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Life Stories: Chester Gould's original gangbuster

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Dick Tracy was the 61st cartoon-strip idea Chester Gould submitted to the Chicago Tribune. The other 60 had been rejected, but--ye gods!--Gould handled rejection the way Tracy handled bullets. He had come to Chicago at the age of 21 with a mail-order cartooning course under his belt and the Tribune as his goal, and nothing was going to stop him. For ten years he lobbed ideas at Tribune syndicate head Joseph Medill Patterson and collected thanks-but-no-thanks letters. Meanwhile he earned a business degree at Northwestern's night school, supporting himself by cartooning for the other Chicago papers and doing commercial work. As our story opens, he had just decided to make the real-life war between organized crime and the Chicago police his subject.

"YOUR PLAIN CLOTHES TRACY HAS POSSIBILITIES STOP," Patterson wired from New York. Plainclothes Tracy was the moniker Gould had given his new hero, but he quickly gave it up when Patterson suggested changing the first name to the slang for detective. Patterson also fed Gould an initial story line. The strip premiered in October 1931 and developed a following that grew to an estimated 100 million readers. While the newspapers already had fantasy adventure strips like Tarzan and Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy was their first detective strip, the first adventure hero created for the papers, and the first strip to look violence in the face. When a gun was fired on Tracy's beat, the blood flowed.

America had already seen the advent of the hard-boiled detective in the crime fiction of the late 1920s (including work by Dashiell Hammett), but Gould said he never read the stuff. If asked about literary inspiration he would cite Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. His immediate sources were the front pages of the papers that ran the strip. Prohibition had created widespread demand for hooch and organized crime flourished by providing it. Machine-gun-toting crooks prowled the streets; the newspapers were ablaze with details of endless turf wars and mayhem. "I came from Oklahoma, where justice was quick and severe," Gould told an interviewer. "It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps we ought to have a detective in this country that would hunt these fellows up and shoot 'em down."

The early Tracy looked more like Noel Coward than the hammer-jawed, hawk-nosed, forever-fedoraed cop he grew into. He had a long, pointy, aristocratic schnoz, a slaphappy tennis-anyone grin, and wore a smoking jacket. The first episode introduced him as an ordinary jobless joe about to enter into the world's longest engagement (18 years) with Tess Trueheart. As soon as he makes his intentions known, Tess is kidnapped, her father is murdered, and Tracy is catapulted onto the police force.

Dick Tracy became famous for one-step-ahead-of-reality gadgets like the two-way wrist radio, the portable surveillance camera, and the Voice-O-Graf. Gould hired a former cop as an adviser and incorporated a pseudotutorial, the Crimestoppers notebook. But the strip's main appeal was its bizarre array of supporting characters, most of them criminals and all of them more interesting than straight and dense Dick (who was brilliantly parodied in Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick). Besides Tracy's allies--Junior, Sam Catchem, Gravel Gertie, B.O. Plenty, Sparkle Plenty, and Tracy's daughter, Bonnie Braids--there was a gallery of Dickensian rascals so grotesque their faces alone might have justified a life of crime (though Gould said it was the other way around--their faces reflected the ugliness of their deeds). They included Flattop, the Brow, B.B. Eyes, the Mole, Pruneface, and the Blank.

Gould bought a farm in Woodstock in 1936 and worked on the strip there for 40 years. He eventually hired assistants who helped with inking (two of them became his successors), but he did the pencil drawing and writing himself, working only a week in advance to keep it fresh. He never wavered in his police advocacy. When another era of civil disobedience came along in the 60s, the strip began to look dated, but Gould stuck to his guns. At about the same time he launched Tracy on a series of space exploration adventures. He retired in 1977, and the strip passed on to a writer-and-artist team.

Gould died in 1985. Six years later his family and friends established the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum in one room of the Old Courthouse Arts Center, 101 N. Johnson Street (on the square) in Woodstock. Gould's red leather chair and wooden drawing board are on display there, along with a selection of the Tribune's rejection letters and other memorabilia and collectibles. Hours

are 11 to 5 Thursday through Saturday and 1 to 5 Sunday. Call 815-338-8281 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Corbis-Bettmann.

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