Chester Gould, Creator of Dick Tracy

June 10, 2005

    Dogged determination and an amazing 61 comic strip ideas over a ten -year span at long last made the dream of Chester Gould a reality in 1931. He kept his attention focused on cartooning for the Chicago Tribune; Chester finally won over the editor with an action-filled crime comic strip featuring an incorruptible detective and an array of ugly bad guys. That good-guy detective could only have been... Dick Tracy.

    Chester Gould was born in Pawnee, Oklahoma on November 20, 1900, to Alice and Gilbert Gould. Chester was fascinated with comic strips and began drawing his own versions of cartoons by the age of seven. His father, a publisher of a weekly newspaper, encouraged his son’s interest in sketching and drawing, and by the time he was in his late teens, the young Gould had won first place in a couple of art contests. He worked as a painter of advertising signs for a summer; then used his earnings to take a correspondence course in cartooning and caricature.

    Before Chester even finished high school, his cartoons had appeared in two college yearbooks, in a 27-page Class History for his own school and in a collection of 18 political cartoons for The Tulsa Democrat, for which he was paid the handsome sum of $35. *(2) Art was his life and his dreams were forming.

    Enrolled in Oklahoma A & M College in 1919, Chester studied Business Administration. He transferred to Chicago, Illinois’ Northwestern University in 1921, taking night classes and graduating in 1923. To support himself, Chester produced art for the advertising and sports departments of several newspapers in Chicago. He also drew two comic strips for the Evening American, “Radio Catts” and “Fillum Fables”, wrote theatre reviews and a Chicago feature column entitled “Why It’s a Windy City.”

    On the social side, Chester was introduced to a young woman on a blind date in 1925. He married that young woman, Edna Gauger, in November 1926 and they had their daughter Jean Ellen in 1927. The Gould family made their home on a farm near Woodstock, Illinois.

    Throughout his studies and working steadily, Chester drew comic strips, submitting them to the Chicago Tribune in an attempt to catch the attention of the editor, Joseph Patterson. Over the years, Chester sent in dozens of strips, each receiving rejection. Until, that is, he drew his 61st strip, about a detective called Plainclothes Tracy. “I decided to invent a comic strip character who would always get the best of the assorted hoodlums and mobsters,” Chester mentioned in The Encyclopedia of American Comics. *(1)

    The tough Tribune editor liked it and was at last hooked.

    After ten years of imaginative submissions, Chester was hired as cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. Meeting with the cartoonist, editor Joseph Patterson thought the name Plainclothes Tracy was too long and suggested the change to Dick Tracy, since that was what policemen were called in that era. Patterson also outlined what he thought should be the opening plotline. The happy Chester ran with the ideas, creating the now-famous opening story of Dick Tracy, his girlfriend Tess Truelove and the murder of her father by hoodlums.

    Debuted on October 4, 1931 in the Detroit Mirror, a Chicago Tribune subsidiary, Dick Tracy became the moral, high- principled detective enforcing good against evil, solving crime and providing instant punishment. The 1930s were known as the “dirty 30s” with crime rampant from the likes of thugs and mobsters such as Al Capone, and from the occasional rogue police. The comic strip reflected the times and the stern moral views of its cartoonist, too. It was something new - comics had not depicted such harsh action before. To give his strip authenticity, Chester took a course on ballistics at the School of Criminology and made allies in the police department crime lab. *(2)

    Dick Tracy was a huge, immediate success with the public. Fans soaked up the fast-action, the gun blasting, and story plotlines that also held moments of fun, love and gentleness with family and friends. Chester regularly created new and memorable criminals known as the Grotesques; and the more repulsive the better. The Brow, Pruneface and the most famous, Flattop, all of them killed by Dick Tracy, of course, were just a few of the memorable bad guys drawn over the years.

    The artwork of the comic strip reflected its theme of right and wrong in stark black and white. (Then in solid colours later – no pastels here. There was no middle ground for the good and evil.) The characters mirrored their personalities; the more handsome the man, like steel-eyed, sharply-chiseled Dick Tracy, the better he was. The more gruesome the drawing, the nastier he was.

    Always a modern strip, Chester kept Dick Tracy ahead of the times, using science fiction techniques such as a wrist-radio in the 1940s, later a wrist-TV and then a wrist-computer. Heading in a slightly too-fantastic direction for fans, Chester created the Space Coupe in 1962 and sent Dick Tracy and cohorts to the moon, where they provided defense against nasty space creatures for most of that decade. The period was not a success with fans and Dick Tracy returned home to continue his good works and regain fan adoration.

    Back on Earth, Dick Tracy was published in comic books beginning in 1938. Next came an enormous variety of merchandise, plus novels, books, television shows and movies featuring Chester’s characters (including one movie starring Boris Karloff as the evil character in 1947’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome). *(3) The comic strip was made again into a movie starring Madonna and Warren Beatty in 1990. Dick Tracy was also featured in a special issue of United States Postal Service stamps honouring comic strips in 1995.

Dick Tracy Stamp

    Chester earned countless awards and honours for his work with Dick Tracy. Just to name a few examples: two Reuben Awards from the National Cartoonists Society in 1959 and 1977, The Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1980 (the first time ever given to a cartoonist), numerous awards from Police Associations and Crime Prevention agencies and Presidential Awards in 1973, 1979 and 1983.

    Completing a career of more than 46 years as a successful, revered cartoonist, Chester retired from the daily grind on December 25, 1977. Dick Tracy continued to foil criminals in newspapers much to the joy of fans around the world, with the strip placed in the hands of Chester's capable assistant Rick Fletcher and detective novel writer Max Allan Collins.

    A giant in cartooning, Chester Gould died of congestive heart failure in 1985 at the ripe old age of 84. His plentiful accomplishments are celebrated in the "Chester Gould – Dick Tracy Museum" in Woodstock, Illinois.

    Today, skilled creators Dick Locher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, and writer Michael Kilian produce the acclaimed Dick Tracy comic strip, distributed by Tribune Media Services. It seems that the present cartoonists maintain Chester’s direct philosophy on his work:

    “I decided that if the police couldn’t catch the gangsters, I would create a fellow who could.” *(4)

Read Dick Tracy daily at:

*(1) The Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulart, Promised Land Productions, Pages 97-99, 154-155.

A wonderful site with loads of detailed information on Chester Gould and Dick Tracy (plus museum info, too!):

More scoops on Dick Tracy on Don Markstein’s Toonopedia:

Quote from Chester Gould:

© Susanna McLeod 2005  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on