Chester Gould and the Morality Play of Law and Order
Slugging It Out with the Bad Guys Via the Hot Lead Route

Click image to enlargeGould, Chester (20 November 1900 - 11 May 1985), cartoonist, was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma, son of Gilbert R. Gould, printer and publisher of a weekly newspaper, and Alice Miller.  Resolved upon a cartooning career while a teenager, young Gould attended college at the insistence of his father, who had little faith in the economic viability of an artistic vocation. Gould entered Oklahoma A&M in 1919, contributing cartoons to the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City while a student. In 1921, he transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he majored in marketing and commerce by day and attended the Chicago Art Institute by night.  Graduating in 1923, he worked at a variety of art jobs until landing in 1924 at William R. Hearst's Chicago American; there, he did a couple of weekly comic features capitalizing on the emerging popularity of radio— Radio Cats and Radio Lanes—and then he was asked to produce a daily syndicated strip called Fillum Fables in imitation of Ed Wheelan's burlesque of the movies, Minute Movies.  With this modest success, Gould married Edna Gauger on November 6, 1926; they had one daughter, Jean.  But Gould was frustrated in his ambition to be syndicated by the midwest's largest newspaper enterprise, the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate, headed by Joseph Medill Patterson.  To this purpose, he had been submitting ideas for comic strips to Patterson since arriving in Chicago. Altogether, Gould later claimed, he’d sent in sixty ideas for strips. In 1929, he quit Hearst in order to journey to New York and present five strip ideas to Patterson in person. When all of these were rejected, Gould returned to Chicago to take a job in the advertising department of the Chicago Daily News. He continued bombarding Patterson with ideas, however, and in 1931, after a decade of rejections, his persistence was rewarded:  Patterson finally bought Gould's strip about a detective called Plainclothes Tracy. For the rest of his life, Gould remembered the exact wording of the telegram Patterson sent him on August 13: “Your Plainclothes Tracy has possibilities STOP Would like to see you when I get to Chicago next STOP Please call Tribune office Monday about noon for an appointment.”

            The inspiration for this strip came from the front pages of the newspapers, which daily headlined bribery, extortion, graft, corruption, arson, and shoot-outs in the streets.  Raised in the frontier traditions of swift justice that still prevailed in the Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the century, Gould was disgusted by the seeming triumph of gangsterism in Chicago during Prohibition.  What was needed, he said, was the kind of incorruptible cop who would shoot known hoodlums on sight, a champion of law and order and “direct action, who could dish it out to the underworld exactly as they dished it out—only better.  An individual who could toss the hot iron back at them along with a smack on the jaw thrown in for good measure.”  Gould appropriated the persona of the hard-boiled detective that had been flourishing in pulp magazines and, in visualizing his hero, gave him the chisel-jawed profile he associated with Sherlock Holmes.  Al Capone had just been convicted of income tax evasion and shipped off to Alcatraz when Gould's Tracy arrived on Patterson's desk in the summer of 1931.  When Gould met his appointment with Patterson, Patterson changed the name of the feature to Dick Tracy (observing that “they call plainclothes detectives ‘dicks’”) and outlined the opening sequence that established Tracy's character and the motive for his dogged crusade against crime.

            Tracy would begin as an ordinary citizen, but when his girlfriend’s grocer father is murdered by robbers on the fourth day of the strip’s run and she is kidnaped, Tracy dedicates himself to her rescue and the hoodlums’ apprehension. (Patterson also named the girl—Tess Trueheart.) The police recognize Tracy’s merit and quickly enlist him in the department’s plainclothes squad.

            As a matter of historical record, Dick Tracy began as a Sunday feature on October 4, 1931, only in the Detroit Mirror.The first Sunday strip was a stand-alone escapade; and another of the same sort came out on the following Sunday. The daily series started the next day, Monday, October 12. 

            Until Tracy’s debut, the newspaper continuity comic strip had focused on one of two extremes—exotic adventure or domestic intrigue.  Tracy brought the excitement of adventure to its readers’ front doors when Gould's cop began fighting contemporary crime in everybody's home town.  The strip was a success from the first, its popularity springing from its overt recognition and exploitation of the violence in American life.  Tracy's first foe, Big Boy, was a scarcely veiled version of Capone; in the following spring, Gould capitalized upon the sensation of the Lindbergh kidnapping case, staging a blatantly similar crime in the strip. Nor did the cartoonist confine himself to reality for inspiration: one of his most popular early villains, Stooge Viller (who first appeared January 3, 1933) was the spitting image of movie star Edward G. Robinson, then starring in a succession of gangster films. Raw violence on the comics page began with Dick Tracy; until then, gunplay and bloodshed had been nearly taboo.  Gould changed that.  His criminals were compunctionless brutes specializing in cruelty, and he delineated their crimes and foul deeds in unblinking detail—knifings, shootings, clubbings, throttlings, in short, death and maiming by every known means. 

            Gould seemed to delight in submitting his hero (as well as countless innocent women and children) to physical torture at the hands of the crooks, and Tracy was plunged into and extricated from a morbidly fascinating series of outlandish deathtrap situations.  Among the most celebrated, the contrivance of the vengeful Mrs. Pruneface in which Tracy is chained to the floor beneath a spike protruding from a plank upon which a refrigerator is supported by two giant blocks of ice, both melting from the heat of a nearby oven; as they melt, the spike will slowly, diabolically, be driven into the chest of the detective by the weight of the descending refrigerator. (One cringes at the thought of the spike’s slow penetration of Tracy’s chest!)

            But if Gould dwelt on such grisly matters, he did so to emphasize the strip’s moral: crime does not pay. Retribution was dealt out to every miscreant in visual terms as graphically detailed as those that recorded their crimes:  they died by drowning, freezing, impalement, crushing, mauling, hail of hot lead, and, Gould's specialty, a bullet between the eyes, depicted in dramatic close-up. 

            But Gould's strip was more than a string of violent shoot-`em-ups.  Tracy combined intelligence with action.  And Gould was quick to adopt the realism of authentic police procedures and kept himself up-to-date on modern methods, even hiring a retired Chicago policeman for weekly conferences on new developments.  Tracy quickly emerged as the world’s first procedural detective in fiction, his exploits illustrating in painstaken detail the techniques of contemporary crime detection. Gould even anticipated some innovations:  the use of closed-circuit television to monitor potential criminal activities in such places as banks and two-way wrist-radio communication. (Gould admitted that he’d bought some “laughing stock” when he introduced the latter in 1946, but he had the last laugh: his science fiction became fact within a few years.)

            Gould's achievement as a cartoonist arises from his pictures as much as from his stories.  His drawing style is simple, almost geometrically so, liberally deploying solid flat blacks for character's clothes and for modeling objects.  The result is a stark rendition of reality--planes of black giving definition to planes of white (and vice versa) with uncompromising contrast.  The strip is an exercise in black and white both graphically and philosophically:  there are no grays in Gould's moral convictions either.  Despite the precision of his technique, however, Gould's graphic treatment is not photographic in the illustrative manner; it is only semi-realistic.  It is a style that permitted Gould a dramatic deviation from naturalism.  And he took full advantage of the opportunity: he created a gallery of ghoulish villains, caricatures of evil that underscored the moral of his strip:  crime doesn't pay, and a life of crime will put one in daily communion with such creatures as these—Pruneface, Flattop, the Mole, Shoulders, B-B Eyes, the Brow, Shakey, Influence, Mumbles, none of them realistically rendered.  All are grotesques, gargoyles of criminality.  Hence the greatness of the strip:  Gould's unique accomplishment was to combine realistic storytelling and graphic moralizing. It is a combination none of his throng of imitators could successfully duplicate or sustain.

            In the 1960s, Gould took a long detour into science fantasy:  inspired, no doubt, by his success at predicting technical advances, he invented the “space coupe,” an interplanetary vehicle powered by magnetism, and he forthwith sent Tracy and his cohorts to the moon, where they discovered a race of horned humanoid beings. With the U.S. moon landing in 1969, however, Gould had to abandon his fantasy (we all knew for certain, then, that there were no inhabitants on the moon), and the strip came back to earth. In his last years on the feature, Gould's championing of law and order became strident as he spoke out against the coddling of criminals that he saw in legal precedents that established rights for criminals.  Gould retired from the strip with the installment for December 25, 1977, leaving the drawing of the strip to Richard Fletcher, his long-time assistant, and the writing to novelist Max Allan Collins. (When Fletcher died in early 1983, the drawing was assigned to the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Dick Locher, who had assisted Gould briefly 1957-61; Mike Killian took over the writing task in 1992 when Collins was rather unceremoniously shoved out the door.) Gould died at his farm near Woodstock, Illinois, which he had purchased in 1936 with the first fruits of his success and where he worked on the strip daily except for the two days every week that he spent in his office at the Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago. 

            A member of the National Cartoonists Society, Gould twice received its Reuben trophy as Cartoonist of the Year—1959 and 1977. One of the earliest straight adventure story comic strips and the first procedural detective feature, Dick Tracy set the pace for virtually every detective comic strip concocted thereafter.  Gould created a host of memorable humorous eccentrics like B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, and Vitamin Flintheart as well as his famed rogue's gallery, but Tracy was his most famous grotesque, a fiction as archetypal of his genre as Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan.

Bibliography.  Dick Tracy:  The Official Biography by Jay Maeder (1990) contains biographical material on Chester Gould as well as on his creation.  And Dick Tracy:  America's Most Famous Detective edited by Bill Crouch, Jr. (1987) includes autobiographical essays by Gould as well as reprints of the strip as produced, first, by Gould, then by his successors, novelist Max Allan Collins, first with Rick Fletcher doing the drawing, then with Dick Locher at the drawing board.  Also useful are “Dick Tracy:  The First Law and Order Man” by John Culhane in Argosy (June 1974; pp. 20-21, 44-47) and The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy:  1931-1951 edited by Herb Galewitz (1970), which includes biographical front matter and reprints several of the most famous of the strip's sequences.  In Dick Tracy, the Thirties:  Tommyguns and Hard Times edited by Galewitz (1978), many of the strip's earliest stories are reprinted.  Standard reference works on the comics also include biographical details:  The Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan (1944; rpt. 1971); The Comics by Coulton Waugh (1947); and Comic Art in America by Stephen Becker (1959).  And my own book, The Art of the Funnies, repeats much of the information in the foregoing biography—adding stories of the birth pangs of most of the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News strips midwifed by Joseph Patterson (Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullins, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates, etc.); for more details about the contents of the book, click here to be transported to reams of concise promotional description. Much of Gould's original art is in the possession of the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida.

Return to Harv's Hindsights