One of the most well-known Newspaper Comics
of all time, one of the earliest of the Adventure strips, one of the most popular and longest lasting
, and one of the few Adventure strips still being published,
Dick Tracy, created by Chester Gould, is about the cases of a tough as nails police detective. Inspired as a Take That
towards organized crime in the 1930s (indeed, the strip's first major villain, Big Boy
, was an Expy
of Al Capone) the series followed Detective Dick Tracy as he fights crime, as a modern day Sherlock Holmes
but with a lot of emphasis on forensic methods and police procedures. Furthermore, the strip pulled no punches with an intensity of bloody violence for its time that would impress Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino
The strip debuted in 1931, complete with an origin story. Dick Tracy had just successfully proposed to his girlfriend Tess Trueheart at her parents' home when some crooks broke in, murdered Tess' father and kidnapped Tess. Tracy vowed to avenge them both, and the local police chief, Police Chief Brandon
, promptly hired Tracy to the Plainclothes Detective squad. Tracy rescued Tess and avenged her father's murder (the man who actually killed Tess' father died on Thanksgiving day, Tracy decided that made it a good Thanksgiving). Tracy soon gained a partner in Pat Patton, who started out as a bumbling sidekick, but became more competent as time wore on
(never as competent as Tracy, of course
). A year later, Dick ran into a Heartwarming Orphan
with no name, whom he started raising as his own. The Kid idolized Tracy and took to naming himself Dick Tracy Junior, and he would always be known as Junior from then on.
In the early years of the strip, Tracy encountered a revolving door of a recurring Rogues Gallery
, starting with the Terrible Trio
of Big Boy
, Ribs Mocco
, and Texie Garcia
, but soon including Broadway Bates (who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Batman
villain Penguin...eight years before the Penguin's debut
), Steve the Tramp (the brutal thug who had raised Junior on the streets until Tracy found Junior), Dan Mucelli, Larceny Lu, Stooge Viller, Spaldoni, Doc Hump, and Boris Arson. Often they would get caught only to later break out of the Cardboard Prison
. This actually reflected Truth in Television
at the time, since the strip often had a Ripped from the Headlines
feel to it, and all the most infamous Real Life
outlaws of the time- John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker's boys- were all involved in prison breakouts (Boris Arson's criminal career reflected elements of Dillinger, Nelson, and
Bonnie and Clyde). As The Thirties
wore on, and most of these outlaws were wiped out, and real prisons started getting less cardboard, Gould began the practice of having most of his main villains Killed Off for Real
after just one story, sometimes directly killed by Tracy and his allies, but just as likely to suffer some form of Karmic Death
. Gould would continue this practice for the rest of his time working on Tracy, even as his villains became more interesting.The Forties
was if not the strip's most popular decade, definitely its most famous, with stories from that decade often the most reprinted. It was a whole decade's worth of Iconic Sequel Character
. This is when Gould made his villains so bizarre and grotesque to look at that readers couldn't take their eyes off them.
Some of Tracy's most famous villains appeared then, such grotesques as Jerome Trohs
and Mamma, Littleface (a little face in a huge head!), the Mole, B-B Eyes, Pruneface, 88 Keys, Mrs. Pruneface, the Brow, Measles, Shoulders, Influence, Coffyhead, Pear-Shape (a Chester Gould self-caricature!) and Wormy. For many of these villains, just look at their names and you can figure out what they looked liked. They were contrasted with more normal looking villains who stood out and were named for their Verbal Tic
or other mannerisms like Laffy, Shaky, Itchy, Mumbles, and Gargles. The most popular villain of them all was Flattop, a a flattop headed
, sleepy-eyed, pucker-lipped hitman hired to kill Tracy, came within an inch of doing so, then led Tracy on a spectacular cat-and-mouse chase for five months in 1944...before being unmistakably Killed Off for Real
, as would most of the above named villains. No Joker Immunity for these guys.
But it wasn't just the villains that made the Forties so memorable. Some of the best known and most fondly remembered supporting cast of the strip debuted during this time as well, starting with the aging Large Ham
actor Vitamin Flintheart. There was also the Fiction 500 Gadgeteer Genius
Diet Smith, who invented and provided for Tracy the 2-Way Wrist Radio, a small communications device that the police could wear like wristwatches. This and its updates like the 2-Way Wrist TV would appear to be state-of-the-art technology for the next five decades
...before the invention of the cellphone.But the most popular supporting cast of them all would turn out to be the Plenty family of hillbillies.
B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie each debuted in separate stories as minor Red Right Hand
villains before they reformed
, met, fell in love, and got married. When Gertie was about to give birth, the other characters (and the readers) speculated on what kind of hideous monstrosity could emerge from that union...only for it to turn out to be a normal, cute, adorable baby girl her parents named Sparkle. Sparkle Plenty would go on to be the biggest merchandising bonanza to come out of the strip, with huge sales of Sparkle Plenty dolls, games, records, and comic books. Gould kept her in the limelight by having her become a Child Prodigy
, mastering the ukulele and becoming a popular TV singer when she was only three. (Her proud papa, B.O. exclaimed, "And to think, when she was born, she couldn't play a note!"
Towards the end of the Forties, Gould shook up the regular cast. First, Police Chief Brandon resigned in disgrace when he failed to protect Diet Smith's assistant Brilliant from a killer.
Pat Patton was promoted as the Police Chief. To fill Pat's old role as Tracy's partner,
Gould created the wisecracking
Jewish detective Sam Catchem. The strip ended the decade with a bang when Dick and Tess, after an 18 year long on-again, off again engagement
finally just eloped and married on Christmas Day, 1949.
In The Fifties
, stories became longer (the Mr. Crime
case lasted for nearly a full year) and the villains became more vicious (Sparkle was a frequent target
). But the most consistent theme of this decade was a concern many people Gould's age had about crime in that decade: juvenile delinquency. An awful lot of the minor crooks and main villains of this period tended to veer on the young side. First, there was the female "fiendish photographer"
Crewy Lou, who used her photography gig to case out and steal from well-to-do to wealthy homes, shot a major crime boss
...and inadvertently kidnapped Dick and Tess' newborn daughter Bonnie Braids! Junior came of age that decade in a tragic romance
with a Nice Girl
named Model. She was no delinquent...but her brother sure was. There was Tonsils, a hapless, young, not-very-talented nightclub singer who was coerced by Mr. Crime into trying to kill Tracy...and actually came closer to doing so than even Flattop by shooting Tracy in the head (don't worry, Tracy got better). Mumbles made a rare villainous return while raising a couple of wild, savage boys named Neki and Hokey Ozone. Then there was the cool punk
Joe Period, who teamed up with none other than Flattop Junior,
who looked just like a teenaged version of his father and was just as bad and murderous.
The decade also saw the debut of the last character to become a fulltime regular on the strip, the photographer turned policewoman Lizz. Lizz was a bona fide Action Girl years ahead of her time.
Gould even paid her the highest compliment he could give to a police character in his strip: he had her be the one to kill Flattop Junior.The Sixties
was an...interesting period for the strip. In 1963, Diet Smith went for a ride on his latest invention: the Space Coupe. Powered by magnetism, the Coupe could fly through outer space faster and more comfortably than NASA's rocket ships. Diet went straight to the Moon and came back with a stowaway whom he introduced to Tracy, a pretty young woman with antennas on her head who could shoot electricity through her fingertips. Tracy dubbed her "Moon Maid" and the name stuck. Junior quickly fell in love with Moon Maid.
and she took him and Tracy back to the Moon...a lush, forested Moon with varied terrain and populated by Moon People like her, led by her father, the Moon Governor. Junior and Moon Maid were soon married, and when Dick and Junior headed back to Earth, they took Junior's new bride with them. On Earth, Moon Maid would become an instant celebrity. Moon Maid would do her own part in fighting crime by zapping crooks with her electric powers. (By this time, Sparkle Plenty had grown up and married an aspiring young cartoonist named Vera Alldid.)
As anyone reading this can tell, this was all vastly
different from what had gone on before. The result among the readers was a Broken Base
. On the one hand, the number of newspapers carrying Dick Tracy
during this period that came to be known as the "Moon Era". This was the height of The Space Race
, and the strip successfully tapped into that. Many kids introduced to Tracy during this period had no problem with the sci-fi elements, and genuinely adored Moon Maid. There were girls who looked up to her as an Action Girl
and boys who just liked looking at her.
But many older fans loathed this period, feeling the strip had strayed too far from what it was "supposed" to be about. These older fans especially hated Moon Maid in part because, since Tracy didn't actually spend that much time on the Moon during this period,
her presence on Earth was a constant reminder of what they despised. And since "older fans" included "fans old enough to write published articles and books about Dick Tracy
" (about the only way fans could publically express their opinions in those pre-Internet days) their opinions would dominate discussion of the strip for the next several decades. What helped made these opinions credible to fans born after this period was the fact that when Real Life
astronauts reached the Moon in 1969, they found it to be uninhabited and uninhabitable.
When that happened, Gould had Tracy bid farewell to the Moon People while Moon Maid was quietly Demoted to Extra
saw a decline in the popularity of newspapers (several longstanding papers went out of business) and Adventure strips like Tracy. Not helping was the strip's tone drifting to become bitter and cynical as the times changed. For instance, Gould used Tracy to mouth Author Tracts
to condemn Supreme Court rulings that expanded the rights of the accused, like the then recent establishing of the Miranda rights ("You have the right to remain silent") which Tracy/Gould condemned as handcuffing police officers from doing their job. While younger contemporary artists in other media would be inspired to create heroes reacting to such sentiments like Dirty Harry
, Gould was a cranky old man struggling to deal with the realities of the newspaper strip medium, such as the shrinkage of the comic strip space allotments that hampered his storytelling pacing.
Finally, Gould retired in 1977. It says much of his talent that he was both writer and artist of the strip, while the Chicago Tribune Syndicate that owned Tracy
had to replace him with separate writers and artists. Mystery writer and longtime fan Max Allan Collins took over writing, while one of Gould's former assistants, Rick Fletcher did the art. When Fletcher died in 1983,
he was replaced by another former Gould assistant Dick Locher. Collins would write for Tracy for 16 years, from 1977 to 1993. Collins is an example, both good and bad, of what happens when a Promoted Fanboy
starts Running the Asylum
. He did his best to restore what he felt was the best of the strip's past. Legacy versions of popular (and deceased) villains were introduced (and in the cases of some, like Pruneface, and Mumbles, he found ways to bring Back from the Dead
) and the gadgets were scaled back to a more reasonable level. In addition, he also had Tracy get his complaints about reforms to due process out of his system when he temporarily resigned from the force to become a private detective. He interspersed surviving villains from the Classic Gould era with Legacy Character
of deceased villains (like Flattop's daughter Angeltop and her son Hi-Top), along with some original villains of his own creation (the most famous of which was Putty Puss).
But Collins was also an ardent Junior/Sparkle shipper
, ardent enough for Die for Our Ship
levels, and on a strip where Anyone Can Die
...Within his first year of writing Tracy
, Collins brought back Moon Maid
just long enough to drop a bridge on her
, which of course delighted her Hate Dom
, but infuriated her fans. Within the same story, Collins also "revealed" that Vera Alldid cheated on Sparkle and divorced her
(all without Vera actually appearing
). Collins had the decency to wait a few years, but he then had Junior and Sparkle date and marry.
By 1993, the combined problems of the continuing decline of newspapers in general and adventure strips in particular, the disappointing box office of the 1990 Dick Tracy movie
a box office hit, but it wasn't the dominating, # 1 Summer blockbuster that its backers were hoping for) and Max Allan Collins becoming a better known writer with other works
, the Syndicate owners of the Tracy strip decided they could no longer afford a writer of Collins' fame and salary, and he was let go. Dick Locher would write and draw one story that year (better than his later work) before the Syndicate hired a lesser known writer (with a lesser salary) named Mike Kilian — who also happened to already be an acquaintance of Locher, who had illustrated several of Kilian's humor books in the previous decade — to take over the writing duties for Tracy.
Kilian was less obviously a Promoted Fanboy
of Tracy than Collins. He only used two villains from the Classic Gould years, Pruneface, and Mumbles, both of whom he Killed Off for Real
after just one story each. He much preferred creating his own villains for the strip like Piggy Bank
, No Face
, Dab Stract (a grotesque art thief who kept getting hideously scarred at the end of each of his stories so he always looked different for the next story) and Nutsy
, each of whom he'd bring back again and again. He would also have many of his villains face a Karmic Death
, especially the evil digital pirate named Cellphone.
He also added some marital strife between Dick and Tess, with Tess even filing for divorce at one point, although they soon reconciled. This actually reflected what Dick and Tess' relationship had often been like during The Thirties
Sadly, Kilian died in late 2005.
When the last of his work was published in early 2006, Locher went on to become the strip's sole author and artist...and the strip went completely and totally insane
. Under Locher's solo creative reign, the strip was plagued with bizarre, nonsensical plots; inconsistent characterization (characters shown at the start to be innocent later abruptly turn out to be Evil All Along
) and artwork (buildings, actions and characters changing appearances from day to day); and sluggish, snail-like pacing
of characters just standing around repeating themselves endlessly.
Worst of all, Tracy not only did very little detective work, he rarely did anything heroic either.
When faced with danger, he'd often just run and cower in fear until some exceptionally contrived Deus ex Machina
would save him in the last second. Locher's run coincided with Dick Tracy becoming available on the Internet, with fans now able to post their opinions on a story while it was happening. As a result, Tracy became better known (where it was known at all) for the Snark Bait
the strip provided Internet users along with Flame Wars
with a Vocal Minority
that seemed to like Locher's work than for anything going on in the strip itself.
In 2011, Locher retired and a new team headed by writer Mike Curtis and DC/Marvel artist Joe Staton took over the strip. The restart immediately had fans talking of a renaissance
, although, Curtis & Staton admittedly had an easy act to follow. Overall, they seem to be trying to adhere most to Gould's and Collins' runs on the strip, but including Gould creations and characters Collins wouldn't touch (like Vera Alldid, for example). Two elements that distinguish their run from all the predecessors, even Gould, are a tendency for crossovers
and subplots. Under their run Tracy has briefly met several characters from other strips owned by the Tribune Syndicate like the still running Gasoline Alley
, and the now defunct strips Terry and the Pirates, Brenda Starr, Mary Perkins On the Stage
, and especially Little Orphan Annie
(it's been announced that starting in June 2014, Tracy will help give Annie a Fully Absorbed Finale
). Curtis & Staton have even included unofficial Writing Around Trademarks
crossovers with characters not owned by the Tribune, most notably when they brought back Broadway Bates and loudly hinted he was the Penguin's
As for subplots, Curtis will often cut away from the main story to brief incidents involving other characters that will later lead into major stories. The first such subplot involved the arrival of a second Mr. Crime
who began assembling a large gang consisting of some of the original Mr. Crime's surviving henchmen (Panda and the Mushroom Lady), some Classic Gould villains brought Back from the Dead
by Curtis (B-B Eyes and Mumbles, the latter now has more lives than a cat
) and original villains created by Curtis and Staton (Blaze Rise, Doubleup
, and Abner Kadaver) culminating in a climatic showdown in the Summer of 2012.
But all that was small potatoes compared to the next subplot Curtis & Staton delivered, a subplot that had fans more excited for the strip than they'd been in years. For the next several months, interspersed during other stories, there were fleeting appearances of the apparent return of Moon Maid! Zapping crooks with her electric powers, with the lower part of her face mysteriously veiled, using a sledgehammer to smash her tombstone, angrily declaring she wasn't dead. Now with an Internet to express their opinions and an occasion to bring it out, Moon Maid fans eagerly posted their joy and enthusiasm at the possibility she may be coming Back from the Dead
, their love for the character and the Moon Era she came from (some even expressing a bit of a Hate Dom
for Max Allan Collins for killing her off) indicating that Moon Maid and the Moon Era were not the universally reviled Scrappy
and Dork Age that their detractors had made them out to be.
The story of her Return began in earnest in 2013, taking up much of that year, with many shocking twists and turns that had fans on the edge of their seat, guessing the outcome. The story even garnered some critical acclaim, culminating in Dick Tracy
winning the 2013 Harvey Award for Outstanding Syndicated Comic Strip or Panel (past winners have included the likes of Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, For Better or for Worse
, and Doonesbury
, so yeah a pretty big deal).
The strip has been depicted with numerous media adaptations: movie serials, the 1961/1962 TV series, The Dick Tracy Show
, cartoons, and a full-length 1990 theatrical film
starring Warren Beatty, whose specific tropes are discussed here.
The strip has had many ups and downs through the decades, but currently things seem to be looking up.
The strip can be read online at the GoComics website.
- Affectionate Parody - A long-running feature in Al Capp's Li'l Abner is that Abner's hero is a Tracy pastiche called Fearless Fosdick.
- And there's the classic Daffy Duck cartoon "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," in which Daffy dreams he's "Duck Twacy."
- Also, Tiny Toon Adventures has an episode called "The Return of Pluck Twacy", where Plucky Duck has a similar dream sequence.
- Amoral Attorney: Tracy had beefs with many lawyers, both in the pay of mobs and especially after Warren Court decisions about due process starting in the late 1950s.
- And Knowing Is Half the Battle - The Crimestopper's Textbook in the Sunday strips
- Anyone Can Die - Moon Maid, Groovy Grove, Model Jones, Jean Penfield, the Summer sisters, Brilliant.
- Collins once said that, since he's the main character, you know Tracy will make it out alive, but you could never be sure about anybody else. He believed this was essential for a credible sense of drama.
- Arguably, you pretty much only knew two things- that Dick Tracy would live, and, between the 1940s and 1970s, you were fairly sure that the villain would die. Always.
- Arm Cannon - Dr Plain had a small flamethrower built into his artificial arm.
- Author Filibuster - Gould's rants about the restrictions of due process
- Back from the Dead - Mumbles has a strange habit of cheating death. He's come back from the dead twice (both times after he apparently drowned). The recent years have also brought BB Eyes back from the dead, decades after his death.
- Technically, Mumbles has come back three times, but his third is just a case of Canon Discontinuity: Killian's "death of Mumbles" story contradicted so many points of previous continuity that Curtis seems to have just chosen to ignore it.
- Badass Longcoat
- Bad-Guy Bar - The Dripping Dagger Bar in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.
- Bald of Evil - The Brow, Cueball
- Beauty Equals Goodness - Generally played straight, though there have been exceptions (the various Mahoney women for instance). Dick Locher also tended to draw much more normal-looking villains than the other artists did.
- Flattop's still-unnamed, law-abiding sister is a notable subversion, even if she never appeared much. She looks almost identical to Flattop himself, and most would agree he isn't exactly a very handsome man to begin with.
- Berserk Button - Junior, of all people, experienced this once. Right after his first wife is murdered (by a bomb meant for Tracy himself), the first thing he does when he finds out who was responsible is take Tracy's spare gun, drive himself to their hideout and prepare to avenge his wife. Only to chicken out at the last minute, requiring Tracy to come to the rescue.
- The Mole (after reforming) gets a button pressed in a recent storyline where a crooked wrestler steals donated money meant for the poor families under the Mole's care, causing the Mole to crawl into the ring in anger to fight him. In a later arc, another one is pressed when a girl he's fond of gets kidnapped and the Mole proceeds to hunt the villain down, rescue the girl and hold the villain off until Tracy arrives.
- Big Bad - It changes every five years or so. Prominent enemies that lead nationwide syndicates include Big Boy Caprice, George Alpha (Mr. Crime), Mr. Intro, and Davey Mylar (Mr. Crime II). Prominent villains of lesser gangland status include Flattop Jones, Mumbles, and B.B. Eyes (who is becoming more and more recurring in recent years).
- Big Eater - Oodles
- The Blank - The Blank, who else? Duh! Also a Trope Namer.
- Book Safe: Flattop is hiding out in a boarding house and decides keeping his loot on his person is too risky. So, when he sees an old thick photo album under a table that looks rarely used, he decides to cut out the inner pages and hide his money in it. As it happens, the kid blackmailing Flattop has drowned while ice skating on expensive skates bought with the shakedown money. Those skates led Tracy to the boarding house where he requests the boy's mother to get a photo for the newspaper and so they go to the photo album and the money is discovered. When Tracy asks where this money came from, the mother guesses it must be from her boarder and Tracy proceeds to Flattop's room while the crook is frantically trying to escape.
- Brain Uploading - Memory Banks, in one of Collins's more offbeat stories.
- Butter Face - A number of recurring female characters.
- Canon Discontinuity - The strip's moon period of the 1960s was quickly consigned to this by Max Allan Collins after he took over as writer, and remained so under Mike Kilian and Dick Locher. However, Joe Staton and Mike Curtis began making small references to it after they took over in 2011, and fully reintegrated it into the canon the following year.
- Canon Immigrant - Staton and Curtis recently did two storylines featuring Cueball, the villain of the 1946 film Dick Tracy Vs. Cueball. They also made passing reference to Dick's late brother Gordon, who had only appeared in the first Dick Tracy film serial.
- Captain Ersatz - Early 80's art thief Art Dekko looks an awful lot like Lupin III. On the other hand, an anime homage way back in 1980 is pretty cool in and of itself.
- Car Cushion - In a rare case of a villain doing this and surviving, Joe Period does this while fleeing from the police. He leaps from three storeys from the window of an apartment on to the top of a parked a car, crushing the roof of the car but surviving to limp away.
- Carnival of Killers - 'Big Boy' Caprice created one by offering a one million dollar open contract on Tracy's life.
- Cartwright Curse - Although Junior did eventually settle down with Sparkle, he had to endure the violent deaths of both his first girlfriend, Model Jones and his first wife, Moon Maid.
- Catch Phrase: Ye gods!
- The Chase - Many of the classic stories involve elaborate manhunts. The chase to catch the Brow, once he went on the run, is one of the most memorable.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Introduced during the Flattop story, ham actor Vitamin Flintheart played a supporting role fairly regularly until the TV Wiggles story of 1950, after which he disappeared and did not return again for the duration of Gould's run. Future Tracy writer Max Allan Collins, who was fond of Flintheart, asked Gould in 1975 why he dropped the character, to which Gould cheerfully replied "Oh, we had him in there not too long ago!" Regardless, when Collins took over the strip the last week of 1977, he immediately brought Flintheart back.
- The Clan - B.O. Plenty's big, goofy, but mostly benign extended family. Also Flattop's family of crooks.
- Although Flattop's family is split. His wife, kids, and grandchild are the ones that go to crime, while his brothers and (unnamed) sister are civilians (Blowtop had to reform, though).
- Cloning Blues - After faking his death (for the second time!), Mumbles returns years later with a shady biologist in tow, claiming to be a clone of the original Mumbles. It's all an elaborate scheme to swindle research money from Diet Smith. Tracy exposes it and Mumbles goes to jail, naturally.
- Cloudcuckoolander - Everything about the Dick Locher's solo run on the strip (2006-2011). Seriously, just read it.
- Coffin Contraband - After Cinn murders George Ozone, she disposes of the murder weapon by hiding it in a stranger's coffin.
- Comic Book Time - Up through the Locher years, Tracy was allowed to age, albeit very slowly. In The Eighties he was described as being in his fifties. For a time, Locher was even drawing Dick with graying temples and Tess with crow's feet, but he later changed his mind. Staton and Curtis have pulled the biological clock back a bit and declared Dick to be in his forties (he still gets to be a grandpa because he was in his early twenties when he adopted Junior, who was probably about ten).
- Comm Links - The various wrist communicators.
- Contract on the Hitman - Fearing the police's eventual retaliation when Big Boy Caprice offered a one million dollar open contract on Tracy's life, other criminals offered a similar contract on the life of whoever claims the prize on Tracy's life.
- Creator Cameo - Dick Locher made an appearance in his final strip as artist, thanking Tracy for "32 years of high speed excitement." Whether this counts as a heartwarming moment or egotism depends on whether you prefer to remember Locher for his good artwork until 2005, or his terrible artwork and worse writing from 2006 onwards.
- Chester Gould once created a villain named Pear-Shape who was a parody of himself.
- Cross Over: The new creative team has done a bunch. We've had cameo guest appearances from the casts of Gasoline Alley, Brenda Starr, Terry and the Pirates, Mary Perkins On Stage, Lum And Abner, and Little Orphan Annie, and the (strictly unofficial) revelation that Broadway Bates is the brother of the Penguin. Further, they've hinted that a future story will serve as a Fully Absorbed Finale to Little Orphan Annie.
- There had been a previous crossover with Brenda Starr back in 1994.
- The Annie crossover has officially begun and is currently running.
- Daddy's Little Villain - Angeltop, the daughter of the infamous hitman Flattop.
- Dangerously Close Shave - Sam Catchem nearly has his throat slit while getting a shave from Empty's girlfriend Bonnie the Barber.
- Deadly Doctor - Dr. Plain.
- Dead Man's Chest - 88 Keys hides a corpse in his grand piano.
- A tree surgeon, after committing murder, hides the body inside a tree trunk that had been split by weather. The tree heals around it and the body goes undiscovered until the tree is cut down, decades later, when the murderer is an old man.
- Death by Materialism - Mumbles drowns (although a later writer would bring him Back from the Dead) when he falls from a helicopter and the bag of stolen gold and gems he had strapped to his back holds him headfirst underwater.
- Deathtrap - Only Tracy often needed rescue to fully escape them.
- Dodgy Toupee - The defining characteristic of bad guy Rughead.
- Everyone Knows Morse - Tracy escapes from Flattop by tapping out Morse code with his foot to communicate with the WAC-in-training living in the apartment below.
- The Faceless - Spots, the Blank when masked.
- Family-Unfriendly Death - People regularly die in perverse (and graphic) ways, such as getting run over by a steamroller, or having their eyes gouged out. And this is all printed on the comics page. However, unless you're looking for collections aimed at adult readers, don't expect to see these endings —Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy, I'm looking squarely at you!! — because many of them were cut in recent years by Moral Guardians concerned that the deaths were a bit TOO graphic... though it did leave the impression that baddies like the psycho killer Flattop, the vile spy The Brow and others are still around and doing, um, what they do best...
- Better yet, the steamroller death took place on Christmas Day, and in the same frame the writers wished their readers "Happy Holidays from Dick and the gang!"
- Gould himself said that the worst death of all went to The Brow, who was impaled on a flagpole so hard that he went all the way down to the ground.
- That one was intended to be a Karmic Death, as The Brow was a Nazi spy, and the flagpole he was impaled on bore the US Flag.
- Or the 1932 villain Kenneth Grebb, who was crushed to death by an avalanche. If he survived, he was maimed and died of asphyxiation.
- Or Selbert DePool, who was crushed alive on a CHILDREN'S PARADE FLOAT.
- Flattop died in the same lake he drowned a child in.
- Doc Hump gets his throat brutally ripped out by his own dog *ON THE PANEL*.
- Fat Bastard - Brutal hitman Oodles who weighs 470 lbs.
- Femme Fatale - Sleet
- Fiction 500 - Diet Smith
- Five-Bad Band: Stanton and Curtis have done this with the new Mr. Crime, assembling a conglomerate of villains.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum - Most of the Moon Period technology was never mentioned again after Moon Maid's death... until the Staton and Curtis run, when some of it has recently returned.
- Freaky Fashion, Mild Mind
- Frenemy: Blackjack is showing signs of this. He became a criminal because he's Tracy's biggest fan and so he wanted to join Tracy's Rogues Gallery. He's quite nuts, if you couldn't tell.
- Gadget Watches
- Gonk - Most of the villains.
- Gosh Hornet - In the early 60s, Spots and his minion Ogden get trapped by a swarm of bees.
- Grumpy Old Man - B.O. Plenty
- Hair-Trigger Temper - Blowtop
- Half-Human Hybrid: Honeymoon Tracy, child of Junior Tracy and Mysta "Moon Maid" Tracy.
- Also, Mysta Chimera, the new Moon Maid, who is a surgically and genetically altered human.
- Handicapped Badass - Dr. Plain
- Heartwarming Orphan - Junior.
- Heel-Face Turn - Vitamin Flintheart, B.O. Plenty, and Gravel Gertie are the most well-known. The Mole also went straight years ago, and in recent years has become a prominent supporting character.
- The criminal hypnotist Influence went straight during the Collins years. Now he makes a living helping people recover repressed memories. He recently made a cameo, helping a witness remember information.
- He's Back - Pat Patton, who had been written out of the strip by Dick Locher, made his return within days of Mike Curtis and Joe Staton taking over.
- High Voltage Death - The Claw in Dick Tracy's Dilemma, who dies when his Hook Hand snags some high voltage wiring while he is trying to stab Tracy.
- Hillbilly Accent - B.O. Plenty.
- Hitman with a Heart - The Iceman, who falls for Sparkle Plenty. He dies a Karmic Death, but does a minor Heel-Face Turn at the last minute, for her sake.
- Hobos - Steve the Tramp was a murderous hobo.
- Hook Hand - The Claw from Dick Tracy's Dilemma.
- Human Notepad - George Ozone tattooed a treasure map on to the insoles of the feet of his sons. He then killed the tattoo artist.
- Human Popsicle - In the Collins years, we learn the Nazis froze Pruneface. He gets revived only to die all over again.
- Humongous Mecha - TRAZE-R, the giant robot Dick Tracy.
- The Hyena - 'Laffy' Smith
- Iconic Sequel Character: The strip debuted in 1931, but it's The Forties that introduced many of its most famous characters. Three of the most frequently seen and referred to of Tracy's villains Flattop, Pruneface, and Mumbles, all made their debut then, as well as two villains who've been made more prominent under Curtis & Staton: The Mole (now reformed) and B-B Eyes (Back from the Dead and as rotten as ever). The decade also marked the debut of Vitamin Flintheart, Diet Smith, B. O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie along with their daughter Sparkle Plenty. The end of that decade marked the debut of Sam Catchem, who's been a regular ever since.
- Improbable Hairstyle - Crewy Lou, although all the characters do think it looks odd.
- Informed Judaism - Dick's partner Sam Catchem was introduced as a Jewish guy, which was pretty progressive for the 1940s. It rarely has any bearing on the storylines, though, and so isn't mentioned much.
- It has been getting a bit more play in the new Staton-Curtis strips, though.
- In the Blood - Flattop's big extended family, though some of them reform.
- Joker Immunity: A notable aversion. Gould created all sorts of bizarre, unforgettable villains through the decades, most of whom he'd have Killed Off for Real after just one story. His single most famous and popular villain, Flattop, is the best example of this. After a sensational three month run, Flattop was caught, promptly broke out of jail, continued to elude Tracy for another two months, and then drowned. His body was found, recovered, positively identified, and buried.
- Karmic Death: The main villain of some storylines suffer one, usually of the "Cruel & Unusual" variety.
- Kid Sidekick - Junior
- Killer Gorilla - Sleet is nearly done in by one.
- Lantern Jaw of Justice - One of Tracy's distinguishing features, to the point where Warren Beatty took heavy criticism for refusing to wear the prosthetic makeup to give him Tracy's profile in the 90s film.
- Of course, other accounts state that Beatty wanted to wear the makeup, but the studio wouldn't let him cover up his famous mug.
- Large Ham - Aged thespian Vitamin Flintheart is a good guy and one of Dick's best friends, but his charm comes from being an enormous ham.
- Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: From the recent Staton and Curtis run.◊
- Legacy Character: This was one way Gould and his successors have brought back some aspect of popular villians who'd been Killed Off for Real. Some equally evil family member would later show up either to avenge their family or simply be up to serious criminal activities.
- The biggest example is Flattop. Not only do we have his father (Poptop), his siblings (Sharptop, Blowtop and an unnamed sister) and his KIDS (Flattop Jr. and Angeltop) but now we have his freaking GRANDSON (Hi-Top). In 2012, Curtis & Staton intorduced his equally evil wife, Mrs. Flattop!
- It should be pointed out that Poptop was a law-abiding, albeit alchoholic and abusive father who was ashamed of his kids' (Flattop and Blowtop) and granddaughter's (Angeltop) criminal career (he hasn't been seen to comment about Hi-Top). Sharptop and the unnamed sister were also honest, although Sharptop did go on a crime spree when possessed by the ghost of Flattop.
- In 1942, over a year before he created Flattop, Chester Gould had created a sympathetic supporting character named Frizzletop, a friendly, good-natured nurse who had lost one of her arms in World War II. Frizzletop appeared in several stories before dropping out of sight in 1943 several months before Flattop's debut. In 2012, Curtis & Staton briefly brought her back to reveal that she was Flattop's honest cousin and to try to warn Tracy of the arrival of Mrs. Flattop.
- The earliest example is the rather bland villain Jacques. No sooner was he killed, then his brother, the grotesque B-B Eyes, showed up to avenge him. Later, Gould had another of his grotesques, Itchy, team up with Mrs. B-B Eyes. Still later, Collins created Itchy's brother Twicthy teamed up with Jacques and B-B Eyes' other brother, B-D Eyes. Curtis found a way to bring B-B Eyes Back from the Dead.
- Pruneface. After his capture and death, Gould created his avenging widow, Mrs. Pruneface. Curiously, Collins brought Pruneface Back from the Dead and still created another evil Legacy Character, the Prunfaces' granddaughter, Prunela. Kilian created Prunela's daughter, Prune Hilda. Eventually, Kilian wiped out the entire Pruneface clan. It's unknown if Curtis will ever try to expand on them.
- Shaky created a bizarre, two-way legacy. After beind Killed Off for Real, Gould created Shaky's totaly dissimilar yet equally evil stepdaughter, Breathless Mahoney. Collins carried on Shaky's legacy with his niece, Quiver Trembly, while Kilian created Mahoney's sister, Heartless Mahoney.
- In 1990, Collins created a story that Subverted the whole Legacy Character trope with a "team up" of Big Boy's grandson Little Boy, Flattop's grandson Hi-Top, and Breathless Mahoney's cousin Restless Mahoney. But in the end, it turned out Little Boy wasn't Big Boy's grandson, he was just a Big Bad Wannabe; while Restless Mahoney was actually a Reverse Mole, she'd actually been privately offended when Little Boy and Hi-Top approached her assuming she'd be a crook just because her cousin was. The only one of the three who was a Played Straight example of a Legacy Character was Hi-Top.
- Within his first year of writing Tracy, Curtis created his own evil family legacy. First Curtis created a lady drug pusher named Hot Rize. Just a few months after she was Killed Off for Real, Curtis created her just as evil twin sister (not an Evil Twin trope since both sisters are just as bad) Blaze Rize.
- A rare non-family example is Mr. Crime. Davey Mylar had no apparent connection, family or otherwise with the original Mr. Crime, George Alpha, but was able to reassemble his organization, including a couple of Alpha's surviving henchmen Panda and the Mushroom Lady, when he got a hold of some of Alpha's old files.
- An even rarer benign form of Legacy Character has now showed up with the new Moon Maid.
- Loony Fan: Blackjack, who deliberately wants to be a part of Dick Tracy's Rogues Gallery, to the point where he shoots Tracy's hat so he could be part of his Wall of Hats.
- Magic Plastic Surgery - Dr. Carver, plastic surgeon to the underworld.
- Master of Disguise - Puttypuss
- Meaningful Name - Pretty much everybody. However, a few minor characters who got promoted to series regulars wound up permanently stuck with names that only related to the plotline which introduced them. Poor Vitamin Flintheart!
- Mugged for Disguise - In the Rughead arc, Rughead does this to a cab driver, stealing his uniform and his cab.
- Narrating the Obvious - In 2009 the narration box over a drawing of a character playing solitaire blared, "SOLITAIRE".
- Name Face Name: A common trope, notable exaples are Pruneface, Littleface and Flyface.
- Nice Hat - The ol' yellow fedora. He actually keeps a "Wall of Hats" where he collects the ones with bullet holes in them.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: George Tawara, a character based on George Takei, with Takei's approval, introduced in 2013 to provide information on internment camps. Also notable for being a positively portrayed gay man in the strip.
- The Nondescript
- Nonstandard Character Design - while the villains are weird-looking, they're supposed to be freaks in-universe. Gravel Gertie and B.O. Plenty, on the other hand, look like they wandered in from another comic strip with a very different art style.
- Official Couple - Dick and Tess had a very, very long engagement. When they finally announced one day that they had just eloped, the entire cast was stunned.
- Off Model - The strip's artwork tended to veer into this in Gould's later years, although given that he was prone to experimentation in this period, some of it may have been a conscious choice on his part. Played very straight with Dick Locher's work from 2006 to 2009; Jim Brozman's efforts between 2009 and 2011 were a bit better, but not by a whole lot.
- Outside Ride - Tracy's dog Mugg would often ride on the top of Tracy's patrol car.
- Overlord Jr. - Flattop's son, Flattop Jr. (although he is never actually referred to by that name in the strip).
- Papa Wolf - Tracy, when Crewy Lou kidnaps his infant daughter.
- The Mole also fits this in recent storylines long after he reforms. He loves all the familes that live in his old hideout, but he's especially close to a little girl named Toad Spencer. As villain Sweatbox found out, kidnapping Toad will get Mole to hunt you down on his own and proceed to beat you up when he finds you.
- Plague Master - Captain Cure
- Plucky Comic Relief - Vitamin Flintheart, B.O.Plenty
- Police Procedural
- Porn Stache - Tracy sported one of these for a while in the '70s. Eventually, his coworkers physically hold him down and shave the ridiculous thing off. His response afterward is, "Thanks."
- Also Groovy Grove and Johnny Adonis.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: The handling of the non-gangster villains in media adaptations. In the case of Nazi spy Pruneface, he was turned into a simple mob boss. The Blank, in the Dick Tracy movie, didn't fair as well: the Blank became a disguise for Breathless Mahoney, who wore a man's suit, a flesh colored stocking over her head, and talked like a guy, and basically started killing off Dick Tracy's various enemies to take over the criminal underworld (so that Dick could have time to marry Breathless, if he had no bad guys to arrest).
- Pragmatic Villainy - When Big Boy puts out a million dollar open contract to kill Tracy, the organized crime ruling committee, The Apparatus, confront the old dying gangster to tell him that it must be cancelled because not only is killing police officers nowadays more trouble than it's worth, but that Tracy is gearing up to retaliate with the police department's Organized Crime Unit.
- Pretty in Mink - A few rich ladies would wear fur.
- Protagonist Title
- Reconstruction - Staton and Curtis are currently attempting to redeem the controversial Moon Period in the readership's eyes. So far, fan reaction has been positive.
- Red Right Hand - Most of the strip's most famous villains were grotesque in some fashion (Flattop, Pruneface, the Brow, etc.).
- Revenge Before Reason - Big Boy's open contract on Tracy, which even his fellow gangsters say is crazy.
- Similarly the Blank's murder spree; all because he was driven to madness over being rejected by his former friends due to his disfigurement.
- Rogues Gallery - Flattop, the Brow, Shaky, Itchy, Mumbles, BB Eyes, Pruneface, Little Face, the Mole, Stooge Viller, Steve the Tramp, Big Frost, Influence, Measles, Gargles, Wormy, Blowtop, TV Wiggles, the Blank, Breathless Mahoney, Crewy Lou, Piggy Butcher, Pearshape Tone, Mr. Crime, Oodles, The Chin Chillars, Spots, Empty Williams, Big Boy Caprice, Pouch, Flyface, Rhodent, and many, many more.
- Scare Campaign - The story arc about music/movie piracy as not only ham-handed, factually incorrect/out of touch on most counts, and like much of the strip then utterly bugnuts, it also included dire warnings about downloading, comparing it to buying drugs, and had PSAs warning parents they could suffer the consequences for their children downloading MP3s, complete with an image of police car with sirens blaring zooming at top speed toward a suburban home.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here! - Played for laughs in one of Mike Kilian's earlier stories. After listening to two rival villains talking at length about why they want revenge on one another, Tracy suddenly starts to leave the building, saying that their dispute has nothing to do with the police and that they can sort it out themselves. The villains are taken aback, as they had both hoped to get Tracy to arrest and/or kill the other one, and try to persuade him to stay. It then turns out that what Tracy was actually doing by pretending to leave was distracting them so that Sam and Lizz could sneak up and knock them out — which the crooks don't discover until after they come around and find themselves cuffed.
- Shoot The Builder - George Ozone tattooed a treasure map on the insoles of the feet of his sons. He then murdered the tattoo artists (although one survived) so they could not reveal the secret.
- Sidekick - Sam Catchem (originally Pat Patton, before Pat got promoted).
- The Simple Life Is Simple - Averted. 88 Keyes thinks he can hide out on a farm, but his total lack of experience in farming quickly gives him away.
- The Speechless - Crewy Lou's henchman Sphinx. He destroyed his voice when he accidentally drank a glass of poison he intended for a pal of his.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad - B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie.
- The Mole has gotten two story arcs of his own in the past couple of years and has also started showing up more recently.
- Street Urchin - Junior, before his adoption by Tracy.
- Super Cell Reception: Dick's first and most famous gadget is his Two-Way Wrist Radio, first used in the 1940s. Thus, the detective had a wrist communicator that was incredibly small and powerful for its day and the strip took maximum advantage of it for the heroes to get themselves out of sticky situations.
- Technology Marches On - While some of the extreme examples like the Space Coupe with its magnetic propulsion system are straight examples, Tracy's various wrist communicators have always felt reasonably in line with the times with occasional upgrades over the years (the latest iteration being the Wrist Wizard).
- Teens Are Monsters - This is not uncommon in the series. Many teens fall off the rickety slope. Flattop Jones Jr. and Ivy committed multiple homicides at sixteen and Jimmy White was a mob hitman, repeat larcenist, and cold blooded murderer at seventeen. Mindy Ermine counted too before she became the new Moon Maid.
- Those Wacky Nazis - Pruneface and the Brow
- Throwing Off the Disability - The Mayor's invalid wife rises from her bed to shoot Mrs Pruneface and save her daughters.
- Took a Level in Badass: Groovy Grove, Tracy's hippie sidekick, gradually became a much more serious and heroic character once Max Allan Collins took over the writing. It didn't prevent him from being killed, mind you, but he did at least get into a relationship with Lizz in the months prior to his death.
- Train Escape - Shakey does it to lose the pursuing Tracy in his climatic attempt to escape.
- Trapped in a Sinking Car:
- The Brow killed the treacherous Summer sisters by forcing their cab off a bridge into the river. They were trapped inside and drowned.
- A 2014 story ends with criminal siblings Silver and Sprocket Nitrate locked inside a car at the bottom of a lake—where Sprocket had deliberately driven them after her brother struck her. The story cuts away before they actually drown, but they aren't reported as living either.
- Tunnel King - The Mole
- Twenty Minutes into the Future - Even before it got ridiculous with the space period and after it pulled back, Dick Tracy has an ample supply of futuristic gadgets, especially with his various wrist communicators.
- Two-Faced - Haf-and-Haf
- Ugly Guy, Hot Wife - Subverted with Pruneface and Mrs. Pruneface.
- And B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie, for that matter.
- The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter - How did B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie produce a child who looks like Sparkle?
- The Unintelligible - Mumbles and later Merky.
- The Vamp - Breathless Mahoney.
- Vapor Trail - Happens to Measles
- Verbal Tic - Empty, who prefaced almost everything he said with "As a matter 'a fact".
- Doubleup repeats the last few words of his dialogue. His dialogue.
- Video Phone - Dick's "2-Way Wrist TV" that carries this function and is used to communicate with police headquarters.
- Villainous Glutton - Oodles
- We Need to Get Proof - In the NES Dick Tracy, Dick needs to gather a significant amount of evidence before confronting the villains.
- What a Drag - Wormy tries to kill Tracy by chaining him to the back of a car and dragging him along the road. Tracy is able to unhook the chain, but not before he is pretty badly banged up by the ordeal.
- What a Piece of Junk - Joe Period drove a beat-up junker with a fuel-injected engine that could go over 110 mph and burn off any police car on the road.
- Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys? - From Diet Smith Enterprises, mostly. Tracy met Diet when a crook tried to steal the plans to Diet's wrist radio. Diet has supplied the police with nifty gadgets ever since.
- Whip It Good - Mrs Pruneface
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Inverted in that's what Flattop wanted to do to Tracy in the beginning when he could have had his henchmen simply slash his throat earlier instead.
- Wild Hair - B.O. Plenty. Also Junior, well into his adulthood, but he did eventually start combing it.
- Worthy Opponent - Big Boy Caprice admits this much of Tracy at the end of the NES game.
- Would Hit a Girl - Well, Dick would hit a homicidal female as large as himself, anyway.
- Zeerust: Then: "Ooh, wrist phone! Super high-tech!" Now: "Why doesn't he just keep his phone in his pocket like the rest of us?"