TFMSR 014: Dick Tracy #130 …

Dick Tracy Comics Monthly #130, January 1959. © Um … maybe Warren Beatty?

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I can’t remember a time without comics in my life. As a little kid, they were always around, bought and brought into our home by my older brother, Rick, who was 8 years my senior. And one of my earliest comics memories is of Dick Tracy Comics Monthly. They were—at that point in time—still being published by Harvey Comics, a company which had at one point a deep back-bench of syndicated newspaper strip reprint titles, including Tracy, Blondie and numerous spin-offs, plus Joe Palooka, Mutt & Jeff, and Lil’ Abner … they even flirted with Flash Gordon for four issues in the early 1950s. We had a number of Dick Tracy Comics Monthly issues in their ten-cent format from the late 1950s, but starting in the early ‘60s, Harvey switched to a 25-cent “Harvey Giant” format and started reprinting the reprints. That would last for five more issues, Dick Tracy Comics (no longer “Monthly”) #s 141 through 145, and then no more Tracy comics from any publisher, at least for a while.

In addition to being some of my earliest comic book memories, they’re also amongst my fondest. On winter days, I loved to dig out this small stack of Dick Tracy comics—we had from around issue #120 through 145—and just sit on the couch, bundled up in a blanket and eat Tastycakes and pretzels and drink Coke (the soda, not the drug; no snorting for 6-year-old me) and read them—or what passed for reading for me at that age. They were the equivalent of comfort food for me, but in the form of comic books. I particularly loved the Flattop Jr. storyline. But before we delve into that sordid story, let’s talk a little bit about comic strips’ most famous detective, a Dick named Tracy.

Cartoonist Chester Gould often poked fun at his bread-and-butter detective in promotional pieces like these.

Created in 1931 by an ambitious cartoonist named Chester Gould, who lived near Chicago, Illinois, midwest home of the world-famous Chicago Tribune New York News syndicate, Dick Tracy was originally called “Plainclothes Tracy,” but publisher Joseph Patterson suggested both the name change (at that point, a “dick” was a detective) and Gould’s first storyline: Tracy joins the police force because his girlfriend’s father is murdered in a robbery. The early years of the strip were filled with stories torn from the headlines, with strip facsimilies of real-life criminals like Al Capone, but in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Gould’s taste in villains became wilder and wilder. Starting with Frank Redrum, known as The Blank— because his face was covered with a mask which obliterated his features—Gould came up with villain after villain with decidedly memorable names, appearances, and attributes. He really hit his stride in 1944 with Flattop Jones, an out-of-town hitman brought in to gun down Dick Tracy. Gould knew he had lightning in a bottle with this explosive character and kept extending the Flattop storyline long past its original expiration date, with the cunning bad guy escaping the long arm of the law and Tracy. He eventually drowned, ending an almost six-month storyline that started on Dec. 21, 1943 and finished on May 24, 1944. But Gould wasn’t done with the Jones family; not by a long shot.

The extended Jones family, including (left to right) Flattop, Blowtop, Auntie Flattop, Flattop Jr., and Angeltop.

Flattop’s older brother appeared next. Nicknamed Blowtop for his short fuse of a temper, he plotted to kill Tracy by blowing up his new house, which Dick had just moved into with his newlywed wife, Tess Trueheart; he also kidnapped Junior, Tracy’s adopted son, and sealed him a drum, which he rolled off a cliff—or so he thought. This is another of my favorite stories, originally appearing in the syndicated comic strip in 1950-51. The story was reprinted in the Harvey Comics issues #66 through #68, but I was more familiar with it in the Giant reprint edition, #142, which was heavily censored. Once the Comics Code Authority reared its ugly head, all the Tracy stories reprinted by Harvey Comics were altered. Gone were the bullets spinning into hoodlums’ foreheads or dead bodies laying on the ground. Sometimes this was confusing as the images didn’t quite match the word balloons; Tracy and Sam Catchem would be discussing a dead body in front of a blank spot in the panel.

The original appearance of the Blowtop story in Dick Tracy Comics Monthly #66, 67, and 68.

This run of Harvey Giants reprinted some of my favorite Tracy stories. Wormy was the bad guy in #141, in which Tracy finally gets hitched to Tess; Blowtop in issue #142 (in addition to the house bombing and the kidnapping of Junior, Tracy gets his hair burned off!); “The Strange Case of Measles” in #143; Shoulders in #144 (with an antique dealer who’s a dead ringer—pun intended—for Bette Davis); and finally Crewy Lou in #145, which also introduced Tracy and Tess’s daughter, Bonnie Braids. These books marked the end of Harvey’s Dick Tracy Comics run and were released in 1960 (#145 was on sale on December 28). Tracy was out of the comic book business for a number of years.

The last five Harvey Comics issues of Dick Tracy were published in their “Giant” format.

But back to Flattop Jr. and issue #130, the focus of our post this week. I loved this book even as a kid, because of one thing: Flattop Jr.’s car. It was this immense green sedan which showed-off his skill with technology, not to mention auto work. It had EVERYTHING: A TV, a refrigerator, running water in a sink, a safe, a record player that folded down from the front seat, a hot plate, plus big, roomy seats to sleep on (none of that bucket-seat BS, mind you). I’m guessing one of the backseats lifted up to reveal a compost toilet, but they couldn’t show that in the comics. Pass the TP, please.

It was all about the car for me when it came to this story when I was five or six years old when I first read it.

The Flattop Jr. saga hit in the middle of the juvenile delinquency era in the 1950s, first published in strip form in 1956. And by the way: Gould never called him Flattop Jr.—nor did Harvey Comics—but I’ve always referred to him that way. He was always “Flattop’s boy” or “Flattop’s son” or “young Flattop,” in both the original strips and the Harvey reprints. This story was among the last “new” stories in comic books—that is, not reprinted before—that Harvey Comics published. Flattop Jr. was cover-featured on issues 129, 130, 131, and 132, but the story really went back to issue #124 or so, and the “Oodles” saga, about an immense gangster who ordered food from a restaurant run by a shady character named Nothing Yonson. Yonson used a kid named Joe Period for some of his dirty work and through Joe, we meet Flattop Jones Jr., the son of the legendary hit man who tried to kill Dick Tracy 12 years earlier. Flattop Jr. is a genius who also paints, and when he’s betrayed by Joe, he goes on the lam, hiding his super-car in a rented garage and moving into a boarding house, where he encounters the “boy-crazy” Skinny Skinner, the daughter of the landlady.

It was love at first sight for Skinny; little did she know how much Flattop Jr. would mean to her …

Skinny insists on modeling for him, but Flattop is unmoved … he only paints abstract landscapes. Skinny steals one of his paintings and enters it in a contest and wins first prize, $500. This infuriates Flattop Jr. who pursues Skinny and throws her off a rooftop, killing her. But though he’s the spitting image of his dear old dad, Flattop Jr. is not the stone-cold killer his father was. He’s immediately haunted by the ghost of Skinny, who clings to him, her skinny arms wrapped around his neck. Flattop Jr. flees in his car and hides out in an abandoned theater, which eventually burns down. The police believe Flattop Jr. perishes in the fire, but Tracy isn’t so sure …

The first three issues featuring the saga of the “Son of Flattop!”

Is Young Flattop really dangerous?” asks this house ad from issue #130. I guess we’ll find out!

In one of those only in Dick Tracy moments, Gould moves on to a another story—the villain’s name is Ivy—and months later, policewoman Lizz (whose story started in the Joe Period tale, when he killed her sister, Julie, a singer at Nothing Yonson’s restaurant/club), working on the Ivy case, comes across Flattop Jr. running crazily around the countryside, the ghost of Skinny still torturing him. Lizz follows him into what turns out to be Ivy’s hidden underground hideout and shoots him dead, and the ghost of Skinny soars away, finally free once Flattop Jr. paid his debt for killing her. “Finally,” as in after almost six months in real time on the comics page. I’m sure someone said to him, “Hey, Chet … whatever happened to Flattop’s son?”

A condensed view of the end of Flattop Jr., which took place over a six-month period in the comic strips.

I’m not sure if this is my actual all-time favorite Gould story; but I liked it enough to obsessively stalk eBay one day, probably a dozen years ago, when the original art for Dick Tracy Comics Monthly #132 came up for sale. I persevered—and paid way more than I could afford at the time—and won it, and I still have it. For years I thought it was probably pencilled and inked by Joe Simon, who was an editor at Harvey in this time period (#132 was cover-dated March 1959), but recently I found out it was possibly pencilled (and inked) by John Severin, aping Gould’s style. It’s a beautiful cover, with all the paste-ups intact even though some of the text is different on the final printed version), framed by some kind of template mat that has printer instructions scribbled on it.

The original art to Dick Tracy Comics Monthly #132 and the printed cover. Surprisingly, this may have been drawn by the great John Severin; I originally thought it was by Joe Simon. Note the differences with the type.

The golden age of Dick Tracy was quickly coming to an end in the late 1950s. Gould would get immersed in the Moon Maid saga in the mid-60s and the villains would become more and more bizarre, apparently just for the sake of being bizarre. (Remember Pouch, who hid jewels in the fleshy folds of his neck? Yeah, I’d like to forget him, too.) When author Max Allan Collins took over Dick Tracy in 1977 when Gould retired (after 65 years on the strip—daily and Sunday), he introduced “Angeltop,” Flattop’s daughter who wrote a book about her father and brother. He even brought back Jr.’s car, now part of a “Wonder Cars of the World” Museum. But the Flattop Jr. saga stayed with me all these years.

Other incarnations of Dick Tracy reprints in comic books, including (top row) the first Dell Four Color issue, Dick Tracy Monthly #1 from Dell in 1948, and the first Harvey Comics issue (#26) from 1950; (middle row) the DC Comics Limited Collector’s Edition from the mid-1970s, and the first Blackthorne Reuben Award Winner Series, along with #5; (bottom row), the final Blackthorne Reuben Award Series volume, plus Dick Tracy Monthly #1 and The Unprinted Stories #1. That mid-1980s reprint series finally told the full, uncensored Flattop Jr. story for the first time in comic book form.

Dick Tracy returned to comics in the mid-1970s when DC comics published a tabloid-size “Limited Collector’s Edition” reprinting the complete original Flattop story. In the 1980s, San Diego-based publisher Blackthorne Publishing—which was formed out of the ashes of Pacific Comics—published a series of newspaper reprints in both regular comics format and also in a kind of graphic album, square-bound book format, called the “Reuben Award Winner Series.” Dick Tracy was the flagship title, edited by Comic-Con co-founder and comic strip enthusiast Shel Dorf. I loved those Blackthorne books, and they made me fall in love with Chester Gould and Dick Tracy all over again. Blackthorne eventually went bust but they published 24 of the Reuben Award Winner books, and over 100 issues of Dick Tracy Monthly, and—eventually—Weekly comics, along with a four-issue mini-series called Dick Tracy: The Unprinted Stories, which, for the first time, reprinted the Joe Period/Flattop Jr. saga. I bought and read them all (I still have the 24 albums and The Unprinted Stories series).

IDW’s Library of American Comics reprint series, The Complete Dick Tracy by Chester Gould, are the definitive version of comic strip collections.

In the early 1990s, after Blackthorne folded, Warren Beatty bought up the rights to Dick Tracy and made that bizarre movie for Disney, which featured some of the classic villains, including the most evil one of all: Madonna. Beatty still owns the rights to Tracy, apparently, and that seems to include publishing, although the ultimate Dick Tracy reprint series eventually appeared in the 2000s. Edited by former Eclipse Comics publisher Dean Mullaney as part of his Library of American Comics imprint, The Complete Dick Tracy by Chester Gould was published in 29 volumes, reprinting daily and Sunday strips (albeit in black and white) from 1931 through 1977. For the most part, they utilized syndicate proofs of the highest quality and included historical essays by Max Allan Collins and others. At last, you could read the strips as they originally appeared, not censored or altered by comics publishers like Harvey. I bought a number of these volumes as they came out, finally quitting around Volume 20 or so, before Moon Maid made her unfortunate first appearance, and Gould’s obsession with magnetism to power spaceships kicked in.

A Chester Gould original Dick Tracy strip that I own, from 2/22/1952, the classic Junior and Model story, wherein Junior grows up and falls in love.

I still have fond memories of that Harvey run of Dick Tracy Comics, though. I didn’t know how flawed they were when I was first reading them, and even with all the alterations and censorship, Gould’s superior sense of storytelling shined through. They were great stories with memorable characters, something even I—at a very early age—could appreciate. And I still appreciate it at a much later age. Reading Dick Tracy—in comic strip or comic book form—is still a very real comfort for me.

My one-page story from Innocent Bystander #6 telling the tale of yet another comic that haunted me.

Next time: Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #13 reveals the story of how the Howlers fought side-by-side with Captain America and Bucky in World War II. It’s all part of the happy homecoming of Cap to the Marvel Age of Comics in the early 1960s. And oh … That Kirby cover!

To read all the “Tales from My Spinner Rack” posts, click here!

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