Chester Gould’s detective-themed comic strip, Dick Tracy, began appearing in the Detroit Mirror on Sunday, October 4, 1931. Gould continued to work on this comic strip until 1977. Even without his involvement, the comic strip continued thanks to the work of other writers and artists. Currently, Mike Curtis is the writer of the strip with Shelley Pleger providing the artwork.
Before the comic strip began printing, Gould’s first name for the detective was “Plainclothes Tracy”; however, his contact at the Chicago Tribune New York Syndicate, Joseph Medill Patterson, encouraged a name change. Thus, Dick Tracy became the chosen name for the star detective. He then began his adventures with a case about the murder of his girlfriend’s father.
The popularity of the comic strip inspired several companies to create toys and other collectibles. There were a few toys from this era, including a tin car from Marx. There even was a Dick Tracy Candid Camera produced by Seymour Sales Co. Still, there were no large-scale toy lines that existed from the first few decades.
Over the decades, Dick Tracy gained more partners and gadgets to help him tackle crime around his Midwestern home. One of his most memorable devices was a two-way wrist radio that was a dream back in the day. Meanwhile, he had a love interest in Tess Trueheart and adopted a son, Junior Tracy. He also had partners like Pat Patton and Sam Catchem. So, Dick Tracy was fully prepared to take on criminals, both big and small.
While many of the criminals that Dick Tracy took down were small-time crooks, there were a few that were part of large organized crime families. One of the most notable gangsters was Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, who was loosely based on the real-life gangster, Al Capone. Then, there were contract killers like Floyd Jones Sr., otherwise known as Flattop.
The rich world of Dick Tracy made the character a perfect choice to appear in various film serials and television series. Before he appeared in any visual media, both NBC and ABC aired radio dramas during the 1930s and 1940s. His first film appearance was in an RKO Radio Pictures production that debuted in 1937. Meanwhile, his first television appearance was in a series starring Ralph Byrd that aired from 1950 until 1951. However, the version that most current fans know the character from came out in 1990.
In an era where companies like Warner Brothers were bringing DC characters to the silver screen, Buena Vista Pictures decided to bring back Dick Tracy. This time around, Warren Beatty would take on the role of the titular detective. Meanwhile, Madonna prominently appeared in the film as the flirtatious entertainer from the Club Ritz, Breathless “The Blank” Mahoney. Glenne Headly took on the role of Dick Tracy’s girlfriend from the comics, Tess Trueheart. Finally, Al Pacino also appeared in the film as the crimelord Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice.
Accompanying the 1990 film was a beloved action figure toy line created by Playmates in 1990. Rather than creating realistic depictions of the characters from the film, Playmates opted to instead design their 5” action figures in a very cartoony fashion. This style was unique to the toys since it was not used in the comic strip either. Moreover, there was no cartoon series created to match the feel of these toys.
Playmates offered a strong selection of both coppers and gangsters from the Dick Tracy universe. These action figures featured Dick Tracy, Sam Catchem, Big Boy, The Brow, Steve the Tramp, The Blank, and Lips Manlis. They also produced toys of Flattop, Rodent, Pruneface, Shoulders, Influence, Mumbles, and Itcy. Each of these toys came on a colorful card back that featured a Crimestoppers Textbook comic on the back. These cards also featured a detailed bio card for each character, providing information about the character’s name, rank, special skills, awards, and more.
Beyond the 5” action figures, Playmates created two large-scale toys that stood around 15” tall. The characters chosen for this scale were Dick Tracy, America’s Greatest Detective, and Breathless Mahoney, the Sultry Songstress. Unlike the 5” scale toys, these toys more realistically depicted the characters from the movie.
Playmates also created two vehicles for the Dick Tracy toy line. The first was meant for the Coppers, the Police Squad Car. Meanwhile, the other toy was Big Boy’s Getaway Car, the perfect vehicle for the gangsters to flee in. Otherwise, Playmates produced an electronic 2-Way Wrist-Watch.
Years later, a toy company called Mez-Its provided a new take on the Dick Tracy brand. This company released a series of 2-figure sets of 3-inch “super deformed” figures. The design for the toys closely resembled the style of the original comic, aside from the proportions. There were 5 different sets: Dick Tracy meets The Blank, Dick Tracy Takes on The Brow, Dick Tracy and The Influence, Dick Tracy meets Prune Face, and Sam Catchem vs. Flattop.
Dick Tracy returned in toy form in 2014 thanks to GBJR toys. This time, he was a single character within the Comic Book Heroes toy line. This line included other memorable characters like The Tick.
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