Monday, April 15, 2013
April 15, 2013: Comic Book Heroes: Dick Tracy
[A series on AmericanStudying some of our most popular comic book characters. Add your responses, and takes on other heroes and comics, for a super weekend post!]
Comparing, contrasting, and contextualizing the comics’ most enduring detective.
In 1931, Chester Gould debuted his comic strip Dick Tracy; Gould go on to write and illustrate Tracy’s hard-hitting adventures for forty-six years, until his retirement in 1977, and the series has continued with new authors and teams in the decades since, making it one of America’s longest-running comics. Tracy’s popularity can be attributed to a number of factors, from his outrageous adversaries to his decades-long courtship of Tess Trueheart; but I would argue that it is the character’s strikingly hard-boiled perspective and philosophy that particularly define his appeal. As the Library of American Comics site linked above notes, “I’m going to shoot first and investigate later” (apparently an actual line) sums up Tracy’s crime-fighting style quite concisely and effectively. In the era of Al Capone (the model for Big Boy, Tracy’s first opponent), such a perspective surely spoke to the American psyche.
For further proof for that collective perspective, and for an important artistic context for Gould’s creation, I’d point to the first two novels published by seminal mystery writer Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (1929) and The Dain Curse (1929). Hammett’s narrator and protagonist in these debut novels (and in other later stories) is a detective so hard-boiled he doesn’t have a name; known only as The Continental Op (short for operative), this detective weathers (and contributes to) the titular bloody harvests and family curses without blinking an eye, seemingly unaffected and unchanged by even the worst of the world around him (a characteristic that is of course even more pronounced for a multi-decade character such as Tracy). While they had various influential ancestors (including Western lawmen and heroes such as the title character of Owen Wister’s The Virginian), it’s fair to say that between them Tracy and the Op really inaugurated the hard-boiled detective as a popular American character and type.
Neither Tracy nor the Op changed much over time; but less than a year after publishing The Dain Curse, Hammett would release his third novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), and interestingly revise the hard-boiled detective type in the process. Falcon’s protagonist, Sam Spade, is certainly just as hard-boiled as either the Op and Tracy; indeed, without spoiling the novel’s climax I’ll note that Spade takes an action there that’s perhaps a bit harder still than any taken by those men. Yet unlike the Op, Sam doesn’t narrate his novel, and Hammett’s third-person narrator is able to develop a more nuanced perspective on his detective as a result. The novel’s opening paragraph and initial description of Spade, for example, concludes with the sentence, “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan,” a line that it’s impossible to imagine appearing in a Dick Tracy strip. Such details don’t necessarily make Spade any less of a hero, ultimately, than his counterparts—but they make clear that the Dick Tracy type was already, in its own moment of creation, being complicated as well as popularized.
Next heroes tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these characters? Other comics you’d highlight?