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

Advertisements

The Most Wonderful Thing In The Comics And Outer Space Last Week


So in 1961 Flash Gordon was all about the exciting stuff we’d be getting up to in space in the far-distant year of 1971. And, really, every story is this glorious experience of soaking in late-50s Man Will Conquer Space Soon vision. Lots of people in giant spaceships and space station pausing between space collisions just long enough to do jobs that you’d think could be done on Earth with a lot less hassle, like, growing vegetables. And then came this, the start of a new storyline, the last panel on Wednesday:

Meanwhile On Earth: 'Hello, Louie's Delicatessen! Yeah, what'll it be today Mr Owl? Ahuh ... OK, got it! Of course, you get it right away! I bring it up in my own personal rocket!'
Panel from Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon from the 7th of October, 1961. Rerun the 24th of August, 2016. 38 cents a pound seems like a good price for hot dogs, although what do I know about the cost of Space Living in Space 1971? I would unless Louie’s got a lot of deliveries to the same space station he’s losing money on the delivery, though. Maybe it’s a gimmick he uses for the publicity. But in that case he needs a catchier name for it than “My Own Personal Rocket”. We’re talking about Space Weinermobile technology here. Granted Louie maybe was born before World War II and grew up a square but if he’s hit on the idea of Space Deliveries for publicity he can get a catchy but dumb name from somewhere. Of course, here I am not suggesting anything.

It’s easy for a story strip to start strong and peter out into boringness. And the story is still in its first week yet. But it’s starting really great, with Louie not just delivering his Space Pork Roll and stuff by rocket, but by recklessly driven rocket. Saturday they even had a Space Fender Bender, with cans of soda and a chain of sausage links spilling out into orbit. It’s been a long while since I was this happy with this much nonsense.

'Rocket on collision course! Full braking jets!!' (They collide, spilling meat and soda into space. Louie pokes his head out to Space Yell.) 'You BUM! Watch your driving! Look what you done to my merchandise!'
Panel from Dan Barry’s Flash Gordon from the 11th of October, 1961. Rerun from the 27th of August, 2016. I appreciate that in the heat of the moment Louie may feel the need to act rather than just scream, but stepping outside of your rocket to Space Yell at someone is no more effective than just staying in your cabin where it’s comfortable and Space Yelling at them over the Space Radio. So how long do you suppose those Space Doughnuts remained in Space Orbit?

In Actual October 1971, the United States launched the ITOS-B weather satellite, which didn’t work. Also some spy satellites which did.

In other comic strips news, my mathematics blog did the usual Sunday sort of thing yesterday, which was Sunday as I make these things out. If it wasn’t Sunday we can just re-check everyone’s work and start again.

Popeye: Hits And Missiles


I mentioned last week the first of the 1960s run of King Features-commissioned Popeye cartoons, “Hits and Missiles”, which was produced by Paramount Pictures Cartoon Studios, which had been Famous Cartoon Studios and before that Fleischer Studios, who made all the great Popeye cartoons that animation fans speak of in reverential whispers. I thought, why not discuss this one, which I had characterized as “not too bad”.

The obvious thing to say about this is: it’s cheap. You can really see the budget in the editing, both in its sluggishness and how many inset shots are of a character standing by himself or herself on a featureless background, or when the walk cycle shows no evidence of getting out of the cycle. Or how there’s almost as many as three people doing all the voices (and you can really hear the different recording sessions they were using). Or how dialogue (especially between Popeye and the Big Cheese once Popeye breaks out of jail) doesn’t actually quite flow. Besides the things obviously being laid in for reuse (isolated characters on featureless backgrounds) there’s stuff that was recycled from earlier, better cartoons; even the premise of Popeye accidentally blasted into space was done before, in Popeye’s “Rocket To Mars”. I could swear a Popeye cartoon had done the gag about a rocket punching a hole in the Big Dipper, but can’t think which one (it’s not “Popeye, The Ace Of Space”), and even if they didn’t, someone had.

And yet there’s some good stuff in it. First, throwing Popeye into space is a sensible modernization of the “send Popeye on a fantastic voyage” motif that generates so many of his best stories. The mountain of Swiss cheese that Popeye and Olive fall through is a good sequence, and would make a great amusement park ride. And the cartoon throws in little bits of business that are amusing even when they serve no role in the plot, like Wimpy’s under-the-hat frying pan, or Olive Oyl’s little makeup table. Remove them and, yeah, you’d have to get the rocket accidentally launched slightly differently, but Olive’s makeup table is there just as an amusing throwaway gag. Considering they’d have been justified just showing the Big Cheese and Popeye talking instead, it’s good they showed a gag. It’s an attempt to fill the cartoon with funny pictures.

The overall cartoon is not great, no; but compared to the lethargic efforts Famous Studios was putting out a couple years before such as “Popeye For President” or “Parlez Voo Woo”? The cartoon suggests that the TV run of Popeye might be decent.

Next, the Comics


Over on my mathematics blog I had a fresh collection of mathematics-themed comic strips to talk about, and I want to make sure people who missed that had some kind of warning about it. So, ah, warning.

Mort Walker's _Beetle Baily_ of 24 August 1957. Apparently the General has a niece.

For those who weren’t so interested in that, I offer the above installment of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, from the vintage comics collection at comicskingdom.com. One of the wonderful things about the Internet has been that comics syndicates have made the ancient runs of comics more available. At its best, this lets you see now-stagnant comics in their prime and understand why (say) Hi and Lois became part of the default comics page. When it’s not doing that, you can at least get interesting observations such as (a) apparently General Halftrack had a niece, at least in August of 1957, and (b) this comic strip originally ran three days after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first successful intercontinental ballistic missile.