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.

The year 1957, the very crux of the 50s, was once described as "the year it seemed that everyone graduated from high school -- or at least wished they had."  As for Gould, well, he had certainly had better years.  The Kitten Sisters, a trio of close-cropped, acrobatic, "butch" burglars who take a giant step up on the ladder of crime when they commit a revenge murder, are fairly interesting as characters, but they are almost captured too easily: these are the types of arrogant villains that I would have expected to have gone down in "a blaze of gory."  There's actually more bloodshed in the next continuity, which is supposed to serve as comedy relief, or at least I heard some rumor to that effect.  B.O. Plenty's father Morin Plenty (it only seems as if old B.O. has had as many relatives as Snoopy) spends many weeks of panels touting his amazing new invention, a screw-on shoe heel, only to vow bloody revenge after a pair of would-be swindlers cause the death of his barefooted, teenaged hillbilly wife Blossom.  In his Introduction, Max Allan Collins calls this Gould's worst comedy continuity ever.  I can't bring myself to go that far.  OK, it's far from a laugh riot, but Morin is an engaging, genial sort, with an energy that belies his advanced age, and it's genuinely touching to see him break down after Blossom is killed.  Some of Gould's comedy bits from the 30s -- the ones with half-witted wannabe rube detectives and stereotypical black servants -- were far more annoying than this.  The whole affair comes to a classic DICK TRACY conclusion, with the requisite high body count.  Thankfully, despite his vow of revenge, Morin wasn't involved in any of the carnage.

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.


Pan Miluś said...

I didn't know they have paranormal stuff in Dick Tracy.. COOL :D

There's something diffrent about this blog... Did you gave it a hair cut or something?

Chris Barat said...


No, in the spirit of Dick Tracy and Sam Catchem, I gave it a crew cut. :-)
Seriously, there was some kind of change in my original template that left me with a narrower field on which to compose text. I didn't like it, so I decided on a change.