Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Dick Tracy and World War II

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Dick Tracy and World War II

Article excerpt

The background of the Second World War is reflected through Chester Gould's popular comic strip Dick Tracy in both periodic references and in two major storylines. The occasional allusions to conditions on the homefront are primarily to gasoline and rubber shortages and rationing, to labor displacements caused by the war, including the shifting of traditional male jobs to women, to the need for draft cards and for informing the draft board of address changes, to civilian preparation to detect potential saboteurs and enemy sympathizers among them and to prepare for possible attacks, and to individuals in the military, including both a war hero and a Navy deserter, and Tracy's girlfriend Tess Trueheart as a WAC.

Cartoonist Chester Gould may have been somewhat slow to integrate themes of war and the homefront into his detective comic strip, but he did include several references to these themes over the course of the war, and he created two classic, stereotypical Nazi characters in Pruneface (Boche) and the Brow, and a third, in an ancillary role, in Mrs. Pruneface.

Max Allan Collins points out that Gould worked on his strip "months ahead" and this may explain the delay in incorporating war-related themes into Dick Tracy (cited in Gould 7.20). In a New York Times editorial on December 29, 1941, titled "Doing Without," rationing of new tires was recognized as "causing hardship at first, but it is a necessary price of victory." Gould's first reference to the wartime economic situation comes on March 8, 1942, when Tracy notices that B-B Eyes's car has new tires. He says, "And new tires are not easy to get." B-B Eyes and his gang are bootlegging tires and the detective begins to track them down by posing as a "customer" needing new tires. On March 11, Tracy says to the first tire salesman he approaches: "Where can a fellow pick up a...couple of tires without a priorities order?" The man angrily threatens to call a cop and dismisses Tracy's request saying that would be "breaking the law," and he replies patriotically: "There's a WAR on and it's fellows like you we have got to keep our eyes on." This is the first "citizen alert" Gould includes in the strip, sending the message to his many readers that everyone needs to be on constant watch and that some among them may secretly be helping the enemy.

After B-B Eyes and his boys meet their appropriate end, Gould introduces the strange story of the great actor Yollman, his understudy the jealous Van Dyke, and Yollman's wife, who is loved by both men and waivers between them. When Yollman escapes to a small town, thinking that he has killed his rival, he sees some young people putting up a sign to advertise their class play. In the strip of May 24, 1942, they tell Yollman: "Our dramatic coach enlisted last week." Yollman then offers to help them prepare for the play. In several follow-up strips, there are references (May 28-31; June 1, 6, and 7) to Yollman's draft registration card, which is lost and later recovered. The enlistment of civilians who leave their jobs at home and the increasing role of local draft boards were certainly familiar themes in this period.

In the strips starting on July 8, 1942, Gould introduces a young lady called Frizzletop who has recently returned from the war zone in the Far East. She had been "an army nurse in the Philippines at the start of the war." She was engaged to a soldier named John, who was stationed at Manila, but who was badly wounded and later died during an air raid by "the Japs." Frizzletop had lost an arm in this bombing and she fled to Australia, Africa, and finally America. Her mission is to inform John's brother, Tiger Lilly, who is coincidentally the criminal Tracy is tracking down, of John's death. When the detective refers with sympathy to Frizzletop's disability, she says, "I can take it! Just as thousands of others can take it." Here Gould first makes an attempt to bolster the morale of American servicemen, but it is also interesting that he chooses to feature a woman as a casualty of the war, along with her dead husband. …

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