Created "Dick Tracy"
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Date Posted: Friday, May 11, 04:23:03pm
Chester Gould, who created Dick Tracy, the durable comic-strip detective who began fighting outlandishly colorful criminals in 1931, died of congestive heart failure yesterday at his home in Woodstock, Ill. He was 84 years old and had been in ill health after having suffered a heart attack recently.
In creating Dick Tracy, Mr. Gould shattered the American comic-strip tradition.
He invented a hero who was not intended to be humorous. Tracy dealt grimly with murderers and racketeers - he was not the standard ''funny papers'' hero who was obsessed with the pleasures of eating spinach or hamburgers. In short, Mr. Gould's ''Dick Tracy'' was the first uncomic comic strip.
Thousands of devotees of the square-jawed Tracy did, of course, find humor, most of it perhaps unintentional, in the strip. But the strip also drew protests from some that Mr. Gould's depiction of crime was too gruesome, that he poured on too much gore and carnage, and that his villains, such as Flyface, Pruneface and the Mole, were not only exaggerated in concept, but also loathsome to look at.
That the strip was one of the most popular ever to appear in newspapers is indisputable. In the late 1940's, the dapper Dick Tracy was found to be the second-best-known American - just behind Bing Crosby and ahead of President Truman - in a poll of teen-agers.
At one point, in the late 1950's, the Tracy strip was carried in nearly 1,000 newspapers worldwide, and was said to have been read by an estimated 65 million people a day.
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Al Capp, a fellow cartoonist who created the popular ''Li'l Abner'' comic strip, paid Mr. Gould a high compliment by regularly inserting into ''Li'l Abner'' a takeoff of Dick Tracy called ''Fearless Fosdick.'' It was a comic strip-within-the-strip that featured a granite-jawed detective with a manic fondness for perforating both criminal suspects and innocent bystanders with multiple bullet holes.
Mr. Gould continued to draw and write ''Dick Tracy'' until his retirement in 1977, when the strip was 46 years old. It has lived on as the work of two other artists, and in 1983 Paramount Pictures announced it would produce a movie based on the exploits of the dauntless detective in the black suit and the snap-brim fedora.
Of the Tracy strip's impact on his readers, Mr. Gould once commented, ''I just want them to say, 'I wonder what that damned fool Gould did today.' ''
Specialist in Mayhem
Some of the things he did were quite attention-getting, particularly when he decided to kill off one of his villains. The demise of the fiendish hag Mrs. Pruneface was comparatively mild -she drowned in a swimming pool in 1943. Flattop, whose head was modeled after a World War II aircraft carrier, also drowned, wedged in underwater pilings.
But to do in a particularly repulsive criminal called the Brow, Mr. Gould contrived to have him impaled on a flagpole. And the villainous Doc Hump was killed by a mad dog.
Then there was the Midget, whose wife carried him around in a satchel. He was scalded to death in a Turkish bath. And the nefarious B. B. Eyes met a most timely demise by being smothered under the cargo of a garbage scow.
Such violence brought complaints from readers and from the editors of some newspapers that carried the strip. They said Mr. Gould depicted violence too often, allowed his hero to shoot first and ask questions later in his pursuit of law and order, and splashed blood a bit too indiscriminately. To such criticism, the cartoonist replied:
''So long as the violence doesn't go too far, and I have never let it do that, it's valid. Blood in itself is not repulsive. Police work is the most bloody and miserable on earth. Any policeman on night duty sees far more blood than I ever put in my strip. Of course, brutality for its own sake is taboo.''
Chester Gould was born Nov. 20, 1900, in Pawnee, Okla., and was reared in Stillwater, Okla., where his father was the editor of a weekly newspaper.
At age 15 he took a $20 correspondence course in drawing, and while a student at Oklahoma A. & M. University contributed cartoons to The Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. In 1921 he transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., having decided, he said, that ''I wanted to get rich, and the way to do that was to draw cartoons that The Chicago Tribune would syndicate.''
While finishing college, Mr. Gould had a series of small jobs drawing for newspapers and commercial art studios. In 1924 he was hired by the Hearst Corporation to draw ''Fillum Fables,'' a syndicated comic strip for King Features, a division of Hearst, that burlesqued the movies. That strip, along with another he created later called ''Radio Cats,'' were ''strictly stinkeroo,'' Mr. Gould said.
All the while, he kept trying to get the attention of Joseph Medill Patterson, a co-editor of The Chicago Tribune and founder of The Daily News in New York. Mr. Gould bombarded his office with ideas for comic strips.
In 1929 Mr. Gould went so far as to quit his job and follow Mr. Patterson to New York, where the artist submitted five comic strips to him. All were turned down, and Mr. Gould returned to Chicago and a job with The Chicago Daily News as a staff artist.
'Serious' Dick Tracy
The genesis for the Tracy strip lay in Mr. Gould's preoccupation with, and hatred of, gangsters such as Al Capone. ''Why doesn't someone just meet the louse and shoot him?'' Mr. Gould said. He decided that other Americans shared his loathing for the underworld and would appreciate a comic strip devoted to fighting crime.
In the past, detective comic strips had featured wacky, boobish heroes like Hawkshaw the Detective and Hairbreadth Harry, who blundered into cases and wound up being lashed to railroad tracks by mustachioed villains.
Mr. Gould decided to create a ''serious, lifelike cop who used the latest police methods to solve his cases.'' He also decided that although violence and bloodshed were not the ordinary ingredients of comic strips at the time, he would make his strip realistic by injecting those elements into it.
The Chicago Daily News rejected the idea for ''Plainclothes Tracy,'' as Mr. Gould then called the strip, so he submitted samples of it to Mr. Patterson, who bought the idea. ''But he didn't like the Plainclothes Tracy name,'' Mr. Gould said, ''and he told me: 'People call detectives dicks. Dick Tracy -that sounds all right.' ''
Romance and Technology
Mr. Patterson, much admired by cartoonists of the day because of his apparently keen instinct for what the funnies-reading public would like, also dictated to Mr. Gould the story line that would get Dick Tracy onto the police force:
The hero is an ordinary young man, in love with Tess Trueheart, daughter of a grocer. In the first murder in comic-strip history, Mr. Trueheart is killed by thieves, and Tracy, vowing vengeance, goes to the police to offer his help in capturing the criminals. In the course of bringing them to justice, he is hired as a detective.
The Tracy strip made its debut on Oct. 4, 1931, in the now-defunct Detroit Daily Mirror, a Tribune paper, and a week later in The Daily News in New York, which still carries it. It is syndicated by the Tribune Company Syndicate.
In the first episodes, Tracy and Tess embarked on what became one of the world's longest engagements, for it was not until 18 years later that Mr. Gould decided to marry them off. They had a son called Junior.
In order to keep abreast of police methodology, Mr. Gould took courses in ballistics, fingerprinting, forensics and investigative procedures. He was proud of the fact that he had introduced in the Tracy strip, in 1946, the two-way wrist radio his hero wore, and, in 1947, the closed-circuit television lineup, both of which now actually exist, albeit in forms somewhat different from Mr. Gould's creations.
Most of Mr. Gould's villains had a life of about three months in the comic strip because, he said, ''I figure that if I get tired of them, the reader is tired of them, too.''
Mr. Gould made all his villains -such as the maniac piano player 88 Keys, the hideously wrinkled Pruneface, the insect-surrounded Flyface and the vermin-visaged Mole - look so repulsive because, he said, ''that way, the reader knew at first glance that they were the bad guys.''
He also created some lovable villains, such as the seedy, bewhiskered and odoriferous farmer, B. O. Plenty, and the banjo-playing Gravel Gertie. Those two proved so popular with readers that Mr. Gould turned them into model citizens, had them marry and gave them a beautiful daughter, Sparkle Plenty, who was born with shoulder-length golden hair, no doubt a miracle that could be achieved only in the funny papers.
The Tracy strip generated millions of dollars in merchandising tie-ins. There were Tess Trueheart and Sparkle Plenty dolls, toy Dick Tracy two-way wrist radios, Tracy belts and clothes and snap-brim hats, and even Gravel Gertie banjos.
Work Was Exhibited
Mr. Gould maintained that he was ''no great shakes at cartooning'' and said he had made his drawings of Tracy and his enemies as simple as possible. (He used labeled arrows to point out items such as ''two-way wrist radio'' and ''poison pills.'') The artist did, however, take pride in his plotting and dialogue, even though much of it necessarily ran along the lines of ''Drop that gun!'' and ''Take that, you dirty crook!''
In 1982, five years after Mr. Gould's retirement, an exhibition called ''Dick Tracy by Chester Gould'' opened at the Graham Gallery in New York. John Russell, art critic of The New York Times, wrote:
''Looking at the originals of the Dick Tracy cartoons, we realize that this was the 'Dallas' of its day - the long-running serial with which people loved to identify. Dick Tracy added excitement and continuity and a weird coherence to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
''And Chester Gould gave value for money. Rare is the novelist who could not learn something from the concision, the pace and the unfailing momentum of his dialogue. As for the image, we soon see that the emphasis - which was heavy - fell just where its weight was needed. He was a workman of a very high order in a craft that is much harder than it looks. The images survive surprisingly well as exhibition material, and as tokens of a time when issues were clear-cut, when law was law, order was order and the best man won out in the end.''
Mr. Gould, who had lived in Woodstock since 1936, is survived by his wife, the former Edna Gauger, whom he married in 1926; a sister, Helen Gould Upshaw, of Plano, Tex.; a daughter, Jean Gould O'Connell, of Geneva, Ill., and two grandchildren.
Funeral services are to be held Tuesday in Woodstock. Arrangements were incomplete yesterday.
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