"Gould in High Gear" (so saith Max Allan Collins in the Introduction)? More like Gould popping the clutch, goosing the gas pedal, and otherwise struggling to get up to cruising speed as World War II -- and the cartoonist's most creatively fertile decade -- begin. What a piebald collection of continuities we have in this volume: the appearances of three of Gould's better-known grotesques -- Little Face, The Mole, and B-B Eyes -- mixed up with a clutter of ephemeral evildoers including, among other things, a gang that stages real accidents in order to collect "realistic" sound effects for radio shows, a knuckle-headed debutante who "takes care of" an incapacitated Tracy after the detective breaks his leg and otherwise makes his life miserable, and a couple of Orson Welles-lookalike actors who swing wildly between good-guy and bad-guy roles (as does the woman they both love). No wonder Gould decided to wholeheartedly traipse down the gimmicky-rat route once America's war began and he realized (as noted by Jay Maeder in his marvelous history of the TRACY strip) that he would henceforth have to be at the top of his game in order to compete with the real-world headlines.
Truth be told, Little Face and The Mole don't get a whole lot of interest to do during their moments in the sun (which seems an inappropriate phrase to use when The Mole is concerned, actually). The pico-panned LF is basically your bog-standard vicious gang boss, a dealer in "hot" diamonds to be precise. The most memorable thing about him is his long period of suffering after accidentally being locked in a deep freeze and suffering near-terminal frostbite during his attempt to escape the clutches of the law. (LF is ugly enough with ears, thank you very much.) The Mole, a long-missing criminal who operates a "hideout" for fleeing crooks and takes advantage of their plight to strip them of their ill-gotten gains, is barely established as an insane creep when a freak snowstorm and ensuing runoff causes his lair to flood (um... he's being hiding there for 15 years and this is just now happening for the first time?) and Tracy literally "crashes" his party. The hand-to-hand between Tracy and The Mole and The Mole's frantic attempt to escape are legitimately gripping, though, and Tracy even shows some compassion for the kook, giving him Christmas cigarettes, fruit, and candy in jail. I wouldn't call The Mole an "appealing" character, as Max does, but you can definitely sense Gould mulling over the possibility of bringing him back (and he would do so, in the early 1970s). B-B Eyes' caper is a little more imaginative and timely (dealing in black-market tires), and he gets to stick Tracy with one of Gould's goofiest death traps, encasing Tracy and Pat Patton in wax and planning to shoot them both into the path of a train. The little crook's heavy-handedly ironic demise is also noteworthy and memorable.
Of the minor-league villains dealt with herein, only the hooded-eyed Selbert Depool -- who looks uncannily like "Badman," one of the villainous opponents of "Super" Richie Rich and Cadbury back in the 70s -- rates any mention at all. For a supposed maniac who's escaped from an asylum, Depool is suprisingly lucid as he seeks to avoid capture following the murder of the rich uncle who'd sent him to the looney bin. With his eyes surrounded by what appears to be a permanent coat of lampblack, he'd seem to be easy for cops and others to recognize and apprehend, but whatever. After leaving a trail of corpses in his wake, Selbert falls victim to that dreaded trap, the deadly Mardi Gras parade float. Yes, really.
Physically, this volume brings the TRACY series in line with other ongoing IDW reprint projects, such as LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. The larger dimensions allow Gould's Sunday pages to be viewed without eye strain. The supporting features are stronger as well, with Collins' introduction being accompanied by an interesting Jeff Kersten essay describing Gould's working methods and life as a "gentleman farmer" in Woodstock, IL. With the immortal Pruneface (and wife) and Flattop scheduled to appear in the next volume, the format shift couldn't have come at a better time.