Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOLUME 13: 1950-51 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2012)


I wish I could be as enamored of the material in this volume as Max Allan Collins, in his Introduction, seems to think I should be.  The stories and villains aren't bad, for the most part, but I can't overlook the fact that this era features what I believe to be the most unfortunate "terrestrial-based" casting decision that Gould ever made.  (I use the quotation-ringed qualifier to exempt the hare-brained "Moon period" of the 60s and 70s, about which it's probably better to simply remain silent... at least, until the reprint series gets to that point.)  By abruptly jettisoning the half-comic, half-tragic ham actor Vitamin Flintheart at the end of 1950, Gould reduced his "humorous supporting cast" to the B.O. Plenty family, which unnecessarily limited the varieties of humor that he could inject into his stories. Since Flintheart had a habit of innocently falling in with bad guys, as he did with Flattop in his first appearance and as he does with Flattop's titanic-tempered brother Blowtop here, an unknown number of opportunities for comedy-leavened adventure were probably also missed.  Amusingly, as related by Collins, Gould claimed in 1975 to have "just recently" used Vitamin and was legitimately surprised when reminded that Vitamin hadn't appeared in a quarter of a century.  In fact, Vitamin hadn't even gotten the compliment of a formal good-bye at the time; he was last seen as "one of the gang" around B.O. Plenty's hospital bed at the end of the T.V. Wiggles continuity in December 1950.  If Gould had it to do all over again, I'd like to think that he would have retained both Flintheart and the genius inventor Brilliant as members of his permanent troupe.

The ideal container for Vitamin Water?

Four-year-old Sparkle Plenty's compact little career as a ukulele-plunking, singing star of 1950 television (don't laugh -- this was the era in which desperate programmers would literally put anything on the air) has an even shorter shelf life than poor Vitamin.  This scenario provides the backdrop for the memorable story of petty-racketeer-turned-homicidal-maniac T.V. Wiggles, who tries to muscle in on Vitamin's sponsorship of Sparkle, only to ultimately try to "get rid of" her before meeting his end in the obligatory showdown with Tracy (plus, in this case, B.O. Plenty, who's nearly killed by gunfire as a result).  There are strong similarities here to the 1946 continuity featuring Gargles and Themesong, but this story features the added, extremely creepy element of Wiggles evincing what the child-protection authorities might call an "unhealthy" interest in the talented tot.  When Wiggles uses his experience as a TV wrestler to give Sparkle a deadening neck pinch, we can't help but wonder what other unpleasant "physical interventions" he might have in mind.  After the Wiggles tale is wrapped up, Sparkle and her folks have one final tubular gig, celebrating Christmas with TV Nation -- and that's the end of her "artistic career," at least until the 80s, when the grown-up Sparkle became a designer-jean modeler.  You would think that Gould would have jumped at the chance to continue to use Sparkle's well-established celebrity (she had basically been a public figure ever since she was born!) as a jumping-off point for any number of stories in which Sparkle was put in some sort of peril.  The "damsel in distress" theme might have grown tired in a hurry, but, heck, literally every major cast member was parked at death's door multiple times during the strip's lifetime, so why shouldn't Sparkle have been any different?  Instead, Gould abruptly turned his attention to the creation of Tracy and Tess' daughter Bonny Braids, who turned out to be a much less memorable and distinctive character.

The volume ends with the first part of the lengthy Crewy Lou continuity from 1951, which Collins flags as Gould's "masterpiece."  Unfortunately, I can't agree.  Granted, the wily photographer Lou is one of Gould's finest (and, arguably, most arrestingly designed) female villains, and Gould is at his ear-to-the-ground best in taking inspiration from contemporary events and getting Lou and Tracy mixed up with "Syndicate" gangsters, but I think that Gould's seat-of-the-pants compositional style betrayed him in a BIG way as this narrative unfolded.  Readers of DICK TRACY come to expect improbable deus ex machinae as an inevitable by-product of Gould's improvisational method of composition, but the abrupt introduction of Lou's "respectable" brother Brainerd is a fluke too far.  Just as Lou, pursued by both the cops and the Syndicate gangsters, goes on the run, Brainerd appears OUT OF NOWHERE (pace Greg Weagle) and vows to kill her because she's brought shame to the family.  Far-fetched, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility... but then, Brainerd changes his mind twice and then decides to kill both himself and Lou so that he won't further sully the family name with an "additional" crime.  Uh...  so a simple murder is verboten, but a murder-suicide would be just fine?  Has TRACY just switched "moral universes" on us?  To make matters worse, Brainerd's scheme (which, to no one's surprise, ends up offing only him) turns out to be the overly elaborate cause of Lou stealing the Tracy family car and riding off into the wilderness, inadvertently taking baby Bonny Braids with her.  This whole misguided sequence climbs rarely-explored levels of "lame," and, IMHO, disqualifies the Crewy Lou story from being Gould's best.  To be fair to Collins, he does admit that his critical judgment is colored by the fact that this was one of the first TRACY tales he read as a youngster, back when Harvey Comics published a DICK TRACY reprint title.  Collins has done a great job in his Introductions to the volumes in this series, and this confession is just another illustration of his conscientiousness.

1 comment:

Pete Fernbaugh said...

"Four-year-old Sparkle Plenty's compact little career as a ukulele-plunking, singing star of 1950 television (don't laugh -- this was the era in which desperate programmers would literally put anything on the air) has an even shorter shelf life than poor Vitamin."

I think that era of television has come 'round again (x 1000), what with reality shows and talent competitions.

Take NBC's schedule from last night:

8 p.m.-9 p.m. America's Got Talent
9 p.m.-11 p.m. American Ninja Warrior

Then, you start delving into the cable channels...Oy!

I did not start buying the DICK TRACY series when it began. Your reviews make me want to. I suppose it's not too late to start. Even volumes like this one sound immensely better than what's circling around the comics racks these days...