Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, Volume 17: 1956-57 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing/Library of American Comics, 2014)... plus RIP Jay Maeder
This latest TRACY collection begins by wrapping up the "Joe Period and Flattop Jr." continuity. The denouement features one of Gould's most (literally) haunting sequence of images, as the ghost/spirit of a murder victim of Flattop Jr.'s literally attaches itself to his neck and won't let go until he himself is gunned down. By the time Flattop meets his demise, he is white-haired and completely barmy. The fact that he is a teenager makes the images particularly compelling. Joe Period doesn't fare much better, getting arrested by Tracy and crew after scoring his first (and, since he's thereby doomed to the electric chair, only) notch on the old gun-butt. In another highly effective and eerily mounted series of strips, Joe's grieving mother comes to see him in prison, laments her inability to be a good and responsible parent for her boy... and promptly commits suicide by running out into city traffic. Gould applies a final twist of the knife when he refuses to let us see Joe's on-panel reaction to the shocking news; all we get is a panel of a guard coming to tell the "juvie" prisoner that something has happened.
The Joe Period/Flattop Jr. tale was the latest one in time order to be reprinted by Harvey Comics' old DICK TRACY COMICS MONTHLY. From here on in, easily accessible pre-IDW reprints of TRACY continuities will be conspicuous by their absence. Not quite "uncharted waters," but close enough to smell the salt air.
Atypically, the volume closes on the end of a continuity, the tale of the unfortunate Crystal family and the "mad" mother Elsa. Child abuse, fire, flood, drug pushing, and a gruesome form of murder all compete for attention in this story.
Several "this could only have happened in the 50s" moments are scattered about. Tracy and his partner Sam Catchem get crew cuts, and Tracy gets involved in a young men's organization that wants to combat the JD plague by having its members "dress like men," as opposed to outfitting themselves in leather jackets and skintight jeans. Collins sniffs at the idea, joking that he "must have missed" the day when that was discussed in school. But now that we have college students routinely coming to class wearing baggy pants and pajama bottoms... who's to say that Gould wasn't onto something?
This volume is dedicated to NEW YORK DAILY NEWS columnist Jay Maeder, who died in July of cancer. If any of you are wondering about the origins of my interest in DICK TRACY, you have a combination of Maeder and the first (sort of) incarnation of Gladstone Comics to blame. Back in the early Summer of 1990, as stores filled up with chatchkas of all sorts touting the Disney-Touchstone Dick Tracy movie and various local TV stations unwittingly set themselves up for various ethnic protests by planning a rerelease UPA's old Dick Tracy Show, Maeder published a paperback biography of the jut-jawed flatfoot. As fate would have it, Gladstone, trying to keep its hand in the comics game after Disney had stepped in and given the Disney comics license to its own comics subsidiary, had recently started publishing a DICK TRACY reprint title. Wanting to continue my support of Gladstone, I bought the reprint comics, liked them, saw the Maeder book in a local library, bought it, and thoroughly enjoyed Maeder's virtually year-by-year examination of the progress of Gould's strip. Having read all of the IDW volumes, I now know that Maeder simplified some things and got some other things wrong, but it was his enthusiasm for the strip and its milieu that grabbed me. I've maintained that level of interest ever since.
Some years after writing the TRACY bio, Maeder took over the writing chores on the near-moribund LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE strip and boldly "reimagined" it for the 21st century -- changing Annie's dress and appearance, giving her a female adventuress for a companion, etc. That didn't prevent ANNIE from ultimately being "orphaned" for good and all, but it was Maeder's devotion to the idea of the classic newspaper adventure strip that should, and hopefully will, be remembered. Thanks, Mr. Maeder, for fighting the good fight.