Dick Tracy: The Comic Strip That Was Too Violent For Children

By | July 10, 2022

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Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. (amazon.com)

The comic strip Dick Tracy, which follows the adventures of the title detective as he works to put an end to organized crime, debuted in 1931 when newspaper reports of criminals like Al Capone and John Dillinger were commonplace. Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy wanted to depict the efforts of police officers, detectives, and federal agents to clean up criminal activity and put the bad guys in jail. However, many people were critical of Dick Tracy when it first came out because, unlike the cheerful and upbeat comic strips of the day, this one was darker and more realistic. Despite this, fans of Dick Tracy have been following the tough-as-nails, square-jawed detective for decades now. 

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Chester Gould with his most famous cartoon character. (okhistory.org)

Creating a Comic

Chester Gould took one of those correspondence courses you read about in the back of magazines and learned how to draw comics. It helped, of course, that he was a naturally gifted artist. But he learned enough about the ins and out of comic strips to be hired as a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in 1931. While employed there, Gould read more and more about the criminal underworld and the role of detectives. He formulated his basic idea for a comic strip that centered on a handsome, Elliot Ness-like detective and his efforts to thwart gangsters, robbers, murderers, and the like.

Gould sent a draft of his comic strip, which he called Plainclothes Tracy, to Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph M. Patterson. Patterson suggested dropping the “Plainclothes” and replacing it with “Dick”. He also suggested that Gould write a backstory for his title character. Gould took both suggestions. The comic strip was renamed Dick Tracy and Gould explained to readers that Tracy joined the police force after the vicious murder of his girlfriend’s father. The revised and polished comic strip was sent out for syndication and made its print debut in the Detroit Mirror on October 4, 1931. It was picked up by other publishers and ran in newspapers around the country.

A Non-Traditional Comic Strip

Most of the popular comic strips of the 1920s and 1930s were much more upbeat and humorous, whereas Dick Tracy could best be described as a drama. This marked the first time that a serious drama comic ran on the funny pages. The comic strip started with a bang … literally. To set up the motivation for Tracy’s unrelenting crime fighting, Gould’s comic strip depicted the very first comic strip murder. In the scene, Jeremiah Trueheart, the father of Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart, is gunned down in his own restaurant by crooks in a botched robbery. The death shocked readers, many of whom complained that Dick Tracy was too violent and gruesome for the average reader. Despite these complaints, the comic was an almost instant hit, especially among adult comic strip readers.