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 Legacy of Dick Tracy The Legacy of Dick Tracy

In the course of writing this project, it became apparent to me that most of the reference points that I made when describing the Dick Tracy comic were either to comic books or films, and not other newspaper comic strips. While not misleading, that oversight is interesting in that it reflects the profound effect of Dick Tracy on other media, and the relatively short-lived effects on its own media. Dick Tracy was an immediate success upon publication in 1931, and its reputation continued to grow in the next few years. As with all popular culture success stories, this inspired a number of competing strips, some more derivative and opportunistic than others-"Dan Dunn" and "Radio Patrol" being the most conspicuous. The two that are worth mentioning positively are Will Gould's "Red Barry" and Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond's "Secret Agent X-9." Gould (no relation to Chester) distinguished himself and his strip by upping the ante of violence in newspaper comics-no small feat after Dick Tracy-and by creating a character of darker and more ambiguous ethics than the more-famous plainclothes detective. "Secret Agent X-9" benefited both from being scripted by a master of detective fiction (Hammett) as well as being drawn by one of comics' great artists, Alex Raymond, most famous for his strip "Flash Gordon." Neither of these strips lasted nearly as long (nor were as popular) as Dick Tracy, and their original writers and artists often turned the strips over to others. Nonetheless, both are currently available as collected reprints.

When Dick Tracy began, there was no comic book industry to speak of. The format itself was in infancy, and throughout the decade many of the "comic books" sold on newsstands were in fact collected reprints of strips already published in the newspaper. Aside from the pulpy, thin books that have come to be associated with the term "comic book," there also appeared a series of books know as "Big Little Books" which measured 3"x3" and featured in their first publication a reprint of Dick Tracy strips. Chester Gould's comic was particularly suited for this medium, since its panels were consistently of the same shape and always numbered four per installment throughout its publication history. The influence of Dick Tracy on the storytelling of other crime comics cannot be understated, and even Bob Kane's early "Batman" stories owe a great deal to their less fantastic predecessor.

Dick Tracy also branched out into other media fairly early in the strip's history, beyond the matters of influence. Tracy was featured in radio shows, film serials, and a few feature films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. These films, interesting as they may be to cultural historians and Dick Tracy aficionados are of a decidedly "B" nature. But even lowly genre films are often worth viewing in their own right, and it is worth considering that Orson Welles was as much a fan of comics as comics artists were fond of adapting the lighting in their own work from "Citizen Kane."

In the brief biographical sketch of Chester Gould in the Context

section, I mentioned that Gould had attended Northwestern University and acquired a degree in marketing. Littered throughout this project have been images from the various promotional products that served to bolster interest in the strip and to turn Dick Tracy into a veritable franchise. Combined with the radio programs, feature films and serials, these cultural objects attest to the explicit level to which Dick Tracy saturated American popular culture.

Chester Gould also introduced a pronounced quality to storytelling-in any medium-that persists to this day. That quality is the drama of the police procedural, particularly a procedural that involves forensic or surveillance technology. Though the two-way wrist radio is the most hallowed of Gould contribution, the emphasis in the strip on cameras, closed-circuit television, ballistics, and fingerprints as worthwhile elements in crime-drama is much evidenced by the current popularity of television shows and films dealing with precisely that topic today.

But perhaps most significant of all the effects, influences, and legacy that Dick Tracy has left on American popular culture is that same ideological narrative that I began discussing at the onset of this project. Dick Tracy defined a large portion of the urban narratives that would come to more and more prominence as the decades progressed and the memory of the frontier faded from the imaginations of Americans. As the United States shifted more and more towards an urban-oriented culture, Dick Tracy represented a critical revision of the old mythos of "regeneration through violence" whose sum effect is so broad reaching that it is not always readily apparent that the vigilante cop on the movie or television screen owes something to the man in the yellow fedora. These narratives of violence, ethics, and order pervade our everyday lives, and in coming to understand them more fully it is possible to extract oneself and others from the ideological bonds that perpetuate the repressive characteristics of our everyday storytelling.