Dick Tracy has been called America's most famous detective, but his fame does not stop in this country. With his chiseled countenance and tough-guy morality, Tracy has become recognizable throughout the world. When Chester "Chet" Gould created the character—the first Dick Tracy comic strip ran on October 4, 1931—he could not have foreseen the influence of his tough but honest police detective. In fact, the influence extends well beyond the comics, into film, radio, and television. The timing of the comic strip's release was perfect. The Depression paved the way for a character who upheld traditional values even as he fell hard on the sordid underworld—he was just a regular guy fighting to make the world a better place. Moreover, prohibition, though nearing its demise, had established heretofore unknown levels of underground criminal activity. The strip also suggested better times with its presentation of new inventions, tools to continue the war against crime, and more importantly, inspiring signs of progress to come. Dick Tracy was created as a reflection of his times, and Gould's genius is reflected in the fact that the comic strip has survived for so long.
Gould always regarded himself as a cartoonist and he had done quite a number of odd illustration jobs before showing a strip called Plainclothes Tracy to Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, co-founder and director of the New York Daily News. Patterson was himself something of a powerhouse in the world of comics. He was the editorial force behind the development of such strips as Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins, and Gasoline Alley. Patterson saw promise in "Plainclothes Tracy" and set up a meeting with Gould. It was Patterson who was responsible for the name change. The name "Dick" was slang for a detective, and complemented "Tracy," Gould's play on the word "tracing." Patterson also suggested a basic outline for the first story, in which the father of Tess Trueheart, Tracy's sweetheart, was robbed and murdered and, consequently, Tracy went into the crime fighting business. Dick Tracy made his premier in the Detroit Sunday Mirror and about a week later, on October 12, 1931, began as a daily.
Dick Tracy quickly became not only Gould's claim to fame, but also Patterson's greatest success in the field. For readers, Dick Tracy was something completely different. Moral tales in the comics, nearly half of which at the time were serial strips like Dick Tracy, were not uncommon. But Dick Tracy presented a rough kind of morality. Tracy was always good, the villains always evil, and the confrontations always flamboyant. The level of violence was new to the comics, and Gould was not above bringing his villains to the cruelest of all possible ends. Audiences were also fascinated by the details of police procedure. Fisticuffs and gunfire were there, but Gould always remembered that Dick Tracy was first and foremost a detective.
The strip also gained notoriety for its take on technology and its pageant of some of the most bizarre villains to appear anywhere. Of the inventions, the most famous was the two-way wrist radio which later became a television and, finally, a computer. Gould believed that technology was the key to the future. Because of this, he was always experimenting with new fictional inventions that would range from items that would eventually find equivalents in the real world, like the Voice-O-Graph voice print recorder, to the absurd. His placement of an antennaed race of humanoids and giant snails on the moon is, however, regarded by many as the low point of the strip. At any rate, Gould lent the strip a gruesome edge with the villains whose corrupted morals were reflected by their physical deformities. The names of the criminals are evocative in and of themselves: The Blank, Flyface, The Mole, Pruneface, and B-B Eyes.
When Chester Gould retired from Dick Tracy in December of 1977, its artistic responsibilities were taken over by Gould's longtime assistant Rick Fletcher while the writing became the responsibility of Max Allan Collins. Collins was a young mystery novelist who would also go on to script comic books like Batman along with his own detective creation, Ms. Tree. Fletcher was eventually replaced by Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Dick Locher in 1983 and Collins was later replaced by Mike Killian.
Although Gould himself did not give it much consideration, Dick Tracy refused to be simply confined to the comics page. He would appear on radio and television, in books and movies—serial and feature—and in animated cartoons. He has been personified by the likes of Ralph Byrd, Morgan Conway, Ray MacDonnell, and, in a 1990 motion picture, Warren Beatty. In addition, Dick Tracy has been the basis for a great multitude of licensed products, from toys to clothing, and, of course, watches.
Clearly, the influence of Dick Tracy can be seen across a spectrum of media. Although the serial strip has lost much of its foothold in American newspaper comics, comic books owe much to Dick Tracy. Though perhaps not the greatest draftsman to work in comics, Gould was, without a doubt, original. His use of shadows opened doors for comics to explore darker visuals. One might even see Gould's work as a precursor of sorts to the techniques of film noir, and the police procedure of Dick Tracy became a staple of detective stories in virtually all narrative media. Dick Tracy also served as the model for yet another icon of American culture. Bob Kane credited Dick Tracy as the inspiration for his own creation, the Batman, and Gould's menagerie of grotesque villains found reflection in the likes of the Joker and Two-Face, a virtual duplicate of Gould's Haf-and-Haf. It could be argued that Dick Tracy invented the look that would come to be associated with both an era and a type of character. When we hear the words "hard-boiled" we can't help but think of the trenchcoat and fedora pioneered by the famed Dick Tracy.
Crouch, Bill Jr. Dick Tracy: America's Most Famous Detective. New York, Citadel Press, 1987.
Roberts, Garyn G. Dick Tracy and American Culture: Morality and Mythology, Text and Context. Jefferson, McFarland, 1993.