One of the very best things about the Batman mythology (some might even argue the best thing) is the wild cadre of baddies who populate Gotham City. From the gimmicky to the gruesome, Batman’s villains all have something which sets them apart, and more than anything else, some distinctive visual element tied to them. Whether it’s a costume or some physical attribute, Batman’s baddies truly stand out. But he wasn’t the first to fight a whole host of weirdos. A decade before Bob Kane with Bill Finger gave us Batman’s rascally rogues, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy kicked the trend off in strange and signature fashion.
Dick Tracy was a comic strip which first appeared in the Detroit Mirror in October of 1931. Originally given the not-catchy name of “Plainclothes Tracy,” Dick Tracy was a dashing and intelligent police detective character who would take on his city’s seemingly endless supply of gangsters and lowlifes. And goons; mustn’t forget the goons. Cartoonist Chester Gould wrote and drew the strip all the way until 1977 and created literally hundreds of foes for Tracy, some more memorable than others.
Gould’s aim was for his strip to be unambiguous. The good guys were handsome, and the bad guys were grotesque. In the Depression era, this kind of ableism was pretty standard; 91 years removed we know this smacks of eugenics. Regardless, as Gould continued his strip, the villains, despite being violent murderers and thieves, became the draw. Lantern jawed Dick Tracy wasn’t as interesting as the amoral criminals he fought. And without a tragic backstory or complex moral code like Batman, Tracy had nothing much to make him stand out against increasingly silly baddies.
The first Dick Tracy baddie was Big Boy, an imposing mafia-type. He was just a mob boss, nothing too gimmicky. But very quickly, Gould would introduce characters with some kind of pronounced facial feature. These included Dan “The Sequealer” Muscilli, who had very large lips on a wide, frog-like mouth; “Confidence” Dolan, who had a square-shaped head; “Old Mike,” who was, go figure, old; and Doc Hump who had a bald, pointy head and a large hunched back.
In 1936, Gould introduced Lips Manlis, another character with a wide and froggy mouth. This character ended up sticking around much longer than others, and would later reform and give up his life of crime. In 1937, Gould, perhaps tired of drawing a face, came up with “The Blank,” a gangster with no face. Just like…no face. This is a supremely silly, yet quite effective subversion of his usual style.
Then, the little known comic book character Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 in November 1939. At first, he was just a riff on the Shadow, a costumed hero who used pistols and fought regular criminals. But beginning in 1940, Batman started to fight the more outlandish criminal element. Catwoman, the Joker, and Clayface all debuted in 1940; the Penguin and Scarecrow in 1941.
This seemingly rubbed off on Gould and Dick Tracy’s villains got even sillier and the comic’s tone more darkly humorous. “Little Face” Finny, who had an enormous head but tiny little face, debuted in 1941; “Pruneface” Boche hit the pages in 1942, with a face that resembled a waterlogged finger. The rest of the ’40s saw characters who would prove immensely popular with readers. The Brow, with his forehead ridges; “Itchy” Oliver who was constantly scratching at skin irritations; there was a guy named Shoulders and I urge you to guess what his deal was.
Perhaps the closest thing the Dick Tracy comics had to a Joker-esque character was the enforcer “Flattop” Jones, a skinny, ruthless murderer with a pale white face and a completely flat head with black hair cascading off. Gould drew him with sleepy eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a constantly puckered mouth. He looked a bit like a clown, and was the most feared hitman in the city. After his debut in December, 1943, and a series of violent capers, Tracy killed Flattop in May of 1944. However, so popular was he with readers that many more members of the Jones family, each with their own physical characteristic, would pop up. Flattop’s son, Flattop Jr., would even become a major Dick Tracy villain years later.
While Chester Gould surely created the concept of the gimmick villain, it wasn’t until after the popularity of Batman and his nascent rogues gallery that Gould’s characters seemed to follow suit. Whether this was a direct inspiration, an attempt to cash in, or simply Gould poking fun at the absurdity of Kane and Finger’s creations, the result is a roster of baddies that made the most of the visual storytelling medium of comic strips.
It’s really no surprise that following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, Warren Beatty would choose Dick Tracy comics to bring to the big screen. But unlike the Batman movies, which would maybe give us a couple of villains at a shot, the 1990 Dick Tracy film packed it so full of memorable, absurd and grotesque villains that they completely overshadowed the hero. Exactly as it should be.