These IDW Dick Tracy collections are very similar in format to Fantagraphics’ Complete Peanuts books, only bigger. I’m not sure that these books contain any more comic strips, as they only reprint two dailies (or one Sunday strip) to a page, while the Peanuts books reprint three dailies (or one Sunday strip) to a page, but they are certainly thicker, the dimensions are larger, and it took me a lot longer to read this book than it would take me to read a Complete Peanuts book, mainly because Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy strips are more wordy and detailed.
Dick Tracy, according to Max Allan Collins’ introduction to this volume, was the first police procedural drama, pre-dating television dramas like CSI, etc., by many decades and published at a time when pulp fiction authors were more interested in private eyes and crooks. Dick Tracy was a tough cop, but he solved crimes using his smarts, employing forensics techniques, dusting for fingerprints, running ballistics tests, and so on. In the 1930s, then, this was ground-breaking stuff, but unfortunately it all seems a bit dull by today’s standards, and even Collins admits that these early strips are not the best of Dick Tracy. Gould’s cartooning is superb, but the surprisingly violent stories – in one strip, Tracy is tortured by gangsters who burn his feet with a blowtorch – are only mildly interesting, and the gallery of grotesque villains usually associated with Dick Tracy – Pruneface, Mumbles, etc. – are entirely absent from this volume. Here, Tracy tackles a variety of cardboard cut-out gangsters, while the recurring foe that gives him the most trouble is a child-snatching vagrant called ‘Steve the Tramp’. Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart, is portrayed as a fickle idiot, and there are some outrageous depictions of black people, but such depictions were commonplace at the time – I doubt that Gould was being deliberately sexist or racist – and it is just about possible to laugh at them now, although images of black people looking like a black-faced, white-lipped clowns, more than happy to enjoy a status similar to a family dog, still shock.
I found this book more interesting than enjoyable. I’m glad I read it but I won’t be carrying on with the series, mainly because there are going to be more than twenty volumes in all, eleven of which have been published so far, and these books are rather expensive. More recent volumes have a recommended retail price of £29.99, while this first volume has an RRP of £22.50. It’s available from all the usual online retailers for nearer £15.00, and I got my copy on eBay for £10.00, but I doubt I would manage to find any future volumes for a similar price, and even if I did, I’m not sure that I’d want to spend the money. However, I am keen to pick up a copy of IDW’s recently-published Best of Dick Tracy book, for an overview of the character from 1931 to 1971, and I am particularly keen to pick up a copy of The Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol.1, also published by IDW, for a look at the early days of another classic American comic strip character.