Dowsing for Cartoonists

by Jonathan Gaboury

01/14/2015

The Dick Tracy Headquarters occupies a small corner of the Pawnee County Historical Museum, and the exhibit looks as particular as a little boy’s bedroom. Shiny chrome cars and ugly Al Pacino dolls sit stock-still and untouched. Lonely objects across the room from each other are actually in cahoots: the yellow of Tracy’s trench coat, the packaging of old toys, the yellow mugs and hats. Though dust coats the shelves, no amount of it could get in the way of that primary yellow, the color of a sun that never sets into orange or pink or purple.

The HQ’s curator is Darrell Gambill, an 89-year-old Pawnee resident who left town with the Navy but came back in the ‘80s. On what might have been his first night back in Pawnee, he watched television and encountered a game show’s contagious daftness: The host proclaimed that, yes, Dick Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, was indeed born in Illinois, and gave the contestant a point. When Gambill heard this he was so “pissed off” that he wrote a letter to the show’s producers, who replied with an apology. Now it’s 2014, and Gambill, who wears a pinned-on sheriff’s star when he works at the museum, is still correcting that ignorance. The Dick Tracy Headquarters is set up for one reason: “to get the word out, mostly.”

Chester Gould was born in Pawnee in 1900. Gould’s father respected newspapers, and his son thought the comic sections were a treat. In 1921, Gould left Oklahoma for Illinois, where he would finish his commerce and marketing degree at Northwestern University, as he was figuring out how to be a professional cartoonist.

For 10 years, Gould was brimming with ideas for comic strips—60, according to Gould’s daughter, Jean. He sent everything he had to every newspaper he could. When a mobster-hunting detective popped into his head, the idea was still gestating; he was originally Plainclothes Tracy. It took a telegram from Captain Joseph Patterson of the Chicago Tribune to set Gould’s 61st idea straight. The telegram weighed the clumsiness of the name against the potential of the concept. Gould listened to Patterson, and the Dick Tracy origin story premiered on October 12, 1931. In the beginning, Tracy was just an unremarkable man asking his girlfriend’s father how his delicatessen was doing. On the fifth day, the deli was robbed and Emil Trueheart was fatally shot. On the ninth day, Tracy swore revenge.

•••

Comics used to be called funny books, but now, in Gambill’s opinion, they’re much too political. Incidentally, it’s the blackness that’s so often singled out as the key feature of Gould’s comic strip.

Critic Donald Phelps put it quite memorably:

This blackness is not darkness—not the dimming of withdrawal of light—but the supplanting of light by a vigorous, surface-rending presence, which commands the design in its perverse, roughshod energy.

So what happens to Dick Tracy when you cut out the brutality? When you emphasize the yellow hat over the black shadows?

Gambill’s answer was blunt and believable: Gould “brought life to the whole thing.” It was an argument for the vitality and eccentricity of the art, but what did Gambill mean by “the whole thing”? Comics, culture, or some vaster enterprise? He pointed to a poster that was essentially a periodic table of Gould’s elements: a welter of faces, characters, and silhouettes with gargoyles, gangsters, and damsel, and even the real people who were converted into goofy denizens. Nearby, a placard reveals that Gould transmogrified 10 of his high school peers into business names like Lexie Marlin Co. and Les Lehew Fine Cigars for a 1946 strip. The comics seemed to be their own Pawnee museum.

The red-shirted sheriff took his time walking me over to a black-and-white photo of Gould in overalls sprawled out on his own lawn. Gould had fixed up some little gravestones with the faces of those he had killed in the strip. It was like a cartoon version of Spoon River Anthology: “Where are Itchy, Mumbles, Flattop, and Gargles? / All, all, are sleeping on the hill.” In the picture, Gould looks serene, dangling a pair of scissors, maybe thinking of weeding a little later. I never had the feeling that this museum was too hermetic, stuffy, or death-obsessed for its own good, because Gambill, whenever he could, kept pointing me to the world outside: Gravel Gertie was based on the gravel pits of Cary, Illinois, or Governor Fallin came to visit us recently, or the mayor wore yellow in the big police parade last October.

So I looked outside—up beyond the swaddled Warren Beatty figures, over the peaks of downtown garbage cans and the roofs of American SUVs, into the blue sky of a sunny day in Oklahoma. I wondered where the kids were

•••

I was in search of the spirit of cartooning, not of Tracy, a current from the ‘30s that seems still around. On a basic level, cartoons begin with icons, those legible reductions of reality. In Oklahoma, there is the master icon: the state’s shape itself, which conjures up an America that is fond of both finger-pointing and destiny-manifesting. There are tourism icons: the Golden Driller, the Blue Whale of Catoosa, the neck of a pumpjack. Social icons: no guns allowed. Cultural or corporate icons: Pistol Pete, the various Joes in Stillwater. However, sometimes all that remains of a lost past is a benign icon. Dick Tracy has been accepted as the archetype of “law and order,” as Gambill put it. In the shadow of these deeply public images, some of the most expressive Oklahoman comics are situated out of the way, or buried in another medium. At the Woody Guthrie Museum, I admired the anti-fascist’s doodles and cartoons, and next door at the Philbrook Downtown, I lingered over the biting humor of Woody Crumbo’s painting The Land of Enchantment, which is a piece with the forlorn wilderness of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics and points forward to MAD magazine’s dismantling of tropes. I bought four beers from a local bottle shop and unexpectedly laughed out loud at Colin Healey’s comic about noodling on the label for Prairie Artisan Ale’s Prairie Standard. On it, a man with a mullet nabs a catfish wearing a cute cap.

I wrote to Colin and asked why he put a whimsical eight-panel comic on this label. Colin replied, “Noodling instantly came to mind, and I stayed up all night working on the label until it was finished. The comic provided people from other parts of the U.S. a glimpse into Midwestern culture while also poking fun at ourselves.” The space constraint of a label made him pare down and use standard icons: “Eye-catching and legibility are definitely important. When I first started making labels one of my biggest concerns was whether someone in a dark bar could read the label while standing far away,” he wrote.

I was happy to hear that the darkness of Dick Tracy was making a comeback, though when I asked Colin about Gould and Pawnee, he blinked: “I had to Google his name and didn’t know he was from Oklahoma. Ya learn something new every day.”

The spirit is in doodles and beer labels, in indie zines and mini-comics. Jessica Garvey, a young cartoonist from Oklahoma City, is the author of It Did Happen, a short self-published comic about dating, bad news, and the precariousness of the past. Jessica told me about the benefits of simplicity and delved into a bit of McCloudian comics theory: “The more lines you add to a face, the more specific it becomes, but it also becomes less relatable. When you are viewing a face built with symbols, you can connect the dots and relate that expression to yourself. You are not only sharing in constructing the character in your mind, but you are also putting a piece of yourself into it. But when you are staring at a gritty superhero’s scowling face, there is less room to do that.”

The “scowling face” was not a reference to Dick Tracy, though it could have been. It must be said, the distinct-looking Dick Tracy is very evidently not you. Since he’s not you, you need to make new yous. This idea animates young artists. What you can see in Oklahoma is the lack of an anxiety of influence; instead, it is an open territory of dispersed, scrappy visionaries. Charles Martin, the creative director of Edmond-based Literati Press, fights off the image of Oklahoma as a desert by publishing novels, comics, and anthologies. “We like to create the kind of content that we would consume after decades of life, scars, and baggage have left us with a more refined palette,” he wrote. The covers of Literati books—dog, skull, fire—are roughhewn and primal, suitable camouflage for this unruly state. In person, we talked about the lay of the land and some of the names that keep coming up: Sarah Horrocks, a Broken Arrow cartoonist, whose stylish, ragged work pops and unnerves; Natasha Alterici, who is illustrating Illustrated Girl, a successfully funded Kickstarter project; and James Vance, author of two celebrated Great Depression comics, Kings in Disguise and On the Ropes, with artist Dan Burr.

It didn’t bother Martin that there isn’t a clear heads-above-the-rest Oklahoman comic right now. He sung the praises of this moment of pure potential. “It is also possible that the defining Oklahoma comic hasn’t been written yet, but soon will be by one of the up and comers soldiering through conventions across the region, blasting out an endless string of commissions at Free Comic Day, and slaving away at second and third jobs just so they can save the money for the next print run of a title none of us have even heard of yet, but will soon blow all of our minds.”


Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 1, 2015.