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


A Menagerie of Ugly A Menagerie of Ugly

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In Alan Moore's much-celebrated graphic novel, The Watchmen, there is a character that is known (until the very end of the comic) only as "Rorschach." Unlike the other characters in the book-all of who constitute a kind of "meta" commentary on the nature of the superhero-Rorschach does not possess any superpowers. In this, Rorschach is in line with the third type of "origin" story laid out in The First Storyline. Rorschach's origin, we learn as the comic develops, stems from a violent and abusive childhood. As an adult, he dons a mask that shifts into abstract patterns-but which also conceals his face. Much like the psychological test from which his superhero name originates, the nature of Rorschach's character is determined by the subjective experience of the viewer. Although he concerns himself with fighting crime and ridding the world of wrongdoers, Rorschach's method entail a very ambiguous ethics; although he does the work of crimestopping, he is still pursued by the police as a criminal himself. Unlike, say, Batman (another character who operates independently) Rorschach does not have the blessing of the State authorities to carry out his mission. He is in the strictest sense judge and jury, trial and executioner.

The first character in the Dick Tracy universe that could properly be called a "Grotesque" was a figure known as the "Blank" who made his appearance in the strip in 1937. In Chester Gould's comic, the "Grotesques" would come to dominate the cast of villains-particularly in the 1940s. The "Grotesques" were criminals, often no different in their activities than the more plain-looking ones of the 1930s, whose main differentiation were their horrific features. These features were the source of the punning nicknames that Gould gave them: Pruneface, Flattop, The Brow, The Mole, etc. etc. etc. Although physical caricature is a staple of cartooning, these characters represent something wholly different than the rotund body of fat-cat gangster "Big Boy." They offer up an almost metaphysical view of the world-one that begins, strangely, with a man whose defining feature is not having any features at all.

The storyline involving the "Blank" begins with Dick Tracy addressing a group of younger boyson the pitfalls of crime: not only doesn't crime pay, but "It Can't Pay-It has the world against it!" Heading this group of boys is Junior, a character introduced on September 8, 1932. At the time he had been an apprentice to "Steve the Tramp", a hobo-thief (and obvious swipe at the more rabble-like of the lumpen-proles) who made several appearances over the course of the decade. After rescuing Junior from the clutches of "Steve the Tramp," Dick Tracy set about remaking the young lad into his own image--a feat quite recognizable from any Horatio Alger-esque novel, but as yet a new phenomena in the comics. In fact, it is safe to say that Dick Tracy and Junior initiated the boy-sidekick relationship into the comics, a dynamic which would find its fullest expression in 1940 when (again) Bob Kane introduce the Boy Wonder, Robin, into Batman's world. Quite a number of years later, the psychologist Frederic Wertham would criticize this type of relationship (explicitly Batman and Robin's) in the comics as being essentially homosexual--tantamount to a crime against nature, even in the
early 1950s-in his infamous book, "The Seduction of the Innocent." Dick Tracy and Junior's relationship, though, seems much less susceptible to that kind of critique. For one thing, Junior is much younger than Robin; in fact he never really aged in the first two decades of the comic. As such, Junior is a largely sexless character. He and Dick share a homosocial bond with Tracy instructing Junior, but that bond is based upon instruction and educational development in the values and ideologies that Dick is supposed to represent. This bond is by necessity exclusionary of women; Dick Tracy could never be the mentor to Tess Trueheart or any other female character. Women, by nature, are supposed to be virtuous in the comic. But the virtues of Tess Trueheart do not have the same function as active ethics of her plainclothes beau; she is never required to make a decision or carry out an action, only to be acted upon and to respond with the innate character possessed of "good" women and girls.

After identifying the suspect in a criminal case, Junior is singled out for retribution by the gangster's underlings. They kidnap him (predictably) involving Junior in a ruse designed to draw out the Good Samaritan ethic that Dick has instilled in him. They eventually bring him to Dick Tracy's house while the detective is away, planning to murder him by leaving the boy in Dick's garage with a car's engine running. Upon leaving Junior for dead, however, the gangster's encounter a man without any facial features who admonishes them to get back into the garage. Once inside, he unties Junior and forces the gangsters to take his place, leaving them for dead. He take Junior with him and eventually drops him on the other side of the city, with a dime to get back home. The man is, of course, the "Blank."

As the strip progresses, two concurrent narratives take place. In the first, Dick Tracy attempts to track down and capture the criminal known as the "Blank," though he does not know his real identity. In the second, the "Blank" systematically punishes a group of gangsters by either murdering them or turning them into the police. The "Blank" also admonishes Tracy to "Lay Off" the case-something that the ever-persistent detective refuses to do. As the storyline progresses, we learn that the "Blank" was the former associate of the gangsters that he is now systematically eliminating. We later learn that his real name is "Redrum," an anagram for "murder," and that he was presumed to be dead after escaping prison in 1927. Dick arrives at this information after some superb investigative inquiry (aided along by a Dick Tracy specialty, the detailed police forensic procedural: fingerprints, ballistics, shoeprints, etc.) and set off in search of the last remaining member of the "Blank's" old gang-Stud Bronzen.

Bronzen runs a salvage boat in the harbor, and Dick Tracy and Pat Patton (his original partner and obvious Irish stereotype) head off to rescue the man before the "Blank" can extract his revenge. We learn that Bronzen has been smuggling human cargo, a seemingly unnecessary side story that serves more to perpetuate the strip's insistence that (with a few exceptions, many of them death-bed) there is no rehabilitation of the criminal. While aboard Bronzen's boat, Tracy, Pat Patton, and the former gangster are caught in an explosion detonated by the "Blank." After several days' worth of suspenseful action (Tracy and Bronzen are captured and put into a compression chamber; Pat Patton must rescue them) the "Blank" is finally apprehended. He is brought to police headquarters and his featureless face is revealed to be nothing more than flesh-colored cloth. The "Blank," as we learn in the final three panels of the final strip, is horribly disfigured, a monstrous, "Grotesque" human being.

The "Blank" storyline is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it illustrates the boy-sidekick relationship between Dick Tracy and Junior. It also shows Dick's skillful use of (forensic) technology, and his uncanny ability to withstand pain and act intelligently under duress. But the central character-the villain-provides the greatest insight into the ideological workings of the Dick Tracy comic. Initially, the "Blank" has absolutely no interest in retribution against the police or particularly Dick Tracy. In fact he is so disinclined to useless criminal acts that he does not bother to do away with Junior, rescuing him as he does from the clutches of the gangsters. On the surface, it appears that the "Blank" is actually doing the work of the police: he eliminates criminals from the streets. Granted, it is not known what his intentions are after he has fulfilled his mission of retribution against his former partners, but on the whole one could judge the "villain's" actions as being not distinctively removed from the authorities. There are, in fact, crucial distinctions that are implied by the comic-and necessarily so.

Even though the "Blank" is punishing criminality, he is doing it outside of the recognized authority of the police, the de facto agents of State control who hold an official monopoly on when and where violence can be used. The question arises within the strip as to just why the "Blank" eventually targets Pat Patton and Dick Tracy. The answer, perhaps unconsciously on the part of Chester Gould, is that this particular villain does not inherently want to eliminate the plainclothes detectives. It is only because the two men pose"interference" to the "Blank's" plans that he resorts to including them in his revenge scheme. In this, the character is remarkably similar to Alan Moore's ambiguously ethical Rorschach nearly fifty years later. Both characters have single-minded, exclusionary missions that accept (and probably enjoy) copious amounts of violence in order to reach their respective goals. And, it is not as if a few innocent bystanders were not met with police bullets-"collateral damage" that becomes acceptable only if the agent in question is granted the legitimacy of the State.

The second most important issue that factors into the "Blank" storyline is the ugliness of his visage once the ambiguity of the mask is removed. The "Blank" must be ugly. One of the most significant attributes of the "Grotesques" in Chester Gould's comic is that they remove all doubt as to the inner state of a character. Any character who possesses features that deviate from accepted notions of beauty is also a deviant from accepted notions of behavior. Owing as much to comics' conventions of caricature as to the Christian metaphysical doctrines of predetermination, this feature of Dick Tracy sharply contrasts the role of the monster in the films of the 1930s-the same era that produced the comic. As we

now know as viewers of these films, a great many of the Hollywood directors of monster movies (like James Whale) were homosexual, and that perspective no doubt altered the presentation of their own "Grotesques," but even those directors who were not homosexual often used the genre to express similar ideas. Indeed, even though by the end of the film the monster is inevitably destroyed, there is something revolutionary in the depiction of, say, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein (directed by James Whale) or in any of the characters in Tod Browning's film, "Freaks." Even though these characters exhibit what could cautiously be called "anti-social" characteristics, it is apparent that they do so because society itself has banished them to the margins. And, when they do perpetrate some crime or commit some violent act, it is usually the result of circumstances largely beyond their control. Browning's film, in particular, cannot even really be considered a proper "horror" film at all. Abused and duped by the two most "normal" looking characters, the circus sideshow "freaks" band together to punish the man and woman who have infringed upon their heretofore self-contained world-albeit, a world that is forced to exist outside the bounds of polite society. This is precisely the opposite of the way the physically deformed function in Dick Tracy.

There is an odd ambivalence that accompanies Chester Gould's depiction of the malformed, however. As in the various doctrines of predetermination (some Christian offshoots, some much more ancient) the differences and deviations that these characters represent are used as a means of establishing the primacy of "normalcy" and a structure of order. The "Blank" defies this by being unidentifiable (initially with his mask) and therefore outside the bounds of judgment. Tracy unmasks him to reveal a horrible face, reassuring readers that both the codes of ethical violence and ability to discern criminality are clearly defined. But Tracy also relies on these types of characters to define himself; their Otherness is precisely what gives his character shape. In and of himself, Dick Tracy is not particularly interesting. But the voyeurism inherent in the reader seeing the criminal underbelly with its sublime horrors is met with stern condemnation and not-as in the horror films of the period-the opportunity to identify with the monster.

There are several historical reasons why Chester Gould shifted towards this type of villain in his strip. The first is that, with the repealing of Prohibition and the success of J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. makeover, there simply wasn't as much criminal glamour to combat. True, crime still existed in plentitude, but a gangster boss like "Big Boy" or a scruffy crook like "Steve the Tramp" can only sustain audiences' interests for so long. Second, with the advent of the comic book (a phenomena that really doesn't get off the ground until Superman's appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938) Gould was forced into competition with the longer format books that had decided upon Germans and the Japanese as their villains worthy of caricature. Dick Tracy-unlike many comic heroes-never enlisted in the military. He remained throughout World War II on the domestic front, highlighting (from Gould's point of view) that evil did not just come with a Teutonic accent or drooling bicuspids. This critical shift began with the "Blank" storyline, and its legacy is one of the defining features of Dick Tracy.