Dick Tracy: Dick Tracy:
The Ethics of Violence and the Legacy of an American Comic Strip The Ethics of Violence and the Legacy of an American Comic Strip
  Introduction    Context    Analysis    Legacy    XRoads  




    *First Appearance

    *First Storyline

    *Menagerie of Ugly

Dick Tracy's Legacy


Dick Tracy in Context Dick Tracy in Context

It has been one of the defining features of narratives within American culture that the ideology and power of the masculine State be worked out over the body of women at the expense of the Other. From King Philip's War in colonial history to the early, indigenous representations of this story in the work of James Fenimore Cooper, the hallmark of this process has been a policy of "regeneration through violence" that pits the white male against the Native American in competition for authority over white women. The white male must exercise a brutal, exterminating morality in the boundless plain in order to implement the codes of "civilization." Indeed, the cowboy-sheriff of so many dime novels is the bringer of this morality, since his "rough justice" is able to traverse and represent both untamed Western wilderness (like the Native American) and the gentility of the East (as a law enforcer and protector of the "weak" female). His is a necessary role in this narrative; only violence can birth order.

If, as Richard Slotkin and Henry Nash Smith argue, the figure of the cowboy-sheriff is a

peculiarly American phenomena, then his urban cousin the detective is not. Although one of the earliest practicioners of "detective fiction," Edgar Allen Poe, was in fact an American, his protagonist August Dupin was quite European in sensibility, as well as in name. And, the most celebrated detective in fiction, Sherlock Holmes, was the creation of an Englishman. Rather than employing violence, these detectives espoused a highly rational, logical, and scientific approach to quelling criminality by apprehension, rather than extermination.

Although there may be other examples of the "Americanization" of the genre, it was probably within the pages of The Black Mask that the detective came into his own in American culture. Launched in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, according to Keith Allen Deutsch, in the earliest issues of the magazine the stories followed an English model, derived no doubt from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, wherein the detective logically pieced together a series of "clues" in order to determine the perpetrator of a crime. As the magazine progressed, however, a new type of detective began to emerge. The 1923 story, "Three Gun Terry," by Carol John Daly was the first what is now considered to be the hallmark of American detective fiction, the "hardboiled sleuth," the "private investigator." Although he did not assume editorial duties until 1926, under Joseph "Cap" Shaw this character and form came to dominate both The Black Mask and American detective fiction generally. There are some important dominant features of the hard boiled private investigator that are worth examining. The first feature is the nature of the detectives' character within the writing itself. Rather than being a gentleman in the order of Dupin or Holmes, these men were toughs who often spoke in slang. They were much quicker to employ violence when they found it expedient. But perhaps more importantly, these men were "private" investigators; they did not operate under the auspices of a police department or any other State authority.

Dashiell Hammett is doubtlessly the exemplary model of this type of writing. Whether in his ongoing, nameless detective character the Continental Op, or in the later novels featuring Sam Spade et al., Hammett was uniquely qualified to write this kind of character, having himself been an operative in the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency. The private nature of the Continental Op allowed him to move between the underworld of crime and the accepted order, both moral and civil, with an impunity that an actual officer of the law could not access. But as ambiguous as the Continental Op's devotion was at times to the upholding of law, there was another reason for his remaining a private operator. Again according to Keith Allen Deutsch, The Black Mask's editor Joseph Shaw wrote that, "he "believed that crime fiction could promote the ideal of justice on the increasingly lawless streets of America. It could show criminals for the spineless villains they were, and restore the tarnished image of law enforcement."

There are certainly numerous reasons for official law enforcement having a tarnished image in the 1920s. Not least of these is the enormous amount of corruption that accompanied Prohibition, particularly in major urban centers like New York and Chicago. But as the decade came to a close, a new problem emerged. Along with the police corruption that ran alongside bootlegging, criminal figures began to garner a kind of romantic stardom in the popular press. As the United States slid into the Great Depression, organized criminals like Al Capone and the so-called "Midwestern Outlaws" (like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd) were afforded an enormous amount of press in which--if they were not lauded outright--the attention and interest indicated a public that sympathized the shunning of the bounds of law and a State which had proved to a failure in maintaining order and stability.

Out of this massive social rupture emerged Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, a daily newspaper comic that (among other things) re-inserted a narrative in American popular culture that could encompass both the regenerative violence of the Western and the more modern problems of urban disorder.

Chester Gould was remarkably well suited and situated to this task. Born in Pawnee, Oklahoma on November 20, 1900. His maternal grandfather had been one of the men who participated in the "land rush" of the Oklahoma Territory in 1882, which effectively displaced the Cherokees who had been relocated there. His paternal grandfather

was a minister from West Virginia, and his own father had worked first as a printer before publishing his own weekly newspaper, the Stillwater, Oklahoma Advance-Democrat. A lifelong devotee of comics, Gould himself got his start in cartooning at age seven, when he draw political cartoons for the Pawnee Courier Dispatch. After graduating from high school, Chester Gould eventually made his way to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University by day and art school by night. At Northwestern, he majored in commerce and marketing. All the while, his intention was to break into the Chicago newspaper comics business.

After almost a decade of scraping by with piece-meal illustration work and comic strip one-offs, Chester Gould finally managed to pique the interest of the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate publisher, Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, for a strip idea that Gould initially called "Plainclothes Tracy." Patterson, who thought that the comic "showed promise," persuaded Gould to retitle his strip "Dick Tracy," since it was a well-know slang word for detective at the time. On October 4, 1931, Dick Tracy made its debut in the Detroit Mirror, which was owned by Patterson's syndicate. For a fascimile of this first strip and an analysis of it contents, go here.

Although the first strip did appear on October 4, 1931, it wasn't until October 12 that the strip in its recognizable form was printed. Aside from the initial appearance, there was another page printed in the Detroit Mirror on the 11th of October, but both of these strips essentially function outside of the Dick Tracy universe. They are anomalous one-offs that do not fall within the linear sequence of the comic's continuous narrative. That would have to wait until the 12th, when (like all good comic heroes) the events unfolded which would produced the plainclothes detective that we now recognize; in other words, an "origin" story. Dick Tracy would go on to more and more complicated storylines. In particular, the "Blank" storyline is analyzed here." But for now, I turn to Ellery Queen in her introduction to "The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy, who describes the state of crime in the fall of 1931:

The enactment of the 18th Amendment, which had become effective more than a decade before, on January 16, 1920, and the passing of the Volstead Act for the enforcement of Prohibition, effective the next day, January 17, 1920, had triggered a National Crime Wave.

The stock market crash--a tremor on October 24, 1929 and a quake heard round the world on October 29, 1929--had triggered the Great Depression, and in its aftermath all the widespread criminal activities that such a disaster breeds.

But let us look at the headlines and news stories of that October 3-4 weekend in 1931.

In New York, in a daring daylight raid, three armed men invaded the home of Deputy Police Commissioner Barron Collier and carried off a 150-pound safe containing jewels and other valuables.

A bomb exploded in a Bronx garage as dry men seize Dutch Schultz's beer.

In Brooklyn a grape truckdriver was found slain with a hatchet.

In a Monroe Street shop an undertaker's assistant was brutally murdered. The victime, his family admitted, had been making illicit liquor and was also believed to have been a collector for an East Side lottery.

In Chicago, on October 3, a football crowd jeered gang-leader Scarface Al Capone at the Northwestern-Nebraska game held in Evanston, Illinois. Cap;one was accompanied by his usual bodyguard of eight men and by Jack McGurn, the notorious machine gunner. (In the crowd a band of Boy Scouts ran around Capone yelling: "Yea-a-a, Al!") Capone was on trial before Federal Judge James H. Wilkerson on charges on income tax violations--the climax to three years of investigation by the Government in an effort to rid Chicago of its Public Enemy Number One. The trial was regarded as the most important of all prosecutions of gang chieftains produced by the Prohibition era. The customary procedures would be taken against any possible attempt to assassinate Capone or some of the Government witnesses.

In New York alone, 54 homicide cases were awaiting trial, and in a vicious gun battle upstate, Vincent Coll and his gang were arrested as baby killers.

From this anecdotal evidence, it should be possible to glimpse a little into the impetus that brought Chester Gould to his creation of Dick Tracy, a comic that has had a lasting impact (for better or worse) on American popular culture.