Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Crime Doesn’t Pay: An Early Lesson from Dick Tracy

by Kate Kelly

If you love mysteries and grew up reading the funny papers, chances are that you followed the adventures of Dick Tracy, a comic strip that first appeared in 1931. Dick Tracy introduced professional crime-fighting to the comic pages for the first time.

The inspiration for the strip came to Chester Gould, its creator, because he lived in Chicago and was tired of watching gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly get away with what they did.

“I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I’d create fellow who could,” said Gould.

Enter Dick Tracy and more wham-bam fights than the comic strips had ever seen. Gould saw the strip as a lesson for the “bad guys” since Dick Tracy always wins. Gould said: “The first wrong step might be the last. Bullets don't recognize first offenders.”

Though Dick Tracy was created for a different era, the effect of Gould’s comic strip is still seen today. Consider:

1. Dick Tracy popularized the police procedural. Without the success of Dick Tracy we might have had to wait a long time before deductive crime-solving went mainstream. While readers had to wait until 1956 before Policewoman Lizz Grove (nee' Worthington) was added to the police force, she arrived and stayed because she had what it took to be a great crime-solver.

2. Gould was prophetic about technological advances.The two-way wrist radio, introduced in the strip in 1946, was a forerunner of our cell phones that give us real-time communication no matter where we are. Ditto the portable surveillance cameras that Gould introduced in 1948. Today surveillance cameras are almost everywhere and help to solve numerous crimes. “Electronic telephone number pick up” was something Dick Tracy used in 1954; today call-tracing is an important part of all types of police work.

3. Today “crime stopper” organizations exist in most communities and owe their start to Dick Tracy. In 1947 Tracy’s adopted son, Junior, announced that he and his friends wanted to be Crime Stoppers; they would find ways to occupy street kids who had little supervision and not enough to do. By the 1950s, Gould had incorporated a “crime stopper” tip as part of the opening panel on Sundays, and the police chief in Gould’s hometown of Woodstock, Illinois decided to create a local crime stoppers club for kids in the area, holding regular Saturday meetings. Other communities began to copy it. In 1976 a police officer from Albuquerque, George MacAleese, approached Gould to ask permission to use “Crimestoppers” (one word) for a program he wanted to organize. Because of MacAleese’s plan, today there are thousands of local organizations that enlist the public’s help in solving crimes. “Tips” lines are an important feature, and many also post descriptions and video online in case the public knows something about a particular crime. (Search "Crimestoppers" and your community for an example of what exists nearby.)

Dick Tracy still runs in many newspapers and online. He has appeared in comic books as well as in advertising and in film and on TV. Clearly, Chester Gould’s creation will continue to uphold the law.

Comic strips offer a fun and interesting lens through which to view American culture. Visit my site to read about Brenda Starr, Beetle Bailey, and Olive Oyl, and if you’d like to receive future comic strip profiles by email, please send me your address: kate@americacomesalive.com with “Comics” in the subject line. I also welcome suggestions as to the characters you would like to read about.


  1. Thanks for that fun profile.

    As a coincidental aside, a town adjacent to where I live was the home town of a guy who drew the Dick Tracy comic for many years and they recently put up a bigger than life statue of DT, his trench coat billowing out as he checks his wrist watch, alongside a river in a local park in the downtown area.

    1. That's wonderful. Thanks for the additional info!

  2. Thanks Kate for guest bloggging with us today! I didn't realize where "Crime Stoppers" came from.

    The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  3. What a fun post! Thanks for hanging out with us today and sharing your Dick Tracy scoop, Kate. :-)

  4. Delighted to...and yes Crime Stoppers is everywhere so it's great to know the origin!

  5. Thanks for the great post. Funny, but when I think of Dick Tracy, I can't help but hear Mandy Patinkin singing as 88 Keys for the movie!

  6. That's a great memory actually... Patinkin is wonderful... I don't think the movie did that well however.
    Thanks for posting.

  7. I loved the movie--but what did I know. Personally, I liked it better than the comic strip.