Friday, December 1, 2006

Calling Dick Tracy

IDW Publishing has just released the first volume of The Complete Dick Tracy , a projected compilation of the entire run of Chester Gould's iconic syndicated comic strip. This volume, of course, begins with the very first strip from October1931, and takes the reader through the series' first year and a half.

I've seen samples of the strip from its first week, so the strip's early crude art was not new to me. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to read the strips in the way they were intended to be in continuity and to watch the growth of the series.

Dick Tracy, of course, is well known for being one of the most stylized and idiosyncratic of newspaper strips (as well as perhaps the most graphically violent). In its early days, however, Gould still was a diamond in the rough and finding his way artistically. The art (even for its time) is fairly crude. But one can see that Gould also had a good sense of his vision: like the Warner Brothers noir films of the period, the strips are raw, violent, and hard boiled. And many of the strip's main elements are already in place like his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart, and his partner Pat Patton.

At the beginning of the strip, Tracy is a civilian, but in the first 10 days of the strip, readers witnessed a home invasion, an unarmed man coldbloodly murdered in front of his family, and the kidnapping of Tess Trueheart. To help crack the case, Tracy is deputized on the spot without much ceremony by the police commissioner, solely on the commissioner's hunch that Tracy might be helpful on the case. (Obviously, those were simpler times!) Tracy quickly becomes the department's rising star and most hardnosed gangbuster.

The strip's evolution and growth are gradual but sure. By the end of the first volume, Tracy's legendary hawk nose is closer to what it eventually became (though not quite all the way there yet!), the art gets sharper, and one can see Gould finding his style, particularly becoming more bold and confident in his use of solid black. In addition, more of the strip's classic characters like Dick Tracy, Jr. are introduced, and you start seeing the debut of the kinds of distinctive-looking and unsightly villains that Dick Tracy became known for. By the way, the first villain faced by Tracy in the strip is Big Boy, who Al Pacino played in Warren Beatty's stylized film adaptation of the strip. (Unfortunately, the radio-TV watch and the spaceship were still decades away!)

This is a great time to be a comic strip fan now that the complete runs of classic series like Dick Tracy, Peanuts, Popeye , Gasoline Alley, and Terry and the Pirates have become available or are underway. The first volume of Dick Tracy is a hefty tome, making it well worth the proce of admission.

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