"Characters count" and "the family is the focus" as Chester Gould brings his prime creative decade to a close. The villains in this latest volume will be unfamiliar to most -- Sketch Paree, the nutso wardrobe designer, is only remembered because he was one of those picked as a goofy bad-guy spear-carrier in UPA's Dick Tracy Show -- but they're a solid enough crew, all things considered. The big events here, though, are the introduction of one major new character, the shocking departure of another, and the (seemingly?) out-of-nowhere permanent "joining" of the strip's two original principals.
As Max Allan Collins notes in his introduction, the replacement of Pat Patton with Sam Catchem as Tracy's partner does indeed give DICK TRACY an important shot of adrenaline -- not to mention an authentic tang of ethnicity. I always got the impression that Sam's "Jewishness" was gradually sanded off over time, but, in his earliest appearances, the wise-cracking, freckled, knobby-nosed cop is like nothing the strip has seen before (on the side of the law, at least). Patton is not forsaken, becoming police chief after a crushed Chief Brandon "retires himself" due to guilt over feeling responsible for the murder of the blind young inventor Brilliant. Having never seen this "transition sequence" before, I was amused to see how quickly the long-time bungler Patton evolved into a "senior officer" type. It's not a matter of weeks, as Jay Maeder claimed in his strip history; it's literally a matter of days. When he introduces Catchem to Tracy, Patton is already passing himself off as a personnel expert in knowing just the sort of sidekick Tracy now needs. This from a guy who started his career peering into a keyhole with a known murderer on the other side of the door...
The death of Brilliant at the hands of the ruthless gang boss Big Frost is one of the most shocking examples of Gould's creative profligacy. Having created one of those "accommodating sources of miracles" who could have served the strip for decades, in the manner of Gyro Gearloose or Hedgerow Huppy, Gould jettisons Brilliant without an apparent second thought. In an era that emphasized relationships, however, this was admittedly a very effective way to demonstrate the frailty of the "social compact" and the family unit at the hands of crime. The after-the-fact revelation that Brilliant was Diet Smith's son only adds to the sense of real tragedy. Something of the same sort of fragility is on display when B.O. Plenty exiles himself for a while in the mistaken conviction that he has committed murder, leaving Gravel Gertie and little Sparkle behind to (rather ineffectively) fend for themselves. At least B.O. was allowed to return in one piece.
There is less reliance on "grotesques" here, apart from Wormy Marrons (of the striated kisser seen above) and the comically obese diet-racket fraud Pear-Shape, a Gould caricature. More believable heavies such as Big Frost, the hard-boiled shop thief Mousey, and the haughty femme fatale Sleet reflect the brassier, less sentimental tenor of the late 40s that was reflected elsewhere in phenomena like film noir. Sketch Paree turns out to be something of a pathetic figure, the rare case of a TRACY villain who is certifiably insane; with his "dry-land-drowning" water mask apparatus, he comes off as a sort of French version of the early Joker. As the "modernized" rogue's gallery indicates, Gould is perfectly comfortable with his place in the wider culture at this time, seamlessly integrating parodies of such celebrities as Spike Jones and Arthur Godfrey into his narratives, and giving "Spike Dyke" and "Ted Tellum" meaty, multi-faceted roles to boot. After the decade of success that Gould had just enjoyed, he was certainly entitled to feel confident that he had the pulse of the public.
The 1940s draw to a close with Tracy's long-delayed (to the point of parody, yet!) wedding to Tess Trueheart. In view of Gould's working methods, this may well have been an off-the-cuff decision, but I find it suspiciously convenient that the wedding takes place as, quite literally, the LAST major "action" of the 40s. Was Gould doing it to "reshuffle the deck" for the upcoming decade? Whatever the reason, it did no real "damage" to the strip, as Li'l Abner's wedding to Daisy Mae did to LI'L ABNER, mostly because Tracy and Tess had always been an "item." It also, of course, reinforced the "family bond" theme that so dominated this period.
Onward to the 50s with this outstanding reprint series!