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|
*Menagerie of Ugly
Dick Tracy's Legacy
The First Storyline The First Storyline
In the first complete storyline in which Dick Tracy appears, Dick Tracy is-of course-not actually a member of the police department. Beginning on the 12th of October in 1931, Tracy made his first full-fledged appearance in the comic pages. As always, the comic was defined by a rigid four-panel structure. The first installment gives little indication as to the direction that the strip would take-particularly to readers who were unfamiliar with the previous two (anomalous) installments in the Detroit Mirror. Tracy arrives at the home of a Mr. Trueheart, the owner of a delicatessen. After some small talk, in the third panel Tess (ostensibly Mr. Trueheart's daughter) appears. It is immediately clear that Tess and Dick are romantically involved. By the fourth panel it is apparent that Dick is eating dinner with the Trueheart family.
The following day, the panel continues along the same lines of domesticity.
Dick compliments Mrs. Trueheart on her cooking, and eventually the younger couple make their way to the kitchen, where Dick dons an apron to assist in the washing of the dishes. However, in the fourth panel the first indication that this is not in fact a domestic drama strip appears. Two "strange and sinister forms" are visible in the alley across from the deli, whose dialogue indicates that they intend to rob Emil Trueheart (proprietor of the delicatessen, as discerned from the storefront sign) under the auspices of "Big Boy."
The third installment has Emil counting his money and celebrating the paying off of a mortgage, which is followed by Dick and Tess announcing that they, "Have something real important to tell." This strip is concluded by another panel alluding to the two shadow figures outside. By the fourth installment, Dick and Tess have announced their engagement, only to be interrupted by the appearance of the robbers. The fourth and fifth installments have the robbers demanding the money that Emil Trueheart has stashed beneath his bed, the older man's being shot by them, and Dick's ill-fated attempt to protect the women and avenge the shooting. Throughout the next two strips, Tess is kidnapped by the robbers, and Dick again fails to stop the perpetration of the crime at hand.
By the ninth installment of Dick Tracy, the police have been phoned. A Chief (similar, but more officious and military, to the one in Tracy first newspaper appearance) responds, and immediately makes his way to the scene of the crime. In the concluding two panels, Dick Tracy exasperatedly laments the inaction of himself and the police in the protection of Tess, and in the final scene vows to avenge the crime over the dead body of Mr. Trueheart, head turned skyward.
The tenth installment involves two considerably important allusions. In the first two panels, in comes to light that Emil Trueheart had indeed lost money to the "small" banks, despite having over a thousand dollars in cash-a clear reference to the still-recent Depression plaguing the United States. In the latter two panels, the Chief asks Dick Tracy if he would like to join the plainclothes squad, since he'd be a big help in catching the perpetrators of Tess Trueheart's kidnapping and the murderers of her father, Emil. Tracy, of course, agrees.
After a relatively banal comic in which Tracy visits Tess's mother in the hospital-and which it is revealed that Tess herself is bound up in the gangster's hideout-readers were treated to the first appearance of "Big Boy." Big Boy is quite obviously a stand-in for Al Capone, be attired as he is in a gangster's suit substantial enough to cover his girth. Tess displays the "spunk" that Tracy attributes to her character, but she is obviously in a great deal of danger. In order to locate Tess, Tracy agrees to go undercover into the "heart of Gangland," the "toughest neighborhood in the world." Dick takes a room in a boardinghouse and-miraculously-grows stubble on his razor-sharp chin in an extremely short period of time. Other than the stubble, Tracy's only other alteration in appearance is the fact that he has turned up the collar of his jacket. In the final panel of the October 25 comic, Tracy addresses his gun, "Old Horse-You and I are going to have to stick together pretty close." Violence is obviously in the offing.
By a series of coincidences, Tracy manages to be taken in as an accomplice on a payroll robbery being carried out by two of Big Boy's underlings. Big Boy has also forced Tess Trueheart to be the get-away driver in the hold-up, assuming that the police would look less suspiciously on a car with a woman in it. Again by some miracle Tracy's stubble recedes as he gets closer to completely his undercover subterfuge. Dick has already informed the police of the impending robbery, and manages to slip out to the car to make a break for it with Tess-whom Dick seems to have known would be the driver of the car. She and Dick make their way to safety and eventually the hospital, where Tess's mother still is. Until the final panel of this first storyline, Tess had not known whether or not her father had survived the shooting.
Although Tess is by this point out of harm's way (until such time as it would be expedient to put her there again), it would have to wait until November 26th for the actual avengement of Emil Trueheart's murder. The trigger-man for Emil's murder was a thug named Crutch, who was conveniently killed in a shootout with Dick Tracy, the police, and Crutch's gangster associates. It would take some more time before Big Boy would be brought down as well, but as Jay Maeder remarks in his book, "Dick Tracy: The Official Biography":
In the forty-six years Chester Gould and Dick Tracy had together on this earth, very few circles were to be left unbroken.
In the first ten installments, Dick Tracy's "origin story" is established. Superheroes in the years since Dick Tracy's first appearance have made the "origin story" nearly cliché in both the world of comics and the narratives of popular culture abroad. Superheroes normally owe their origins to one of three possible factors. The first is that they are from another planet, and therefore their character and abilities are pre-set against the limits of earthly possibility. Superman is the instigator of this trend having made his first appearance seven years after Dick Tracy, in 1938. The second origin story is primarily science-fiction: the hero develops powers based upon some sort of experiment or accident involving science. Captain Marvel and Captain American are the prime example of this type. The third type-to which Dick Tracy belongs-involves some sort of vow of vengeance in order to appease some wrongdoing. These characters never have any "super powers" per se, but (like Bob Kane's "Batman," which began in 1939 and owed several characteristics to Gould's newspaper strip) allow the protagonist to succeed via intelligence, strength, technical wizardry, and a high tolerance for pain. In time, Dick Tracy would exhibit all of these characteristics.
The "origin story," though, is not limited to superheroes or even comics. Many of the fundamental characteristics of the third type of origin story are carried over from the realm of the western. In Dick Tracy, the triumvirate of Dick, Emil, and Tess serves to establish a very Freudian triangle in its Oedipal ascension of power. This is actually a fairly simple dynamic: because Emil Trueheart (Tess's father) is murdered, Dick is obligated to assume the authority of his role in her life (as protector) in order to reestablish the accepted order. Curiously, in the first few comics we see Dick donning an apron in order to help out with the dishes at the Trueheart home. It is important here that Dick be without parentage, since they would only add extraneous conflict to the proceeding. As it is, Dick Tracy is able to assume the role of romantic lover, a performance once allows for decidedly un-masculine behaviors, i.e. wearing an apron. Once Emil Trueheart is murdered and Tracy makes his vow of vengeance and decision to rescue Tess, it is never again necessary for him to assume this role. Tess is ostensibly under his authority-a body to be protected. Consequently, it was not expedient to have to two marry anywhere in the near future; their courtship was strung out over decades. Tess's appearance within the strip was almost always predicated from here forward on one simple need: Dick Tracy had to rescue her from the villains.
The villains themselves are an interesting lot in these early pages. If-as a reader-you adhere to the "regeneration through violence" thesis, then clearly the antagonists in the comic strip are assuming the role of the Native American in the classic paradigm. Of course, many westerns moved beyond simply implicating Native Americans as Other to be conquered in the contestation over the body of women-there were (and are still) Mexican bandits and lower-class
white outlaws. Reading the villains of the Dick Tracy strip into this paradigm is useful, but there are certain precautions that need to be taken. Although the behaviors of those types of characters are decidedly Other-ed as outside the established hierarchy of authority, it takes some historical conjecture to piece them into the mold established by banditos and outlaws. Most gangsters in the Depression era were from lower-class immigrant communities. The villains in Tracy may not always display explicit ethnic stereotypes, but many of those same gangsters were also outside of the Protestant Anglo-Saxon rule of order in the United States; they were Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans-oftentimes Jewish as well. In the Dick Tracy universe, these types of characters all live in a neighborhood called "Gangland." Although its name may overtly obvious, the description of a "tough neighborhood" in the comic closely aligns with the preconceptions of lower-class immigrant communities in the United States. And, as one may recall, "Big Boy" was a stand-in for Al Capone, notorious Italian-American gangster who grew up in just such a neighborhood.
In essence, what this first storyline in the Dick Tracy comic does is establish Dick Tracy's dominion of power. Dick is called in to join the plainclothes squad since he'd, "be a big help," and quickly asserts his superiority over the preexisting police force in cunning and bravery. But he is still necessarily a part of the recognized authority of the State, even if he is its most exemplary agent. Dick must protect a woman (Tess Trueheart) against the illegitimate forces of the lower-class immigrant gangsters in an increasingly turbulent urban environment. From here on out, the pattern is established that gives Dick Tracy the ideological motives to adapt to whatever contemporary circumstances may confront him.