Opus 93:

Opus 93: NEWS AND DICK TRACY (June 26). The contest in Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey to name a new character, a tech officer, pulled in 84,725 submissions, Brian Walker says. And rumor has it that about 4,000 of them were for the same name, which will be blurted out on July 4, a mere week away. ... In the saddest news of the month, Punch, Britain's revered institution of satire and humor, closed shop after 161 years of making Olde Englande merrie. Launched July 17, 1841 in imitation of the Charivari in Paris, Punch gave "cartoon" its modern meaning and gave us all the hilarities of John Tenniel, George DuMaurier, John Leech, and, more recently, Ernest Shepard, Fougasse, H. Bateman, Ronald Searle, and dozens more. Punch shut down in 1992 when its circulation, once as high as 175,000, dropped to about 34,000. The institution was revived by Mohamed al-Fayed, millionaire owner of Harrods department store, another English institution, in 1996 to much enthusiastic fanfare, but the enthusiasm did not, apparently, translate into newsstand sales, which were reported recently at less than 22,000. Kept afloat through much of the last six years by colossal injections of Fayed cash, the entrepreneur finally could no longer justify sustaining the losing business. "I was immensely proud when I was able to revive the magazine after four years of absence," Fayed said, but it no longer made "commercial sense" to keep it going. The title will survive at its website, where over 500,000 cartoons are electronically archived. ... Elsewhere in Britain, the Independent of London Today reported in some alarm that American editorial cartoonists were being pressured to conform to "a patriotic stereotype" and not criticize the Bush League's wartime policies. The paper probably got this erroneous notion from stories about the uproar certain editoonists have inspired with cartoons critical of the War on Terror and the like, but outrage among readers is precisely what editoonists hope to stimulate, and it scarcely indicates government pressure being brought to bear. No one I spoke with at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists last weekend in Washington, D.C., felt unduly pressured, and some of them are highly critical of the current Bushwah.

            Editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette is goin' south. Somewhat. The Tallahassee Democrat announced last week that it has hired him as its staff political cartoonist. In yet another of our time's demonstrations of technological finesse, Marlette will produce his cartoon (ostensibly on local-er, Tallahassee-topics as well as national ones) at least twice a week from his home in Hillsborough, NC. He'll make occasional but regular visits to the Florida state capital while continuing to create his syndicated comic strip, Kudzu, which runs in about 300 newspapers. In a way, Marlette is returning to his roots: he attended Florida State University in Tallahassee his junior and senior years (1969-71). Within six months of graduating, he was editooning for the Charlotte Observer, where he remained for 15 years before moving to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. He won a Pulitzer in 1988 and, after a few years, moved to Newsday up North, where he worked for 11 years. Last year, he published a novel, The Bridge, in which a character much like himself cavorted. Marlette says he's looking forward to cartooning in Florida: "Florida is the new California," he said, "a petri dish for the nation's key issues. It's where the energy of the nation has shifted-Jeb Bush, Janet Reno, the emerging Hispanic population, Disney, pregnant chads. It's a cartoonist's dream. At a time when newspapers are getting rid of cartoonists, cutting back and not hiring, it is absolutely heroic that the Tallahassee Democrat is taking on a political cartoonist for the first time."

            With Kudzu and freelance writing to keep him warm in the year or so since he left Newsday, Marlette was scarcely unemployed, but Steve Kelley, who was unceremoniously fired at the San Diego Times-Union a year ago, wasn't quite so lucky. Kelley had editooned for the paper for well over two decades and was a popular fixture in the community when, in a dispute with one of his editors, he was fired. He filled the time since then with his regular stand-up comedy act and syndicated cartooning. But two weeks ago, he was hired by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and is now looking forward to resuming the daily grind.

            Despite these two happy hires, the editorial cartooning fraternity still grumbles: the Chicago Tribune has yet to replace Jeff MacNelly, who died two years ago, the San Jose Mercury News hasn't replaced Mark Fiore, whom it discharged a year ago after only a couple months, and the Buffalo News has announced it will not replace Tom Toles, who was hired last month to replace Herblock at the Washington Post. The News, which has reported total profits of over $186 million for the last six years that figures were available, pleads poverty, saying the paper is trying to save money. Amazing. And I thought, all this time, that politicians were the only ones capable of talking out of both sides of their mouths at once. At least another half-dozen of the nation's 100 largest circulation newspapers still don't have a staff editorial cartoonist.

            GIANT-SIZED TRACY. Every once in a while, if you're lucky, you'll encounter something-an artifact, an achievement, an extraordinary feat-that lets you know, right away, that you're in the vicinity of genuine passion. The Dick Tracy Encyclopedia is one of those things. It is a monumental work, a nearly 700-page testament to the affection and dedication of Vic Wichert, who produced this colossus of a lifetime of devotion.

            Wichert, who is the official Dick Tracy Archivist for the Dick Tracy Fan Club and a consultant for the Dick Tracy Museum in Woodstock, Illinois, says he's been envisioning this book for twenty years, but he admits to starting on it much earlier than that. He first started clipping Dick Tracy strips in 1945; then stopped and started again in 1948 for awhile. And then, allowing for a hiatus that paralleled high school, college, and graduate school, he resumed clipping in 1961.

            "And I've been collecting Dick Tracy ever since," Wichert said in an interview published in Dick Tracy Magazine. (For magazine subscription information, consult www.specproductions.com.)

            As a reference work, Wichert's volume is so exhaustive, so complete, so meticulously assembled and organized that I can't think of a better way to adequately describe it than to repeat Wichert's description herewith:

            The Dick Tracy Encyclopedia contains extensive information about the characters, places and events that Chester Gould devised and drew into Dick Tracy. The Encyclopedia covers all the years that Chester Gould worked on the strip, from his first strip on October 4, 1931 to his last on December 25, 1977. There are over 1200 entries in the Encyclopedia, the majority of which are characters in the comic strip.

            All the familiar characters appear, from the Ace of Spades to Zora Arson. Other entries include places, such as Sunny Dell Acres and Slingshot Mountain; organizations, such as the 25 Club and the Apparatus; and crime‑fighting devices, such as the 2‑way Wrist Radio and Voice‑o‑graf.

            Each entry includes a picture of its subject and a narrative that details the role in the strip of the subject. The narrative provides full character names, real names and all aliases, if they are known. Anagram names are also identified. Separate narratives appear for each year that the subject of the entry appeared in the strip. The narrative contains a list of the beginning and ending dates of all appearances and mentions of the entry subject in the strip. Separate appearance lists are provided for entry subjects that appeared in the pre‑continuity Sunday pages from October 4, 1931 through May 22, 1932. Also included are the dates that any characters were featured in the "Rogues' Gallery" panel that Rick Fletcher and Max Allan Collins drew into the Sunday pages from 1978 to 1982.

            Each entry in the Encyclopedia is illustrated with one or more panels from the strip. In fact, there are more than 1700 Dick Tracy panels reproduced in the book. Many panels contain characters other than that of the subject of the entry (i.e., the character), and the Encyclopedia contains a Character Cross‑Index that helps to locate the appearance of a specific character in other panels throughout the Encyclopedia.

            Following the main section of the Encyclopedia is a chronological index of all the 214  Dick Tracy stories created by Chester Gould from 1931 through 1977. Each story has been given a name and a starting date and has a list of all the characters  that appear in the story. Every character listed is an entry in the Encyclopedia. Finally, there are two full‑page collages, each containing more than 150 Dick Tracy characters.

            The Dick Tracy Encyclopedia is a limited‑edition, square‑bound book printed in black and white in two‑column format, with a wrap‑around color cover on card stock. The book measures 8.5x11 inches and is about 1.5 inches thick. There are a whopping 694 pages in the Encyclopedia, which includes, in addition to the main entry section, a short preface explaining the finding aids and reference mechanics, and the two large indexes. Each copy of the Encyclopedia costs $68.00 plus $8.00 for packing and shipping by Priority Mail. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, send your name, address and a check or money order for $76.00 to: Victor E. Wichert, 5 Ridgewood Avenue, Hopewell, NJ  08525. Include a SASE or E‑mail address for order confirmation. More than 15 years in the making, the Dick Tracy Encyclopedia, is the most complete treatment of Chester Gould's strip ever, designed specifically for the Dick Tracy enthusiast and collector. This is the book I wish I had when I started collecting!

            That's how Wichert describes it. And he's absolutely accurate. You must see this to believe it. No student of newspaper comics or fan of Gould's should be without this reference work.          

            Not only is the book completely and painstakingly cross-indexed, but the entries themselves are packed with information. For instance, at the end of every character entry, Wichert gives the year, month, and date-and day of the week and the specific panel in that day's strip-of the character's debut. This sort of comprehensiveness coupled to the illustrations (every entry has at least one, and the artwork is as clean and clear as high-quality photocopying can accomplish) make it nearly unnecessary to ever read the strip itself. Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. But I do want to emphasize that the Encyclopedia is massive and complete and reliable.

            (But if you want something a little less than encyclopedic comprehensiveness-if, in other words, you're looking for an overview of the strip and Gould's place in the history of the medium, you could do worse than consult my book, The Art of the Funnies, which you can preview by clicking here; or you could click here instead and get an even shorter essay in our Hindsights department. If you go there, though, you should be aware that Wichert has belabored me about one inadvertent error that I committed therein: the first Dick Tracy strip, a stand-alone Sunday, was published October 4, 1931, and it appeared in the Sunday paper, not, as I erroneously assert, on a Saturday because there was no Sunday edition of the Detroit Mirror; actually, so Wichert tells me, there was, at that time-and for the briefest of periods-a Sunday edition.)

            Wichert, who is a retired mathematician and computer programmer and systems designer, started reading the strip early, and he and his father, a New York City policeman, would discuss police science, inspired by something Gould brought into the strip. After collecting the strip for years, he began to imagine this monumental reference work.

            "Around 1980, I started to design a computer system to store and retrieve information that could be printed in an encyclopedia," he said. "I wrote the programs and implemented the system. It runs on my laptop. Around 1984, I started reading Dick Tracy from the first strip onward and entered the data into my data base as I read. It took me more than ten years to complete the data entry."

            After he'd cross-indexed the characters, Wichert asked himself if anything was missing from his compilation.

            "Then it hit me," he said. "An encyclopedia presents entries in alphabetical order. The chronological order of the Dick Tracy stories had been lost. So I formatted my 'stories' data base into an index that listed, in chronological order, all the stories that Gould created and a list of characters that appeared in each story."

            He gave every story a name, supplying a finding aid that Gould hadn't envisioned. "I chose straightforward story titles that included the main character's name and the story subject," Wichert explained.

            Wichert plans to rest awhile after all this labor. But he dreams, still, of other projects.

            "I'm thinking of assembling a book that I might call The Dick Tracy Book of Lists," he said. "It would contain all the other data in my data base-Tracy's career, death traps, injuries, his friends, police science, Gould inventions, major events, weddings, births, deaths, a Crimestopper's Textbook index; a Rogue's Gallery index; a Tracy strip reprint source list; a general index to the strip and other lists.

            "Also," he continued, inexhaustible, "I've already begun to write and draw some of my own Dick Tracy stories. Then, of course, there's the Dick Tracy strip from Gould's retirement in 1977 up to the present day. Somebody has to tackle that."

            And if somebody does, it should be Wichert.

            Stay 'tooned.

return to top of page

To find out about Harv's books, click here.

send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
Art of the Comic Book - Art of the Funnies - Accidental Ambassador Gordo - reviews - order form Harv's Hindsights - main page