Opus 69:

Opus 69: Ol’ Hatchet-jaw Hits 70 (September 12). Poised on the very cusp of another comic strip anniversary, we salute the most unusual celebration yet—namely, Jim Scancarelli’s toast to Dick Tracy in Gasoline Alley. It’s a toast in which Tracy is an active participant, showing up in person in Gasoline Alley on his 70th anniversary and for four weeks thereafter.

"Guest appearances" like this happen rarely. Almost never. A couple years ago, the Phantom, eponymous star of a strip by Lee Falk, showed up in Mandrake the Magician (another Falk strip) for Mandrake’s wedding. But this stunt hadn’t been much attempted since the early days of the last century when cartoonists in the bullpen at Hearst’s Journal American in New York drew each other’s characters in their strips on Sundays occasionally—for no reason at all.

But Scancarelli had a reason.

"I always wanted to draw Dick Tracy," Jim told me with a hearty laugh. "What better excuse could I find?"

Jim laughed again (to demonstrate that he wasn’t quite serious about the anniversary being just an excuse to draw Tracy), and then he talked seriously about Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould. "People sometimes think Gould wasn’t much of an artist," he said, "but he was a real master of black and white design. I used his Tracy from the forties as a model," he went on.

And his ersatz Tracy is a perfect imitation of vintage Gould. Jim even mimics the way Gould drew Tracy’s hands and, less obviously, the way he cross-hatched. Finally, in a grace note of tribute, Jim slips Gould’s initials ("CG") into some pictures as the indentations in Tracy’s fedora; look for it.

Here’s how it all came about. Jim was happily writing and drawing Melba and Rufus and Joel on their way to Melba’s uncle’s house last summer when they got lost.

Jim knew when he had them get lost that they’d stop and ask directions at a strange looking farm called Sunny Dell Acres. As any reader of Dick Tracy knows, Sunny Dell Acres is where B.O. Plenty lives with his hag-faced wife, Gravel Gertie. B.O. Plenty, one of Gould’s greatest comedic creations, has always been a favorite of Jim’s.

"He’s just very funny," Jim said. "And so I thought it would be funny to have my hill people, Melba and Joel, stop and ask directions of this old hillbilly, B.O. Plenty."

And so that’s what happened.

At just about that very instant, Jeffrey Liddenblatt phoned Jim. Jeff edits Missing Years, a periodic periodical that reprints such vintage strips as George Wunder’s Terry and the Pirates, Les Turner’s Captain Easy, Alex Raymond’s Rip Kirby, and such rare items as Dick Moores’ Windy and Paddles and Mel Graff’s Secret Agent X-9. (Subscriptions are $60 for six big issues; SPEC Productions, P.O. Box 32, Manitou Springs, CO 80829.) And Jeff, thinking perhaps of the milestone his magazine just passed (ten years, 37 issues), mentioned that Dick Tracy was coming up on its 70th anniversary.

Jim looked at the publication dates of the story he was working on and saw that it would be running right up on October 4, Tracy’s 70th. And he decided then to commemorate the occasion by having Tracy show up in Gasoline Alley to solve a crime. What crime? Well, Jim thought, I’ll just change the story I’m working on and have Melba’s uncle murdered, then Tracy can find the killer. So he changed the story’s direction and spliced the cleaver-jawed gumshoe into the continuity.

Scancarelli is delighted that he was able to pay tribute to Gould and his masterwork in the way he did—changing his story to do it. "That’s like Gould himself did," he said. "He often didn’t know exactly where his story was going to go. He just had a general direction in mind. Dick Moores was like that, too."

Moores assisted Gould on Tracy in the thirties and inherited Gasoline Alley from its creator, Frank King. Jim was Moores’ assistant before inheriting the strip himself.

"And I didn’t know exactly where I was going with that story about Melba and her uncle," Jim continued. "So it’s a good thing I thought of the Dick Tracy cameo!"

Another thought that came to him as he drew the sequence was how to end it. Jim didn’t have an ending in mind when he started the episode. Sure, Tracy would solve the crime, but how, exactly, would the sequence end? This, again, was like Gould.

Gould took a diabolical pleasure in putting Tracy into the most fiendish death trap predicaments, and sometimes he did so without knowing how he would extricate his hero. Once, faced with this dire quandary, he resorted to a genuine cop-out: he drew his own hand into the strip and showed it erasing the huge rock that was about to squash the life out of Tracy. But this drawing never saw publication: Captain Joe Patterson, head of the syndicate, nixed the dodge, and Gould had to find another way to save Tracy.

Scancarelli was careful to secure his editor’s concurrence in his plan. It wasn’t that difficult since both strips are owned and distributed by the same syndicate, Tribune Media Services.

"I think it’s an exciting thing," said editor Stacy Deibler at TMS. "Jim’s a great aficionado of the old comics, and he often pays homage to them in the Sunday Gasoline Alley, drawing pictures of his favorites. His artistry in rendering Gould’s Tracy from the forties is just incredible. He worked late into the nights to get it right."

A stickler for authenticity in his occasional tours of comics history in his strip, Scancarelli even used Gould’s spelling of a key element in any detective’s life—the arcane "clew" instead of the more customary "clue"—and he had to enlist his editor’s help in preventing proof-readers from changing it.

"We had to go to the dictionary to prove it was an accepted spelling," Jim said.

Dick Locher, the current steward of the iconic Dick Tracy, was pleased at the gesture in Gasoline Alley.

"It’s great!" he said when we talked. "Jim does good work. And I’m proud of our anniversary—proud to have kept the strip going this long. We must be in the top ten for longevity. At least the top ten."

Yes, I agreed. In fact, as we talked about it, we could come up with only a few of the same vintage that are still being published: Blondie (which began in the fall of 1930), The Katzenjammer Kids (1897), Tarzan (1929), Snuffy Smith (which debuted in 1919 as Barney Google, or, to be painfully precise, as Take Barney Google, F’Instance, a title almost immediately shortened to the protagonist’s name alone)—and Gasoline Alley, which started November 24, 1918. The first daily comic strip, Mutt and Jeff, reached a mellow 75 years before it was discontinued in 1982; and Bringing Up Father ("Jiggs and Maggie") just passed 87 before it ceased. The Katzenjammer Kids is the longest-running American comic strip, but it and, for much of its run, Tarzan appear only once a week, on Sundays. The others in this list are (or were) published seven days a week.

"It’s been touch and go, keeping Tracy going" Locher said. "This is a Mutts era, after all—not adventure strips. And Tracy appeals mostly to male readers so it has a limited market. Still, I like to think Dick Tracy is brand new to some kid just opening up the comics section for the first time."

Locher inherited the strip in 1983, the same year he won a Pulitzer for his editorial cartooning at the Chicago Tribune. Gould had retired from active daily comic strip work at the end of 1977 (last strip, a Sunday dated December 25, typically awash with Yuletide sentiment), proudly toting up 46 years, 2 months, and 21 days producing Dick Tracy. His assistant, Rick Fletcher, took over the drawing, and writer Max Allan Collins concocted plots, grotesque villains with picturesque names, dire predicaments, and astounding solutions for the next 15 years. Gould’s name was still on the strip, but he made no contribution to it, and before long, he found himself, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, regretting his retirement—or, at least, bemoaning what his successors were doing to the child of his brain.

But none of that lasted for long. Gould died in 1985 and Fletcher in 1983, whereupon Locher, who had assisted Gould on the strip 1957-61, took on the art chores. Collins was eased off the assignment in 1992, and Mike Killian, a writer friend of Locher’s, began scripting the strip. In deference to current social mores, they eschew the kind of violence Gould gloried in, emphasizing instead mystery and detection.

Scancarelli’s anniversary tribute begins in Gasoline Alley on October 4, the official anniversary date itself; and Jim’s artful ending comes on October 30. Don’t miss it. And if your paper doesn’t carry the strip (and can’t be induced to carry it between now and October 4), you can follow the action at the TMS website, www.comicspage.com.

And if you’re all that interested in Gould’s work—how he submitted (he said) sixty strip ideas before hitting on Dick Tracy and how he changed the nature of adventure strips and turned a shoot-‘em-up storyline into a morality play—you can find all of that in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies; and if you click here, you’ll be whisked away to more information about that book.

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