A Daily Dose of ‘Dick Tracy’…
There was a daily ritual in the Myers house which all four children and both of my parents participated in which was reading the funnies in the Chronicle.
We took the Chronicle because it was not a Hearst publication like the Examiner. The name William Randolph Hearst had the same resonance within our home as Satan in a house of god. This didn’t mean that my parents liked the Chronicle but it was considered the lesser evil.
The paper was delivered every morning by a big van which would speed up Seymour Avenue and the driver would throw it, rolled up in wax paper, down towards our porch.
The different sections would be seized upon. Blackie and Jimmy liked the green Sports pages while I was a huge fan of the Peanuts section which had the movie ads in it. Even though each family member would gravitate to different parts of the paper, each one of us would read the comic strips.
The Chronicle ran about eight or nine strips stacked top to bottom on a full page which was a moveable feast. Sometimes it was at the back of the Peanuts section, sometimes in sports and occasionally it would turn up behind the want ads in Herb Caen.
It was a fairly diverse collection. Gordo was a light hearted strip featuring a Mexican guy wearing a sombrero. Steve Roper was a caucasian photo journalist with a silver haired sidekick named Mike Nomad who sported a crew cut. Dondi was a little orphan boy of European origin who was always saying: “Goshes Uncle Ted.” A few others were to be found in separate places like Dennis The Menace and Peanuts.
It was the case that the daily doings of Peanuts were regularly discussed around the Myers dinner table. Lucy’s introduction of the lemonade-like stand bearing the legend: ‘Psychiatric Help 5¢’ was a source of much amusement at 10 Seymour but the one strip which all our family followed with intensity was Dick Tracy.
The curious thing about Tracy was that the drawings were so eccentric. Chester Gould’s visual representations were not what you would think of as great art but his contorted characters, bizarre plot twists and surprises made the strip unmissable.
As a budding cartoonist I was constantly copying all the comic strip characters and doing Dick Tracy was odd because you hardly ever saw him looking directly at you. He was mostly in profile with his hat on and his nose was shaped like a box. His chin was also square and his eyes and mouth were simply horizontal lines
A source of wonderment for me was his Two Way Wrist Radio. Tracy was constantly talking into it to communicate with Sam Ketchum or his chief. This, to my young mind, was an absolutely fantastic concept and I was always pretending to have one on my wrist as I walked home from school. The big problem for a nine year old was finding things to say into it so I doubtlessly repeated myself a lot.
I also had a fascination with the kind of microphones you would see inside police cars, whether they were Mill Valley squad cars or the ones that Tracy and his colleagues travelled in. These were shaped like a slightly flattened avocado and were connected to the radio by a spiral cord. There was a button on the side which the officer would press down when speaking into it.
It was early in 1956 that we first encountered Joe Period, an absolutely peculiar looking young fellow who was, we soon learned, a ‘wheel man,’ meaning he drove fast cars for criminal gangs.
Joe was called upon by Mr. Pocketclip, an equally bizarre looking bastard, to set him up with a night club singer named Julie Marrlin. Pocketclip was a big, rotund seventy year old and the young singer was probably in her twenties but he was lovesick over her though she wouldn’t return his calls. It transpired that Pocketclip was a disbarred attorney who had defended her hoodlum husband, unsuccessfully, and the state had executed him. So for him to get to first base with this girl he hired young Joe Period to set him up with her.
Now at this time in American history a character like Joe Period, in real life, would have probably looked a bit like James Dean but Period was weirder looking than that. His hair was full of Brylcreem but instead of the Elvis style pompadour, the hair on top was oddly short so that it looked like the upper part of his head was flat. His eyes resembled two fish swimming towards each other and his mouth was like those on the women Gould drew.
It’s fair to say that Chester Gould was not one to worry too much about human anatomy. The contortions he put his characters through defied most of the natural laws. What he was pretty good at was perspective and drawing cars but everything else, like hands and legs, had an amateur look about them.
As the days and weeks passed we would discuss the daily antics of Tracy and his villains. A policewoman named Lizz joined the force about the same time as Joe Period turned up and she was one of the artist’s more attractive creations. Perhaps it’s a testament to Gould’s talent and ability that he was actually capable of drawing people who looked beautiful as well as ugly.
Tracy appeared Monday to Saturday in a strip of usually four boxes but on Sundays the funny papers were all in full colour and three times the size. Seeing them in colour in their own section was a very exciting thing for me and an added feature with the Sunday spread was the ‘Crimestopper’s Textbook’ in which Tracy would give rookie cops and others advice like: “Make your search thorough! Dismantled sawed-off shotguns have been discovered concealed on the person.”
Through a series of compelling incidents, Joe Period wound up murdering the girl singer and becoming the object of a huge manhunt. We eventually found him shivering inside a giant pickle vat in a rail yard where he was found and confronted by policewoman Lizz.
It was at this stage that we met the son of Flattop. I had no idea who Flattop Senior was but here was yet another of Gould’s ludicrous creations.
A ‘flattop’ to my young mind, was the kind of crew cut that certain men had. It required a particular type of hair which was stiff enough to stand straight up on top. Steve Roper’s sidekick Mike Nomad had a flattop and years later when I was at Tam High my algebra teacher Mr. Davlin had one. So it could be that when Chester Gould created the character in the 1940s, this style of haircut had not yet been invented and the concept of having a head with a flat top was what he meant.
The top of his head was, indeed, flat with a thin layer of dark hair which had a noticeable middle parting. It then flowered out on either side with slightly broccoli shaped curls around ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s. The face which supported this hairdo was shaped like a teacup. Two thick dark eyebrows sat just below the hairline above his hooded orbs. His nose was very similar to that of Dennis the Menace and his mouth was shaped like a two lipped lemon. The closest human equivalent was Edward G. Robinson.
Somehow Flattop Junior managed to outwit Lizz and took Joe Period off in his super duper car which not only had fuel injection but also a Hi-Fi, TV, Police radio and a hot plate for cooking bacon and eggs. They managed to outwit the law by using back roads and tuning into the police radio broadcasts but Period was undone when they broke into Nothing Yonson’s club to kill him for a double cross and made off with the contents of his safe. This, however was where Flattop double crossed Period and escaped with the money while the hapless Joe was taken into custody.
I guess Gould never felt confidant in his ability to convey all the information through his cartoons because every time Tracy talked into his 2 way wrist radio a little sign with an arrow would appear reminding you what it was. Also when Lizz was kicking Joe Period around with her martial arts down in the pickle vat another little sign with an arrow appeared reading: ‘Judo Hold.’
When Joe Period arrived at prison the first visitor was his mother who explained, for the benefit of we who didn’t know, that she had failed her son by going out to work and drinking in bars with his father rather than looking after him. So overcome with shame was Mrs. Period that she wore a veil which prevented us from seeing if her eyes also looked like two fish swimming towards each other.
Flattop was smart, unlike Joe Period, who wasn’t very bright. Young table top was something of a boy genius with a passion for painting and electronics. He’d done all the work on his car himself but was destined to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps.
The morality of Chester Gould’s world was pretty straight forward: Crime Doesn’t Pay! It was, however, the criminals which made the strip compelling, not Tracy, Sam Ketchum or any of the so called good guys.
Certain expressions used in Tracy bothered me. References to ‘the chair’ or ‘being fried’ was upsetting to me because of the way the Rosenbergs had been executed. These comical looking characters threw these phrases around all the time.
Another quality which crept into Gould’s comic strip was a kind of surrealism which manifested itself with Flattop after he ditched Joe Period. He hired a garage to stash his car and got a room where the landlady had a young daughter named Skinny who took a shine to him. He got angry at the girl, chased her up on the roof and threw her off, killing her. Jumping in his car to make a getaway, he was soon aware that the girl’s ghostly figure was clinging to him and wouldn’t let go.
Our summer vacations were usually spent camping further north at sites like Lassen and often we would go for a couple of weeks without our daily dose of Dick Tracy which meant catching up on our return to Mill Valley. The family addiction to Gould’s strip lasted through the rest of the 1950s but by the early 60s it became, for me at least, more and more ridiculous and I lost interest.
My earliest exposure to the box nosed Tracy occurred before we got to Mill Valley. The very first comic book I ever saw was on a carousel rack in a Rexall drug store in White Bear Lake, Minnesota in 1951 and it was a Dick Tracy. My mother Beth didn’t buy it for me so seeing its brightly coloured cover stayed lodged in my memory.
I found many features of the daily Chronicle enjoyable including the news. I didn’t follow real life crime stories in the paper but was drawn to politics. As most of our family chat at suppertime was political it made a nice contrast when we’d discuss the daily doings of Chester Gould’s ridiculous creation. Even Beth knew the names of Joe Period and Flattop as we all contemplated where the action would go next.
I often think of my childhood preoccupation with Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio when I use my iPhone. The many amazing things this modern device can do would have truly astonished my young self as I was wandered aimlessly home from Homestead School talking into the imaginary radio on my wrist.