Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Knocking Out an Old Lady and Strangling a Dog

See these two books? Much like Dr. Paul Bearer, these two books helped make me who I am today.

These two paperbacks reprinted a couple of classic Dick Tracy story arcs from the 1940s. It was my first important exposure to classic adventure strips. We'd always had quite a few paperback collection of Peanuts kicking around the house when I was a kid, but these books are what made me vividly aware of just how awesome a newspaper adventure strip could be.  This, combined with Prince Valiant (the one adventure strip the local paper ran on Sundays) are probably a key factor that led me down a path in which I eventually wrote a book about such things.

A few years later, when I was in the Navy and stationed in the Philippines, I ran across a book reprinting the first year or so of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates in the base hospital's small library. That clinched the deal, but it was Dick Tracy that got it all started.

I'm pretty sure I read the one featuring Prune Face first--a story arc that ran from September 1942 to January 1943. It's a cool story, beginning when Tracy, his adopted son Junior and a young girl called Frizzletop (a short-lived supporting character) are driving back to the city after solving a case in the country. They have a minor accident and have to spend a night in a barn. Junior
promptly discovers a dead body.

This in itself is a great scene. I probably didn't know the word "Expressionistic" when I read this, but that's what Chester Gould's art is. His character designs, use of perspective, use of shadows and silhouettes--all emphasize emotions over realism. It's an artistic style that works perfectly for the fast-moving, high-impact stories that Gould was telling.

Well, the dead guy turns out to be a local Highway Patrol chief and various clues eventually point to the chief's scientist son Cal as being involved. Tracy tricks Cal into leading him to the base of Prune Face, a Nazi spy. Cal has been making poison gas for Prune Face.

Tracy rarely gets to make a quiet arrest. Soon, he and another cop are trapped in the building furnace room, while Prune Face releases poison gas to kill Cal as punishment for being an idiot and leading the cops there.Prune Face escapes, though another of his confederates is captured.

I'm afraid that I no longer remember if the story's next plot twist bothered me as a kid, because it's a perfect example of just how unashamedly Gould used coincidence to move the story along. When reading the strip in daily installments, this was probably not as noticeable as it is in a collection like this, but it's one heck of a coincidence all the same. Prune Face, needing a new hideout, rents a room from Tracy's future mother-in-law Mrs. Trueheart. Gould used such coincidences a lot--probably as a result of his tendency to write his stories without plotting them out in advance.

But even as an adult, I'm okay with this. Gould's fast-paced action and great artwork is strong enough to allow the reader to just accept the coincidence and move along with the story. Like much like the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dick Tracy was just so darn good that the coincidences seemed to be a perfectly natural part of the story.

Prune Face begins plotting more sabotage, but Mrs. Trueheart soon suspects her tenant is up to no good. With the help of Junior, she secretly snaps a picture of him (because he's so hard to describe?) and manages to switch the bomb he's making with a box of rocks.

What happens next is an example of just how unrepentantly evil Gould's villains are. In Dick Tracy, good and evil are defined in stark terms, with a clear difference between them. And when someone chooses to do evil, there's no limit to the depths he can sink.

Prune Face demonstrates this by slamming a rock into Mrs. Trueheart's skull. He then pursues Junior, but ends up in an alley with a broken leg. He sees a cute little Scottie dog wearing a sweater--something he can use to cove his distinctive face. So he grabs the dog and strangles it.

And Prune Face might not even reach the top ten as far as acts of evil committed by Gould villains are concerned. But the casualness with which he nearly kills an old lady and strangles a dog are striking. Gould understood human nature--he understood that if we let ourselves start doing wrong, we can sink faster and farther than we ever imagined we could.

Prune Face forces a doctor to set his leg and contacts another Nazi agent for help. They find a new hideout and keep the doctor as a hostage, but the doc cleverly leaves a clue to his location. Soon, the cops are surrounding the place. Prune Face kills his confederate for a perceived double-cross; the doctor is released;
and Tracy has his cops break all the windows to the home and let the snow in, planning on freezing Prune Face out. But Prune Face would rather die than surrender--as long as he can take Tracy with him.

I was fascinated by this story when I read it as a young teen. It had a different vibe to it than the comic books I'd been reading for years and taught me a bit about our cultural history. At a time when I was attending a sad excuse for a public school and simply reading in the back of the class rather than paying any attention at all to my teachers, it was books like this that gave me a real education.


  1. I agree that reading comics can be highly educational. Often I was able to answer a question or define a word in class based on my comics reading, plus I learned a lot more about geography, literature and history in comics than I ever did in school.

    There's nothing like the classic Dick Tracy adventures. I got quite addicted to them during the Dick Tracy movie craze several years back, and my fascination has not ended. There is something energizing about reading the daily and/or weekly comic strip adventures of an ongoing character. Chester Gould's villains were much nastier than most other story villains--even today I feel a sense of outrage at Pruneface's treatment of Mrs. Trueheart.

    What's great is that the Pruneface story is only one of the dozens of classic adventures devised by Mr. Gould. There is so much to choose from, and all of it is first-rate stuff--even his later work, which is generally disparaged by modern critics. I think his writing and artwork were strong and solid from the beginning to the end.

    Thanks for sharing such great memories!

    1. I always appreciate your great comments. Gould's villains WERE nasty, weren't they? But that was one of the elements (in addition to Gould's willingness to kill off sympathetic supporting characters) that made his stories so engaging and a perfect fit for his expressionistic art.

      I agree that Gould was a truly great artist (though I'm afraid I'm among those who think the space travel and aliens from the 1960s were a mis-step) and I'm glad that Dick Tracy is currently getting re-printed.


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