After 32 years on the beat, Pulitzer Prize-winner Dick Locher is stepping away from the “Dick Tracy” comic strip. The team of writer Mike Curtis and artist Joe Staton will take over with a new story arc beginning the week of March 14. Curtis and Staton grew up about 25 miles apart in Tennessee reading creator Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” strips in The Jackson Sun but only met many years later at a comic-book convention. The pair have more than 60 years of combined experience in comics but step into their new role at a tempestuous time; the future of newspaper strips is in question and there’s also a fresh legal skirmish over a hoped-for Hollywood revival of the Tracy character. Hero Complex writer Geoff Boucher caught up with Staton (whose credits include “E-Man” and “Scooby Doo” as well as memorable stints on “All-Star Comics” and “Green Lantern“) to discuss the fedora future of a newsprint icon celebrating his 80th year of crime-fighting.
GB: Dick Tracy was one of the signature names in illustrated adventure, but today’s audience may not have a strong sense of him. Do you see that as a challenge or as an opportunity?
JS: I’d say it’s a bit of both. This year will be Tracy’s 80th anniversary, so he’ll be on the pop-culture radar and Mike Curtis and I are going to do our bit to attract attention to the strip. Mike has some storylines planned to remind people of Tracy’s place in the public imagination.
GB: Tell us a bit about your compass points going in — what does Dick Tracy need to be? What do you see as the touchstones of the character that will translate best today?
JS: When Chester Gould created Tracy 80 years ago, it was a great big scary world out there, with gangsters and murderers running rampant and it was important to see “a nice young man” (as Gould once called Tracy) who could face down all those threats and bring a little order to things. The world is even scarier today, with international terrorists and narco gangs, but Tracy still goes up against them. What Tracy has now, even more than when he started, are his families, Tess and the kids on one hand, and Lizz and Sam of the Major Crimes Squad, on the other hand.
GB: The Warren Beatty film might be the version of the crime-fighter that has the most traction in the public mind today. How does it inform your approach?
JS: It is public record that the film rights are in litigation between TMS and Warren Beatty. I don’t have any comments regarding the film.
GB: Technology has caught up to Tracy’s gadgets in a way; how does that affect what you do?
JS: I think most people think of the 2-Way Wrist Radio from 1949 as Tracy’s take on technology, and that was basically a miniaturization of WWII walkie-talkies. There have been updates, especially with the Wrist Geenee in 1993, but they haven’t really been fully exploited. In some of our early sequences, we’ll start to address the history of Tracy’s technology and we’ll work into the 21st century. Mike is working with his law-enforcement contacts now to see what a real cop would want on the job.
GB: Will you start from scratch, a total reboot? Or will your run pick up from the ongoing narrative?
JS: We pick up from the current narrative and we accept all that has gone before, but there is a moment very early when the observant reader will understand that we have to some degree hit ‘reset’.
GB: What does the character mean to you personally? Was he a meaningful part of your youth, or did you come to him further into your art and career pursuits?
JS: My involvement with Dick Tracy and Chester Gould goes back about as far as is possible. My mother said that when I was 3, I was found in the kitchen floor with the Sunday funnies, trying to copy a picture of Tracy. That would have been in 1951. Everything I’ve learned or developed in terms of my art since then has been built on those first encounters with Tracy. That’s why I’m not trying to “ape” Chester Gould’s style (or Rick Fletcher’s, or Dick Locher’s, for that matter). I just always have the faith that when I get down to basics, I’ll find Tracy waiting for me.
GB: I’m sure you’ve been researching the past to find this new future. Tell us something about Tracy or Gould that might help newcomers understand the character’s success story in a different way.
JS: We’ve talked about the core of Tracy’s character in a scary world, but beyond that, the basics of the strip involve a very specific way of showing the world. Gould’s strength was never as a draftsman, and presumably because of that he designed with almost abstract shapes in showing figures and environments. His way of handling pictorial space was more diagrammatic than representational.
GB: When it comes to villains, Dick Tracy ranks right up there with Batman, Spider-Man and the Spirit for having the deepest and most vivid roster of enemies. Who are your favorites among Tracy’s foes and what makes the group so distinguished?
JS: Actually, my favorite Tracy villain was the hard-luck hijacker M.T. “Empty” Williams. He had stolen a truckload of diapers by mistake and rather than move on, he tried coming up with schemes to force businesses to buy his diapers. I generally like the bad guys from the later ’40s into the mid-’50s, characters like Shaky, Measels, Coffeyhead. Most people tend to pick out Flattop as Tracy’s best adversary, but I’m very partial to his son Flattop Jr., and his partner Joe Period. Gould’s best villains paired names and moral failings and visuals into something really striking. We’re trying our hand at that meld in some new villains we’re introducing.
— Geoff Boucher
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