Dick Tracy and Blowtorches

I tend to get on kicks. I ran through Homeland Season 1 in three days and then moved on. I became obsessed with baseball for a summer and then moved on (mostly). I spent one summer in high school reading every Ian Fleming and Doc Savage book ever. And then I moved on. I saved all of John le Carré’s novels until this last winter. And then I read them all back to back. And I’ve moved on. Now I’m reading every book I can find on the history of Special Operations throughout history. And I’m sure I’ll move on.

A few months ago, I was asked the question that is probably most often asked of authors: What are your influences? And for a minute I was stumped. I love every genre, not just crime. In fact crime is such a broad genre that it’s kind of impossible not to like. I love spies and espionage. And espionage, by its very nature is crime. Crime that is sanctioned by the state, but still criminal, depending on what side you’re on. 

But when I though back I realized that there was a summer in 1988 right before I got to high school that I stumbled upon some reprints of the old Dick Tracy comic strips. They’d been repackaged into regular sized comic books and were being released as issues. Black and white comics? Ugh. What I was used to was full-color superhero comics and Doc Savage up to that point so these rough dark gritty comics were something else all together.

But then I started reading them. I was hooked. I spent the entire summer reading everything. And then I moved on like I always had. But like the best stuff you end up reading when you’re young…it never leaves you. You move on but you end up carrying it with you whether you realize it or not.

IDW started reprinting all of the Dick Tracy strips in small hardcovers a few years ago. At the time I thought I’d read everything—but there are decades of Dick Tracy. So I’m still trying to catch up. I’d only scratched the surface. I’m into the 1950s now and it’s interesting. I’m a different person now than when I was 13 and 14 reading these comics. But you know something? They hold up. They’re violent and funny and people get shot and blowtorches get held to feet as torture and guys get drowned in wells and pushed off cliffs and choked to death and stuck in trunks and tommy-gunned. It was ahead of its time in both violence and procedural detective work…and gadgets. And it’s still ahead of its time (except maybe on the gadgets—I think we finally caught up to the wrist-radio).

What I love is that Dick Tracy is always solid black. No shading. Just a solid field of black on the page when he’s in his suit. And it looks fantastic. And the best part of Dick Tracy? It could be the gadgets. And the cutaway views and the violence. It could be the villains. The villains are as interesting as the hero. They’re colorful even in black and white. They’re mean and sad and brutal. And sometimes they get shot in the head or choke or fall into their own pitfall withs spikes at the bottom.

But the best part? These weren’t comics for kids. They just happened to be comics that kids and adults could both enjoy. And that’s the best part. They weren’t written down and test-marketed for 10- to 15- year-olds. It was one guy, Chester Gould, dreaming up crimes and villains and gadgets and putting ink on paper.

The stories are straightforward. You won’t find any layers of meaning or a treatise on the meaning of crime but you don’t need it with these. This is the origin of crime comics. Everything you like now…everything that’s come after—you can see the brutal seeds of it in every panel of Dick Tracy.


Matt Kindt is the Harvey Award-winning writer and artist of the comics and graphic novels Red Handed, MIND MGMT, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Revolver, 3 Story, Super Spy, 2 Sisters, and Pistolwhip. He has been nominated for four Eisner and three Harvey Awards (and won once).