NEWS COLUMNS

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2014

THE GENIUS OF CARTOON ARTISTS

By James Johnson

originally printed in the Woodstock Independent
May 7, 2008

Visitors to the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum often remark on the tremendous scope of Chester Gould’s abilities. As a boy, his only formal cartoon training was a correspondence course. His talent was evident, and he began the progression from local work in Pawnee, Oklahoma to displaying artwork in national magazines. In 1921, with $50 for living expenses, he boarded a train for Chicago with the goal of becoming a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.

Jobs as a commercial artist paid the bills during the 1920′s. He created one cartoon strip after another, sending them to the Tribune and its sister publication, the New York Daily News. Throughout the roaring 1920′s, nothing clicked and the stack of rejection letters grew. The stock market crashed and the Depression began. Still employed and now with a wife and daughter, Gould tried a new approach. Observing the gangland crime rampant in the country, he created a tough cop in 1931 to fight against it, initially called “Plainclothes Tracy.” The New York and Chicago newspaper management loved it and bought the concept, adding Gould as a staff cartoonist.

It is remarkable when someone demonstrates both artistic talent and the ability to create a great storyline. In addition to Gould, some American cartoonists excelled at this. In the epic plots of Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant, each panel was a detailed work of art. Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” was an early adventure series with great art and memorable characters. Milton Caniff created the exciting “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon.” Dales Messick did “Brenda Starr.” Frank King drew and wrote the beloved “Gasoline Alley,” with strong family values and characters whop aged normally over the years. Charles Schulz gave the world the “Peanuts” kids, with humor and humanity that is unsurpassed. His storylines were shorter, but who can’t relate to Charlie Brown trying to kick the football held by Lucy, or laugh at Snoopy, to whom a food dish and Nieuport flying machine were of equal importance. Snoopy was so cool: he could battle the Red Baron in one strip and play hockey with Woodstock, the little bird, on a frozen birdbath rink in another.

Gould kept Dick Tracy going for nearly 50 years, with stark, sometimes brutal action, detailed plots, logical police procedures and surprise finishes. He brought exciting cliffhangers to the strip, memorable villains such as Flattop and Pruneface and even comic relief, with the characters B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie and Vitamin Flintheart. His marvels of technology were years ahead of their time. His “Textbook Tips” offered practical advice that is still useful today. Dick Tracy is one of the most recognizable profiles in the world today and Gould’s legacy lives on.

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“It seemed so easy! It came off so well! Twenty years is so long!”
- Chester Gould
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