“Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive”: socking jaws with snappy one-liners

“Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive”: socking jaws with snappy one-liners

A man in a green checkered jacket is on the run.  Bounding through an airport, toting a briefcase that is stuffed with cash, he keeps looking nervously over his shoulder.  Sweat drenching his brow, the man is clearly outrunning an unseen pursuer, and given his demeanor it’s safe to assume that the cash was obtained by less than legitimate means.

Thanks to a stray newspaper, we can all but confirm this man’s criminal activities.  His picture is plastered on the front page of the paper, accompanied by a banner head that reads “MANHUNT FOR SOFTWARE MOGUL G. JEPSON PEEPERS.”  The headline that follows: “CHIEF SUSPECT IN CLOUD CAM KILLER CASE” and “DID PEEPER’S POCKETS NIX PREVIOUS CRIMES?”

If Peepers can just get to his private jet, then he can get away to his private island.  If he can get to his private island, then he’ll be free from any legal trouble he’s found himself in.

Unfortunately for Peepers, the law is waiting for him in a yellow trench coat.  Dick Tracy is on the scene to catch the crook, greeting him with “the warrant in my pocket says hello, Peepers.”

So begins the first issue of the new IDW series Dick Tracy: Dead or Alive, a book that is full of two-fisted adventure and amazing one-liners.

My exposure to Dick Tracy has been limited over the years, though I’ve always been aware of the character.  I’ve seen the 1990 movie a few times and have read a few strips here and there, but he’s mostly been a character of known of without having too much familiarity.  Like the Shadow or Doc Savage, Tracy was a character that’s always been around, a monument to the pulpy origins of the comic medium.

When IDW announced this new series, though, I certainly stood at attention, and with Mike, Laura, and Lee Allred on board, I was completely sold.  In giving Dick Tracy a “modern” update, the Allreds have wisely decided to keep the story old-fashioned, and that’s precisely why it succeeds on almost every level.

For Dick Tracy isn’t really a conflicted character.  He’s a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn’t take guff from anybody, but he’s still a good cop who will do whatever it takes to catch the bad guys.  Inner turmoil and moral quandaries can make a character more interesting, no question.  Seeing, say, Superman wrestle with an ethical dilemma, and watching as Spider-Man tries to juggle the fragile aspects of his personal life make the characters relatable, and by overcoming those obstacles they grow and endure.

Dick Tracy doesn’t need that, though, at least not here: he’s a good guy who catches bad guys.  That’s all you need to know, and he works perfectly because of that. 

Joined by penciler Rich Tommaso, the Allreds perfectly capture the feeling of a daily newspaper strip.  In fact, other than the fact that the comic format allows for a story to breathe more than it could in short four-panel installments, this reads largely like a classic serial. 

It’s a perfect blend of pulp stylings in modern trappings.  In not trying to modernize the characters or the storytelling style, Dick Tracy works precisely because it’s elements are so simple.  You have a good guy who will stop at nothing to catch the bad guys, whether they’re crime bosses, crooked mayors, or a dirty police commissioner. 

It’s the snappy dialogue that really drives the story home, too.  It’s gloriously hard-boiled without going too over the top, sharp and witty without being smug and self-aware.  Take Tracy’s conversation with the police chief.  “Only the most powerful man in Silicon Valley, that’s all he is,” the chief laments.  “Some people you just don’t arrest!”

Tracy retorts “would the mayor care to write me up a list?  I could carry it around in my wallet.”  He’s a good cop surrounded by all sorts of criminals, and he doesn’t care who he offends so long as he gets the job done.  There aren’t many layers to the narrative, nor do there need to be; all you need to know is the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and Dick Tracy is the best of the best.

To paraphrase another one of Tracy’s one-liners, he doesn’t shoot first, but he does shoot to kill.  I’d say that, based on this issue, then Dick Tracy has hit his mark. 

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