Even 30 years into one of the most successful runs in comic strip history, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy continued to promote itself to new newspapers that still hadn’t syndicated the iconic hero. This ad ran in Editor & Publisher, the longtime trade bible for print periodical publications. Of course, this “man of stature” led the most grisly, violent and truly weird of all American comic strips. It was also one of the most compelling. For a gallery of gruesome villain deaths, see this earlier post. On the impaling of The Brow. On the general strangeness of Gould’s imagination. On Gould and Tracy’s conservatism.
Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.
The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,
Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939
Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.
B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942
More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.
Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944
In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.
The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944
Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.
Gargles Eats Glass – 1946
Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.
Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947
Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.
T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950
Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.
Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953
Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.
Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956
Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.
The hallmark of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is its surreal villains. Flattop, Pruneface, Mole, Mumbles, et. al. But Gould wasn’t satisfied expressing inner evil with outward disfigurement. He also loved to torture and kill them in equally grotesque ways during the prolonged hunt and chase sequences that was central to every Dick Tracy storyline. Gould wanted more than justice against evil. He wanted revenge and sometime literal pounds of flesh.
But when it came to do wreaking poetic justice upon his disfigured villains, few suffered as creatively as The Brow. In the heat of wartime, Gould let out all the stops with this Axis spy through the summer of 1944. In the course of his doomed getaway sequence Brow had his head trapped in his own vise of spikes torture device, breathes through a water hose at the bottom of a pool to evade Tracy, gets shot during a chase through farm crops and crashes into Gravel Gertie’s gravel pit, suffers Gertie’s affections and folk cure poltice of soot and spider webs, escapes a house fire, get pummeled to a pulp by Tracy and falls back onto an electrified fence.
But the final indignity comes after all of this punishment at Police HQ. When Brow tries to make his escape, Tracy beans him with a glass inkwell, sending the villain backwards through the window and onto a flagpole marking a memorial for fallen soldiers. In one of the most gruesome panel sequences to come into America’s wartime homes, The Brow is impaled down the length of the flagpole.
Gould often served poetic justice to his villains, but few ever matched the sheer explicitness of this wartime spy speared by an icon of patriotic sacrifice. Not satisfied with this grisly end, Gould spends the next several days with horrified reactions and the tricky matter of getting Brow off of the pole.
Gould had a singular vision of good, evil, justice, retributive violence and the social order. All of it is on display in this lengthy Brow storyline that also includes Vitamin Flintheart, the Summer Sisters and the introduction of the recurring Gravel Gertie. Because of the overt grotesqueness of his villains, Gould’s worldview is often mistaken as stark and Manichean. But his morality tales are filled also with these characters who unwittingly aid and abet villains, often in pursuit of their own selfish but not criminal pursuits. Gould’s America required law and order diligence in part because he seemed to recognize the fragility of social order.
At the tail end of Gould’s run with tracy in the late 70’s, his stark vision of law and order grew cranky as it contended with the counter-culture and increasing criticism of police brutality. Antagonized by the zeitgeist, Tracy seemed increasingly anachronistic and a frequent object of satire. From its outset Gould conceived Tracy as a bit of a reactionary figure. And Gould’s truly strange imagination was apparent from the beginning.
Across the four decades, Gould’s visual style evolved considerably even as it remained singular and distinct from everything else on the comics page. It started as a scratchy, awkward thin-line depiction with body parts out of proportion, wooden motion, and an odd uneven use of perspective. Somehow, Gould stylized many of these weaknesses into strengths. While other adventure strips followed Alex Raymond’s etched realism of Flash Gordon or Milton Caniff’s blobby chiaroscuro effects, Gould went surreal. His massive fields of black, grotesque villains, bizarre character stances and eccentric uses of both flat and deep perspectives were set by the late 1930s and throughly expressive of his world view. His visual signatures became even more abstracted over the decades as his line work became thicker and his framing tighter to accommodate the shrinking formats for newspaper comics. But somehow the sensibility remained the same to the last panel in 1977, which reiterated the first Dick Tracy strip of 1931.
The hawklike nose and chin that stepped right off of Mount Rushmore were Dick Tracy’s visual signature. He was unapologetically a “square” literally inside and out. That rocklike defense of authority and institutions was precisely what Chester Gould intended as a counterpoint to the romanticized gangsterism of late Prohibition. And this impatience with “bleeding hearts” who seemed soft on crime was part of the strip from the start and an honest expression of Gould’s own sensibilities.
Tracy showed little regard for penal reform, rights of the accused or any ambivalence about police authority. Far from an aging curmudgeon, however, Gould’s views were present from the beginning of the strip and formed the center of the Dick Tracy ethos.
And so it should come as no surprise that from the start Tracy was not exactly a feminist treat. This early passage from the first year of Tracy around 1932 finds Dick being a real dick – mistakenly accusing his fiancé Tess Trueheart of ruining a planned raid on a gangster boss meeting by leaking the plan to friends. It’s a good example of Tracy as buffoon.
By the time Gould retired in the late 1970s Tracy had already become a counter-culture icon of right-wing deference to authority and defense of police at all costs. And this was nothing new. As early as the 1940s, rival cartoonist Al “Li’l Abner” Capp lampooned Tracy’s stoicism, violence and straitlaced devotion to law and order with his recurring Fearless Fosdick character.
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.