Monday, February 24, 2014

Dick Tracy, timeless comic noir

I recently picked up, The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931 - 1951, a collection of Dick Tracy strips from 1970. Even though these were created for the most part in the 40's I'm finding it really fascinating for the fact that it feels so modern.

Though this was a mainstream newspaper strip from the 1940's, these comics feel as raw and inventive as any modern alt comix today.
One thing that gives these strips such a contemporary feel is that Chester Gould doesn't shy away from the raw gore of crime. He puts it out there in all it's gruesomeness for the viewer to indulge in. For example midget criminal Jerome Trohs ('short' backwards) is fatally scald by his angry girlfriend.We get to indulge in seeing Mamma gleefully shower Trohs with boiling hot water.
In another story Little Face Finny gets locked in a meat locker causing him to get frost bite on much of his body and has to get his ears amputated.

Though this comic was written for major newspapers in "the good old days" it's terribly gruesome stuff. I'd be surprised if there are any contemporary comics that are as gruesome these days. I'm sure there are but I don't know about them. 

It's interesting to get this collection that spans 20 years time because in that time Gould has altered his style from period to period. 
Here is a strip from Dec. 1937. The art work is still evolving at this time. As you can see that Tracy's jaw line hasn't reached it's full potential yet.
With this 1949 strip you can see that the artwork has matured. The lines are slicker and more stylized and it's easier to read. If you compare the two profiles of Dick Tracy you can get a good idea how Gould's art has matured over time.
Along with the stories being fresh and modern, the artwork is also very fresh. One aspect of Gould's work that I really enjoy is the way he will depict a series of shots that are so obscure, if you were to take them out of context you'd swear it was abstract art.
I could totally see Roy Lichtenstein taking any taking any one of these panels and making a canvas out of it. 
I love the abstract-ness of it all. Could he push it further? As a comic creator it would be fun to make it even more abstract. In fact some comic creators did like Art Spiegelman in his "Dead Dick".
Gould also employs a refreshing Al Hirschfeld style of caricature that he uses for his people. Though exaggerated to the absurd at times, I find this style more refreshing than not. I really enjoy his odd depiction of sexy Breathless Mahoney with her big eyebrows or the smooth lines of Mumbles.
Al Hirschfeld was a famous illustrator in the 40's and 50's who did wonderful caricatures of famous people like Sammy Davis jr., Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, and Laural and Hardy. There's a big resemblance between his work and that of the caricatures of Chester Gould.
Breathless Mahoney
Veronica Lake shared a striking resemblance to Breathless Mahoney.
I highly recommend this book. It's a timeless work that speaks about it's time as well as speaks to us modern readers. It's full of great comic bookiness equally for the comic nerd as well as the graphic novel scholar.

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