Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Age of Gould

October 4 marked the 75th anniversary of the premier appearance of Dick Tracy – which led me to a contemplation of newspaper comic strips. When Chester Gould started the strip, the field was bursting with possibility, sort of the Internet today. By the early 1930's the funnies had settled into fairly high level of sophistication, and appealed to readers of all ages.

Newspaper editors, who for most part endured rather than nurtured the genre, continually pressed for smaller panel sizes, not to squeeze more comics in, but to make room for more advertising. While the gag-a-day strips coped with the compressed formats, the adventure strips suffered greatly. And that's a shame, as there was (and is) virtuoso storytelling going on here.

While I followed Dick Tracy in the Washington Post throughout my formative years, I've since given up on the strip. The creators are clearly hobbled by strictures to not stray far from the Dick Tracy staples – grotesque villains, the return of classic villains, character traits spelled backwards or used as puns for names. What's left is a living dead strip.

When Gould drew and wrote the strip, it crackled with energy. Gould never plotted – he would dump his hero into a fix, and then figure out how to get him out of it. Some of his most memorable sequences involved elaborate crimes that unraveled quickly and then degenerated into a long, drawn out chase.

Some of these sequences lasted six months to a year, but the public loved it. Today, all strips with a continuing story are pushed to keep the story arc short. And I've heard friends dismiss the adventure strips because the stories move too slow! What's the rush? As long as you're looking forward to what's going to happen next, who cares how long it takes? Some of the best strips still manage that feat today – even with reduced panels. Gould was the master at it.

While Dick Tracy has not fared well after the death of Gould, some other strips have managed to not just continue, but actually build on the accomplishments of their original creators. Below is a short list for your consideration.

So what does all this have to do with consumer electronics? Simply this: as new things come along, old things get discarded (like your eight-track tapes). And while change is good, sometimes its worth taking a moment to realize that some of what we're leaving behind is worth our appreciation, too. See you in the funny papers.
- Ralph

Brenda Starr – started in 1940 by female artist and writer Dale Messick, the strip continues with Mary Schmich, who draws on her journalists' background for stories, and artist June Brigman.

Judge Parker – started in 1952 by Nicholas P. Dallis (writing as Paul Nichols) and drawn by Dan Heilman, now written by Woody Wilson, and drawn by Eduardo Barretto, who worked for DC Comics.

Prince Valiant – started in 1937 by Hal Foster, now written by Cullen Murphy, who has a degree in medieval history, and drawn by Gary Gianni, late of DC Comics.

Rex Morgan, MD – started in 1948 by Nicholas P. Dallis (writing as Dal Curtis) and drawn by Marvin Bradley, now written by Woody Wilson and drawn by Graham Nolan who had previously done comics work for both Marvel and DC.

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