Dick Tracy (comic strip)

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One of the most well-known Newspaper Comics of all time, Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould, is about the cases of a tough as nails police detective. Inspired as a Take That towards organized crime in the 1930s (indeed, the strip's first major villain, Big Boy Caprice, was an Expy of Al Capone) the series followed Detective Dick Tracy as he fights crime, as a modern day Sherlock Holmes but with a lot of emphasis on forensic methods/police procedures and the occassional space-age gadget (most notably the character's famous two-way wrist communicators).

The strip is even more famous for its strange-looking villains, whose villainy was marked with a Red Right Hand. Imagine characters with names like Flattop, Pruneface and The Brow and you'll know what they look like.

Furthermore, the strip pulled no punches with an intensity of bloody violence for its time that would impress Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino. For instance, Tracy would often shoot for the head, but the villains often had a Karmic Death; the fate of Gargles being chopped to pieces in a glass factory by falling broken pieces of sheet glass shattered in a gun battle is a good example.

However, the strip went awry starting the 1960s with Tracy getting a spaceship called the Space Coupe and eventually going to the moon to meet the Moon People. When the series returned to Earth, with futuristic Moon people technology like ray guns and air cars that look like flying trash cans, Gould struggled to adapt the strip to modern times. Concessions included introducing a hippie sidekick for Tracy and briefly having Tracy grow a moustache; the former stuck around for nearly a decade before being killed off, the latter was forcibly shaven off within several months of it being grown. But most notably, the strip became bitter and cynical, as Gould used Tracy to condemn Supreme Court rulings that expanded the rights of the accused, which Gould (via Tracy) condemned as handcuffing police officers from beating the shit out of criminals and suspected criminals in order to force them to confess.

Finally, Gould retired in 1977 and mystery writer Max Allan Collins took over writing and did his best to restore the best of the strip's past. Silly characters like Moon Maid and the above mentioned hippie sidekick were Killed Off for Real, legacy versions of popular (and deceased) villains were introduced (and in the cases of some, like Pruneface, flashback stories were written to bring them back) and the gadgets were scaled back to a more reasonable level. In addition, he also had Tracy get his complaints about reforms to due process out of his system when he temporarily resigned from the force to become a private detective. Sadly, Collins was forced off the strip in the 1990s, leading to the series descending to being So Okay It's Average under succeeding writer Mike Kilian, and then going completely and totally insane when Kilian died and longtime artist Dick Locher took over the writing duties, as some have observed.

In 2011 Locher retired and a new team headed by writer Mike Curtis and DC/Marvel artist Joe Staton took over the strip. The restart already has fans talking of a renaissance, and it's hard to dispute that. Staton & Curtis have placed a strong emphasis on continuity and Character Development, and tied all ages of the strip into the main canon --- even the Moon Age -- during a recent storyline arc. In addition, Dick Tracy has crossed over with multiple comic strips, most notably Little Orphan Annie, thus opening up an Expanded Universe. Toss in the artwork (not a surprise, given Staton's pedigree) and it could be argued that Staton & Curtis have done to Dick Tracy what Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have done to Doctor Who.

The strip has been depicted with numerous media adaptations: movie serials, the 1961/1962 TV series, The Dick Tracy Show, cartoons, and a full-length 1990 theatrical film starring Warren Beatty, whose specific tropes are discussed here.


Tropes used in Dick Tracy (comic strip) include:
  • Affectionate Parody - Quite a few throughout the years:
    • A long-running feature in Al Capp's Li'l Abner is that Abner's hero is a Tracy pastiche called Fearless Fosdick.
      • Dick Tracy even mentions Fearless Fosdick as his favorite comic strip, either as a meta-reference to "Li'l Abner" or as a placement of both comics in the same universe.
      • Vera Alldid's Comic Within a Comic "J. Straightedge Trustworthy," which itself also seems to pay homage to Li'l Abner's "Fearless Fosdick." The strip becomes exceptionally popular throughout the city, so much so that an unamused Tracy threatens legal action against Alldid, but later comes to enjoy reading the comic himself.
    • And there's the classic Daffy Duck cartoon "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," in which Daffy dreams he's "Duck Twacy."
    • A few storylines in Calvin and Hobbes featured Calvin fantasizing himself as noir private eye "Tracer Bullet." Originally a one-shot character, Bill Watterson enjoyed it so much that he gave Tracer a few more appearances.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle - The Crimestopper's Textbook in the Sunday strips
  • Anyone Can Die - Moon Maid, Groovy Grove, Model Jones, Jean Penfield, the Summer sisters, Brilliant.
    • Collins once said that, since he's the main character, you know Tracy will make it out alive, but you could never be sure about anybody else. He believed this was essential for a credible sense of drama.
  • As Himself - Jim Doherty, a Chicago policeman who serves as the main technical advisor to Dick Tracy, makes appearances in the comic itself from time to time.
  • Ascended Fanon - Staton & Curtis launched a Dick Tracy tribute website prior to Tribune Media Services hiring them as the strip's creative team. Included in the website were several (at the time) fan-fiction storylines... almost all of which were adapted into the comic itself.
  • Author Existence Failure - Three times. Rick Fletcher, who replaced Chester Gould as artist, died in 1983, and writer Mike Kilian died in 2005. Probably the most tragic instance came in 1986 with the premature death of John Locher, who was in the process of taking over the strip's art duties from his father.
  • Author Filibuster - Gould's rants about the restrictions of due process
  • Badass Longcoat
  • Bald of Evil - The Brow
  • Beauty Equals Goodness - Generally played straight, though there have been exceptions (the various Mahoney women for instance). Dick Locher also tended to draw much more normal-looking villains than the other artists did.
  • Berserk Button - Junior, of all people, experienced this once. Right after his first wife is murdered (by a bomb meant for Tracy himself), the first thing he does when he finds out who was responsible is take Tracy's spare gun, drive himself to their hideout and prepare to avenge his wife. Only to chicken out at the last minute, requiring Tracy to come to the rescue.
  • The Blank - The Blank
  • Book Safe: Flattop is hiding out in a boarding house and decides keeping his loot on his person is too risky. So, when he sees an old thick photo album under a table that looks rarely used, he decides to cut out the inner pages and hide his money in it. As it happens, the kid blackmailing Flattop has drowned while ice skating on expensive skates bought with the shakedown money. Those skates led Tracy to the boarding house where he requests the boy's mother to get a photo for the newspaper and so they go to the photo album and the money is discovered. When Tracy asks where this money came from, the mother guesses it must be from her boarder and Tracy proceeds to Flattop's room while the crook is frantically trying to escape.
  • Brain Uploading - Memory Banks, in one of Collins's more offbeat stories.
  • Butter Face - A number of recurring female characters.
  • The Cameo - Used a lot with Staton & Curtis. Characters from The Shadow, Popeye, Mary Perkins, Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates, Brenda Starr, Lum and Abner, Little Orphan Annie and even Barney Google and Snuffy Smith have either paid a visit or proven central to a major storyline. Considering Staton's background at DC and Marvel, this probably shouldn't be surprising.
  • Canon Discontinuity - The strip's moon period of the 1960s was completely phased out and regarded as non-canon for years (punctuated by the death of Moon Maid). Staton & Curtis, however, began making occasional references to it in-strip in what originally looked to be a Discontinuity Nod; however, a 2012-2013 storyline arc now officially regards the entire period as canon (that arc also tied in the key scene from Dick Locher's last storyline).
  • Captain Ersatz - 1970's art thief Art Dekko looks an awful lot like Lupin III. On the other hand, an anime homage way back in the 70's is pretty cool in and of itself.
  • Captain Obvious - the narration box. In 2009 the narration box over a drawing of a character playing solitaire blared, "SOLITAIRE".
  • Carnival of Killers - 'Big Boy' Caprice created one by offering a one million dollar open contract on Tracy's life.
  • Cartwright Curse - Although Junior did eventually settle down with Sparkle, he had to endure the violent deaths of both his first girlfriend, Model Jones and his first wife, Moon Maid.
  • Catch Phrase: Ye gods!
  • The Chase - Many of the classic stories involve elaborate manhunts. The chase to catch the Brow, once he went on the run, is one of the most memorable.
  • The Clan - B.O. Plenty's big, goofy, but mostly benign extended family. Also Flattop's family of crooks.
    • Although Flattop's family is split. His kids and grandchild are the ones that go to crime, while his brothers and (unnamed) sister are civilians (Blowtop had to reform, though).
  • Cloudcuckoolander - everything about the modern strip. Seriously, just read it.
  • Cloning Blues - After faking his death (for the second time!), Mumbles returns years later with a shady biologist in tow, claiming to be a clone of the original Mumbles. It's all an elaborate scheme to swindle research money from Diet Smith. Tracy exposes it and Mumbles goes to jail, naturally.
  • Contract on the Hitman - Fearing the police's eventual retaliation when Big Boy Caprice offered a one million dollar open contract on Tracy's life, other criminals offered a similar contract on the life of whoever claims the prize on Tracy's life.
  • Creator Breakdown - Gould actually thought turning a strip about an urban cop into a science fiction series on the moon was a good idea. Then again, given the sheer volume of contempt Gould had towards various 1960s Supreme Court rulings regarding due process rights all criminals have, Gould probably thought turning the book into a sci-fi strip would be better for his mental health.
    • Judging by the decline of the strip's artwork quality from 2006 to 2011, some fans consider Dick Locher to have suffered one of these, most likely because he experienced both the death of both his son (John Locher, who was co-artist in the mid-80s) and one of his closest friends (Mike Kilian, who was the writer between 1992 and 2006) while working on the strip.
  • Creator Cameo: Dick Locher made an appearance in his final strip as artist, thanking Tracy for "32 years of high speed excitement." Whether this counts as a heartwarming moment or egotism depends on whether you prefer to remember Locher for his good artwork until 2005, or his terrible artwork and worse writing from 2006 onwards.
    • Chester Gould once created a villain named Pear-Shape who was a parody of himself.
    • And a late 2011 storyline (part homage, part origin story) concluded with Gould as the medical examiner in the city morgue looking over the deceased Big Frost. "It's like I said for years... They can't win."
  • Crossover: The 2014 storyline that helped conclude Little Orphan Annie, which was abruptly cancelled four years earlier in the middle of a storyline where Annie was kidnapped, held hostage, and presumed dead to everyone but the reader.
  • Dead Man's Chest - 88 Keys hides a corpse in his grand piano.
    • A tree surgeon, after committing murder, hides the body inside a tree trunk that had been split by weather. The tree heals around it and the body goes undiscovered until the tree is cut down, decades later, when the murderer is an old man.
  • Death Trap - Only Tracy often needed rescue to fully escape them.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything? - "Broadway" Bates does look an awful lot like The Penguin.[1] So Staton & Curtis reintroduced "Broadway" as someone who moved back into Tracy's city after living with his brother Oswald... because Oswald, also into organized crime, has had to contend with a costumed vigilante intent on apprehending him, and then discovering two costumed vigilantes in Tracy's city. The last strip in "Broadway's" storyline did feature Oswald in sillouette form... clutching... a very distinctive umbrella. Oh, and The Penguin's actual first name? Oswald.
  • Executive Meddling - Tribune Media Service's 1991 firing of lead writer Max Allen Collins, ostensibly because of his salary, would count as such.
  • Expanded Universe - Almost bordering on "Tommy Westphal Universe" levels. Dick Tracy's universe is now connected to multiple other comic strips thanks to in-canon cameos and storylines. The extended crossover arc with Little Orphan Annie is especially notable because it effectively merged that strip's entire universe and canon into Dick Tracy's.
  • Everyone Knows Morse - Tracy escapes from Flattop by tapping out Morse code with his foot to communicate with the WAC-in-training living in the apartment below.
  • The Faceless - Spots
  • Family-Unfriendly Death - People regularly die in perverse (and graphic) ways, such as getting run over by a steamroller, or having their eyes gouged out. And this is all printed on the comics page.
    • Better yet, the steamroller death took place on Christmas Day, and in the same frame the writers wished their readers "Happy Holidays from Dick and the gang!"
    • Gould himself said that the worst death of all went to The Brow, who was impaled on a flagpole "bearing the flag of the country he tried to harm" so hard that he went ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE GROUND.
    • Or the 1932 villain Kenneth Grebb, who was crushed to death by an avalanche. If he survived, he was maimed and died of asphyxiation.
    • Or Selbert De Pool, who was crushed alive on a CHILDREN'S PARADE FLOAT.
    • Flattop died in the same lake he drowned a child in.
    • Doc Hump gets his throat brutally ripped out by his own dog *ON THE PANEL*.
  • Femme Fatale - Sleet
  • Fiction 500 - Diet Smith
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum - Most of the Moon Period technology was never mentioned again after Moon Maid's death. Later explained (when the Moon Period was brought back into canon by Staton & Curtis) as intentional; Diet Smith had the technology and the moon colony - save for one last Moon Coupe - completely destroyed.
  • Freaky Fashion, Mild Mind
  • Gadget Watches
  • Gonk - Most of the villains.
  • Gosh Hornet - In the early 60's, Spots and his minion Ogden get trapped by a swarm of bees.
  • Grumpy Old Man - B.O. Plenty
  • Hair of Gold - Sparkle Plenty
  • He's Back - Pat Patton, who had been written out of the strip by Dick Locher, made his return within days of Mike Curtis and Joe Staton taking over.
  • Heartwarming Orphan - Junior.
  • Heel Face Turn - Vitamin Flintheart, B.O. Plenty, and Gravel Gertie.
  • Hillbilly Accent - B.O. Plenty.
  • Hippie Chick - The always barefoot Sprocket Nitrate, who insists on not wanting to "upset Mother Earth..." even when she's standing on a lineolium floor in a train station.
  • Hitman with a Heart - The Iceman, who falls for Sparkle Plenty. He dies a Karmic Death, but does a minor Heel Face Turn at the last minute, for her sake.
  • Hobos - Steve the Tramp was a murderous hobo.
  • Hook Hand - The Claw from Dick Tracy's Dilemma.
  • Hot Amazon - Lizz
  • Human Popsicle - In the Collins years, we learn the Nazis froze Pruneface. He gets revived only to die all over again.
  • Humongous Mecha - TRAZE-R, the giant robot Dick Tracy.
  • The Hyena - 'Laffy' Smith
  • Improbable Hairstyle - Crewy Lou, although all the characters do think it looks odd.
  • In the Blood - Flattop's big extended family, though some of them reform.
  • Informed Judaism - Dick's partner Sam Catchem was introduced as a Jewish guy, which was pretty progressive for the 1940's. It rarely has any bearing on the storylines, though, and so isn't mentioned much.
  • Karmic Death: The main villain of some storylines suffer one, usually of the "Cruel & Unusual" variety.
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: Sadly, collections of the various Dick Tracy comic strips are few in number and those few that DO exist, largely focus on the early 1930s era. In particular, Max Collins' critically acclaimed run on the strip has only had three printed volumes, though some of his strips appeared in other collections.
    • Since 2006, IDW has been publishing the "Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy". Thirteen volumes (covering the start of the strip in 1931 to Mid-September 1951) have been released.
  • Kid Sidekick - Junior
  • Killer Gorilla - Sleet is nearly done in by one.
  • Lantern Jaw of Justice - One of Tracy's distinguishing features, to the point where Warren Beatty took heavy criticism for refusing to wear the prosthetic makeup to give him Tracy's profile in the 90s film.
    • Of course, other accounts state that Beatty wanted to wear the makeup, but the studio wouldn't let him cover up his famous mug.
  • Large Ham - Aged thespian Vitamin Flintheart is a good guy and one of Dick's best friends, but his charm comes from being an enormous ham.
  • Legacy Character - Flattop. Not only do we have his father (Poptop), his siblings (Sharptop, Blowtop and an unnamed sister) and his KIDS (Flattop Jr. and Angeltop) but now we have his freaking GRANDSON (Hi-Top).
  • Magic Plastic Surgery - Dr. Carver, plastic surgeon to the underworld.
  • Master of Disguise - Puttypuss
  • Meaningful Name - Pretty much everybody. However, a few minor characters who got promoted to series regulars wound up permanently stuck with names that only related to the plotline which introduced them. Poor Vitamin Flintheart!
  • Money, Dear Boy - Whenever the intros to the Dick Tracy books and articles regarding Tracy talk about Chester Gould, they tend to point out that Chet did not see himself as an artist creating a fictional narrative to entertain audiences, but rather as a businessman creating a product designed to sell newspapers.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Quite a few in the Staton & Curtis era:
    • A series of strips in 2013 featured George Takei (as "George Tawara") and his husband, Brad Altman.
    • Scott Shaw! in a spring 2014 storyline, as an animator, no less.
    • Gruesome even had plastic surgery that resulted in him looking like Boris Karloff in a late 2014 storyline.[2]
  • Nice Hat - The ol' yellow fedora.
  • The Nondescript
  • Official Couple - Dick and Tess had a very, very long engagement. When they finally announced one day that they had just eloped, the entire cast was stunned.
  • Off-Model - The strip's artwork tended to veer into this in Gould's later years, although given that he was prone to experimentation in this period, some of it may have been a conscious choice on his part. Played very straight with Dick Locher's work from 2006 to 2009; Jim Brozman's efforts between 2009 and 2011 were a bit better, but not by a whole lot. Which made the transition from Locher & Brozman's last strip to Staton & Curtis' first strip even more visually jarring.
  • Papa Wolf - Tracy, when Crewy Lou kidnaps his infant daughter.
  • Plaguemaster - Captain Cure
  • Plucky Comic Relief - Vitamin Flintheart, B.O.Plenty
  • Police Procedural
  • Porn Stache - Tracy sported one of these for a while in the '70s. Eventually, his coworkers physically hold him down and shave the ridiculous thing off. His response afterward is, "Thanks."
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The handling of the non-gangster villains in media adaptations. In the case of Nazi spy Pruneface, he was turned into a simple mob boss. The Blank, in the Dick Tracy movie, didn't fair as well: the Blank became a disguise for Breathless Mahoney, who wore a man's suit, a flesh colored stocking over her head, and talked like a guy, and basically started killing off Dick Tracy's various enemies to take over the criminal underworld (so that Dick could have time to marry Breathless, if he had no bad guys to arrest).
  • Pragmatic Villainy - When Big Boy puts out a million dollar open contract to kill Tracy, the organized crime ruling committee, The Apparatus, confront the old dying gangster to tell him that it must be cancelled because not only is killing police officers nowadays more trouble than it's worth, but that Tracy is gearing up to retaliate with the police department's Organized Crime Unit.
  • Pretty in Mink - A few rich ladies would wear fur.
  • Red Right Hand - Most of the strip's most famous villains were grotesque in some fashion (Flattop, Pruneface, the Brow, etc.).
  • Revenge Before Reason - Big Boy's open contract on Tracy, which even his fellow gangsters say is crazy.
    • Similarly the Blank's murder spree; all because he was driven to madness over being rejected by his former friends due to his disfigurement.
  • Scare Campaign - The story arc about music/movie piracy as not only ham-handed, factually incorrect/out of touch on most counts, and like much of the strip then utterly bugnuts, it also included dire warnings about downloading, comparing it to buying drugs, and had PSAs warning parents they could suffer the consequences for their children downloading MP3s, complete with an image of police car with sirens blaring zooming at top speed toward a suburban home.
    • Considering the fact that a woman in the US was just fined over a million dollars on appeal for sharing copyrighted music, the Scare Campaign may not be as far-fetched as some might think.
    • Far fetched? That is what the people RIAA and MPAA actually think is what happens, and it isn't strict enough.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here - Played for laughs in one of Max Allan Collins' earlier stories. After listening to two rival villains talking at length about why they want revenge on one another, Tracy suddenly starts to leave the building, saying that their dispute has nothing to do with the police and that they can sort it out themselves. The villains are taken aback, as they had both hoped to get Tracy to arrest and/or kill the other one, and try to persuade him to stay. It then turns out that what Tracy was actually doing was trying to distract them so that Sam and Liz could sneak up and knock them out -- which the crooks don't discover until after they come around and find themselves cuffed.
  • Sidekick - Sam Catchem (originally Pat Patton, before Pat got promoted).
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad - B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie.
  • Street Urchin - Junior, before his adoption by Tracy.
  • Tech Marches On - While some of the extreme examples like the Space Coupe with its magnetic propulsion system are straight examples, Tracy's various wrist communicators have always felt reasonably in line with the times with occasional upgrades over the years.
  • Those Wacky Nazis - Pruneface and the Brow
  • Throwing Off the Disability - The Mayor's invalid wife rises from her bed to shoot Mrs Pruneface and save her daughters.
  • Train Escape - Shakey does it to lose the pursuing Tracy in his climatic attempt to escape.
  • Tunnel King - The Mole
  • Twenty Minutes Into the Future - Even before it got ridiculous with the space period and after it pulled back, Dick Tracy has an ample supply of futuristic gadgets, especially with his various wrist communicators.
  • Two-Faced - Haf-and-Haf
  • Ugly Guys Hot Daughter - How did B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie produce a child who looks like Sparkle?
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife - Subverted with Pruneface and Mrs. Pruneface. Played very straight with Abner Kadaver and Rikki Mortis (although they live together, their relationship hasn't been specified as of yet).
  • The Unintelligible - Mumbles and later Merky.
  • The Vamp - Breathless Mahoney.
  • Vapor Trail - Happens to Measles
  • Video Phone - Dick's "2-Way Wrist TV" that carries this function and is used to communicate with police headquarters.
  • We Need to Get Proof - In the NES Dick Tracy, Dick needs to gather a significant amount of evidence before confronting the villains.
  • What a Drag - Wormy tries to kill Tracy by chaining him to the back of a car and dragging him along the road. Tracy is able to unhook the chain, but not before he is pretty badly banged up by the ordeal.
  • Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys? - From Diet Smith Enterprises, mostly. Tracy met Diet when a crook tried to steal the plans to Diet's wrist radio. Diet has supplied the police with nifty gadgets ever since.
  • Whip It Good - Mrs Pruneface
  • White-Haired Pretty Girl - Gravel Gertie may be crone-like, but it's universally conceded in-universe that she has lovely flowing white hair (as well as an angelic voice).
    • So much that, before first laying eyes on her The Brow was completely smitten with her (he had been blinded).
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Inverted in that's what Flattop wanted to do to Tracy in the beginning when he could have had his henchmen simply slash his throat earlier instead.
  • Wild Hair - B.O. Plenty. Also Junior, well into his adulthood, but he did eventually start combing it.
  • Worthy Opponent - I think Big Boy Caprice admits this much of Tracy at the end of the NES game.
  • Would Hit a Girl - well, Dick would hit a homicidal female as large as himself, anyway.
  • Write What You Know - Current head writer Mike Curtis and technical advisor/"Crimestoppers/Tracy's Hall of Fame" scribe Jim Doherty are the first two people involved with Dick Tracy to have actual law enforcement experience.
  • Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: Standard writing style of Chester Gould, although he did write himself into a corner at least once.
  1. To be fair, "Broadway" debuted in 1932, nine years before The Penguin's first appearance. Plus "Broadway" only appeared in one Dick Tracy storyline up to that point, so the similarities are likely coincidental.
  2. Note that Boris Karloff originated the character of "Gruesome" in the 1940s RKO picture Dick Tracy meets Gruesome.