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.


Captain Blog said...

Being a fan of Megos, Joes, and Dick Tracy I cannot begin to express how happy I am to see this custom!
You've made me a happy man!

Manetoys said...

children of the 60s nothing. I'm a child of the 80s who was introduced to Dick Tracy through Warren Beatty's film and I would go nuts to own that!