Case closed: Dick Tracy artist retires
Detective comic strip will carry on.
He has been thrown out of helicopters and off skyscrapers, buried inside drainpipes and underneath highways, dumped in hot wax and sealed in coffins. But Dick Tracy never surrendered. His artist wouldn't allow it.
"Never show him slumping, never show him blue, never show him depressed and never show him defeated," said Dick Locher, who spent 32 years drawing the world's most famous gumshoe. "He's in charge. People expect that."
Next month, someone else will take charge of Tracy. Locher, 81, of Naperville, Ill., will turn over the strip to a new artist and writer. He will leave behind a character who is more than just a square-jawed action hero vanquishing villains on the funny pages.
Dick Tracy is a living, breathing person, Locher said. He is a husband and father. And to Locher, he is a close friend.
"He's a great human being who happens to have a great crime sense," Locher said.
Locher was 28 when he began assisting Chester Gould, who created the Dick Tracy character in 1931 and continued writing and drawing until his retirement in 1977. Locher left after four years in 1961, then returned in 1983, the same year that he won a Pulitzer Prize as an editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. In 2005, Locher became the strip's artist and author.
Just as Gould based characters on residents of his hometown of Woodstock, Locher used real Naperville residents for inspiration. Naperville's mayor, George Pradel, and police chief, David Dial, have both appeared in the strip, although not under their actual names.
One of Locher's recent "Dick Tracy" characters — David Dierdorf D'Buckworth, a wealthy man who pretends to be homeless — is based on Scott Huber, a homeless man who lives on the streets of Naperville.
The community's police provided fodder for Locher and his son, who took turns riding in squad cars overnight to get color for the strip.
Last year, a 9-foot bronze statue of Dick Tracy was installed on the city's Riverwalk to honor Locher. Three years after the closing of the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy museum in Woodstock, Naperville is also considering opening a Dick Tracy gallery featuring panels by Locher and Gould.
The comic strip is more challenging now than it was for Gould, Locher said. Although Gould used five rows of panels for his Sunday strip, Locher must tell the story in only three. And though Gould's readers had few other entertainment options, the digital revolution has left Locher's readers with many.
The strip appeared in more than 650 newspapers by the 1960s. Tribune Media Services, which along with the Chicago Tribune, is part of Tribune Co., declined to say how many papers run "Dick Tracy" today, although the Tribune reported in 2008 it was about 50.
For fans, the news of Locher's retirement has prompted mixed feelings. They credit Locher with creating memorable villains and keeping the strip alive by returning in 1983 after the death of its previous cartoonist, Rick Fletcher, and continuing after the death of Locher's collaborator, Michael Kilian, in 2005.
"He stepped up out of friendship for his old mentor, out of love for the character, and out of an old-school loyalty to his employer," said Jim Doherty, a "Dick Tracy" fan who works as a railroad officer in the Chicago area.
But fans also said they were excited about artist Joe Staton and writer Mike Curtis taking over the strip. Their work will appear in papers the week of March 14. "Dick Tracy" fan Beau Kaelin, 30, of Shepherdsville, Ky., said that in recent years the strip "has felt empty," and police procedure "has come across as questionable."
Dick Tracy is known for staying current or even ahead of his time. He used forensic science long before the advent of "CSI" television shows. His two-way wrist was an early precursor to cellphones.
In recent years, the strip addressed such contemporary social issues as job security and sexual harassment. In 2006, Locher introduced a character called Al Kinda, a terrorist who was shot and killed before he could blow up the U.S. Capitol.
Yet Locher was careful not to shake things up too much. Every turning point in the storyline could spark controversy. In the early 1990s, when Tracy and his wife, the former Tess Trueheart, temporarily divorced, Locher got calls from reporters and dozens of letters from Dick Tracy readers.
Locher continued to create the strip through illness and heartache. Twelve years ago, he underwent radiation for nasal lymphoma, but never took time off. In 1986, his son, John, who was also his assistant, died at age 25.
Locher established a scholarship in his son's name for the best college cartoonists in North America. There have been more than 20 scholarship recipients, with 13 currently working as artists, including Steve Breen, who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice.
But the memory of his son still aches.
"He had more talent than I did," Locher said. "He was sharp. He knew story lines, knew how to fit the action to the story. He had so much to offer. There isn't an hour that goes by that I don't think about him."