Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOLUME 11: 1947-48 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2011)

When a villain with a coffeepot-shaped head -- a fella who probably wouldn't even have made the cut of Duck Twacy's list of leading adversaries -- gets second billing in a COMPLETE DICK TRACY volume, you know that you're heading into one of Chester Gould's relatively fallow creative periods, and so the period March 1947-September 1948 proves to be. Oh, some notable events do occur -- B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie's daughter Sparkle Plenty is born, and Junior Tracy and some of his pals found the Crime Stoppers under Tracy's approving eye. But truly memorable villains are few and far between, with one huge exception: Mumbles, that heavy-lidded proto-Boomhauer himself, who would wind up rating not one but two comebacks, one in the mid-50s and the other (as a clone) in the late 70s. One reason for Mumbles' refusal to pass quietly was the simple fact that his first-class initial appearance, the saga of the rich-rifling Mumbles Quartette, whizzed past readers in a mere matter of six weeks. Almost before Gould (who was as ever working without planning ahead) realized what he had created, the story was over and Mumbles was (supposedly) dead. The contrast between this lightning-quick narrative and the slow-paced, overly derivative storyline that closes this volume, featuring midget con artist Heels Beals (does Richard know about him?) and his enormous inamorata Acres O'Riley, is a testament to the unevenness of Gould's work during this period.

Max Allan Collins provides his usual informative opening commentary, but Jeff Kersten, in his closing essay "Of Pink Shirts and Power Struggles," displays a flexibility worthy of Stretch Armstrong in his attempts to dope out hidden political commentary in Gould's late-1940s work. The distinctive Eleanor Roosevelt-esque appearance of electronic-parts thief Mrs. Volts lends at least some credence to Kersten's claim that Gould meant the character to be a reference to the New Deal's attempt to establish control over the utility industry during the Depression. But Heels Beals as a metaphor for Harry Truman, "a seeming puppet of forces larger than himself"? From the way Beals throws his modest weight around and attempts to control those around him -- even unto attempting to off Tracy with a good, old-fashioned death trap -- it's hard to believe that Kersten actually read this continuity. And Mumbles and his Quartette, who use their performing group as a "front" to rob folks at parties, as symbolic of Soviet intelligence's co-opting of American progressivism... well, one could read such a message into the actions of any number of Tracy's adversaries, many of whom used "beards" of one sort or another to hide their illegal activities. Personally, I'm unaware of any continuity in which Gould took on Communism directly, save perhaps for the story featuring the vaguely radical Boris Arson back in the 1930s. Gould would make up for this, though, when the permissive 60s came along and he turned into a strident defender of the police. Nice try, Jeff, but sometimes a crook is simply a crook.

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