Tuesday, February 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#23: Dick Tracy

by Chester Gould

I've said this before and, before I'm through I'll say it again, but it's always a bad idea to a judge a comic by the shadow it casts into the larger realm of pop culture. Just as the actual pages of RAW and Hate! were obscured by their emblematic status, Chester Gould's hard boiled comic strip has disappeared behind a pageant of camp imagery. Today Dick Tracy is remembered mainly for one thing: the title character's two-way wristwatch TV.

Reading Gould's original is a real eye-opener: it's a fast-paced, violent, no-nonsense police procedural that has more in common with Brian De Palma and David Mamet's version of The Untouchables than the lame Warren Beatty movie based on the strip itself.

Gould's Dick Tracy is the ultimate B-picture, with scenes of unrestrained sadism that would make Anthony Mann proud. Acid, whips, and shards of glass join bullets and knives in the arsenal of the criminals who prey on the public and each other. Dick Tracy himself is always willing to shoot first and ask questions later if the situation calls for it.

The strip indulges Gould's fascination with police science and criminology. Tracy uses the most up-to-date techniques to snare the criminals he goes up against: fingerprinting, plaster casts, ballistic tests. Gould spends the time in between action scenes describing these newfangled methods of investigation step-by-step. It's the kind of documentary work that Jules Dassin would be praised for in Riffifi, and, to a certain extent, would characterize procedural dramas like Dragnet and Law & Order.

But the violence and the police work are just part of the mechanics necessary to keep a strip going day after day. What makes Dick Tracy one of the best comics I've ever read is the rightness of Gould's style. Not the master draughtsman that Milt Caniff was, Gould instead concentrated on the more theatrical aspects of comic strips: bold staging and bold caricatures. Each panel looks like it could've been taken from the storyboard of the greatest back-lot Warner's Brother gangster picture ever made.

Gould was one of the great American artists of the street, of the scars the city leaves on those not strong enough to survive there. And though Gould could be sentimental, he was never a romantic, which helps to keep the strip grounded in its own grimy sense of reality. Dick Tracy is the greatest crime comic ever, and I doubt that it'll ever be seriously challenged for that honor (no matter how much Frank Miller tries).

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