive. Taking a torch to his own back against the spectral Skinny, he throws himself in lake.
It is ironic that Gould, the arch-conservative that he was, had, in general, a better sense of the problem than Dr. Wertham in your last segment. Sometimes, bad parenting WAS the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. Yet excellent parents can produce kids that are criminal hellions. I think Gould would have found the good doctor’s dismissal of nearly all comic books as reactionary and misplaced. Indeed, he probably saw himself and his creation as the “answer” to Wertham’s imagined “problems.” The fact that he can even envision one of these JDs as a kind of mirror image of the perfect dick, Dick Tracy, is a light touch that Wertham simply would not have understood. For an artist and writer who usually used a sledgehammer and blow torch on social and criminal issues that is really saying something!
Thanks for the thoughtful note James. I agree that Wertham was a particularly ham handed practitioner of the “Media Effects” school of media and sociological research in the post-WWII era. Mass media critics had always mistaken art they found distasteful with art that muse be socially dangerous. But for a while after the war, many of them claimed to have science to back it up. It is remarkable that the otherwise unforgiving and cantankerous Gould treated Flattop, Jr. especially with a kind of sympathy.