Dick Tracy is a comic strip featuring Dick Tracy (originally Plainclothes Tracy, a hard-hitting, fast-shooting and intelligent police detective. Created by Chester Gould, the strip made its debut on October 4, 1931, in the Detroit Mirror. It was distributed by the Chicago Tribune New York News Syndicate. Gould wrote and drew the strip until 1977.
Chester Gould introduced a raw violence to comic strips, reflecting the violence of 1930s Chicago. Gould did his best to keep up with the latest in crime fighting techniques; while Tracy often ends a case in a shootout, he uses forensic science, advanced gadgetry, and wits to track the bad guy down. The strip was an early example of the police procedural mystery story. Actual “whodunit” plots were relatively rare in the stories; the focus is the chase, with a criminal committing a crime and Tracy solving the case during a relentless pursuit of the criminal, who becomes increasingly desperate as the detective closes in.
The strip’s villains are arguably the strongest appeal of the story. Tracy’s world is decidedly black and white. The bad guys are sometimes so evil that their very flesh is deformed to announce their sins to the world. The evil sometimes is raw and coarse, like the criminally insane Selbert Depool (“looped” spelled backwards—typical Gould). At other times, it is suave, like the arrogant Shoulders, who cannot help thinking that all women like him. It can even border on genius, like the Nazi spy Pruneface, a machine design engineer who dabbles with a chemical nerve gas.
Gould’s most popular villain was Flattop Jones, a freelance hitman with a large head as flat as an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Flattop was hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy, and he nearly accomplished that before deciding to first blackmail his employers for more money. This proved to be a fatal mistake, since it gave Tracy time to signal for help. He eventually defeated his assassin in a spectacular fight scene even as the police were storming the hideout, but Flattop himself escaped. When Flattop was eventually killed, fans went into public mourning, and The Flattop Story was reprinted in its entirety in DC’s series of Oversize Comic Reprints in the 1970s.
Reflecting some of the era that also produced film noir, Gould tapped into the existential despair of the criminals as small crimes led to bigger ones. Plans slipped out of control and events sometimes happened for no apparent reason, portraying their lives as unpredictable and cruel. Treachery was everywhere as henchmen were ruthlessly killed by their bosses, who were in turn betrayed by jilted girlfriends. “Good people” in the wrong place at the wrong time were gunned down.
Amid these cases, the strip had considerable character storylines in the series. Tracy had a difficult relationship with his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, who found her beau’s firm dedication to his work both an irritating interference and a physical danger with her being often caught in the crossfire in his cases. The stormy relationship hit its nadir when she rejected Tracy to marry a charming wealthy ex-baseball player, only to find herself trapped in a deadly family intrigue that led to murder and the suicide of her husband that proved so traumatizing that she resumed her relationship with Tracy with a much more patient attitude toward his commitments.
Tracy had his own concerns with a young homeless boy whom he took under his wing to become adopted son and sidekick with the name, Dick Tracy Jr., or simply “Junior.” The boy would often participate in investigations at great personal risk until eventually finding his own career as a police forensic artist at the service of his father’s precinct. Tracy had a professional partner, the ex-steel worker Pat Patton. Joining the force, Pat had little confidence in his own abilities to the point of seriously considering leaving the force. However, he gradually grew into his career until he became a detective of considerable skill and courage—enough to satisfy Tracy’s needs.