Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Calling Dick Tracy

Things are looking grim for Dick Tracy these days.

The long-running newspaper strip has declining steadily under the pen of Dick Locher, who may have been an assistant to Tracy creator Chester Gould and – as is apparently obligatory to mention whenever his name is brought up – an award winning political cartoonist, but as a storyteller, he's just awful.

I mean really, have you seen the strip lately? Probably not, as it's not carried in many papers these days. But it can be read daily on the Tribune Media Services website (among others). The art is ugly and crude, the stories are plodding, meandering affairs with uninteresting plots and mundane villains. Ever since writer Max Allan Collins left (or was ousted from) the strip, the chisel-chinned detective's been on life support... and the prognosis isn't promising.

Another sign of the once-iconic character's decline is the closing, this month, of the Dick Tracy museum in Chester Gould's hometown of Woodstock, Illinois.

Back in the early 90's Tracy had a brief resurgence, thanks to Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy film. While it wasn't the Batman-sized blockbuster that Disney hoped for, it was fairly entertaining, marvelously designed, and faithful to the spirit – if not the letter – of Gould's strip. Collins, who had taken over the scripting chores on the newspaper feature back in the mid-Seventies, and who was still handling the strip at the time, knocked out a great movie novelization and a couple of excellent original novels, and even edited a very solid short story anthology. There were various strip collections, tie-ins and merchandise.

Disney published a three-issue miniseries to coincide with the film. The first two issues were written by Jerome Moore, and were prequels to the film, establishing the film's version of the Tracy universe. The third was an adaptation of the movie, scripted by veteran Len Wein. All three issues were illustrated by the astounding Kyle Baker, whose stylized art looked nothing like Gould's, but worked beautifully.

(Trivia note: Apparently, Warren Beatty was unhappy with Baker's rendition of the Tracy character in the comics, and insisted that all the faces be re-drawn. Then, he only approved two faces, which were Xeroxed and pasted over all the Tracy drawings throughout the series. Hollywood. Cripes!)

Now, though the character is nearly forgotten. Attempts to mount new film or television projects have been foiled by Beatty, who insists that he still owns all the rights to the character. Since the strip isn't carried by many papers, Tribune doesn't appear to care too much about its quality. IDW is doing some marvelous hardcover reprints of the early strips, but they're pretty pricey, and I suspect only die-hard Tracy and classic strip fans are picking them up. Checker Books did three collections of Collins' 70's strips, but they didn't finish reprinting his run, so I doubt they sold all that great. (I reviewed them over in my Guns In the Gutters blog, if anyone's interested.)

It's a shame. Personally, I would crawl across broken glass naked for the opportunity to write the character. I think the world could use a tough and tough-minded cop hero like Tracy these days, and it would be an honor to follow in the footprints of Gould and Collins.

Oh, well. A man can dream....


NoelCT said...

The way I heard it, Beatty was trying to make another film, but Disney held up the rights. Maybe I'm wrong.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm afraid I was never a Dick Tracy fan. I never even watched that movie. Part of that was because I just don't care for Warren Beatty. I've read a few of the comic stirps but never became a regular.

Craig Zablo said...

I've never been a big fan of Dick Tracy, but I did see the movie which I remember as being okay. I am a fan of Max Allan Collins but never read his work on the character. Likewise, I'm a huge Ky;e Baker fan but missed the DT mini. I would love to see examples of just two DT heads throughout the series. Yeesh!

I'd buy DT if you were writing it... although the mental image of you crawling naked through glass is hurting my brain. : )

Glen said...

My first exposure to Dick Tracy was the cartoon. I've read and enjoyed those collections of the early strips.

With Flash Gordon and The Phantom and Mandrake coming back, you think there'd be room for Dick Tracy.

laughingwolf said...

you're right, chris... hope you can negotiate a deal

El Vox said...

I used to read Tracy in the earlier strips when Gould wrote them and found his art crude somewhat compared to a few other strip artist, but that was a part of the draw for me. I think the Fearless Fosdick character was where I started in the era, wondering what the heck was going on (I guess he was a bit like Bizarro was to the Superman universe).

Actually I didn't think the movie was too bad. I don't mind Warren Beatty, he's a fairly credible actor, but found the over-the-top performance of Al Pacino in that film a bit too much with the yelling (even though it's a film about comics, I dislike the over-the-top, that goes for the Batman film francise too).

But yeah, Kyle Baker is great! Beatty should have butted out on that, jeez what an ego. Hollyweird.