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Cartoonist Chester Gould, ‘Dick Tracy’ Creator, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Chester Gould, who created the comic strip “Dick Tracy " and a horde of unlikely villains to plague the heroic, square-jawed detective, died of apparent heart failure Saturday at his home in Woodstock, Ill.

Gould was 84. Tracy’s age was never revealed, although he appeared to be in his late 20s or early 30s from the moment of his creation 53 years ago.

Tracy O’Connell, Gould’s grandson, said the artist had been in ill health for several months. “I think he was just getting old and things were wearing out,” O’Connell said.

At the peak of his popularity, Dick Tracy was far and away the most widely followed adventure strip in the world, appearing in 550 newspapers here and abroad. Radio, Saturday afternoon serials, full-length movie and television versions of his adventures also were produced with varying degrees of success.

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“Chester Gould was a legend,” said Mark Evanier, a collector and historian of comic strips and comic books. “Dick Tracy was the greatest detective strip ever, a strip with the most fantastic collection of characters.” Evanier, a Los Angeles writer of comic books and screenplays, is a contributing editor to “The Encyclopedia of Comic Art.”

Evanier said Dick Tracy was one of the first strips to break away from “the funnies” concept--it was a morality tale of good versus evil, with good always winning out in the end, most frequently through graphic if unrealistic violence.

The path of a bullet fired from Tracy’s trusty automatic was always drawn from barrel to target, usually the villain’s head, where it always made a neat round hole. Often, however, villains died in the most grotesque ways--one was scalded to death in a Turkish bath, another was impaled on a flagpole. Tracy himself was often shot, bludgeoned and otherwise ruinously abused, but always survived.

Gould turned over the writing and drawing of the strip to others in 1977. The strip is now drawn by Dick Locher.

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Gould once attributed the success of the serial “60% to story, 40% to drawing.”

The strong-lined drawings were impressionistic rather than realistic, the stories slam-bang and simple, if not simplistic. Tracy himself was rarely seen except in profile--hawk-nosed, steely-eyed and wearing a neat snap-brim fedora. There was no mistaking him for anyone but the hard-boiled hero.

And there also was no mistaking the villains as anything but Bad Guys: Flyface was a crooked lawyer so rotten that his head was always surrounded by flies; the Mole was a sinister criminal who not only resembled the animal but hoarded his ill-gotten gains in underground burrows; Pruneface was as wrinkled and ugly in the flesh as in soul.

But some of Gould’s villains were peculiarly likable.

Flattop, a dull-witted and murderous thug whose head was as flat as an aircraft carrier’s deck, was perhaps the greatest (and the most stupid) of Gould’s innumerable oddly named villains.

When Flattop met his freakish end by drowning, mock funerals were held in many places, and fans across the country sent flowers and cards of condolence.

Most of Tracy’s associates and friends--his young protege Junior, Police Chief Pat Patton and his sweetheart Tess Trueheart--were less interesting than the Bad Guys. Even Tracy didn’t find Tess too interesting. Dick and Tess were engaged in the strip’s very first episode, but the detective was so preoccupied with crime-busting (which often required rescuing his fiancee from hideous hoods) that he didn’t get around to marrying her for 18 years. But B. O. Plenty, a secondary character who first appeared in 1946 as a bewhiskered, malodorous rube who squirted a stream of tobacco juice in every other panel, became such a favorite that Gould was forced to use him, sometimes most improbably, in story after story.

Eventually B. O. (for Body Odor) met and married an equally aromatic and ugly eccentric named Gravel Gertie, and fans sent bottles of deodorant as wedding gifts. After a time Gould caused them to have a child, the paradoxically sweet-smelling and beautiful Sparkle Plenty.

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When she was born, Gould was deluged with baby clothes and toys. Spin-off products from the strip (Dick Tracy automatic cap pistols were a sure-fire sales item) had been big almost from the beginning, but Sparkle Plenty Dolls were the biggest, with sales of about $3 million in the first year.

Gould, through a mysterious and inventive character named Diet Smith, anticipated by several years a number of technological breakthroughs that actually came into use in police work, among them the two-way wrist radio and closed-circuit television.

A native of Pawnee, Okla., Gould set his sights on fame and fortune as a cartoonist when still in knee-pants. He entered a cartoon contest when he was 12 and won $5. He studied cartooning by correspondence course, went to Oklahoma A&M; and later to Northwestern University night classes in commerce and marketing. At the same time he was working at his art and stories, submitting them constantly to Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson, then co-publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1923, Gould worked for several Chicago newspapers, later syndicating comic strips called “Fillum Fables” and “Radio Catts,” both “funnies” which met with no particular success.

In 1931--inspired by outrage at gangsterism in Chicago--Gould came up with a new strip about a fearless mob-fighting policeman called “Plainclothes Tracy.” Capt. Patterson liked the idea, but not the name.

The publisher suggested the first name of Dick, then the slang term for detectives. Gould, as was customary among aspiring young newspaper cartoonists of the era, enthusiastically accepted the suggestion. The first Dick Tracy strip was published in the Patterson-owned Detroit Mirror on Oct. 4, 1931, appeared in Patterson’s New York Daily News eight days later and shortly thereafter went national with the Tribune-News Syndicate.

Gould is survived by his wife, Edna, a daughter and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.


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