Created by Chester Gould in 1931, Dick Tracy has proven to be one of the most enduring comic strips of all time. With a square-jawed detective protagonist and his rogues gallery of cosmetically-unfortunate villains, Tracy has become a kind of shorthand for brilliant and dogged investigative work. Check out some things you might have missed about the strip’s history, how readers reacted to a villain's death, and what stopped Bruce Campbell from playing him in a TV series.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED PLAINCLOTHES TRACY.
After taking art correspondence courses as a teenager, Pawnee, Oklahoma native Chester Gould decided that one way to get rich would be to create a comic strip that would be syndicated all over the country. Early attempts like Radio Cats were “strictly stinkeroo,” he recalled. Eventually, Gould—who had moved to Chicago—decided that in order to stand out he’d need to craft a strip that was serious in tone, a contrast to the comedic strips of the era. Drawing on his distaste for mob figure Al Capone, Gould created Plainclothes Tracy, about a detective disrupting the criminal underworld. Joe Patterson, who co-edited the Chicago Tribune, liked the idea but thought “Dick Tracy” would be a better name because "Dick" was what people called detectives. The strip debuted on October 4, 1931 and has been running ever since.
2. IT DEPICTED THE FIRST COMIC STRIP MURDER.
Strips of the early 20th century were almost exclusively humorous in nature; even police were depicted as slightly buffoonish. Dick Tracy may have been the first attempt at a serious serialized drama on the funny pages. When Patterson accepted the pitch, he suggested to Gould that Tracy become a detective as a result of crime hitting close to home. Patterson’s idea was for Tracy to be so upset by the murder of his girlfriend’s father that he goes to the police to join the force. Gould agreed, and Tess Truehart’s dad, Jeremiah, became an early comic strip casualty, shot dead by robbers who had forced their way into his deli. “I let poor Jeremiah have it right through the heart,” Gould later said.
3. THE STRIP WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING TOO VIOLENT.
Even people unfamiliar with Dick Tracy have at least some passing knowledge of its colorful library of villains: Pruneface, Flyface, the Mole, Flattop, the Brow. Fearing readers might tire of villains, Gould killed them off with regularity—and in some astonishingly violent ways. The Brow was impaled on a flagpole; a rabid dog attacked one, while another was scalded to death in a Turkish bath. Gould responded to criticism that the strip sometimes went too far by arguing that police work is “the most bloody and miserable on Earth … any policeman on night duty sees far more blood than I have ever put in my strip.”
4. GOULD IMMERSED HIMSELF IN POLICE TECHNIQUES.
While much of Tracy was sensational in nature—few actual cops relied on video watches or almost exclusively hunted disfigured crooks—Gould still wanted to portray police work as accurately as he could. The artist took courses in ballistics, fingerprinting, forensics, and other procedural techniques to remain current on the latest investigative tools.
5. READERS TOOK THE DEATH OF VILLAIN FLATTOP VERY SERIOUSLY.
A flat-headed criminal, Flattop spent several weeks in 1944 facing off against Tracy before a Gould-ish ugly death by drowning and an unceremonious burial in a field. He was a charming killer, though, and readers took his demise to heart. According to Life, Gould got telegrams from people offering to “claim” his body, and the strip’s syndicate offices received several floral arrangements and sympathy cards. Fans in Middletown, Connecticut even held a wake. Gould later admitted he “got so fond of that little moron” that he delayed his death. Tracy goons typically had 10 weeks of life in them. Flattop earned 11.
6. HE WENT TO THE MOON.
Despite its grounded depictions of police work, Gould wasn’t above inserting a bit of comic frivolity into his strip. At the height of the Space Race in the 1960s, Gould began a series where Tracy’s police force devised a method of traveling to the moon to battle space crime. Somewhat derisively known as the “moon period,” Tracy spent time in outer space and his son, Dick Tracy Jr., married an alien named Moon Maid. Newspapers even held Moon Maid lookalike contests to find women who resembled the character, minus her antennae.
7. HE ONCE GREW A MUSTACHE.
As reactionary as the strip had been to 1960s politics, Gould doubled down in the 1970s. Hoping to contemporize the square Tracy for hipper audiences, the artist depicted the detective with sideburns and a mustache. He even gained a new partner: “Groovy” Grove, a with-it detective.
8. HE COOPERATED WITH THE REAL FBI TO SOLVE REAL CASES.
In a rare instance of fictional law enforcement getting involved in real cases, in 1999 the FBI worked with the then-current Dick Tracy creative team of Mike Kilian and Dick Locher to publicize real criminals in the strip. (Gould died in 1985.) Top 10 Most Wanted fugitives were profiled in the hopes someone might recognize them. In 2002, the strip depicted actual missing children and advised readers to contact the authorities if they had any information.
9. HE ALMOST GOT A DIVORCE.
Tracy spent 18 years engaged to Tess Trueheart before finally marrying her in 1949. After 45 years of wedded bliss, the couple nearly got a divorce in 1994: Tess was apparently fed up with Tracy’s long hours and unwavering commitment to law enforcement and served him with papers. Deemed a publicity stunt, the couple reconciled after taking a vacation.
10. HE FOUND THE MISSING LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE.
Little Orphan Annie ended its comic strip run in 2010 with the title character believed missing in Guatemala. Since both characters are owned by Tribune Media Services, it was only fitting that Dick Tracy was summoned to find her. The detective began his search in mid-2014, eventually finding Annie being held on a private island that September.
11. BRUCE CAMPBELL WANTED TO PLAY HIM IN A 1990S TV SERIES.
Gould’s creation has been ported over to several other mediums, including radio, comic books, and television. His most notable adaptation came via Warren Beatty, who directed and starred in 1990’s live-action Dick Tracy. The film was a modest hit, which may have emboldened Disney to support actor Bruce Campbell’s desire to launch a Tracy TV series in the 1990s. The Ash vs. Evil Dead star believed he could pull off a “convincing, if slightly snarky” Tracy. Unfortunately, his ambition was suffocated by Beatty, who has controlled screen rights to the character since the 1980s and doesn’t appear to be interested in backing any other Tracy-related projects.