So something weird has happened with story strips lately. I suppose it’s coincidence, properly. But something’s happened to them since last year’s Apartment 3-Gocalypse. I figured to take some time and write about them. I’m going to start with the strip that had the most dramatic and first big change of the lot, one going back far before the end of that comic.
I’m not sure when I started reading Dick Tracy as an adult. I know it was in the 2000s, and that it was encouraged by partners in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips. And that’s because the strip was awful. Not just bad, mind you, but awful in a super-spectacular fashion. The kind the most punishing yet hilarious Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes are based on. In the last years of his tenure on the comic Dick Locher’s storytelling had collapsed into something like a structuralist parody of comics. Nothing would happen, at great length, endlessly repeated. I observed that if you put together a week’s worth of the daily strips — which the Houston Chronicle web site used to make easy to do — you could read the panels top down, first panel of each day of the week, then second panel, then third panel, and have exactly as coherent a story. It was compelling in its outsider-art insanity.
That came to an end (and I’m shocked to realize this) over five years ago. From the 14th of March, 2011, the team of Joe Staton and Mike Curtis took over. The change was immediately obvious: the art alone was much more controlled, more precise, and easier to read than Locher’s had been. And the stories had stuff happen. My understanding is Staton and Curtis were under editorial direction to have no story last more than a month; Locher’s last years had averaged about three to four months per storyline.
So finally we had a story strip with pacing. You know, the way they had in the old days. There were drawbacks to this. Four or five weeks at three panels a day — more can’t really fit — plus the long Sunday installments still doesn’t give much space. To introduce a villain, work out a scheme, have Tracy do something about it, and wrap it up? Challenging work. The first several stories I came out thinking that I didn’t know precisely what had happened, but I’d enjoyed the ride.
They’ve had several years now, and are still going strong. They’re allowed longer stories now. They’ve gotten to be astoundingly good at planting stuff for future stories. They’re quite comfortable dropping in a panel that doesn’t seem to mean anything — sometimes with the promise that it will be returned to — so they have the plot point on the record when they need it a year or more later. And they’ve brought a fannish glee to the stories. I still don’t understand exactly what’s going on, but the pace and the art and the glee are too good to pass up.
Staton and Curtis show all signs of knowing everything that has ever appeared in pop culture, ever. And they’re happy to bring it in to their comic. Some of this is great. They brought [ Little Orphan ] Annie into the strip, resolving the cliffhanger that that long-running-yet-cancelled story strip ended on. And has brought her back a couple times after. They’ve called in Brenda Starr — another long-running-yet-cancelled story strip — for research. They spent a week with Funky Winkerbean for some reason, which might be how Sam Catchem’s wife got cancer.
And they’ve dug through the deep, bizarre canon of Dick Tracy. I mean, they brought back The Pouch, a minor criminal who after losing hundreds of pounds of weight sewed snap-tight pouches into his acres of flesh, the better to be an informer and courier when not selling balloons to kids. I love everything about how daft that is.
Back in the 60s the comic’s creator, Chester Gould, went a little mad and threw in a bunch of nonsense about Moon People and magnetic spaceships and all that and wrote funny stuff about how this was just as grounded in fact as the scientific investigation methods of Tracy. One might snicker and respectfully not disagree with that. But it was a lot of silly Space Race goofiness, fun but probably wisely not mentioned after the mid-70s.
So they brought this back, and mentioned it. Not just in passing; a major theme in the comic the past five years have been struggles for Diet Smith’s Space Coupe technologies and the mystery of whatever happened to the Moon Valley and the making of new, cloned-or-whatever Moon Maid with electric superpowers and everything. I suppose it’s plausible if we grant this silliness happened that it would become big stuff, certainly for Tracy’s circles. But could we have let the silliness alone? Space-opera antics are fun, and there’s no other comic strip that can even try at them, but Dick Tracy is supposed to be a procedural-detective strip about deformed people committing crimes and dying by their own, if detective-assisted, hands.
A matter of taste. There’s something to be said for embracing, as far as plausible, the implications of world-breaking stuff the comic did in the 60s.
Less disputable, though: everything in the strip is a freaking reference to something else anymore. Everything. There’s less referential seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not just to Dick Tracy‘s long history, or even to other story strips. They made the Jumble word game part of a storyline. Last year they went to a theatrical production of A Christmas Carol with Mister Magoo for crying out loud. Think about that. Earlier this year villain Abner Kadaver lured Tracy to the Reichenbach Falls with just a reference to meet him at “the fearful place”, because of course Tracy would pick up on that reference. And yes, they struggled at the falls and went over the side. I don’t think we’ve seen his body, although Kadavner’s even more immune to death than normal for compelling villains in this sort of story.
Tracy got rescued, of course. By an obsessed fan. Not of Tracy; he’s already been through that story in the Staton-Curtis regime. An obsessed fan of Sherlock Holmes, who insists on thinking Tracy is actually Holmes and won’t listen to anything contradicting him. An obsessed fan named Dr Bulwer Lytton. Good grief.
I was set for a little Misery-style knockoff, but Staton and Curtis faked me out. They do that often, must say, and with ease and in ways that don’t feel like cheats. That’s one of the things that keeps me enthusiastic about the strip. Instead of an intense psychological thriller about how to make his escape, Tracy just stands up and declares he’s had enough of this. Mercifully sane. But part of me just knows, Staton and Curtis were trying to think of a way to have Graham Champan wearing a colonel’s uniform step on panel and declare this had all got very silly and they were to go on to the next thing now. I figure they’re going to manage that within the next two years.
It’s quite worth reading, if you can take the strangeness of advancing a complicated story in a few moments a day and that not everything will quite hang together. But the more attention you pay the more you realize how deftly crafted everything about it is.