11 Things You Might Not Know About Dick Tracy

Tribune Media Services
Tribune Media Services

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.

An advertisement for the authentic Dick Tracy rapid-fire Tommy gun
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Photo of the moon
iStock

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.


Getty Images

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.

How Did Casper the Friendly Ghost Die?

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The star of dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comics, and one big-screen feature (which spawned a couple of straight-to-video follow-ups), Casper the Friendly Ghost has enjoyed a great deal of spooky success since he debuted in 1945. An affable spirit, the seemingly pre-adolescent blob of ectoplasm only wants to make friends. Unfortunately, people are consistently wary of his ethereal qualities. In the earliest shorts, he preferred to hang out by himself near a tombstone.

Does the tombstone belong to him? By virtue of being a ghost, doesn’t that mean Casper was once a real, live boy who suffered a tragic fate at a young age?

The Ghost With No Name

When Casper was created back in 1940 by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, the question apparently didn’t come up. Reit and Oriolo planned to have Casper—who did not yet have a name—be the star of an illustrated children’s book, with Reit writing and Oriolo illustrating it. They never got the chance. The two, who worked at Fleischer Studios on animated shorts, were both drafted to serve in World War II. When they returned, Fleischer Studios had been purchased by Paramount, renamed Famous Studios, and wanted complete control over the intellectual property of work created by employees. The two sold Casper and other characters for a total of $200 to Paramount.

When Casper made his animated debut in the 1945 Famous Studios short “The Friendly Ghost,” he finally got a name, but no mention was made of his origins. The short references his “brothers and sisters” who enjoy scaring people but offers no other details of his private life.

A second short, 1948’s “There’s Good Boos To-Night,” shows Casper leaning on a tombstone while reading a book, with a “Love Thy Neighbor” sign hanging nearby. The ghosts in the cemetery are referred to as his “neighbors” and appear to rise from their respective resting places when it’s time to go haunting. This would imply Casper is relaxing at his own gravesite, though his name doesn’t appear on the tombstone. If so, it would support the idea he once occupied the land of the living.

As Casper moved into another medium, however, a case began to be made for his existence as something other than human. In 1949, St. John Publishing produced five Casper comics. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over the license. In an effort to expand Casper’s world, Harvey gave him a ghost family, including a mom and three uncles. None of them were named until 1955, when the uncles were dubbed Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. What wasn’t clear, however, was whether Casper’s relatives were all deceased as well or whether the Casper mythology implies ghosts are simply "born" ghosts.

The Pneumonia Theory

When the Casper feature film starring Christina Ricci was released in 1995, producers apparently thought moviegoers would be confused by a lack of explanation, and so the Casper of that film was portrayed as a boy named Casper McFadden. He was said to have died of pneumonia at the age of 12 after staying out in cold weather for too long playing with a sled he had just received as a gift.

There is one alternative, and slightly darker, theory that was purportedly first floated by The Simpsons. In the 1991 episode “Three Men and a Comic Book,” Bart and Lisa speculate that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey Comics icon. (The two bear a resemblance.) Lisa believes that his realization of “how hollow the pursuit of money really is” caused Richie to take his own life. Other observers have speculated that perhaps Richie’s parents killed their son for the insurance money.

This is, of course, virtually impossible, as Richie Rich wasn’t created until 1953, 13 years after Reit and Oriolo conceived of Casper.

So what is Casper—former boy or forever ghost? Given his comfort hanging around a tombstone and his pleasant nature preventing him from besmirching the grave of another, it seems likely he was once human. To date, only the 1995 feature has attempted to detail what led him to the afterlife. Considering Casper's appeal as a children's property, that's probably for the best.

The Far Side Is Officially Online—And New Art Is Coming

Courtesy of FarWorks
Courtesy of FarWorks

In September, a cryptic update to cartoonist Gary Larson’s The Far Side website hinted that something new might be in store for fans of the popular single-panel comic strip. This week, Larson and his syndicate, Andrews McMeel Universal, made it official. The irreverent cartoon, which originally ran from 1980 to 1995 and explored the perils of anthropomorphic cows and science run amok, will now be available online for the first time. But it won’t be strictly archival material: Larson plans to periodically revisit his bizarre world with new art.

In an open letter posted to the site, Larson explained that he was initially taken aback by fans using scanners and posting his work on the web without permission. According to Larson, part of his reluctance to share his catalog of work was due to the questionable resolution of older computer screens, which might miss some nuances of his artwork. With new displays making that concern obsolete, the artist decided to enable readers to enjoy the strip without having to go looking for illicit files.

In a interview with The New York Times, Larson also addressed his plans to supplement his collection with new panels, though readers shouldn’t expect anything resembling a schedule. “I’m not ‘back,’ at least in the sense I think you’re asking,” he said via email. “Returning to the world of deadlines isn’t exactly on my to-do list.”

Fresh artwork will likely be seen in 2020. But for the moment, The Far Side site will be home to a revolving library of content, from random daily posts to curated and themed collections. Larson will also post sketches and other ancillary material.

Larson is not the only iconic cartoonist to make a return. In 2014, Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame ended a near-20 year sabbatical from the comics pages to ghost-pencil cartoonist Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. And in 2015, Berkeley Breathed resurrected his Bloom County for Facebook.

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