Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: THE COMPLETE CHESTER GOULD'S DICK TRACY, Volume 9: 1944-45 (IDW Publishing, 2009)

Chester Gould's World War II era "wave of creativity" reaches its crest in this collection of 1944-45 strips. On the dark side of the ledger, we get Flattop ("Take II"), The Brow, and Breathless Mahoney, and even such relatively minor players as Shaky and Measles make solid impressions. At the same time, Gould suddenly broadens his supporting cast with the introduction of two classic characters, B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie, and gives brief yet memorable life to a third, Vitamin Flintheart. Gould's willingness to expand his "character base" -- a decision that slipped through a perilously narrow "window of opportunity," given that only a few years later, Gould would be creating and discarding strong one-shot supporting players with a breezy insouciance matched only by the producers of Tale Spin -- shows just how confident and "in tune" he was with his audience at this time. Gould certainly had his ear finely tuned to the popular culture of the war years: he drew upon the popularity of The Andrews Sisters to create the ill-fated Summer Sisters, dredged the emerging teenager culture to fashion his first under-20 villain (the smirking, acne-ridden dope peddler Measles), and responded to the brief heyday of faux-hillbilly singer Judy Canova by introducing B.O. and Gertie (as villains, originally, but, hey, they "got better"). At the same time -- as reflected in the all-star radio play Dick Tracy in B-Flat, not to mention the ultimate tribute delivered by Bob Clampett and Daffy Duck -- Gould's own pop influence was never greater than at this moment. Given that TRACY was competing with a global conflict, Gould's rising to the occasion was no small trick.

As beloved as B.O. and Gertie are by TRACY fans, Vitamin Flintheart is probably the best of this era's regular-cast "newbies." The John Barrymore-esque "ham actor" is a strange case in that he was used quite a bit during the period 1944-47, made one final appearance in 1950, and then disappeared for almost three decades. Judging by a Gould quote relayed by Max Allan Collins in the Introduction, Gould may simply have forgotten about him, as opposed to consciously deciding not to use him any more. For the moment, though, Gould must have realized that he'd struck comedic gold with the loquacious, endearingly egotistical Vitamin, who pulls off the remarkable feat of upstaging Flattop's atypical "comeback" (read: medical recovery from shooting and escape from jail). Flattop's immense popularity with readers dictated his return to begin with, so what does it say about Vitamin that Vitamin gets virtually all of the good lines during the duo's brief, unwelcome partnership? As a sort of "authorial reward" for his good work, Vitamin receives a brief walk-on during Tracy's tangle with the evil Axis agent The Brow, then has a much juicier part when the reverberating reprobate Shaky comes on the scene. The actor even manages to get married to extortionist Shaky's pawn Snowflake Falls, though the couple barely manages to survive the experience. Vitamin and Snowflake get one final curtain call when an escaping Measles stumbles into their California-bound train car, and then it's back into the "medicine cabinet" for a while. Vitamin was typically placed in a "victim" role during this period, but Gould's evident trust in his entertainment value demonstrates the profoundest kind of respect.

Gravel Gertie's return (at the start of the Measles story, when she adamantly refuses to leave the prison where she'd served time for her love-sick aiding and abetting of The Brow) is probably a bigger surprise than Vitamin's. How many story lines, after all, can believably feature a crack-brained, hideous old crone who falls like a ton of bricks for any Y-chromosome carrier in the vicinity? Gould performs some quick surgery and turns Gertie into a rough-edged but lovable "salt-of-the-Earth" type. B.O. Plenty's rehabilitation lies beyond the scope of this volume -- in fact, when we leave him, he hasn't yet paid for his crime of strangling Breathless Mahoney over her ill-gotten fortune -- but Gould obviously enjoys fashioning his hillbilly banter every bit as much as he liked creating Vitamin's grandiloquent speeches, so you already get the impression that B.O. will come out all right in the end. Who knows, perhaps he'll even meet Gertie some day.

The Brow case is easily this volume's best continuity, centering as it does around that Gould staple, the lengthy pursuit of a fleeing criminal. (For such an apparently high-ranking spy, The Brow spends very little time actually gathering espionage data.) It's chock full of all manner of improbable coincidences -- Tess' gas coupon book falling into The Brow's hands, The Brow's hiding in a submerged plastic coffin and a barn loft filled with discarded lightning rods, and, of course, The Brow's out-of-left-field encounter with Gertie -- but the villain is easily a physical and intellectual match for Tracy, as well as being one of Gould's most ruthless bad guys. The fate of the naughty-but-still-likable Summer Sisters still packs a punch, too. In truth, however, you can't go wrong with any continuity in this collection, and such will be S.O.P. chez TRACY until well into the 1950s.

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