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


The First Appearance The First Appearance

Though anomalous in the larger world of Dick Tracy, the first appearance of the plainclothes detective in the Detroit Mirror on October 4, 1931 is quite illustrative with regards to dynamic ideologies at play in Chester Gould's strip. Taken in historical context, the readers of this strip would have had no idea of Tracy's background or the events that would later (the chronology here becomes oddly disjunctive) lead him to joining the police department.

In fact, in the first appearance it is apparent that Tracy is in fact a member of the police at all. Tracy receives a phone call from the Chief, who requests that Dick come down to identify a suspect from a robbery the night before. Initially wearing a dressing gown (a sometime staple of the detective's wardrobe from Sherlock Holmes on) Tracy dons his trademark fedora and rushes off to the police department.

Since none of the men in the lineup are the suspect that Tracy witnessed committing the crime, he and the Chief turn to leave. Tracy's interest is piqued, however, by a lone woman sitting in a cell. Dick asks the Chief to bring her out, since he recognizes something in her face. Though the Chief assents that she was picked up the night before, no explanation for her arrest is given.

Once the "woman" is released from the cell, Tracy takes a swing at her. Dick had mentioned earlier that the perpetrator had dodged his punch during the robbery like she was a boxer. Of course, the "woman" dodges his punch with a similar skill. After a brief interlude about "trying to sock a lady," Tracy unmasks the "woman," who of course turns out to be the robber that Tracy had been called down to identify in the first place-a toughguy called "Pinkie the Stabber." The final panel has Tracy telling the Chief that, "When it comes to women, all I can say is you pick 'em rough-plenty rough."

First Appearance

Of course, it would be possible (and even plausible) to write off this particular strip as just a kind of one-off gag-though a rather violent one-that Chester Gould created in order to fill space before the regular Dick Tracy strip could be established. But instead of granting that or even just filing it under an appropriately novel heading like, "This is the first appearance of Dick Tracy," I want to begin by examining a few of the underlying ideologies that Gould was working with from the very start-ideologies that I attempted to lay out in the section Dick Tracy in Context.

To begin with, there is the dressing gown. Though it has become just as common to see

a detective in any media in an undershirt with liquor bottles and cigarette butts strewn about his apartment since, it is important that Dick Tracy be properly attired at all times. He shifts effortlessly from gown to suit, and even his tie is not remotely askew. This establishes Tracy as being upright in a very proper, middle-class way. Though his contemporaries were known to be heavy drinkers and smokers (like Chandler's Marlowe and all of Hammett's protagonists) except for the occasional cigarette-which figures here and in later strips and is more attributable to the prevalence of smoking during the period than anything-Tracy is the model of clean living.

And yet, Tracy's exhibition of middle-class norms is supplemented by his taking a swing at a "woman," indicating a readiness to employ violence at any moment. Of course, the "woman" turns out to be a man in drag, but the exchange between Tracy and the Chief highlights Gould's concern for the protection of the body of women, regardless of whether they have been brought in to jail.

On top of this, the robber's nickname is "Pinkie the Stabber," which combined with the dress he wears seems to be nothing less than an equation of homosexuality with criminality. Tracy's ability to see through the subterfuge of Pinkie's posing as a "lady" also establishes him (as evidenced by the last panel) as being both more perceptive (i.e. intelligent) than the Chief, and also the more dominantly masculine male, as denoted by the emasculating punch line.

Why emasculate the Chief of Police? As I pointed out in the Dick Tracy in Context section, for a host of reasons during this period the police had lost the perception of respectability during the era of Prohibition and glamorous gangsters. This Chief-who is not the same one that would figure in later stories-is a paunchy, balding, cigar-smoking older man, precisely the kind of corrupt figure that represented the failings of the police as a whole. Tracy handily upstages him by catching the de facto homosexual criminal, and in the process identifies himself (Dick Tracy) as the true harbinger of law and order.