Chester Gould is the creator of 'Dick Tracy', the world's most famous detective since 'Sherlock Holmes'. For 46 years, Gould captivated newspaper readers with his clever mix of suspense, grotesque villains, explicit violence, melodrama and well-documented use of scientific research methods.
Gould wasn't destined to become a newspaper cartoonist, though. He was born in 1900 in Pawnee, Oklahoma. His family was descended from original 19th century settlers in Oklahoma. His father was in the printing business, but didn't support his son's artistic ambitions. Among Chet's earliest art jobs were sign and window painting. The magazine The American Boy published his first cartoon during World War I, and he subsequently made editorial cartoons for the Tulsa Democrat and sports cartoons for the Daily Oklahoman. Gould headed for Chicago, Illinois, in late 1921. He applied at the art departments of several newspapers, and eventually landed a job as a commercial artist with the Chicago Tribune. In 1923, he earned a degree in Commerce and Marketing from Northwestern University.
He joined the Chicago Evening American of William Randolph Hearst in 1923 and stayed there for six years. Besides sports and editorial cartoons and column illustrations, he also had his first try at comic strips. 'The Radio Cats' (1924) was a comedy feature, while 'Fillum Fables' (1924) spoofed movies, largely inspired by Edgar Wheelan's 'Minute Movies'. He also had a topical cartoon feature about the big shots and show people of Chicago, called 'Why It's A Windy City'. He continued to develop more personal comic strip projects, but all were rejected. In 1931 he had a shortlived strip called 'The Girl Friends' in the Chicago Daily News.
Fillum Fables (1928)
In October 1931, Chester Gould's career got a boost when he sold his comic strip idea about a hard-nosed detective to Captain Joseph Patterson of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. Initially called 'Plain Clothes Tracy', Patterson advised Gould to name the comic 'Dick Tracy'. It was under this title that the daily strip made its debut in the Detroit Sunday Mirror on 4 October 1931. It soon appeared in The New York Daily News and The Chicago Tribune, and has since then been distributed through the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate (now Tribune Media Services). From then on, Chester Gould devoted his life to writing and drawing the daily and Sunday 'Dick Tracy' comic. The Sunday feature had a companion strip about a sexy cigarette vendor called 'Cigarette Sadie' in the early 1930s, and a funny animal topper called 'The Gravies' between 1956 and 1964.
Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' was groundbreaking in more ways than one. It was not the first newspaper serial with a continuing storyline, but the first in the realistic genre. Earlier adventure serials had a more romantic or fantastic approach, such as Harold Gray's 'Little Orphan Annie', Hal Foster's 'Tarzan' and Dick Calkins' 'Buck Rogers'. But Gould's action and violence was downright in-your-face. There was no shortage of inspiration when Gould started his feature. The Prohibition era (1920-1933) was a booming period for urban crime organizations in Chicago, and the author just had to look in the paper to get ideas. Tracy himself was for instance largely inspired by real-time crimefighter Eliot Ness. Another source of inspiration were the popular Hollywood gangster and film noir films starring Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and/or Humphrey Bogart.
Besides actual police cases, Gould also studied the scientific methods for law enforcement. He regulary worked with the Chicago police force to obtain documentation on weapons and scientific procedures. As his reputation grew, he also visited J. Edgar Hoover's FBI headquarters and Scotland Yard. This makes 'Dick Tracy' also the first comic strip to depict procedural detective work. Facial composition, fingerprint authentication, ballistics, lie detector tests and fabric analysis were among the many modern law enforcement techniques that Gould showed in his comic. After Gould introduced the technological genius Diet Smith and his son Brilliant in 1946, innovative anti-criminal aids like security cameras, the teletype and handheld video cameras became more prominent. The most notable inventions were the two-way wrist radio and the subsequent two-way wrist video camera, through which Tracy could communicate with his colleagues at any time. Gould was inspired by his friend Al Gross - the inventor of the walkie-talkie and the telephone pager - who was actually developing such a device in his workshop.
The first storyline literally started with a bang: The father of Tracy's fiancee, Tess Trueheart, was shot and Tracy had to find the murderer. The first villain was Big Boy, a criminal who was based on real-life gangster Al Capone. It was the first in a long line of rogues, whose names and physical appearances became stranger and more grotesque with every continuity. This was, according to the author, to compete with the real-time criminals on the frontpage (including Hitler and Mussolini in the 1940s).
Most of Gould's villains got (nick)names based on their looks, quirks or other traits. Among the many iconic thugs were Stooge Viller, the king of pickpockets (1933), the counterfeiter The Mole (1941), the Nazi saboteur Pruneface (1942), the contract killer Flattop (1943), Shaky the con man (1944), a Nazi spy called The Brow (1944), the drug trafficker Measles (1945), the stealing singer Mumbles (1947), the cockfight organizer Miss Egghead (1958), the lawyer Flyface (1959) and the disfigured criminal Haf-and-haf (1966). Despite their unique characterizations, Gould's antagonists were all equally cruel, ruthless and violent. They did not hesitate to use the most extreme methods for torture and install the most ingenious death traps. While most storylines started with a clever plot or criminal scheme, they usually ended in an exciting cat-and-mouse game between Tracy and his enemy.
In addition to the many criminals, Gould added other memorable characters to his comic. At the home front, there was aforementioned Tess Trueheart, who later became Tracy's wife and the mother of his child, Bonnie Braids. In one of the early storylines, Tracy saved an orphan boy called Junior, whom he and Tess later adopt. Both his wife and adoptive son encountered the consequences of Tracy's job, as they have been subjected to either kidnapping or torture on more than one occasion.
This didn't stop Junior from forming the Crimestoppers with a couple of friends in the late 1940s. Gould introduced this gang of crime-fighting kids to raise awareness among youngsters how to recognize suspicious situations. The Crimefighers disappeared from the storylines in the early 1950s, but the Sunday page kept a weekly frame devoted to the Crimestoppers' Textbook, a series of handy illustrated hints for the amateur crime-fighter.
In the early years, Tracy's regular sidekick was Pat Patton. Pat became police chief after the original chief, Brandon, resigned in shame after being fooled by a thug called Big Frost in 1948. Tracy's new help was Sam Catchem, and the team was later also reinforced by the female police officer Lizz (1955). Some of the more likeable characters with a dubious trackrecord were kept in future storylines for comic relief, such as retired ham actor Vitamin Flintheart (1944) and the hillbilly Plenty family (1944-1945). The public's sentiment for Gould's characters was thus, that when B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie got a baby girl called Sparkle on 30 May 1947, it caused wide media coverage and related merchandising. Unlike in most newspaper comics, Gould's child characters grew older as the years passed.
In the 1940s, Gould was at the top of his game. Around this time the somewhat naive drawing style of the early years had evolved into his trademark stylized angular designs. He also developed his most memorable storylines and villains around the same time. Gould's successful run continued throughout the 1950s, but by the 1960s one could say that 'Dick Tracy' "jumped the shark". The space age had inspired a storyline in which the detective went to the moon. Moon technology became a fixture in the comic, and a humanoid called Moon Maid became part of the regular cast in 1964. She even married Junior Tracy, and gave birth to Honey Moon, a little girl with antennae and magnetic hands. It was a major leap away from the urban crime dramas of the previous decades.
The science fiction plots ended in 1969, although certain elements remained in the comic. At this point Tracy, with his 1930s trenchcoat and yellow hat, had become somewhat old-fashioned. It was probably why Gould decided to give him a longer hair style and a moustache in the 1970s. But the times had caught up with Tracy in more ways than just his physical appearance. Throughout his career, few of Tracy's enemies had survived their encounter with the plain-clothes detective. The genius detective didn't mind murdering villains, even lecturing their corpses with preachy remarks such as: "Crime just doesn't pay" or "They just can't win". But by the 1970s, the rights of the accused and legal technicalities became more important in crime investigations. Gould took a condemnatory tone against contemporary court decisions with Tracy grouching "Under today's interpretation of the laws, it seems it's the police who are handcuffed!".
During his tenure, Chester Gould had worked with several assistants, including Dick Moores (1932-1937), Russell Stamm (1935-1940), Jack Ryan (1944), Coleman Anderson (1950s), Al Valanis, Dick Locher (late 1950s, early 1960s) and Rick Fletcher (from 1963 onwards), while Gould's brother Ray and daughter Jean helped with the lettering from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Fletcher assumed art duties after Gould's retirement on 25 December 1977. The scriptwork was taken over by mystery novelist Max Allan Collins from 1977 to 1992. Collins has also written many articles on 'Dick Tracy' and Chester Gould, including the forewords in the IDW collections of 'Chester Gould's Complete Dick Tracy', which started in 2006. Fletcher was succeeded by Dick Locher from 1983 until 2009. Max Killian wrote the feature from 1993 until 2005, after which Locher also assumed the writing duties. Locher made the strip with artist Jim Brozman from 2009 until 2011, when artist Joe Staton and writer Mike Curtis took over.
The popularity of 'Dick Tracy' resulted in a first book publication in the 'Big Little Book' series by the Whitman Publishing Company, as early as December 1932. Gould's comic also found its way to European publications, such as the Belgian comics magazine Spirou in 1938. A monthly 'Dick Tracy' comic book was launched by Dell Publishing in 1948, and continued by Harvey Comics from 1950 to 1961. From 1933 onwards, Tracy-related merchandizing started appearing, including Tracy-masks, Tracy-toy guns, Tracy-pins and a couple of actual Dick Tracy detective kits.
'Dick Tracy' was first adapted into radio drama series for NBC Radio New England in 1934. The show was continued at CBS Radio in 1935 and then at Mutual Broadcasting System from 1935 to 1939. The 'Dick Tracy' radio serial reappeared after the war through ABC Blue Network from 1943 to 1948. Actor Ralph Byrd played 'Dick Tracy' in a number of film adaptations, starting with the four multi-part movie serials released by Republic Pictures between 1937 and 1941. In these series, Tracy was an FBI-agent instead of a police detective. Byrd reprised his role for the 1940s feature films 'Dick Tracy's Dilemma' (1947) and 'Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome' (1947) by RKO Radio Pictures. Morgan Conway played Tracy in RKO's first two films: 'Dick Tracy, Detective' (1945) and 'Dick Tracy vs. Cueball' (1946).
Nowadays, probably the best-known adaptation is the 'Dick Tracy' movie starring Warren Beatty, Madonna and Al Pacino. Beatty made his first concept for a 'Dick Tracy' film in 1975, but the deal fell through when Chester Gould insisted on strict financial and artistic control. The film was eventually released in 1990. It tried to evoke the atmosphere of the comic by using a palette of just seven colors, and applying prosthetic makeup for an accurate depiction of many of the comic's classic villains.
Gould's design of 'Dick Tracy' has become the blueprint of the classic detective with trenchcoat and felt hat, which has appeared in popular fiction over and over again: from Mickey Spillane's 'Mike Hammer' novels over Humphrey Bogart's portrayal of Dashiell Hammett's 'Sam Spade' to Jack Webb's 'Joe Friday' on 'Dragnet'. But Gould's influence reaches further than that. His groundbreaking strip paved the way for other series that depict the procedural methods of police investigation, from 'Dragnet' in the 1950s to 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' in the 2000s. Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' novels feature over-the-top villains in the Gould-tradition, while Bob Kane's 'Batman' is also exposed to countless death traps. Furthermore, Gould's way of serialized storytelling has inspired other cartoonists, like Milton Caniff on 'Terry and the Pirates' and Alex Raymond on 'Secret Agent X-9'. In 1942, Al Capp created a long-running parody of 'Dick Tracy', called 'Fearless Fosdick', as part of his 'Li'l Abner' comic. Bob Clampett directed a Daffy Duck cartoon called 'The Great Piggy Bank Robbery' (1946), which spoofed both the detective as well as his ludicrous adversaries. Even Andy Warhol couldn't resist making a painting of Tracy in 1960. Gould's drawing style is also clearly reflected in the work of the Spanish artist Marti Riera, especially in his 1982 comic 'Taxista' ('The Cabbie') for El Víbora. Two of Gould's admirers, Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch, visited the comic book legend in 1968, which inspired Lynch to draw a two-page comic book story about this memorable event.
Dick Tracy (30 September 1940)
Chester Gould received the prestigious National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award on two occasions: in 1959 and 1977. He also received a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1980. Gould passed away of congestive heart failure in Woodstock, Illinois, where he had lived on his farm since the 1930s. The art and artifacts of his career were on display in the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum in Woodstock's Old Courthouse from 1991 until 2008.