Wednesday, June 27, 2007


A few weeks back, I blogged about how the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs (and the related movies and comic books) had a great influence on my imagination in my early adolescence. I hesitated writing the posts since I had no toys or custom action figures to talk about, and I've tried to stick mostly to toy and action figure commentary in this blog. However, ERB was a huge part of my teenage years and still provides inspiration in my writing, so I plunged ahead and wrote what was on my mind at the time. Then I got to thinking about maybe creating a custom action figure based on the classic ERB hero, John Carter of Mars. I didn't want to go overboard and buy any new materials for the custom, but I wanted to do something that would provide at least a vague resemblance to the John Carter renderings which appeared on the old paperbacks. The artists who illustrated those covers gave John Carter a slightly gladiator look, except he carried a radium gun along with his sword. And the radium gun was usually depicted as sort of a musket/ray gun like Alex Raymond may have envisioned it. So I dug through my bins of leftover action figure accessories, old dolls, and fabric remnants. Without too much effort, I came up with what I think is a pretty serviceable figure.

I started with an old action figure I bought as part of a lot sale on eBay. He's too brawny to fit in most of the clothes I have, but looks pretty manly in gladiator-type apparel. His chest plate was left over from a Hellboy action figure, and his boots are from a Van Helsing action figure (remember that movie?). The belt came from a Civil War costume, including the scabbard (John Carter did fight in the Civil War, after all). The holster for the radium gun is of more modern design, swiped from a G.I. Joe belt. The radium gun itself was pieced together: the barrel section was the hilt from Count Dooku's light saber, and the handle came from some oddball weapon that the Van Helsing doll had. The sword was from a G.I. Joe.

For the kilt, I found some red fabric, cut it to size, hemmed it with fabric glue, and added a Velcro attachment on the back. These are the kinds of projects that are often the most fun, where everything can be pieced together from extra bits lying around. I'm rather happy with it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


During the 80s, Dick Tracy faded from my consciousness like so many heroes of my youth. As a child, I wanted to be a cartoonist like Chester Gould, both writing and drawing the stories. By adolescence, I realized that my drawing abilities would never rise above accomplished doodler, so I focused on writing and buried dreams of being a comic book auteur. Still, I continued to collect comics through high school and college, and if I came across one of the old Dick Tracy comics put out by Harvey or Dell, I would buy it and try to rekindle my old excitement for the character. The nostalgia was fleeting, however.

Then came the Dick Tracy movie in 1990. After the gargantuan success of the first Batman movie the year before, Disney tried to recreate the same sort of hype around their comic movie. What they didn’t understand was that, while the Batman movie was a new take on an ever-evolving comic book icon, the Dick Tracy movie was a fond homage to a character whose glory days were long past. From an artistic standpoint, I could agree with Warren Beatty’s decision to set the movie in a colorful, stylized facsimile of 1930s Gangland Chicago. Along with the Depression-era cars and furnishings, the quaint gadgets which would’ve passed for high-tech in the 30s, like the two-way wrist radio and the wire recording device, added a wonderful sense of place. Beatty chose older, veteran actors to play the famous villains, none of whom would draw much interest from a younger crowd. Madonna was the only star the kids could get excited about, but she was far from the Material Girl as she sang retro-30s inspired songs by Stephen Sondheim. All this added up to a quasi-musical aimed at an over-30 audience. While I enjoyed it, I knew this was not going to draw the same kind of lightning that the Batman movie did, and I was correct.

Given the interest in action movies at the time, I think Disney would’ve fared better had they used a more modern approach. Set the movie in present day, utilizing some of the fancy gadgets Dick Tracy was already using, like a wrist communicator/computer and the flying air cars. As a cross between Die Hard’s John McClane and James Bond, Dick Tracy could’ve gotten a new lease with a young audience. Also, Madonna would have worked better as a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold doing video-style production numbers in slinky lingerie. Now that could’ve been a franchise for the 90s. Instead, the movie did adequate business, then disappeared without much fanfare. Only the licensed toys, books, and do-dads, languishing in bargain bins for years, provided any lasting reminder of the film.

A decade later, Dick Tracy entered my consciousness again when Polar Lights, the model-making subsidiary of Playing Mantis, put out reproductions of the Dick Tracy model kits that Aurora produced in the 1960s. One kit was a really nice diorama showing Tracy jumping off a fire escape in a dirty alleyway, his gun leveled on some unseen perpetrator. The other kit was a scene on the moon featuring the magnetic Space Coupe. I had just gotten back into model building as therapy to quit smoking, so I was thrilled to work on these detailed dioramas, from painting each individual brick in the apartment building wall to putting fine touches on the teeny figures standing next to the Space Coupe.

At the same time that Polar Lights was releasing these models, parent company Playing Mantis had released a reproduction of the old Captain Action figure. In addition to recreating some of the old hero costumes that Captain Action once wore, like the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger, PM put out new outfits like Ming the Merciless and Kato. Since PM apparently had the license to release Dick Tracy models, I was hoping they would put out a Dick Tracy outfit for Captain Action. Sadly, the Captain Action line didn’t catch on and was dropped after only a few years. I’m pretty certain they would’ve gotten around to making one had the new Captain Action been a success. At any rate, it got me thinking about making my own custom Dick Tracy figure.

The outfit itself was simple enough, since Dick Tracy always wore a black suit, white shirt, and red and black striped tie. The suit came off one of those Presidents of the U.S. dolls, and the shirt and tie are from a Ken doll (I drew the black stripes on the tie with a Sharpee). I made a yellow hat for him by repainting a leftover hat from one of the Green Hornet outfits I had bought. Tracy was also known for his yellow overcoat, but that was a garment mostly seen in his pre-60s incarnation, so I didn’t feel obligated to recreate one. As for accessories, I bought a detective outfit from Old Joe Infirmary which contained a badge, gun, holster, pager, and handcuffs. For the two-way wrist t.v., I found a jazzy watch in a scuba diver set that fit the bill.

I also picked up a tommy gun separately should Tracy need more serious fire power.

The tough part was finding an action figure that resembled Tracy’s unique features. I couldn’t find one with exactly the right nose, but Cotswold Collectibles offered a headsculpt which suggested Tracy’s grim expression pretty well. After assembling my custom figure, I thought it might be fun to give him a 60s style box. Although I’m not clever enough to print boxes like some other customizers, I thought the box which contained my Dick Tracy model kit looked an awful lot like one of those old “coffin” boxes that G.I. Joe and Captain Action came in. For the outside of the box, I did some minor alterations to the graphics. On the inside, I swiped the figure stays from a Playing Mantis Captain Action box and recut them to fit inside the model box. With these changes, I had my own box for Dick Tracy.

I think kids in the 60s would’ve gone ape for an action figure like this.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


As someone born in the 1960s, I often feel like I lived the first half of my 40-odd years in one era and the other half in a different era. The pivot point, in my mind, was the proliferation of the personal computer in the 1980s. Just as Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzy fundamentally changed the way Americans (and much of the world) conducted their daily lives, PCs and Macs have dramatically changed both our personal and professional routines beyond all recognition. For young adults who were born in the 80s, I don’t think they can fully appreciate how different things used to be, just as I could hardly imagine my parent's world before television.

One of the major changes since the 1980s is the eroding influence of newspapers. Of course, newspapers still exist, but there are far fewer than when I was a kid, and virtually all newspaper organizations now have a strong Internet presence which I would wager gets far more attention than their printed version. Cable and satellite news channels have also become the go-to outlets for instant news and information, relegating newspapers to a portable information product used when accessing a computer, Blackberry, cellphone with web access, or a television is not feasible. Information rushes at us from so many different sources, I don’t believe anyone seeks out one primary source any longer.

During my childhood, when the Internet was unheard of and television news was squeezed in between afternoon cartoons and the prime-time line-up, newspapers represented the main source of in-depth information and analysis, and most major cities had at least two newspapers fighting for your daily attention. Since the news was pretty much the same in both papers, they had to lure you with unique features. One such competitive feature was the comic strip page. Believe it or not, many people chose their source of news based on which paper had the best collection of comic strips. As a result, a popular comic strip was extremely important to newspapers and could be quite lucrative for both the syndication outfit and the comic strip producer.

A handful of these popular strips have gone on to become cultural icons, like Dick Tracy. This gumshoe with the squared-off nose was a comic strip titan, drawing millions of readers every day for decades. Long before I came along, Dick Tracy’s popularity in newspapers spawned media spin-offs including movies, television shows, toys, comic books, and Big Little Books. The hard-boiled crime fighter, born in an era when G-Men were rounding up Depression-era gangsters, served as a cathartic outlet for those who felt anxious and helpless in an uncertain world. Once raised to the top of the entertainment heap, Dick Tracy retained his popular status into the 60s, before his creator Chester Gould made some inexplicable changes to the strip and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Given the strong interest in the space program, Chester Gould decided to give Dick Tracy a sci-fi angle with the introduction of the Space Coup. Soon, Tracy was taking frequent trips into space and hooking up with people on the Moon. Of course, by 1969 we landed on the Moon and confirmed that no one lived there, killing a vital element to the 1960s Dick Tracy world. Also, Tracy was known for his violent methods in dealing with criminals. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, people were beginning to re-think our prurient fascination with violent entertainment. Dick Tracy was becoming a sad anachronism just as I reached reading age. This didn’t stop me from loving the strip, though.

In my hometown, Dick Tracy appeared in The Baltimore Evening Sun. Again, no CNN or all-day Internet access, so many newspapers ran morning and evening editions. The other Baltimore paper, The News American, ran once a day in the afternoon. My parents subscribed to The News American because it had all the Hearst syndicate features. However, my Dad would usually pick up a Sunday edition of The Sun Papers when he went to the convenience store for smokes on Saturday night. The Sunday edition featured two separate comic sections in full color. That’s where I discovered Dick Tracy.

In the 1970s, Dick Tracy was returning to his more gritty, police procedural formula, although he still had some futuristic gadgets like his two-way wrist t.v. and the hovering air cars in which the detective could zip around the city. At first, I didn’t realize that the strip ran daily, so I was confused why I couldn’t follow the plots simply by reading the Sunday edition. Once I figured out that we needed to receive the Evening Sun every day, I begged and pleaded with my parents to switch papers, but to no avail. Actually, I wanted them to receive both papers so I could continue to read Steve Canyon and The Phantom in The News American, but I digress.

The day before I got my Sunday comics fix, I would watch Archie’s Famous Funnies, where popular comic strip characters were presented in short cartoon segments. Dick Tracy had a regular segment on the show, but it was entirely too short to develop any real plot. All it did was tease me with the desire for a full half-hour devoted only to Tracy and the gang. Weekday afternoons, the local stations would run an old Dick Tracy cartoon series from the 60s, but this series was played for laughs with Tracy sending out a goofy array of bumbling assistants to do the actual crime fighting. Pretty unsatisfying offerings, but I took what I could get.

Slightly more interesting was a Big Little Book I got at the time called Dick Tracy Encounters Facey. I loved Big Little Books and this one dealt with a villain who could mold his face to look like other people including Tracy himself. I was so inspired by the book, I stapled together strips of paper about the same size as the Big Little Book and wrote my own adventure story in the same format. You remember: text on each left-hand page and an illustration on each right-hand page. I don’t recall the exact story, but the hero and heroine were named Rudy and Roxanne. Give me a break; I was eight years old.

What really cemented my interest in the super cop was when my Dad brought home a big coffee-table type hardcover from the library which compiled all the daily and Sunday Tracy strips from the beginning in 1931 all the way into the 1940s.This was the detective in his prime and, after spending hours pouring over this huge collection, I felt like I really understood what Dick Tracy was all about. The wild, grotesque villains, the sadistic torture tests Tracy was regularly subjected to, and the violent retribution Tracy would exact from these devious thugs. Many would die tragically by their own hand, showing how a life of crime in itself would lead to one's own downfall. Probably a little over the top for today’s audiences, but wonderfully moving for a child.

I continued to follow Tracy’s adventures throughout the 70s, reading the color strip every Sunday, then befriending kids in the neighborhood who received The Evening Sun and scanning the comic page in between playing with our G.I. Joes. Then on December 25, 1977, creator Chester Gould drew his final Dick Tracy strip. Just a silly gag strip for the holiday, I paid little attention to it and had no idea at the time that this would be Gould’s farewell. The strip continued the very next day, but the artwork looked slightly different now that Gould’s inker Rick Fletcher took over. The stories themselves actually improved as mystery writer Max Allen Collins helmed the writing, but somehow I didn’t enjoy it anymore. I felt a bond with Chester Gould’s quirky style, and this more mature Dick Tracy wasn’t working for me. I lost complete interest when Dick Locher assumed the drawing duties, as his style was far too cartoonish for me.

When the Dick Tracy movie came out in the summer of 1990, I decided to check back with my old detective friend. The News American had folded a few years prior, and The Sunpapers only published one edition in the morning. Dick Tracy had survived the comic strip layoffs and was appearing in the new morning edition. Art reflecting life, the story line during that summer dealt with Hollywood making a movie based on Dick Tracy’s life. I thought the whole thing pretty lame and stopped reading before the arc was completed. I imagine many other readers felt the same way, because The Sunpapers dropped Tracy’s strip shortly afterward. The Dick Tracy strip still continues solely under Dick Locher’s guidance, but now I would have to read it on the Internet. From the looks of it, I can’t really see the point.