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 '30s 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 '40s 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, the Mole, B-B Eyes, Pruneface, 88 Keyes, 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 like. 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 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 son 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 50s, stories became longer (the Mr. Crime case lasted for nearly a full year) and the villains became more vicious (Sparkle was an occasional 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 like a teenaged version of his father and was just as murderous.
The decade also saw the debut of the last character to become a full-time regular on the strip, the photographer turned policewoman Lizz. Lizz was a bonafide 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 '60s 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 horns 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, Tracy, and Diet Smith back to the Moon, which was revealed to be a lush enviornment with varied terrain and populated by Moon People, led by her father the Moon Governor. When Dick, Diet, and Junior headed back to Earth, Moon Maid came with them to be with Junior. On Earth, Moon Maid would become an instant celebrity, and she and Junior soon married. Their daughter, Honeymoon, would be born in a Space Coupe on a trip between Earth and the Moon. Moon Maid would do her own part in fighting crime by zapping crooks with her electric powers.
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 actually increased 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. 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.
The '70s saw a decline in the popularity of Adventure strips like Tracy. The strip's tone drifting to become bitter and cynical as the times changed. For instance, Gould used the strip 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 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. In spite of this, the 70s saw some of the most striking art in the strip's history, and Gould's art assistants distinguished themselves as exceptional talents.
Gould retired in 1977. The Chicago Tribune Syndicate that owned Tracy had to replace him, selecting a separate writer and artist. 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. In the cases of some, like Pruneface, and Mumbles, he found ways to bring Back from the Dead). The gadgets were scaled back to a more reasonable level, and the trappings of the Moon Era were almost entirely eliminated. 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 (such as Putty Puss). He was also able to incorporate classic villains through the use of flashbacks and dream sequences.
Collins was also a vocal 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 Sparkle's husband Vera Alldid had cheated on her and subsequently divorced her (all without Vera actually appearing). Collins eventually 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 (it was 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 ( Ms. Tree, Road to Perdition...), 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 occasionally seemed to have only a passing familiarity with the strips' history, and 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 did introduce previously unknown relatives for both Pruneface and the long-deceased Breathless Mahoney. Kilian seemed to prefer 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 '30s. Tess also struggled with weight gain during Kilian's tenure.
Kilian died in late 2005. When the last of his work was published in early 2006, Locher went on to become the strip's primary author and artist, eventually working with an assistant - Jim Brozman. Under Locher's creative reign, the strip featured 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. 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/Charlton artist Joe Staton took over the strip. The restart immediately had fans talking of a renaissance. Overall, they seem to be trying to adhere most to Gould's and Collins' runs on the strip. Two elements that distinguish their run from all the predecessors 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: Reporter, Mary Perkins On the Stage, and Little Orphan Annie. In the Summer and early Fall of 2014, Tracy helped 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 older brother.
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.
The next subplot Curtis & Staton delivered occurred over several months, interspersed during other stories, in which there were fleeting appearances of the apparent return of Moon Maid. The story of her Return began in earnest in 2013, taking up much of that year, with many twists and turns. The story even garnered some critical acclaim, culminating in Dick Tracy winning the Harvey Award for Outstanding Syndicated Comic Strip or Panel for three years in a row for 2012, 2013, and 2014 (past winners have included the likes of Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, For Better or for Worse, and Doonesbury. Curtis and Staton later revived the prominent Moon Era villain Mr. Bribery as well.