Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, VOL. 14: 1951-53 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing, 2012)

2013 smacked me in the face upon arrival with some kind of nasal malady, which explains why I haven't posted more during the latter part of the holiday break.  It's not the full-fledged flu, thank goodness, and I should be ready to go when classes begin on Monday.


During this period of the 1950s, DICK TRACY underwent something of a paradigm shift.  After wowing his fans with that long string of famous "grotesque" villains, Chester Gould set aside the pop-art approach for a while and began to "paint" his stories with a more finely bristled brush.  As he did during the "Tommy Guns and G-Men" period of the early-to-mid-30s, Gould paid particular attention to real problems encountered by law enforcement at this time:  juvenile delinquency, cops on the take, the growth of organized crime.  At the same time, he used the opportunity to move one of his major characters forward on the maturity scale, with Junior Tracy suddenly graduating into young adulthood.  These two elements memorably intersect in the short but powerful Model Jones continuity, the best story in this volume, hands down.

This volume begins with the completion of the lengthy Crewy Lou continuity.  Now that Lou's crazy, out-of-left-field brother Brainerd is safely out of the way, the storyline gets back on track, more or less, with Tracy trying to track down the fleeing babe in the deep woods and also ascertain the whereabouts of baby daughter Bonnie Braids.  Gould really twists the screws with his melodramatic portrayal of the perils of little Bonnie; as noted by Max Allan Collins in the Introduction, the suspense is heightened by the reader's recognition that Gould is perfectly capable of bumping off any sympathetic character.  Due to the ill-considered Brainerd business, I still can't rank this story as Gould's very best, but the powerful ending at least partially redeems it.

No sooner has Tracy recovered Bonnie than his integrity is called into question.  Actually, the comic strip was catching up with real-world queries in this case.  Tracy's super-duper, ultra-modern house, introduced in 1950, had to have been paid for by someone, and inquiring readers and columnists had openly wondered at the time how Tracy could possibly have managed to scrape together the cash to purchase it on a police detective's salary.  After giving verbal excuses that are more or less convincing -- I'm inclined to choose the latter -- Tracy lets his deductive actions do the real talking, uncovering a conspiracy and clearing his name.  Gould had noticed the intense interest paid to the Kefauver Hearings on organized crime and jumped at the chance to both craft a comic-strip equivalent of a corruption investigation and tie up an annoying loose thread.

Organized crime is at the heart of this book's other major continuity, the 1952 tale of Tonsils and Mr. Crime, and Gould might also be said to have anticipated a pop phenomenon of the succeeding decade in this story.  The pop-eyed "singer" Tonsils is one of Gould's "tragic" villains -- a small-timer with flexible morals who just happens to get mixed up with worse and worse company and winds up paying the ultimate price.  The ultra-smooth "big boss" Mr. Crime, with his hidden lair and man-eating barracudas and Muerte vines (no, he doesn't have a cat, in case you're wondering), is definitely a Blofeld prototype, though the exact nature of his (presumably vast) criminal activities is left unexplained.  The irony here is that Tracy's later activities as a "space cop" in the late 60s and early 70s would include an encounter with a real supervillain, Mr. Intro.

In terms of criminal activity, the story of Model Jones, Junior Tracy's first true love, involves the smallest of small potatoes -- the thefts of parking meters by a band of JD's led by Model's brother Larry.  This, however, merely provides the backdrop for a thought-provoking examination of the eternal "nature vs. nurture" question.  Lovely Model's parents are drunks and terrible role models, and Gould clearly indicates that we are to regard them as responsible for Larry's turning to the dark side.  This is rather atypical for the cartoonist, who usually portrayed his bad guys as agents of their own fates.  At the same time, however, Model is a dutiful, honest youngster who has been raised by the same parents.  The "liberal" message of the story is thereby subverted, at least in part, and we are left to consider the role of personal responsibility in one's development.  I've just been reading (or, in several cases, rereading) Horatio Alger's cycle of RAGGED DICK novels, and that author makes the same point, that one's forebears can, but do not have to, determine the manner in which one will behave; individuals do indeed have an innate free will to choose the course that they will take.  Not that making the right choices does Model any good in the end.  The conclusion of this story hits you with the force of a baseball bat to the gut; just imagine how it must have felt for those readers who, like Max Collins, first encountered this story in serialized form in Harvey Comics' TRACY reprint title.  You still have to be able to buy Junior Tracy's sudden leap from callow boyhood to passionate young manhood -- for someone so inexperienced in matters of the heart, he's mighty quick on the draw with that offer of marriage! -- but the transition had to happen sometime, and it's just as well that it occurred in the context of a classic melodrama such as this.

To be sure, more "grotesques" are on the way, but Gould's successful exploitation of less eye-catching themes in this volume helps to explain why many TRACY fans regard the early 50s as one of the most fertile periods of the strip.




BONUS TIME!  Here's Chester Gould's appearance on What's My Line? (the original, classy CBS version, not the somewhat more loosely-wound syndicated one with Soupy Sales that some of you may remember) in 1956.

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