What’s Going On In Dick Tracy? June – August 2017


Are you trying to work out what’s going on in Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy? Welcome, fellow confused reader. I’m doing my best to explain the current storyline myself. I’m writing this in the middle of August 2017. If it’s much past that date for you, the story might have changed radically or even concluded. If I’ve written another summary of plot developments they should be at or near the top of this page. Thanks for trusting in me to spot pop culture references in the venerable story comic about a scientific detective.

For other comic strip talk, my mathematics blog just reviewed some strips with the theme of “Pets Doing Mathematics”. Please consider that, too.

Dick Tracy.

4 June – 12 August 2017.

My last update, in early June, coincided with the conclusion of a storyline. So I have a nearly clean field for this one. The story for June and July focused on the B O Plenty family, hillbillies with one Devo hat and a powerful aroma to them who married into the comic strip decades ago. The Plentys worry about strange sounds suggesting their house is haunted. What they should worry about is Paragon Bank noticing there haven’t been any payments on their mortgage, like, ever. In foreclosure, Plenty points out that he paid for the house in full, and turns over the receipt. The judge goes against precedent and rules the bank may not seize their home and destroy their lives.

Not to worry for justice. The bank skips out on paying court costs. Tracy, at the behest of Gravel Gerty, goes to the bank to keep B O from shooting anyone wealthy. And while he’s there Blackjack and his gang pop in and hold up the bank. Tracy doesn’t get involved, on the grounds that he didn’t want to start a gunfight. Blackjack, a hardcore Dick Tracy fanboy, realizes the detective has been replaced by a pod person, but makes off with the cash. Tracy points out that Blackjack’s taken to robbing banks with notorious reputations for cheating people, so, you know. I’m sure the bank is working its way through to paying court costs like the manager says they were totally planning to do.

Blackjack's Hideout. 'I still can't believe it! I had the chance to meet B.O.Plenty and Gravel Gertie!' Winston: 'Why is that bothering you, Boss?' Blackjack: 'It's something you can't understand, Winston. If I'd met the Plentys, perhaps I could have met their daughter, Sparkle. I have all her toys. This is too much for me! I NEED TO GO ROB A BANK!'
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 25th of June, 2017. So, better or worse: Blackjack going on a series of bank robberies, or Blackjack sliding in to Sparkle Plenty’s Twitter direct messages? Because I gotta say, he has got to have the creepiest come-ons.

Sparkle Plenty goes to the bank. There she hears the haunting strains of Blackjack’s leitmotif, Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” (“I get knocked down/But I get up again”), which I am going to go ahead and assume he adopted after falling out of love with Smashmouth’s “All Star”. She appeals to his fanboyishness, offering to sign all his Sparkle Plenty collectible toys if he’ll call off the bank heist. He agrees, dependent on his getting a selfie with her. So that works out great for everybody.

Finance rumbles on. With Fleischer Savings and Loan defaulting on pension obligations Tracy figures he knows Blackjack’s next target. Manager Frank Hickman appreciates Tracy’s warning, but he’s counting on Blackjack robbing the bank to cover a $250,000 shortfall the auditor is days away from discovering. But Blackjack takes his time, as he’s busy building plastic scale models of Dick Tracy. Here the last molecule of plausibility is destroyed. I’ve been a plastic scale model builder since I was like seven and I will not accept the idea of a plastic scale model builder actually putting together a plastic scale model. We just buy kits and paints and glues and gather reference materials and let them sit until a loved one yells at us, then we sell two of the most-duplicated kits at the next yard sale. Building the blasted things goes against the Code.

Anyway, Blackjack wastes so much time that he gets to the bank just after Hickman’s set the place on fire. Tracy and his stakeout team, and Blackjack and his bank-robbery team, turn to rescue operations, hauling people out. Hickman fights Blackjack hard enough everyone knows something’s up. Tracy gets a major clue when all the bank workers say how Hickman set the fire. Blackjack’s arrested too, but he gets to see Tracy’s Wall of Action-Scarred Hats, which is a thing and really thrilling to him. And that, on the 25th of July, wraps up that story.

The Fleischer Savings and Loan is in ruins. Sam Catchem: 'Tracy, all the employees I've talked to say THIS FIRE WAS SET.' Tracy: 'Mr Hickman, we'll have to take you in for questioning.' Hickman: 'I WANT A LAWYER!' Tracy: 'As for you, Blackjack ... ' Backjack: 'I know Tracy. I had to help those people in the bank.' Tracy: 'Thank you, Blackjack.' 'Sure, I rob banks, but I'M NOT ALL BAD.'
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 23rd of July, 2017. What I’ve never been able to work out is whether the name of the Fleischer Savings and Loan is a shout-out to the Fleischer Studios, the animation team that brought us all those great Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, but also went and made Hunky And Spunky For Some Reason so maybe that’s why they get a rotten bank named for them?

The current story: Silver and Sprocket Nitrate escape from prison. Their liberator: an animate Moai named Public Domain. Domain wants the bogus-film experts to create a phony audio recording. There’s the legend that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had recorded Abraham Lincoln’s voice on his phonautograph in 1863. The Nitrates like this idea, figuring they can make it their one last caper before retiring to a farm upstate. While the Nitrates call everybody they know to ask if they can impersonate Abraham Lincoln, Domain primes his mark. And that’s where we stand now.

The work begins at Public Domain's hideout. Sprocket: 'You've got a package, Silver.' Silver: 'THE CYLINDERS ARE HERE! They're made of canova oil, like the ones Edourd-Leon Scott de Martinville used.' Sprocket: 'Are you going to record on this cylinder?' Silver: 'You got it. Abraham Lincoln was supposed to be a tenor with a Kentucky accent.' Sprocket: 'Public domain is right. You're the tops at scams like this!'
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 6th of August, 2017. I am embarrassed to say how much I’m geeking out about this forged-audio-recording storyline. I mean, creating a plausible phony antique media document like this, which I assume has to come complete with a plausible provenance, presses so many nerd buttons on me.

There’s two major plot threads that have been left unresolved but got refreshes recently. Nothing’s been said about the weird noises that made the Plentys think their house was haunted. Other Detective Lee Ebony continues in deep undercover as Mister Bribery’s bodyguard.

Not given a refresh the past couple months: crime boss Posie Ermine wants his daughter, who’s been brainwashed and surgically altered into the Duplicate Mysta Chimera (“Moon Maid”), back. There was some (apparent) Lunarian in an Antarctic Valley pledging to investigate the mysterious Duplicate Mysta.

Next Week: Since my car has finally passed 100,000 miles I should take it down to Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for a check-up. Will there be old-time radio references? You make the call!

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose eight points today despite fears among traders that there might be multiple open-air jazz festivals going on in the Eastside that we’re going to have to deal with? The heck is that even possible?

359

What’s Going On In Dick Tracy? March – June 2017


Again I thank people who’re looking for help working out what’s going on in Joe Staton, Shelley Pleger and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy. If you’re reading this much later than June of 2017 there may have been a new update. The update should be at or near the top of this link along with any miscellaneous but important news that’s broken about the comic strip’s production. For example, if the artist changes or something like that.

Dick Tracy

12 March – 3 June 2017

I last checked in on Dick Tracy as a mega-super-hyper-crossover event over twelve percent bigger than usual was going on. Perenelle Flammel was murdered just before the climax of the auction for her immortality formula. Tracy and Will Eisner’s The Spirit were going around the special guest stars looking for clues, but Oliver Warbucks, Tracy‘s own Diet Smith, Terry and the Pirates‘s Dragon Lady all have solid alibis, and Spirit recurring villain Mister Carrion was already arrested and sent back to the Old Comics Home under Jim Scancarelli’s supervision. With no other suspects in the picture Tracy and Spirit turn to God.

Hotel Siam - The Penthouse. Am: 'As my old friend Alley would say, long time no see.' Tracy: 'Am, did you just arrive here?' Am: 'Why, yes. How did you know?' Spirit: 'Am, I assume you have doubles?' Am: 'I do. You have discovered my secret! I pay them well, and it makes my life safer. Why do you ask?' Tracy: 'It's about the double that's been here in your absence. Where is he now?'
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 19th of March, 2017. Oh good grief, the Great Am is talking about his friend Alley Oop, isn’t he? He’s making an Alley Oop reference out of all of this.

God in this case is The Great Am. He’s from Little Orphan Annie, when Harold Grey figured he needed some supernatural aid in railing against the New Deal. I don’t understand his deal exactly, except he’s one of those Ambiguously God characters that can add a pleasantly mystical touch to a setting. And at least in some of the strips I’ve seen he could add a charming wicked little cynicism about human nature.

The Spirit, aware that the strip is almost out of characters, guesses that The Great Am has a body double for the vague security reasons that make impossibly rich people in pulpy adventure stories have body doubles, and what do you know but he’s right? Am’s Double and Flammel’s longtime servant Ramon Escobar are found in a state of cahootsing, still on the books as a vice rap. The two flee, with Double Am caught in a choke hold by The Spirit and Escobar struck by lightning.

The Spirit is trying to apprehend the Double Am. Spirit: (If I can get this dang sling off ... ) 'There! How do you like your NEW NECKTIE?' Double Am: URK!
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 27th of March, 2017. I don’t know, Spirit. Is it within the power of man to truly apprehend the nature of Am? Or … well … you’re kind of dead, aren’t you? Something like that? Carry on, you seem to know what you’re doing.

The plan, explained: Escobar, denied his choice of wife by Flammel, hoped to steal first the auction money; when Kitchen and Brush failed (as recounted last update) they tried to steal the immortality formula proper. When Flammel discovered the attempted theft, Double Am strangled her. And so everything is settled basically sensibly.

Escobar, on the balcony: 'YOU'LL NEVER TAKE ME IN, TRACY!' He's hit by a bolt of lightning.
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 28th of March, 2017. This is why when we were kids our parents warned us not to use the land-line phone (the only phone there was) or our balcony guns during a thunderstorm!

I have mixed feelings about the resolution. The story seems to hang basically together, in that if you grant the premise the participants have good reason for what they do and why. The weak point as a whodunnit mystery is there’s nothing that hints, prior to The Spirit’s question, that the Great Am has body doubles. Perhaps I missed the clue, though, or perhaps somewhere in the Great Am’s past appearances this was established and Staton and Curtis just supposed that of course we’d remember. On the other hand, part of detective work is asking slightly speculative questions and sometimes those do turn out to be valuable. So one can slight the Double Am’s existence as being a deus ex machina used to give the story a plausible killer. But then Escobar’s being literally struck by lightning as he’d otherwise have gunned down Tracy? — Ah, but, this is a part of the story dominated by the Ambiguously God character of the Great Am. Doesn’t letting Ambiguous God into the story serve as all the warning you need of a dei ex machina? I’m not sure, but realizing that about the story structure made me smile, so I’m going to have to allow it.

After a couple rounds of banter the new story began the 7th of April, with some guests from the Harold Teen comic strip that I never heard of either. Also a story with Shelley Pleger doing the daily art duties in place of Joe Staton. Pleger had been part of the team doing the Sunday art before. Staton’s credit is back on the first daily after this story resolved, so I suppose it to be a temporary post.

The story’s centerpiece is a cosplay convention, which Honeymoon Tracy and her friend Astor are thrilled to attend. Honeymoon guides Tracy gently into the world of people who cosplay, a friendly mass of folks who try to work out what he’s supposed to be, anyway, Inspector Gadget? But it also makes me think about this.

The Cosplay Convention is On! Tracy: 'Honeymoon, I recognize the cartoon characters, but what are those other animal costumes from?' Honeymoon: 'They're from a CROSSOVER FANDOM, Pop-pop. Do you know what a crossover is?' Tracy: 'I think so.' Honeymoon: 'Well, in furry fandom, some people design and wear animal costumes. They're called FURSUITERS.' Tracy: 'I see. Interesting. Those fursuits look professionally made.' Honeymoon: 'CONNIE! You made it! Where are you?' Connie: 'Right behind you, Honeymoon!'
Shelley Pleger and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 23rd of April, 2017. Honestly not sure if I’m more unsettled by Dick Tracy learning what fursuiters are, by the gang at the Flophouse podcast talking about Sonic the Hedgehog m-preg pictures on Deviantart, or that there’s a chance my dad will ask me what m-preg is next time we’re on the phone.

A recurring minor character in Dick Tracy is The Pouch. He had been a circus freak-show fat man attraction, but lost most of his nearly 500 pounds of weight. He took his enormously many loose, flappy bags of skin and sewed them into clasping pouches, the better to conceal and smuggle items while selling balloons at the zoo. And while you ponder the question, “wait, what?” let me give you this point: He once used a popcorn popper to kill a man. And now this question: if that is the baseline normal for what human beings are and can do in the Dick Tracy universe, where do you go for imagination and fantasy characters?

Back to Cos-U-Con. A mysterious masked figure robs contest organizer Brian Miller and one of the Three Margies, a trio of women whose struggling costume shop donated thousands to the contest. The robber makes off with the ten thousand dollars cash prize. But — as was clear all along — it’s a fake. The Three Margies have arranged the theft. Big Margie and Little Margie celebrate by vandalizing a cemetery for Jewish people. And that’s rather a jolt. Yes, Dick Tracy is a crime-detection comic and that is the sort of offense that a major crimes unit would deal with. It’s just a dramatic change in tone for a storyline that, three weeks earlier, seemed to be about Dick Tracy ogling someone in a blue raccoon costume. But then isn’t “we were all having a giddy little time and then it suddenly got awful” just what the past eighteen months have been? Those nice-looking cousins all named Margie who run a costume shop turning out to hate Jewish people somehow fits.

Tracy: 'Sorry the cosplay contest had such a unpleasant ending, SVENGOOLIE.' Svengoolie: 'It was a real downer, but I'm sorry for BRIAN MILLER, the con organizer.' Tracy: 'Having the prize in cash was inviting something like this. I'm thankful nobody got hurt.' Svengoolie: 'That's too scary to think of! I wish you luck cracking the case, Tracy.' Tracy: 'Thanks, Mr. Koz. With good detective work, we'll find the thief. And with a little luck, recover the money too.'
Shelley Pleger and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 7th of May, 2017. I appreciate the subtle change in the color palette this strip. It’s the same location as the previous comic, but a little bit darker and sadder after the robbery. Even if you didn’t read the word balloons you could sort out whether this or the strip from the 23rd of April happened before the crime.

Tracy and Sam Catchem, after asking the Three Margies about the convention theft, realize that as the other characters in the story the Three Margies are the best bet for the perpetrators. They confirm their suspicions with a Sunday strip’s worth of actual detective work. The Margies paid two months’ back rent in cash, and that one of the Margies had come six months ago from a town that suffered similar cemetery vandalism up to six months ago.

Tracy and Cachem stake out the Margies. Big and Middle Margie lead them to a construction site, where they’re trying to bury a satchel from the robbery. The Margies aren’t very good at this sort of crime, and get captured easily, dropping some surprisingly strong anti-Jewish words for the comics page and clearing Little Margie’s name on their way out of the story.

Tracy: 'Take it slow, Ms Thatcher.' Maggie Thatcher: 'No! I won't go to jail!' (She hits him with the satchel.) 'Not again!' Other Maggie runs up with a stick. Catchem emerges from the shadows with his gun drawn: 'Drop it!'
Shelley Pleger and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 30th of May, 2017. I do like the action here; it mixes the slightly slapstick with the threatening and the surprise reveal. Comic strips don’t have the space that they had in the glorious old days like when Dick Tracy was new, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to put together a lot when they need.

The story wrapped up, neatly for my purposes, the 2nd of June. Was it successful? I’d say so; once we grant everyone in the Dick Tracy universe going wild for cosplay the events hold together, and Tracy and Catchem do actual detective work that could logically lead them to the perpetrators. It’s not a very intense storyline, but they don’t all need to be; I appreciate that sometimes the initial major crime can be as simple as a ten thousand dollar robbery. If it comes apart because the Three Margies are not very good at laundering money, that’s fine; they seem to be dabblers in this sort of crime and naturally they’d leave an obvious trail.

A new story seems to have started the 3rd of June. It’s opened on the B O Plenty family. They’re hillbillies who long ago married into the comic strip. No guessing where that might lead. The last couple months have not included any one-off comic strips that seem to be there to set up long-running or future storylines. They’ve been on point to the current storyline.

Special Guest Stars Of Dick Tracy Have Included:

  • Will Eisner’s The Spirit
  • Oliver Warbucks
  • The Great Am
  • The Dragon Lady
  • Harold Teen
  • Pop Jenks
  • Shadow Smart
  • Svengoolie

I am certain I’ve missed some. The Cos-U-Con storyline included so many chances to draw characters in, and the only way to tell whether that’s actually Smokey Stover or just someone dressed as Smokey Stover is to talk with them. I do recommend going back looking over the art; there’s probably something you’re a fan of in there somewhere.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index bounced up seven points today as investors had a spare five bucks when they noticed the reverse-bungee ride at the mall’s food court was running for a change. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

207

What’s Going On In Dick Tracy? December 2016 – March 2017


I started out this strikingly popular series of “What’s Going On In” story strips by describing how Dick Tracy had gotten pretty good. I stand by that assessment: the comic has been telling stories at a pretty good pace and with enough energy and excitement to demand attention. I discover reading my earlier piece that I didn’t actually describe the then-current storyline except to say it was going to have a guy get eaten by a hyena. Let me fix that and bring you to the present day.

Dick Tracy

29 November 2016 through 11 March 2017

So, the guy did not get eaten by a hyena. I apologize for the mistake, but it was after all only my best projection as to where the story was going. The fellow was a new Tracy-esque villain named Selfy Narcisse, whose gimmick was that he was always taking selfies. They can’t all be The Pouch.

Narcisse had been embezzling campaign donations to Representative Lois Bellowthon (herself proposing some anti-Lunar-people legislation); he was fleeing with a literal satchel of cash after poisoning the finally-wise-to-him Congressman. Yes, he used his selfie stick to inject the poison, so at least that keeps on-theme. He took refuge in the zoo where he had a friend willing to disguise him as a zoo keeper, which is a thing that happens in real big-city zoos.

Selfy Narcisse panics as police close in. 'This is all Vic's fault! He blew my cover and wasted all my poison ... if he weren't already dead I'd kill him!' Tracy discovers Vic's corpse. 'It's the missing zoo worker! He doesn't appear to have been mauled, but my Wrist Wizard isn't showing any of his vital signs. Get Baker to open the door, Lizz. I'll check for another way in.' Meanwhile Narcisse plans: 'Better stay put, Tracy. There might be enough poison left in the selfie stick for you!'
Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy for the 4th of December, 2016. While I admit I kept losing track in the climax of the difference between the Narcisse’s selfie stick and the electric prods used for pushing animals around, I don’t blame the artists: they’re hard things to differentiate. Especially when it doesn’t seem like that big a leap for a poison-dispensing selfie stick to also have an electric prod. Anyway, look at the center panel, bottom row: that’s a great rendition of a scene viewed through a window, and most of that texture is made by good color choice.

His cover fell apart when his hat fell off for a moment and zoogoers put pictures that happened to have him in frame on social media. So again, that’s good work by Mike Staton and Joe Curtis in being on-theme. His friend accidentally drank Narcisse’s poison stash, thinking it alcohol. Narcisse tasers Tracy and drags him into the water buffalo pen. One of the water buffalo, annoyed by the villain’s selfie-taking, gored Narcisse, but was scared away from Tracy when his Wrist Wizard handheld computer’s battery exploded. Yes, I wrote that sentence, and you read it. Go back and read it again until you believe it.

In December a major new story started and it involved a major crossover event because everything in Dick Tracy does anymore. Their Christmas strip was the characters singing Deck Us All With Boston Charlie, Walt Kelly’s great Pogo doggerel, for crying out loud. The main attraction for this storyline is The Spirit, the great superhero character created by Will Eisner in a line of books I never read. Sorry. I know, I know, everybody who’s stood in a comic book store more than ten minutes will tell you they’re the greatest things ever made. I’ve been busy.

Tracy: 'Spirit, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, The Great Am.' Am: 'The pleasure is mine, Mr Spirit. I presume the object of your visit is to keep an eye on Perenelle Flammel?' Spirit: 'Yes ...' (Thinking: who is this guy?) Am: 'I've encountered her about five times through the years. In fact, the first time we met was at her funeral in 1397.' Tracy: 'So Perenelle Flammel is truly immortal?' Am: 'Yes, I am sure of it, Tracy.'
Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy for the 1st of January, 2017. This strip may not convince the casual reader about Perenelle Flammel. But it is delivering to us the Word of God that Flammel is indeed immortal. The Great Am will be recognized by devoted longtime readers of Annie, where he’s God. All right, he’s Ambiguously God. But that’s who he is because that’s the kind of thing Annie was up to when Harold Gray wasn’t ranting against social security or the minimum wage law or stuff.

The Spirit’s in town because one Perenelle Flammel is auctioning off the immortality formula that’s kept her from dying since the 14th century. The auction brings together The Spirit, Dick Tracy‘s own super-science-industrialist Diet Smith, Oliver Warbucks (as Staton and Curtis are fostering the orphaned Annie cast), Mister Carrion (whom Wikipedia tells me is one of The Spirit’s recurring villains, and whom the story revealed to be an agent for The Octopus, which Wikipedia says is another of The Spirit’s recurring villains), and the Dragon Lady (allowed into the story via special passport issued by Terry and the Pirates). The preliminary auction helps convince bidders the formula might be legitimate because it checks out with a Doc Savage reference. Low-level con men Brush and Kitchen attempt to rob the preliminary auction’s treasury but get easily caught by Tracy and Spirit. And Tracy, doing some actual detective work for once, finds that Carrion brought cash from a bank robbery, so he’s out of the plot or so we think.

Early morning in Flammel's suite: 'Good morning, Mistress! Your Monte Cristo is ready. All the bidders will assemble at noon for the auction. Is there anything else you need, mistress? ... MISTER DOUBLEUP! COME QUICKLY! Mistress Flammel! Please, help her!' 'I cant. It's too late. Too late. She's DEAD. Go call Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy!'
Joe Staton, Mike Curtis, Shelley Pleger, and Shane Fisher’s Dick Tracy for the 5th of March, 2017. Repeating the last two words he says is Doubleup’s gimmick. I suppose he’d repeat more if the word balloons were bigger. The valet’s gimmick I’m not clear on, but he seems to only be a minor character there because Flammel needs a valet.

And then Flammel turned up dead, because the immortality serum doesn’t protect you against strangulation. Flammel’s bodyguard, recurring Tracy villain Doubleup, seems a poor suspect as he was being paid in Scarlett Sting comic books, so we’re on to Flammel’s valet and then check out anyone else who’s been in the story.

In miscellaneous plot threads, since there’s a lot of those planted in spaces between the main action: Sam Catchem’s wife has finished chemotherapy and been declared cancer-free. A crime boss name of Posie Ermine noticed Mysta Chimera, who had been his daughter Mindy before the mad science treatment that destroyed her memory and made her into a synthetic Moon Maid replica. He crashed his car into hers to try to recover her. This didn’t get him permanently back in her life, but he’s undeterred. I’m sympathetic to Posie Ermine here and not even being snarky about that. There’s some deeply emotionally messy stuff going on here.

Somewhere deep in an Antarctic valley someone who appears to be a Lunarian pledges to investigate “the halfling”, “my granddaughter”, which has to be Mysta Chimera. This matches a couple references in October with Mysta asking Honey Moon Tracy if she’s heard any telepathic contacts from anybody else. Tracy and the Spirit have been trading stories including The Spirit mentioning how he went to the Moon too. I think that’s all the stuff that sounds like threads ready to go somewhere, but for all I know that Pogo reference for the Christmas strip is setting up a scene late this year when Albert Alligator mistakenly swallows Gidney and Cloyd. We’ll see.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

While the Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose another three points during trading nobody trusts the result and everybody is walking gingerly on the trading floor lest they tip something over.

127

What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley?


[ Edited the 24th of May, 2017 to add: ] Hi, fans of Gasoline Alley looking for summaries of the plots. I’m glad to provide what I have. This post might be out of date, though. My most recent report on what’s happening in the strip should be at or near the top of this page. The rest of this essay is about what was going on as of February 2017, which it no longer is, and is becoming less so every day. Thanks for being around.


I, too, thought I was done with story strips. And then I realized I’d forgot one. And what a one to forget: it’s, I believe, the oldest syndicated comic strip that isn’t in perpetual reruns. Coming to us from the 24th of November, 1918, it’s …

Gasoline Alley.

If you know anything about Gasoline Alley you don’t need me to tell you anything about Gasoline Alley. It’s one of those comic strips that’s been around forever even though the last child to grow up enthusiastically reading it went on to fight in King Philip’s War. Have to admit, a someone who only started paying attention to it in adulthood, the kids are missing something. That something is a lot of old-time radio references. I honestly wonder how artist/writer Jim Scancarelli wasn’t hired to draw the Lum and Abner comic strip.

So the comic strip is a slice-of-life serial comic. Its big gimmick, and the thing that’s let it last nearly a century, was the day in 1922 when protagonist Walt Wallet discovered the orphan Skeezix on his doorstep. Since then most of the characters in the strip have aged more or less in real time. People get born, they grow up, they move off, they move back, they marry, they have careers, they bring new people into the strip, they retire. The whole cast is impossibly vast and interconnected in ways that only Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury compares to.

Walt Wallet is still around, even though the progression of time makes him something like 115 years old. I imagine Scancarelli is a little too sentimental to kill the comic’s original star, even if there have been like four whole generations of plausible lead characters since then. He doesn’t even have to kill Walt. Scancarelli embraces a bit of magic whimsy in the comic (a lot, really), and one of the conceits is the Old Comics Home. It’s the boarding house for all the characters from the classic old comic strips. They have a visit every year or so. I can’t imagine anyone objecting if Walt, and maybe Skeezix too, were to pay their annual visit to Mutt and Jeff and Buster Brown and Smokey Stover or whoever and just … not come back.

But Walt Wallet does come back. And the current storyline, begun the 16th of January, stars him. He’s inspired by a newspaper advertisement offering “big bucks for your inventions”. After several days sleeping on it he has an inspiration. It’s a combination freezer-fridge-stove-grill-microwave-TV, the sort of thing you might create as a dubiously practical all-in-one contraption for a 60s sitcom. Wallet admits he got the idea from thinking about how in Dick Tracy the B.O. Plenty clan had a stove with a built-in TV set. I don’t know that this actually happened, but I believe it. Scancarelli shows a love for this particular kind of pop culture. He is not so reference-crazy as the actual current staff of Dick Tracy, but then neither is the writing staff of Family Guy. Still, he could hold his own in a highly referential conversation with them.

'Isn't this the invention of a lifetime? A combination freezer, fridge, stove, grill, and microwave! Well! Aren't you going to say anything?' 'I'm speechless!'

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 30th of January, 2017. There’s an optional TV also. No, it isn’t connected to the Internet, because there is no non-ridiculous reason to connect your refrigerator to the Internet. Will say that’s a pretty good example diaram considering so far as I know Wallet hasn’t been trained in graphic design and he’s also older than graphic design.

Wallet’s idea underwhelms Skeezix and his nurse. But he attracts the attention of Gasoline Alley TV’s Shark Bait. So he goes to the TV studio to pitch his idea — or really the novelty of a 115-year-old inventor — to the jury of millionaire investors. He gets to the studio and meets, who else but Frank Nelson.

You know Frank Nelson. OK, you know that guy on The Simpsons who goes YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess? That’s Frank Nelson they’re impersonating there. He appeared in a lot of Jack Benny Program episodes as the clerk or ticket-taker or information desk guy or anyone at all that Benny would have to get information from. And he’d instead get “YYYyyyyyyyyeeeeeess” and “OOooOOOoooh” and insults. This may sound like thin stuff, but, again: character actor. And done for one or two minutes a week, two weeks a month, the character doesn’t exactly get old. It gets familiar, the way a fun running gag does. Frank Nelson’s reappeared in Gasoline Alley to torment Walt Wallet because, like I said, Jim Scancarelli’s an old-time radio fan. The comic probably reads fine if you have no idea what’s being referred to here. If you know how the lines should be read, I imagine they’re funnier.

But I don’t know what it reads like to someone who doesn’t get the references. Scancarelli likes them, and will keep making them. Even if they’re a little baffling. A while back he introduced Molly Ballou, radio reporter. Who’s carefully introduced as the sister to Wally Ballou, famously mis-cued reporter for Bob and Ray. And shortly after that he introduced Polly Ballou, Wally and Molly’s other sister. I understand wanting to do a little Bob and Ray fanfic because who would not? And it’s simple professionalism to do it with your own character, because that way, if you screw up nobody’s qualified to tell you you’re wrong. (Frank Nelson’s appearances have, I believe, avoided coming right out and naming him, allowing for some deniability if the character goes completely wrong. At the cost of confusing people who realize there’s a reference to something here that they don’t have enough stuff to Google.)

But why make them Wally Ballou’s improbably young-looking sisters? In the comic strip that defined “comic strip that passes more or less in real time”? Why not make them his daughters, or granddaughters? And why Molly and Polly, when it seems like one would do? Maybe it’s pure self-indulgence. As cartoonist self-indulgences go this seems quite tolerable to me. Or maybe I just like that I get the references.

'Uh, excuse me! Where do you want me to go?' 'Oooh! I'd love to tell you ... but I can't.' 'Why not?' 'This is a family newspaper!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 20th of February, 2017. Fine, call it a dumb old joke. It was my best laugh of the day from the comics. Also I hadn’t thought of it before but now I realize Scancarelli could totally slip in Harold “The Great Guildersleeve” Peary in too. He’s got the basic design down.

So, as of this week, Walt Wallet’s gotten onto Shark Bait. It’s going out live because Gasoline Alley TV just does that. You can roll with it or you can read something else, okay? There’s an odd bit of confusion in the show’s opening about whether the jury is a panel of millionaires or billionaires and that might be a hint there’s some mischief up. I make no predictions for how it’ll resolve except that at the end of it Walt Wallet will not be a millionaire. The strip doesn’t break reality that much, plus, think of the biographies of every inventor you know. How many of then end with “died in poverty after long court fights with the companies that ripped off his/her patents”? Yeah.

This is the storyline running Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the comic strip runs separate gags. They’re usually one-off panels, not connected to any storyline. And they’re usually the sort of big dumb old-school sketch comedy stuff that was old when old-time radio was new. And Scancarelli draws it in this warm, friendly, very gentle style. It works for me. I like that kind of comedy. Don’t know that it communicates today.

'I'm the Genie of the Lamp! I'll grant you 3 wishes for letting me out!' 'Can I have 10 billion dollars?' 'Your wish is my command!' 'How about world peace?' 'Easier done than said! What's next? This is your last wish! It better be a good one!' 'Make me lose 200 pounds and look like I did when I was 20!' 'Gad-zooks, man! I don't have that kind of power! I'm only a genie!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 5th of February, 2017. The typical sort of Sunday business for Gasoline Alley. Since the joke is old, take the chance to look at the art. This is some pretty lively stuff, especially considering the scene is just two characters talking and would play just as well without any visuals. There’s not enough good art on the comics pages; good on Scancarelli for insisting on it in his work.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index fell eight points following uncertainty as to which of the paczki is the strawberry and which is the red raspberry. This might have been weathered but similar doubts were raised regarding the blueberry and the prune ones.

98

What Is Going On With Dick Tracy?


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.

Dick Tracy.

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.

Several slightly connected panels in which in a major storm Tracy's wrist-wradio finally starts working but the building he's in is threatened with collapse and Sam Catchem finds things going on and the story was over within a week.
Dick Locher and Jim Brozman’s Dick Tracy for the 27th of February, 2011. The lurching end of a long, long storyline in which the masked villain Mordred has lured Tracy to a crumbling house and there’s rats and a storm. It’s not just the hurried, clip-show nature of the Sunday installment. The panels really don’t quite make anything that happens relate to anything anyone’s doing.

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.

Diet Smith, Dick Tracy, and Sparkle Plenty voyage in the Space Coupe to the Moon. Tracy reflects on Apollo 8's Christmas 1968 message, blessing all of you on the good Earth.
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 23rd of December, 2012. Something of a quiet, Christmas-time interlude in the story that brought the Moon Maid back from the dead. Well, the Orignal Moon Maid is dead and there’s a replacement created by super-surgery and it’s all complicated but it’s also related to the current ongoing plotline of this actual month, which looks like it’s going to see a guy get eaten by a hyena.

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.

Tracy wakes in the care and custody of Dr Bulwer Lytton, a Sherlock Holmes superfan.
Joe Staton and Mike Curtis’s Dick Tracy for the 1st of September, 2016. Tracy would get out of this with nothing more than autographing some of Dr Bulwer Lytton’s first-edition prints of Sherlock Holmes adventures, which should create a heck of a problem for the signature-collection and forgery industry.

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.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The alternate Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose five points. Trading was hurried as everyone had forgotten to do anything until market analysts came in just before deadline to ask how things had turned out so they could say why that happened instead of something else entirely. Now analysts are trying to figure out if any of this happened for a reason or if traders were just throwing any old nonsense together. They’re suspicious.

98

What’s Going On In Apartment 3-G


Prepended the 11th of November, 2015: Hi, many folks who’ve found this page while looking for information about Apartment 3-G. I do update what’s known about the strip under the category tag of Apartment 3-G, so you can always find the latest by following this link.

Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much more latest to report. The comic strip has, reportedly, been cancelled, and the last new strip is to appear the weekend of the 21st-22nd. Rumor is that vintage (rerun) strips will be appearing at least on the Comics Kingdom web site after that. Whether they’ll be distributed to newspapers that want reruns of a soap opera strip I don’t know. Whether they will finish off the current story before ending … I don’t know, but I am skeptical they even could. I’m sorry not to have better information.


I have noticed the recent surge in people searching for Apartment 3-G information. I’ve written about the comic strip a couple of times, because it’s been going through a stage of fantastic quantities of nothing happening lately. But it’s been getting worse, or at least more baffling. Yes, worse than the stretch where artist Frank Bolle and writer Margaret Shulock spent without exaggeration six weeks of nothing but shots of two people talking about how they had to talk with no relief or any actual subject in mind except for the world’s most hideously deformed kangaroo-deer-night terror.

So to answer the question of what’s going on in Apartment 3-G as sincerely and honestly as I can: nothing comprehensible. No. Not anything.

Margo exists in the least diner-iest diner you have ever seen. It just looks like a generic apartment with no hints of tables or chairs or food or customers or anything.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 1st of February, 2015.

The overarching plot as it stumbled into the year, back around February or so, was that Margo’s father and the woman she’d always thought was the maid but was in fact her biological mother were finally getting married. Margo had been hired to organize their wedding, but was emotionally confused and furious that her biological mother had been taking advice from some kind of psychic who’s warning about evil at their (planned? considered?) wedding location. That takes us to about February.

Margo demands to know who some guy who doesn't answer her is. She wonders why this keeps happening.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 21st of February, 2015.

Margo sees a stranger? He says, 'Am I a stranger or an old friend? Or maybe just a ghost in the fog.'
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 4th of July, 2015.
Yes, this was published over four months after the previous strip and it reiterates the same tiny plot point.

Since then, Margo has been wandering around what are allegedly spots in alleged Manhattan, shouting at people that I guess we’re supposed to conclude are her friends. Meanwhile, she’s being haunted by people who seem to know her, but that she doesn’t recognize. Some of them she drives away; some of them just vanish on their own. These haunting people don’t look like the same person, but given the shakiness of Apartment 3-G lately it’s not possible to say whether that’s intentionally unclear. I suspect that these are meant to be the ghosts of boyfriends or male entanglements of the past. However, none of that has been established on-screen, and nobody who’s read the strip has popped up with any identifications of, oh, “the guy haunting her in April was her fiancee from the 1984-86 story they were talking about that one Golden Girls episode”.

A strange face asks Margo if she wants to know his name. She replies, 'That's a heck to the no!'. This is one of the more wonderful things I've seen this year.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 7th of July, 2015.

A man on the street asks Margo if she's all right. She declares, 'This is Manhattan --- you're not supposed to care about people.'
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 8th of July, 2015.

And about two weeks ago Lu Ann declared that she was fed up with everything, and she was quitting the gallery and selling her third-share in Apartment 3-G’s building. Also she worked at a gallery, and owned a third-share in Apartment 3-G’s building. The only reason that’s been given for this is that she wants to get out of Manhattan and see the big time. This seems to be correlated to a Mister Clean cosplayer named Mike Downey apologizing I guess for something he maybe did at some point, but how has not been said.

Lu Ann forgives a Mister Clean cosplayed and then hasn't talked to Margo lately.
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 7th of June, 2015.

No, none of what motivates any of this has been clarified. Believe me. I have been reading the strip daily, and I have gone back reading it weeks and months at a time to see if it connects more clearly when you look at a block of story at once. There is no story here. There are a couple of plot points — Margo is distressed by her parents’ wedding, Margo is haunted by familiar but unidentifiable figures, Lu Ann wants to change her life — but they exist in island universes, separated from one another and receding ever-faster. And after nothing happened between February and June, then the third of those plot points was dropped into this shapeless melange. You are not missing something, dear confused reader.

Lu Ann explains she's selling out of Apartment 3-G because 'there is a big world out there, and I want to see it all!'
Frank Bolle and Margaret Shulock’s Apartment 3-G for the 28th of June, 2015.

I know it’s always easy to make fun of the story strips, since they usually don’t do story well and they’re never funny on purpose. But something seriously bad has happend with Apartment 3-G the past several years. What plotting and narrative the strip used to have has evaporated, and the artwork has collapsed. The only thing I can compare it to is the last years of Dick Locher’s run on Dick Tracy. At that point all narrative collapsed. What few things happened were repeated over and over, as far as you could make out from the artwork. Without exaggeration it was possible to take a week’s worth of panels, scramble them, and read exactly as coherent a story.

That’s fine for some ironic thrills, for a while. Truly incompetent storytelling carries this exciting, outsider-art appeal. But it’s an unhealthy diet. It’s especially so for syndicated newspaper comic strips, an already sickly relative of the pop culture; and it’s extremely dangerous for the syndicated story strip, which might be the most endangered part of the newspaper.

I would like to think there’s hope. After a seemingly endless mess of nothing Dick Locher retired from Dick Tracy. The new team — Joe Staton and Mike Curtis — brought to it fresh artwork and exciting plots carried out with energy and direction. While the strip is flawed (there’s a lot of fanboyish determination to reference and cross-reference everything, and plots have rarely required Dick Tracy to do actual detective work), it’s recovered to being a good story strip again. While I wish no harm to Margaret Shulock or Frank Bolle, I do hope the strip can regenerate. It would be terrible if this is the long sad prelude to cancellation.