Dick Tracy as Ulysses

When Dick Tracy’s first story was published on October 4, 1931, narrating the adventures of a plainclothes policeman intent on vanquishing gangs of heinous criminals could have been defined as an effort closer to neorealism than to the thriller or detective genres. The memory of the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” ordered by the newly imprisoned “Al” Capone and many of his other ‘colleagues’ jostled to leave their blood imprint in the history of Chicago, or rather the city of cartoonist Chester Gould, was still fresh.

A crime-fighting comic was not Dick Tracy’s creator’s first choice, however. Nor the second. And not even the twentieth or forty-third, to be honest. This author’s career began with a number of doors in his face and projects rejected by a withering depression. As many as sixty were actually the comics sent by Gould to the various Chicago newspapers and which received the same number of refusals, until the Chicago Tribune Syndicate welcomed him into his ranks. In the US i syndicate in fact, they are companies that manage the distribution rights of comic strips in periodicals and it is therefore thanks to their intermediation that Chester Gould’s sixty-first attempt was finally able to get his editorial adventure off the ground on the “Mirror” in nearby Detroit.

Looking at the published cartoons, it is possible to understand why the previous comics had not hitherto met the favor of the editor. Gould’s mark was highly unusual and unlikely to have applied to a suitable story before. Massively built, with an aquiline nose, hooded eyes, and massive jaw, even his Dick Tracy looked like a parody of a tough guy rather than a brilliant detective. The black of the ink was then very thick and Gould preferred to outline the characters according to basic geometries that the theories of the Fine Arts prescribed as opposed to blurring with a soft stroke. This graphic frankness, termed “grotesque” in style, instead turned into Dick Tracy’s fortune, becoming his greatest strength as well as that of his enemies. The various criminals Testapiatta, Wrinkle, Mole, Tremor and Prugna also correspond to very clear profiles and their appearance, always repellent, fully reflects their name. For this reason, many commentators compare Gould’s graphic style to the theories of the Piedmontese Cesare Lombroso, who assumed the right to establish the criminal nature of individuals by measuring the distance between the temples and on the basis of other phrenological observations.

Nonetheless, it would be more appropriate to compare Gould to Homer: such as Ulysses was a prominent example of kalokagathia (beauty that goes with good) so Dick Tracy is the stereotype of the tough American with a heart of gold who finds himself engaged in fighting an eternal battle against all the Cyclopes of the world. Despite the distance of thousands of years, it is clear that the two authors shared a very similar vision of the world, thus finding identical popularity among their audiences.

By Camillo Bosco

Dick Tracy as Ulysses – The Reason