Comics, Cops, and Crime: Dick Tracy’s Oklahoma Legacy
The legendary police detective Dick Tracy stems from an era where mob bosses and gangsters seemingly ruled the world. Speakeasies were the place to be, catering to the unemployed, the politician, and the rich and famous. The Roaring 20s was an age of decadence and free spirits. To curb the tide of outlaws and debauchery from encapsulating the world was a cunningly clever detective. He took on the likes of gangster boss Big Boy Caprice and his gang of mobsters without ever backing away from a good fight.
Dick Tracy first appeared on October 4, 1931 through the Chicago Tribune–New York News Syndicate. From that point, the comic strip quickly became a huge success. The following year, Dick Tracy was first printed in the Big Little Book and became one of the longest running figures. He has been the subject of novels, radio broadcasts, Saturday morning cartoons, and numerous times on the big screen. For his time, he was a “modern-day” Sherlock Holmes. Besides his cunning and determination to solve crimes, he also used fanciful technology, such as his high-tech wrist watch and miniature ring camera.
He went on to become one of the country’s most famous cartoon icons. Dick Tracy has inspired hundreds of boys and girls to step into the field of law enforcement. None of this would have been possible without Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould.
Chester Gould and the Origins of an American Icon
Born in a small log cabin on November 20, 1900, Chester Gould would go on to become the creator of one of America’s greatest icons. His parents, Gilbert R. Gould and Alice Maud, as well as all four of his grandparents were pioneer settlers of Oklahoma. Gilbert was an early newspaperman who edited and printed both the Pawnee Courier-Dispatch and later Oklahoma's Advance- Democrat in Stillwater. Gilbert always encouraged the growth of his son’s artistic abilities, often putting his artwork in his newspapers and hanging drawings in the shops windows. At eight years old, a lawyer on the Supreme Court purchased a drawing that Chester’s had done of him. This thrilled the young Chester.
Chester continued to produce more drawings and cartoons, and his father continued to publish them. His art was frequently seen around town in the form of advertising signs and other mediums.
Over the years, Gould had become quite an accomplished artist. While in his senior year of high school, the yearbook staff at Oklahoma A&M in Stillwater persuaded him to draw for them. Many of his drawings can be found in the 1918 and 1919 editions. After graduating high school, he enrolled in Oklahoma A&M in 1919. Oklahoma A&M later became Oklahoma State University. After first arriving, he continued to cartoon for the college newspaper, the Daily O’Collegian. While there, he would study marketing and commerce, both fields of study that would help propel him to foster the success of Dick Tracy.
Gould had a way with people. A story is told that during a particularly hard chemistry test the young Gould simply couldn’t figure out the answer. Instead, he sketched out a cartoon instead. Instead of being criticized for his work, Gould’s professor still gave him a passing grade.
While in Stillwater, he was greatly honored when the legendary oilman Charles Page had hired him to produce 18 editorial cartoons for the Tulsa Democrat. A bond issue was being put to a vote about Tulsa’s water source and the publisher wanted to use a talented artist to help sway public opinion. Later, he worked for a short time as a police reporter at the Oklahoman but struggled with that position. Not wanting to waste his talent, the Oklahoman decided to hire him to draw cartoons for their sports section.
After just two years in college, Gould longed for bigger and better things. With just $50 in his pocket, he left Oklahoma and headed for the windy city of Chicago.
Chicago and the Birth of Dick Tracy
After arriving in Chicago in 1921, Chester Gould began attending Northwestern University. While still in college, Gould took on small jobs to help pay his way.
His first regular gig finally came in 1924, close to a year after Gould graduated Northwestern. That year, he was hired by the Hearst Corporation to draw “Fillum Fables”. “Fillum Fables” was a comic strip that spoofed the silent movies that were popular at the time. He also drew for “Radio Catts”, which was a cartoon strip about human-like animals that were obsessed with the radio, which had become popular in American homes just a few years before.
Both strips, along with his side projects, were not what Gould had in mind when coming to Chicago. He wanted something unique. While working on those strips, he sent many different comic strip ideas to Joseph Medill Patterson, one of the co-editors of The Chicago Tribune as well as the founder of The Daily News in New York. Every submission was returned with a rejection letter. Gould wouldn’t give up though. In 1929, he quit his job and briefly moved to New York. While there, he personally submitted five more comic strips to Patterson. Again, they were met with rejection.
Finally, in 1931, Gould decided to return to Chicago and took a job as a staff artist with The Chicago Daily.
All during this time, Gould would read stories the mobster stories in the newspapers. The Tommy Gun, famously used by many of Chicago’s most notorious criminals, was invented just a few years before Gould arrived. Infamous mobsters such as Al Capone made headlines. It was the age of prohibition, an age where crime ran rampant through the streets of Chicago. Even at the start of the 1930s, both radio and the movies glamorized this type of lifestyle.
A 1937 Tulsa Tribune story stated that “Gangster movies glamorized the misfits of the underworld. Respect for law was at a low ebb. The gangster had been transformed from the status of an alley rat with a blackjack to a boulevardier with a boutonniere and limousine.”
For nearly 10 years, Gould had witnessed much of this in his new home town of Chicago. As an upstanding member of the community, he despised the violence that ran rampant throughout this time. In 1931, he proposed a new type of comic strip that he had been playing with for years before.
Plain-Clothes Tracy was born. The strip concept was sent to the Chicago Tribune, but the reception still wasn’t quite as Gould had expected. In a return letter, the editor stated that “Your ‘Plain Clothes Tracy’ has possibilities.” Gould jumped at the opportunity. After meeting with the editor, the name of the strip was changed to Dick Tracy and several other components were worked out.
Dick Tracy made his debut on October 14, 1931.
The comic was the first of its kind. Not only did it employ the latest in police procedure, but it also predicted future technologies. As most comic strips of the day were meant to be humorous, Dick Tracy often dealt with serious matters. This was the first strip that portrayed graphic violence. It was never over the top, but enough to provide the reader with a framework of the duty and sacrifice of the lawmen and the violent urges of the mobsters. Gould even broke traditional taboos with the first homicide in a comic strip. He abhorred crime and considered the police officers and lawmen of the day to be some of the country’s greatest heroes. D. Joe Ferguson, publisher of the Pawnee Chief newspaper stated that Gould "…was a moralist. Everything he did in his cartoon was for the good of people."
From that day in 1931, the legend of Dick Tracy grew. Gould had stumbled upon the magic formula that he had been searching for all of those years. He continued to write until he retired in 1977. Even afterwards, he continued to consult on the many Dick Tracy projects up until close to his death on May 10, 1985. In 1977, Max Allen Collins and Rick Fletcher took over, followed by longtime Gould assistant Dick Locher.
Dick Tracy is the sixth oldest comic strip in America today, and it all exists because of a man from Pawnee.
“I have always been disgusted when I read or learn of gangsters and criminals escaping their just dues under the law,” Gould once said. “For that reason, I invented Dick Tracy; a detective who could either shoot down these public enemy’s or put them in jail where they belong.”
Oklahoma Roots and Inspirations
Gould’s life in Pawnee and Stillwater helped shape the legendary Dick Tracy comic franchise.
Even after leaving Stillwater, he still had a fondness for his college days there. He often donated prints to both the college and his fraternity, the Lambada Chi, including one of the original prints of Dick Tracy when it was in the Chicago Tribune. A number of businesses from both Pawnee and Stillwater would hire him to create their logos.
Dick Tracy’s first story was set in Pawnee. The delicatessen in the story is based on the old Fischer Bakery. Several characters in the Dick Tracy comic strip were also based off of real life people from the town.
Chief Yellow Pony assisted Dick Tracy against Boris Arson, Zora Arson, and Cutie Diamond. He was one of Gould’s Pawnee schoolmates named Moses Yellow Horse. Moses was a full-blooded Indian who went on to play Major League baseball.
Bob Oscar (B.O.) Plenty, a well known character in the Dick Tracy franchise was another that Gould knew from his Pawnee days. Known locally as “Billy Whiskers”, this peculiar Pawnee individual formed the basis for B.O. Plenty.
An article in Tulsa World stated that Lou Weirman was the basis for Pruneface. Pruneface was a Nazi saboteur working within the U.S. during World War II.
Other classmates included in the comic strip include “Harold Marx Beer,” “Les Lehew Fine Cigars”, and “Flo Badger Photos”.
Brilliant, who invented the two-way radio watch, was patterned after Otis Porter, who once built a radio out of old model T parts.
Flattop Jones, Sr. is perhaps one of Dick Tracy’s most memorable characters. While never confirmed, it can be assumed that this character was modeled off of Oklahoma’s Pretty Boy Floyd. The similarities and numerous which include both coming from the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma. Cutie Diamond was another earlier character that is said to have been modeled after Pretty Boy Floyd.
Pawnee Honors Dick Tracy and Chester Gould
The World’s Largest Dick Tracy Mural can be found in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Five years after Chester Gould passed, Tulsa artist Ed Melberg honored him with a massive mural painted in Gould’s style. That same year, in 1990, Warren Beatty’s movie Dick Tracy was released.
The mural can be found at 503 Harrison Street in Pawnee, Oklahoma.
In addition to the giant mural, the Pawnee County Historical Museum and Dick Tracy Headquarters celebrates his birthday on the first Saturday of October. A large parade is run through town on that day, starting at noon. More activities can be found on the courthouse square as well as inside the museum.
Oklahoma Historical Society