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Chester Gould

Changing Cartoons

Jessica Hurt
Geneva High School, Geneva

Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy and winner of two Reuben Awards for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year," inductee into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, and guest on the Ed Sullivan Show, merely regarded himself as "a glorified newspaper boy, hired to sell newspapers," according to his daughter Jean Gould O'Connell. Chester Gould's success with Dick Tracy was largely based on realism and the theme of good versus evil. Chester Gould transformed the Sunday "funny papers" into a realistic depiction of modern mobster life, complete with colorful characters and plot lines.

Chester Gould was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma, on November 20, 1900. He made his way from Pawnee to Chicago, Illinois, in 1921. It took Gould ten years to be hired as a cartoonist with the Chicago Tribune. Chester Gould drew Dick Tracy for forty-six years. In 1935 Gould and his family purchased a farmhouse in Woodstock, Illinois, where he lived until his death in 1985.

Chester Gould's characters in Dick Tracy mirrored those of the Chicago mobster scene. Gould realized that a new type of hero was needed, a modern Sherlock Holmes. From this surfaced Dick Tracy, a logical and model detective. Chester Gould changed the standards for comic strip heroes. "No cartoon had ever shown a detective character fighting it out face to face with crooks via the hot lead route," wrote Gould. This was real life, and the public wanted to read about good conquering evil. The characters in Dick Tracy were unmistakably evil, with names like Pruneface, Flattop, The Brow, and Breathless Mahoney. Their names were strikingly similar to criminals like Al "Scareface" Capone, "Baby Face" Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde. The crimes that the characters committed were also similar to those of the big time crooks. To break the monotony of violence, Gould used relief characters. These new characters would interest readers and bring them back to the newsstands day after day. Two of the most famous relief characters were Gravel Gertie and B. O. Plenty, a married couple. Anticipation built about the birth of the homely couple's child for weeks. To the surprise of the other characters, a beautiful baby girl was born. Readers loved the new baby Sparkle, and so did Life magazine and the Ideal Toy Company. Ideal Toy Company produced Sparkle dolls only weeks after her "birth." Chester Gould was able to keep readers interested in his comic strip not only by his characters but also the plot lines of Dick Tracy.

Chester Gould made sure that his readers would not be able to guess the outcome before he guessed it himself. He accomplished this by not knowing himself until he sat down at his drawing board. This

ILLINOIS HISTORY/APRIL 1997 43


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The news room at the Chicago Tribune was probably a familiar place to Gould, who worked for the paper for forty-six years.

technique enabled his comics to have twists and turns along with complex plots. Some of Gould's plot lines were incredibly similar to news of the time. In the case of the Lindbergh kidnapping in March 1932, Gould presented a parallel story two days after a ransom pickup in the Lindbergh case was staged. Comparisons can be made between the comic and real life. The sons of John H. Waldof, standing for Charles Lindbergh, were kidnapped. Differences between the two were considerable. In the comic the kidnapping was clearly a gang job and in real life Al Capone denied any mob involvement. The outcomes were different. The Waldof baby was safely returned to his mother; the Lindbergh baby was found murdered. It was plot lines like this that made Dick Tracy a success. Tracy would arrive at the scene of a gruesome crime and at the beginning of next week's panel he would catch the crook.

What also made Dick Tracy appealing to readers was its authentic look at police affairs. Chester Gould hired retired police officer and artist Al Valandis to make sure every detail was correct. Gould viewed authenticity as a necessary element in Dick Tracy. From the beginning, Gould had always supported the law enforcement community. Gould and Valandis began placing Crimestopper tips in the Sunday editions of Dick Tracy. These tips gave extra information about the crooks and also how to stop them. Gould himself had extensive knowledge about police procedures and conduct. He wanted to keep Tracy ahead of the rest in technology. Dick Tracy tapped phones, used an x-ray machine, and wore a two-way radio, which were all very ahead of his time. All of this added to the persona of Dick Tracy as a straight-shooting, fearless, and utterly dedicated detective.

The elements in Dick Tracy, such as the characters, its authenticity, and the plot lines made it a success. People wanted a real crime fighter and someone who stood for everything that was good, and who helped good triumph over evil. That is what Dick Tracy delivered to the Chicago Tribune in 1931. If people wanted to read about mobsters who had the upper hand, they could turn to the front page of the Tribune. Chester Gould created Dick Tracy's character with the belief that crime does not pay, and that is what a city like Chicago, still recovering from the Great Depression, needed. That is what Captain J. M. Patterson of the Chicago Tribune, as well as its readers, saw in Dick Tracy.

Even Gould himself could never have imagined what a success Dick Tracy would become. Although Chester Gould is deceased, his memory lives on through his work. The comic strip, Dick Tracy, can still be found today among the pages of the Chicago Tribune and in papers across the United States. The Crimestoppers organization is still actively functioning today. The dedication and creativity of Chester Gould not only as a cartoonist and artist, but also as a master storyteller is evident in every panel of Dick Tracy.-[From Arthur A. Berger, The Comic-Stripped American; Jay Maeder, Dick Tracy: The Official Biography; student historian's interview with Jean Gould O'Connell, November 20, 1996; James Van Hise, Calling Tracy!]

44 ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1997


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