Saturday, April 23, 2016
MYTHCOMICS: [JUNIOR TRACY FINDS A DAD], DICK TRACY STRIP (1932-33)
When I listed the entirety of the DICK TRACY comic strip in my ARCHETYPAL LIBRARY, I asserted that "this list will mix together whole runs of continuing titles with particular stories or sequences that best exemplify the nature of the mythopoeic." From that brief sentence, some readers could have taken the broad implication that I deemed everything in the "whole runs of continuing titles" to be exemplary in terms of utilizing the mythopoeic potentiality-- as opposed to the specific stories or sequences from other serials that didn't measure up. In truth, whenever I cited whole runs, I just meant that they had a statistically better chance to trade in mythopoeic symbols, often because of a creators' unique outlook, as with Marston on WONDER WOMAN, Morrison on DOOM PATROL, or Chester Gould on DICK TRACY.
I must admit, though, that even though the TRACY strip displays great potential thanks to Gould's harsh, black-and-white morality and his genius for devising weird villains, I've found it hard to isolate particular sequences that I consider symbolically complex. In a lot of these sequences Gould relies heavily on standard melodramatic tropes-- Tracy goes on a manhunt for 88 Keys, B-B Eyes sets a trap for Tracy. Kinetically stimulating, yes. Mythic, no.
Ironically, from my re-reading it seems to me now that Gould's greatest mythopoeic work-- and a major contender for my idea of the "graphic romance"-- takes place after the strip had only been running for about two years. This was long before Gould began evolving his famous rogues' gallery of villains, which Jay Maeder perceptively called "the Grotesques" in his superlative DICK TRACY: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY. In the first years, Gould patterned his cop's adventures closely after real-life crime-stories like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. In addition, Gould had to answer to the editorializing input of his publisher, "Chicago Tribune" bigwig Joseph Patterson. According to Maeder, Patterson saddled Gould with an "origin" in which Tracy only vowed to devote his life to crime-fighting after he witnessed some hoods heartlessly gun down an old man, who also happened to be the father of Tracy's fiancee. The old man was scarcely if ever referenced again, but the girlfriend stuck around, though there would be suggestions in the involved story to come that Gould didn't have much use for her. Not only did she sport the name "Tess Trueheart"-- a name so blatantly melodramatic that Charles Dickens would have scorned to use it-- but Gould began dropping hints that her name didn't particularly fit her character.
In the title to this blogpost I've made up a name-- "Junior Tracy Finds a Dad"-- for the set of interrelated arcs I'm analyzing here. I based this title roughly on that of the 1939 film TARZAN FINDS A SON, largely because this set of arcs focuses on the same problem as the film: how to give a popular adult male character a male offspring without actually getting into the messy matter of conception. My faux-title is partly necessary because the four arcs of the story aren't continuous: when necessary, Gould put one storyline aside to concentrate on something else.
ARC ONE: Gould almost certainly channels Dickens' OLIVER TWIST when he begins the "Junior Tracy" continuity. In the Dickens novel, orphan Oliver suffers great deprivations until he falls in with a juvenile gang of pickpockets, but he accidentally encounters a future benefactor when Oliver is implicated in the activities of his cronies. Gould begins by having "the Kid"-- the only name given to the nine-year-old urchin who will become Junior Tracy-- lift a watch from Dick's comical colleague Pat Patton. Before Tracy ever meets the Kid, the reader sees that the boy has been forced into his criminal endeavors by an adult hobo-- an individual who is clearly not the Kid's father, even though he's the only person the Kid has ever known since infanthood. The hobo's last name is almost never cited; he's almost always called "Steve the Tramp." While he's not exactly a Grotesque, Steve does incarnate a sociological myth. Since the Tramp appears at the height of the Depression, when many out-of-work men wandered throughout the States looking for work, Gould may have used Steve to play upon square citizens' fears of these homeless wanderers. Gould portrays Steve as a shiftless, heartless lowlife who uses the Kid as a pawn and barely feeds the boy for his efforts. Tracy eventually comes across Steve trying to kill his charge, trounces the hobo and jails him, after which the detective takes the boy under his wing. The Kid immediately admires the "Good Tough Father" who has defeated his "Bad Tough Father" and declares that he wants to take the name "Dick Tracy Junior."
In the very next strip after the newly-dubbed Junior says this, he meets Tess Trueheart-- and though she's personable enough, it's clear that he definitely does not want a new mother to go with his new father. ("Chee, I hate dames.") He also rejects the old "father," for when Steve gets out of jail, the Tramp makes a couple of attempts to liberate Junior from Tracy's informal custody. These efforts fail and Steve leaves town for a "vacation"-- the better to give Gould time to decide whether he would use the Tramp again, one may hazard.
(I note in passing that though later strips establish that at some point Tracy adopts Junior, the two males are not generally depicted as a father-and-son family; rather, they are a young boy's idea of a "crimefighting family," where all the youngster has to do is help his mentor catch crooks-- much like the Batman and Robin relationship that evolved eight years later.)
ARC TWO: This arc, beginning on Jan 2, 1933, begins after two other intervening arcs concerning Tracy's pursuit of other crooks. Neither arc involves the subject of Junior's paternity, though the youngster manages to further prove his loyalty to his new mentor.
This arc introduces Stooge Viller, whom was among the TRACY villains to be adapted on the 1961 animated cartoon. Viller, a dead ringer for Edward G. Robinson during the height of the actor's gangster-roles, was the epitome of the Smooth Operator, and thus the antithesis of the brutish Steve the Tramp. Viller had one interesting resemblance to Junior, in that the adult crook was a practiced pickpocket. Paid to ruin Tracy's career, Stooge plants counterfeit money in Tracy's home and on the detective's person. From a modern point of view this sounds like a child's idea of a criminal frame-up, but it works, and the department fires Tracy. Even more devastating than this, Tess-- to whom Tracy has just become engaged-- shows herself a "false heart," refusing to believe the cop's protests of innocence. Gould spends no time showing things from her viewpoint: she merely refuses to believe him because she, like the male police, can't even imagine such an extensive frame-job.
She finds out differently thanks to the instigator himself. During Viller's surveillance of Tracy, the gangster has seen her and taken a shine to her. Viller manages to approach Tess and even make a date with her. She finds out his true nature through that favorite melodramatic device, the Letter That Tells All. Viller shoots her, albeit nonfatally. Tess does manage to get the word out, but it's Junior who helps Tracy pinpoint Viller as a suspect, because the sharp-eyed boy sees the crook at a train-station and belatedly remembers seeing the pickpocket hanging around the detective. Viller is jailed, while Tracy is exonerated and returned to his former status. Tracy more or less forgives the recovering Tess' transgressions, though a line of dialogue suggests that he's affronted at her fling with a black-hearted villain.
There are no more interruptions at this point: Gould was clearly warming to his theme of Junior's paternity, Having forged a bond of loyalty between faux-father and faux-son, what better drama, than to break that bond?
ARC 3 brings back Steve the Tramp, who's somehow wandered from the vaguely Chicago-like city of Dick Tracy to the mountains of Colorado. Happening across a lonely cabin, the hungry hobo gets a job with a blind old miner named Hank Steele. Hank tells the tramp his story: once married to a woman much younger than himself, Hank sired an infant son by her. The wife, weary of the demanding life of a miner's camp, deserted Hank when she met a "city feller," and she took her son with her. Hank mentions that he spent a lot of money trying to locate his lost son, who would be nine years old now. Not surprisingly, Steve thinks of nine-year-old Junior to be his pawn in a scam.
Though Steve flubbed his early attempts at kidnapping, he's fantastically successful this time. Not only does Steve grab Junior almost as soon as he returns to "Tracy-city," the virulent vagrant manages to take Junior all the way back to Colorado. However, Tracy, a demon clue-finder, manages to reach Hank's house first, and he warns the old blind man of the deception. However, Tracy allows Steve to attempt his hoax, so that the detective can witness the crime and add yet another charge against the horrid hobo.
This doesn't turn out so well. Because Tracy doesn't simply arrest Steve right away, the Tramp escapes (though only temporarily) and an old mammy-style maid dies-- more on which in a separate essay, if I get the time. But Gould has a Melodrama 101 reason for allowing the hoax to play out, for it serves to reveal that Junior really is Hank Steele's lost son. Much later, Gould will assert that Steve the Tramp was the "city feller" who stole away Hank's wife, and then left her behind while keeping her young son to be his accomplice. There's no evidence Gould had this improbable scenario in mind during ARC 3, but it has an admirable symbolic symmetry: "Bad Tough Father" steals the Kid from "Good Weak Father," only to bring the youngster by accident into contact with the "Good Tough Father," who will be the worthiest parent possible. However, once Junior's paternity is proven, duty requires that he stay with his natural father, and be tearfully separated from the dad of his heart.
Not for long, though. ARC 4 commences with one of the first "villain team-ups" of pop culture, when Steve gets jugged in the same prison as Stooge Viller. United by a hatred of Tracy, the brainy crook and the brawny thug break out of prison. Hoping to get an advantage over their foe, they decide to kidnap Junior and use him to bait a trap for the policeman. However, Tracy anticipates their strategy. He travels back to Colorado, where he's ecstatically greeted by Junior. Tracy forces the old man to leave his home to preserve his safety and that of Junior, so that when the two felons arrive, they only find a deserted cabin. After further encounters with straight citizens, the crooks travel back to Tracy-city, where Viller and Steve take shelter with his equally crooked sister Maxine.
At this point Gould must've decided that Steve was no longer useful, for the Tramp is sent on a minor errand by Maxine, and promptly gets caught by Tracy. Viller drops his plans for revenge after another encounter with the super-cop. He and his sis flee to Halifax, hoping to leave the continent for a while.
The web of coincidence stretches particularly widely, for though Tracy has sent Blind Hank Steele and his son on an ocean-voyage to keep them safe. Hank decides to abort the voyage and take a new ship back to the States, because Junior is so mopey without his ideal father. The new ship founders in a storm, but Hank and Junior are among those rescued in a lifeboat that ends up in-- Halifax.
Without knowing it, Viller accidentally commits an act that serves Junior's heartfelt needs-- though to Gould, it was just another fateful coincidence. Viller spots Junior and wants to use him to get at Tracy, so he waylays the boy, his father and their protector, the invariably bungling Pat Patton. Hank tries to protect the boy and gets shot dead-- an act of such transgression that even Viller is shocked at having done it, so that he and his sister flee without Junior.
Another arc then commences, involving Tracy's long manhunt for Viller. Inevitably the Smooth Operator is jailed again, resulting in a less than tearful reunion of the Stooge and the Tramp. But the story of Junior Tracy being liberated from two unsatisfactory fathers, and being reunited with his true role-model, ends here. Tracy and Junior solemnly attend the old man's funeral, and after that, Tracy's role as paterfamilias is unchallenged, even when later sequences introduce Junior's lost mother.
Six years later Gould belatedly terminated the crime careers of both of these seminal villains.
Arguably Steve the Tramp gets the worst fate, for when he gets out of prison, he's become a utterly reformed man, and he fades from the strip as a pious reminder of the futility of crime.
Viller, in contrast, remains dedicated to killing Tracy when he gets out of stir. However, he suddenly remembers that he has a grade-school daughter, and he makes a futile attempt to win her heart, though she despises him for his criminality. The man who made possible the reunion of Junior and Tracy gets one last chance at killing his foe, but he's accidentally shot to death by his daughter-- though it's Viller's own fault, for trying to kick her gun from her hand. He dies somewhat nobly, asking Tracy to keep his death secret, so that his daughter won't know that she partly caused his death.
Gould had many "long melodrama" sequences ahead of him, consisting of dozens of traps, manhunts, and mayhem. But though I've yet to read everything in the series, I suspect that this first great sequence is his greatest "graphic romance," if only for its perverse psychological acuity.