The New York Times recently greeted readers with the news that the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States survey shows that murder and nonnegligent manslaughter increased by nearly 30% in 2020, by far the largest increase on record.
Times readers needing an escape from the grim reality of the carnage count to the comic strips were out of luck because the Gray Lady forgoes the funny pages, forcing readers to get their laughs from the editorial page. Fortunately for readers, comic strips survive in more sensible publications, including those that continue to carry America’s most culturally significant comic strip, Dick Tracy, now celebrating its 90th birthday.
On Oct. 4, 1931, cartoonist Chester Gould’s outrage at the rampant crime and corruption of his day erupted on the pages of the Detroit Mirror in the form of an aptly named lawman who was as sharp as the right angles comprising his jaw.
Inspired by the incorruptible Eliot Ness’ Prohibition Era war on gangsters, Tracy was unlike anything seen before. Never before had the murder and mayhem on the front page been reflected in a comic strip. Prior strips had contained violence, but none had featured violence as prominently or as graphically as Tracy.
The cavalcade of criminals Tracy has confronted includes human traffickers, child abductors, foreign spies and saboteurs, black marketeers, terrorists, and every type of racketeer imaginable. Gould gave them monikers based on their physical appearances in the tradition of public enemies such as “Scarface” Al Capone, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and “Baby Face” Nelson. And those who believe that the grotesque physiognomies of Tracy’s bevy of heavies detract from the strip’s verisimilitude have never taken a close look at Congress.
Tracy is credited as the first in all of detective fiction to feature a policeman as the main character. It also inaugurated the police procedural subgenre of detective fiction, incorporating state-of-the-art law enforcement methods and technology.
Over the decades, the strip has utilized police consultants to keep it abreast of real-life developments in crime fighting. But Tracy is perhaps most notable for the instances when it anticipated technological advances such as heart transplants, closed-circuit television cameras, and, most famously of all, the smartwatch. Originally a two-way wrist radio introduced in the 1940s, the device was upgraded to a two-way wrist television in the 1960s and to a two-way wrist computer in the 1980s, before undergoing further enhancements in the 1990s and 2010s.
Today, the dapper detective continues to thwart crime wearing a yellow trench coat and fedora that are as recognizable as Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap and, unlike Columbo’s raincoat, remain as crisp as they were nine decades ago. But Tracy’s continued existence is somewhat miraculous as the strip has survived nearly as many deathtraps as its eponymous hero. Always a minority on the humor-dominated comics page, adventure strips like Tracy have been particularly hurt by reductions in the number of panels and the amount of text afforded to them as such reductions slow the pace of storyline development.
Currently, Tracy only appears in a small fraction of the newspapers it once did as print readership has declined inexorably. Yet many other less realistic comic strip/book properties featuring heroes with less sartorial sense than Tracy keep getting introduced to new audiences via film and television adaptations. A generation ago, actor-director Warren Beatty, a lifelong Tracy fan, brought the comic strip to life in an Oscar-winning film that remains the best adaptation of any comics property to date. But Beatty has emerged as the detective’s most implacable foe in recent decades by hoarding the screen rights he still exclusively retains, denying Tracy much-needed exposure to younger audiences.
Tracy’s continued existence owes itself to the creativeness of Gould, who produced the strip until 1977, and to his successors, who collectively have produced Tracy for nearly as long, Max Allan Collins, Rick Fletcher, Dick Locher, Mike Kilian, Jim Brozman, and the current award-winning artist-writer team of Joe Staton and Mike Curtis. Congratulations to them all.
Unfortunately, whether Tracy will be around to celebrate its centenary is an open question. Throughout its history, Tracy countered critics of its vivid displays of violence and criminal behavior by emphasizing that the strip’s overarching thesis is that “crime does not pay.” But in the 20 years since 9/11, police officers have gone from revered to jeered.
In today’s era of urban unrest and lawlessness at the southern border, the best “Crimestoppers Textbook” crime prevention tip Tracy could offer its Sunday readers is “don’t defund the police.” In the current climate, such a message might imperil the bronze Tracy statue in Naperville, Illinois, and bring an end to Tracy’s 90-year continuity.
Until then, Detective Tracy remains on duty entering his tenth decade. Criminals, beware.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.