As the Library of American Comics and IDW Publishing continue to collect The Complete Dick Tracy by Chester Gould, Volume 26 presents the dailies and Sunday strips from September 25, 1972 through to July 6, 1974. The book has an introductory essay by consulting editor Max Allan Collins, “I Hope We’ve Heard the Last of Peanutbutter,” which covers Collins’ relationship with Gould and commentary on the strips, and concludes with contributing editor Jeff Kersten’s “…the funny pages of the history books…,” about Gould’s political subtext, particularly in relation to the Watergate scandal.
This Volume opens with an epilogue of a previous case with young “Peanutbutter” having just been rescued from kidnappers. The title of Collins’ essay is a line a dialogue from the Chief and a sentiment that Liz, Junior, and I imagine more than a few readers like myself agreed with as he is annoying. Junior gets especially agitated when “Peanutbutter” goes gaga over Moon Maid. “Peanutbutter” was likely an attempt to pull in young readers with a young character, but he’s so unappealing I can’t imagine it was successful.
The first complete case Tracy and his team deal with involve armored truck robbers. They have a great getaway plan but the execution fails repeatedly. Their biggest error is having a helicopter make off with the loot since apparently the crooks never read the news that the police force uses Diet’s space coupe. But it does make for a thrilling aerial battle between the two vehicles.
However, the heist money is lost as the bag holding the half million in loot falls from the sky. Readers see where it went and the search is on as many volunteers take part after the armored truck company offers a $10,000 reward, including a familiar face: “Peanutbutter”. The kid selfishly wants the whole half million. Mother Nature (and Gould) makes him pay for his sin of greed.
After a brief case involving currency exchange robbers that runs for about a month, over half of 1973 involves “Button”. His crew kidnaps newspaper columnist Jack Grafic in an effort to get him to write positive coverage about “Button” and the mob. Injured during his capture, “Buttons” escapes from the hospital, but again, Mother Nature and Gould use winter weather to balance the scales of justice. Gould stretches credulity even further when “Button” is dragged due to an open handcuff getting lodged in a car door handle. “Button” stays a step ahead until Tracy learns where he likes to take saunas.
Junior, and readers, have to suffer for five weeks when “Peanutbutter” is given a summer job at the police station. “Peanutbutter” hopes to become a sketch artist, starts drawing a comic strip, and continues to hit on Moon Maiden. He also becomes a hostage that “Button” uses to escape. They go to “Button’s” sister’s place and draw Tracy into a deadly trap, which involves Tracy getting a rope around his neck with “Peanutbutter” hanging out a window at the other end. The source of “Button’s” downfall surprises him.
Tracy then deals with two short cases. In the first case, Gould gets preachier than usual as Tracy claims a long-haired, ear-ringed young man involved in a sniper shooting went bad because he didn’t follow God’s Ten Commandments. The suspect demands a haircut to start his path on the straight and narrow, but his “conversion” is related to an impending witness line up. Tracy does some detective work to prove he’s also a perpetrator of double murder bank robbery from a year ago. Then, Tracy deals with a fire-insurance scam by building owner Wallace I. Pike, who thinks he can outsmart Tracy by going to see him for help.
Gould starts the next case with an evocative image: a skull with a diamond-studded tooth. However, an inconsistency pops up in the writing. On a Saturday, the Chief thinks the skull might belong to the bookie “Diamond-Tooth” Rinkles but then on Sunday he claims it is the skull of “Diamond-Tooth Carat”. On Monday, the name to goes back to Rinkles but is Carat the following Sunday. No matter, the skull is given to the deceased’s half-sister Florabelle who lives with her grandson Pockets. The police learn Flora had bought an antique guillotine. Lizz goes to investigate on her own, which Flora doesn’t care for, and Lizz’s life is put in jeopardy.
While Flora is away from her home being interviewed by the police, former vaudevillian knife-thrower, Keeno-the-Great breaks in and steals the skull. Why he didn’t just take the tooth is odd but it ends up being his downfall. Not only is the skull found but so is the bowling-ball bag the skull was carried in, but readers never saw Keeno throw that away. Seems suspiciously like an after thought by Gould. Keeno tries to hide at his former assistant Zelma’s place. She subdues him and goes to the police. Apparently none of our heroes learn a lesson, and Lizz goes out solo again with no back up and the results are almost the same. If Lizz was a cat, she wouldn’t have many lives left.
The final case involves a guy named “Big Brass,” who uses a pirate TV signal to sells phony, atomic-powered magic rings to improve health. He is guided by a seer, who is also his girlfriend, to the frustration of his business partner. This trio isn’t a bright group and their partnership fractures. Brass is so dumb he fell for the “look out behind you” trick.
While still enjoyable to read, Gould’s writing is not as strong as past storylines. Many of the crooks in this Volume aren’t too smart and their plans aren’t well thought out. By lessening the challenge for the hero, the weaker he looks as a character. The ground Gould covers feels all to familiar and the newest element, “Peanutbutter,” is a nuisance. It’s interesting that at a time in the world where some cops and other authorities were shown to be as flawed as the crooks, Gould held steadfast to his limited views of right and wrong.
The art continues to be first rate and his greatest strength. The characters remain distinct; there is never any doubt who is on display. Many of the panels are filled with great details setting the scenes, like during snow storms, while other times his use of negative space draws the eye to what he wants readers to see. His use ink to create shadows and silhouettes elevates the appeal of the images. I especially get a kick out of gun fights, typically ending with bad guys taking a bullet to the head. A particular favorite from this Volume is couple panels where a crook falls from a helicopter after making the mistake of shooting first at Dick Tracy.
At the end of Volume 27, Dick Tracy has about three year left before Gould ended the series. It definitely has that feel of a work that has become comfortable as opposed to challenging. The outstanding artwork and familiarity of the core characters kept my interest. And I am curious in the remaining strips what Gould has left.