From the early 1930s through the 1950s, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy was one of the most popular American comic strips followed daily in newspapers across the country and later also in comic books. During the first fifteen years of the strip's history, Gould drew several stark and graphic, stereotypical images of certain racial/ethnic groups and several of these were accompanied by dialogue that complemented the images with characteristic phrases in broken English or dialect. Although these character drawings and the language used must be shocking to twenty-first century readers, they do provide insight as to the racial/ethnic stereotypes typical of the early to mid-twentieth century.
Dick Tracy debuted on October 12, 1931. Although cartoonist Gould early on introduced a criminal character from "Gangland" with the Latina name of Texie Garcia, aside from giving her dark hair and long earrings, which could represent several different ethnic groups, there is very little about her actions or language that obviously brands her as being Latin American. It is early in 1932 that he created his first clear racial/ethnic stereotype character with an African-American shoeshiner named George. The man having his shoes shined is "Mr. Richey," and George addresses him as "suh" and uses "ain't" and "dis" for "this" and "dat" for "that." When referring to Tracy's pursuit of thugs, George says: "Man! When dat boy lights in aftah a gangster it's jes' too bad" (Jan. 18, 1932). In addition to using ungrammatical English, George is dressed up in a sport coat and bowtie. He has big eyes and a huge white oval mouth reminiscent of the blackface makeup associated with Al Jolson's "Mammy." George was the first of several African-American Gould characters who were servants portrayed as submissive with highly exaggerated facial features.
In February 1932, Gould introduces a German immigrant stereotype when Mrs. Truehart tells Tracy that she has asked Heinie Stueben to run the delicatessen that she and her husband had managed before Mr. Truehart was killed in a robbery at their house. Heinie was a nickname Americans used to describe Germans and was a particularly derisive descriptor for them during World War I. She calls Heinie "a kindly old Dutchman," another name often used for Germans in America, as with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Heinie speaks in broken English and explains to Tracy: "They vass' nothin' I wouldn't do for Emil Truehart – so ven I take diss delicatessen I say – I take diss store und make him profitable or I don't vant yet vun cent – und, by golly, already ve got a leetle profit" (Feb. 22, 1932). Although Heinie is treated very positively in the strip and even called a hero, he still remains a stereotype for a German immigrant storekeeper. In a Sunday strip in color, Tracy asks an African-American caddy to take Judge Garrity's clubs to him on the first tee (Apr. 10, 1932). Although these early Sunday strips were not part of the daily storyline, this is another example of Gould's many African-American stereotype characters. The caddy is wearing a cap, so his hair is not visible, but his large mouth is pink, which later shows up as a white oval in daily strips.
In March 1932, when Tracy is being held captive by "Broadway" Bates for ransom, the detective imitates an immigrant using broken English. When Bates asks him if he will write a ransom note or not, Tracy says: "No speak Amelican" (Mar. 23, 1932). Dan Mucelli, an Italian-American dope peddler clearly based on Al Capone, also claims: "No spik English" (Jan. 1, 1933). Although Steve the Tramp and several other criminals also use broken English, especially in choosing "d" over "th" sounds, as in "de" for "the," "dere" for "there," "den" for "then," and "dat" for "that," this ungrammatical dialect represents lack of formal education rather than a specific racial or ethnic group. A similar dialect is used, however, for George and for Gould's character Della, "the colored cook" for Hank Steele, Junior Tracy's biological father. When Steve the Tramp inquires about a job working for Mr. Steele at a mountain home in Colorado, Della says: "Yas sah. – Massa Steele want a man fo' work 'round de place – I'll call 'im – yu jes wait heah on de po'ch" (Mar. 2, 1933). When Della carelessly reveals that Steele had struck it rich mining gold, Steve plans to take advantage of the retired blind prospector. Della is an obvious stereotypical "colored cook" and resembles the Aunt Jemima familiar at the time in baking product advertisements. She wears apron and kerchief, her skin is jet black with a large white oval area around her mouth, she has big eyes, and she wears round earrings. Her image is a graphic caricature of a female African-American cook. In one image (Apr. 19, 1933), she looks more like a panda bear or gorilla in clothes than a human being. However, Della is educated sufficiently to read a telegram to Mr. Steele. When Steve hands her a rifle she says: "I'se scairt" (Apr. 20, 1933) and starts shaking. When trying to shoot Steve, she almost hits Tracy and the detective returns fire, soon leading to her demise (Apr. 21-30, 1933).
When Steve the Tramp falls off a cliff escaping Tracy, he is rescued by two "mountain outlaws" looking for some "easy money." One, called Greasy, is likely Mexican, wears a sombrero, calls his boss "senor," and refers to Steve and others as "gringos." The boss wears a tall hat, but is not as obviously Mexican, though he calls Steve "hombre." Greasy speaks in broken English: "Senor! I just come from ze valley and I see three gringos scanning ze foot of ze cliff – where we find zees…bum" (May 3, 1933). "Senor" speaks in much more grammatical English.
In 1934, an African-American maid named Jessie is working in the home of Jean Penfield. When Tracy rings the doorbell, Jessie informs Jean, but Jean chooses to dismiss Jessie and answer the door by herself. Jessie is shown as younger than most of Gould's other African-American characters. She is dressed in black with a white apron and kerchief. She has very dark skin, kinky hair, and white areas around her eye (side view). Her mouth is also highlighted as was Gould's standard for African Americans (Feb. 4, 1934).
In the same year, Gould introduced a fruit peddler Larceny Lu had hired to move Steve's wounded body to another hideout. The banana vendor wears a vest, a strange hat, a moustache, and earrings. He perhaps represents an Italian immigrant or even a gypsy. Although he speaks in broken English at times, at others his language is relatively correct. He tells Tracy: "This woman, Lu – she geeva me twenty-five dollar to haul da wounded man, Steve – then she geeva me more money to buy new cart and destroy thees one (Jun. 18, 1934). Yet when speaking to Lu, he says: "Detectives find tracks of cart at back steps of your old place! Maybe they check up and find tracks made by my cart" (Jun. 13, 1934). A similar Italian stereotype can be seen when Tracy disguises himself as a blind organ grinder, accompanied by Junior and a dog, to watch out for Boris Arson's men. When a criminal offers them a dollar to scram from the scene, Tracy replies: "T'ank you, verra much, mister – verra much! Yes, sir!" (Jan. 8, 1935).
Gould also creates a comic, but blatantly stereotypical caricature of a Native American in 1935 with Chief Yellowpony, a Pawnee Indian living in Oklahoma. Wearing a ranger's hat, the Chief has a big round face and wears his long black hair tied into several braids that drape down over his body. Boris Arson contacts Yellowpony claiming he wants to marry his daughter, Sunset, when in reality only wanting secure transportation for himself and his sister Zora to hide out from the police in Oklahoma. Yellowpony calls Arson "Great White Chief from City" (Mar. 29, 1935). He tells his daughter and his "squaw," Cottonflower, to "put on your best blankets" (Mar. 29, 1935) to prepare for the trip. As they enter the big city, Yellowpony crashes his car into another vehicle. The other driver calls him a "dumb Palooka" and a "dumbsock" for driving on the wrong side of the road, and it turns out that Yellowpony was trying to run over a jackrabbit to cook for their supper (Mar. 29, 1935). After Yellowpony pays the driver for damages, Tracy warns him: "And if I were you I wouldn't scalp any of the granite statues standing around in the parks" (April 1, 1935). When Yellowpony realizes that the wedding ceremony is fake, Arson calls him a "redskin," and Yellowpony attacks the criminal with a tomahawk. The Indian gets Arson's gun and says in broken English: "Quick. Stand heap still. Me no care if gun do make noise and call Police! Me want Police now! Tell 'um you much criminals – belong in jail" (Apr. 11, 1935). Eventually, Yellowpony helps Tracy pursue the bad guys and closes his stint with this wisdom: "Ugh! Big bad gunmen end up helpless bunch of bones. Crime bad medicine! Always lead to same place, long dark night underground! Ugh! (May 22, 1935).
In 1935, Gould also creates one of his most blatantly stereotypical African-American characters with Maybelle. When Toby Townley is falsely accused of murdering a policeman, she is sent to County Women's Prison where she joins some "hardened women criminals" cleaning laundry and performing other tasks in the prison. One of these is Maybelle, who tells Toby that she has had five husbands and served five jail sentences over the span of eighteen years. Her most current offense was helping in a jewelry theft in Harlem. Maybelle speaks in a dialect similar to that given other African-American characters in the strip. While working in the laundry room with Toby, she says: "Lawsy, Sister – You'se a newcomer. What's dey got yo' in heah fer – Boppin yo' husband on the haid?" (Aug. 18, 1935). Maybelle is a large woman with huge eyes, a big white oval mouth, and her hair in corn rows. Her images are intended to be comical, but, similar to Della, again resemble a panda bear or ape more than a human being. She is one of the leaders in causing a riot in the prison, burning their mattresses to start a fire, but failing to escape (Aug. 17-Sep. 15, 1935). In November of that year, there is one frame that depicts an African-American official of some kind (he wears a badge) at the Homeville City Council Building who informs an Alderman that someone wants to meet him in the "washroom." The someone turns out to be the criminal "Cut" Famon, who is securing the Alderman's support in opposing the proposal to build a fieldhouse and playground for the kids of Homeville so that they could participate in organized sports and stay off the streets. Although the official is drawn with kinky hair, large eyes, and the same oval white mouth Gould used for so many other African-American characters, this one says simply: "Alderman, you're wanted in the washroom" without any of the ungrammatical English so characteristic of similar Gould figures (Nov. 16, 1935).
Gould introduces another African-American stereotype in 1936 with a porter/valet named Memphis Smith, who works for the criminal boss "Lips" Manlis. He is bald, dressed in white. His language is deferential and in dialect English. Manlis first asks Memphis to pack their bags for a quick departure and then stations him in the lobby of their apartment building to steer Tracy into an "Out of Order" elevator that is rigged to explode with dynamite when the button is pushed for their floor. Memphis shakes and sweats, but eventually reveals the plot to Tracy and assists in capturing the gang. After the gangster threatens Memphis to keep his mouth shut, Memphis tells Tracy: "Best thing you can do is give me employment in the Po-leece Department, lak f'instance youah person'l valet! Ah needs pertection" (May 12, 1936). Memphis also tells Junior: "Yeah, man – I ain't no criminal! Ah's docile! I'se jist Memphis Smith, Public Valet Number One! Sho' I is!” (May 13, 1936). Although Tracy throws Memphis out of the police station, Junior and his mother hire him as valet and cook. In one scene, Memphis lies on a bed admiring a dollar bill and he says: "Hm – gives me a dollah and tells me to get lodging! No suh, Mista Junior – Ah stays here! I'm youh valet now!" (May 16, 1936). When Memphis meets his former boss, he starts shaking and sweating even though Manlis has reformed and become a night watchman at Tracy's urging. Memphis later helps Tracy track down Manlis's former accomplice, Mimi, by identifying a boat used as her criminal hideout. Memphis says: "Yes, sir – that's d' boat, Mista Tracy! I used to bring her (Mimi's) grip down to her and she'd stay out there maybe for a week. Yowsah!...Sho' enough, Mista Tracy – I believes that's the boat" (Jul. 18-19, 1936). When Tracy identifies the boat's name, Memphis gets scared, begins shaking again, and starts to run "elsewhere." When Tracy stops him, Memphis says: "Mista Tracy, I just supplies clews. I don't do no finished work!" (Jul. 19, 1936). Although Memphis is trusted to accompany Junior to safety on the dock, when they report to the police that Dick and Pat are still on board the vessel, Memphis performs a sudden disappearing act (July 12-26, 1936). Memphis plays a larger role in a continuing storyline than any of the other racial/ethnic stereotypical characters except Chief Yellowpony. Both are used primarily for comic relief.
The boat that Dick and Pat were aboard was called "The Red Poppy," which suggests a connection to the opium trade, and the man in charge is an Asian named Toyee. This man is a well-dressed criminal who parts his hair in the middle, smokes with a cigarette holder, and has long sideburns and a menacing look. Toyee refuses to hide Mimi on his boat this time, and when he sees that she has attracted the cops, he threatens to throw her overboard, but then lures Tracy and Patton into a gunfight and captures them. After Toyee's death, a policeman refers to the head of the dope trade as a "Chink," a derogatory term for the Chinese (Jul. 17-Aug. 17, 1936).
Gould features another nefarious Asiatic stereotype early in 1938 with Lee Ting, who has bushy black eyebrows, a cigarette drooping from his mouth, and a frightening countenance. Bronzen informs him that he needs his help to pick up twenty-four of his countrymen from a tramp steamer. Tracy informs the Coast Guard that the police have uncovered a ring smuggling human beings into the country and that "the poor wretches" (Jan. 18, 1938) are forced to wear only bathing suits, so they cannot conceal weapons, and they are kept in leg irons. The Coast Guard Chief suggests that they meet with the Mayor of Chinatown, "a wise Oriental by the name of Chiang" (Jan. 21, 1938), to ask for help with the alien-smuggling case. The Chinese Mayor welcomes Tracy and appears to be helpful. When the smuggled aliens, who are all bald, are first shown climbing aboard a boat, they are being whipped and sprayed with disinfectant to remove the stench from having to live under hundreds of pounds of dead fish (Feb. 18-22, 1938). A sailor with a whip calls the aliens "chop sticks"; one is referred to demeaningly as "almond eyes"; others call them "blasted pigs," "yellow pups," and "lugs" (Feb. 18, 21, 23, 27, 1938). When the eight remaining aliens in the cargo are beaten with clubs and thrown overboard, the boss says: "No yellow wagging tongues – no evidence of any kind!" (Feb. 27, 1938). After Tracy catches Bronzen in the act of transporting additional aliens, Bronzen refers to one of them as "the yellow one" (Mar. 20, 1938). It is somewhat ironic that when some aliens later warn the crew that police are nearby, their warnings are ignored. The images of these Asian aliens are sub-human, and they are treated as if they were rebellious slaves (Feb. 18-Mar. 20, 1938).
In connection with the alien smuggling story, Tracy meets Noana, a "South Sea girl" (Apr. 5, 1938) who has been shanghaied for delivery to a man named Ramm who wanted her to dance in his oriental restaurant. The concept of "shanghaiing" was often associated with Asians, especially in the Charlie Chan stories. In a 1933 strip, Gould had referred to the practice although the sailors who capture Stooge Viller to take him aboard ship to join the crew of "The Bat" were not Asian (Aug. 4-5, 1933). With Noana's help, Tracy soon reveals that the head of the smuggling ring is in fact Mayor Chiang himself, whose real name is May Lin, and who had murdered the legal mayor in order to replace him. In an echo from the Tong Wars in New York's Chinatown, May Lin now becomes the target for assassination by his countrymen who draw numbers in order to select the assassin. When they go in a group to Police Headquarters, Tracy tells them: "In this country the law deals with criminals" (May 1, 1938). Despite this admonition, the group has a different concept of justice, and they kill May Lin with an oriental poisonous dart from a blowgun (Mar. 27-May 8, 1938). Gould does create a positive Asian figure is Tau Ming, Secretary to Mayor Chiang's Assistant, who helps Tracy track down Bronzen. He is a graduate of the University of Indiana and dresses well. However, one of Bronzen's gang calls him "Chop Suey," punches him, and tosses him out of a window three flights up into the river. When posing as a fisherman to help Tracy, he is murdered (Jan. 23-Feb. 5, 1938).
Between 1938 and 1941, Gould introduces five African-American domestic servant characters who all speak ungrammatical English, and all of whom are portrayed in a manner stereotypical for Gould's black males. A man named Mose informs Marshal Wilke that something is going on in the railroad yard that he had seen after stoking boilers at the cotton gin. Mose says: "Sho nuff! Ah jist cut through dere coming in fum' stokin'boilers at d' cotton gin, an' ah seed it!" (Aug. 25, 1938). A second, unnamed, tells his boss that he had heard voices coming from a stack of pipes. He is obviously afraid, just as Memphis had been, and also uses the expression "Yowsa" (Jun. 17, 1939). The third is a servant named George who takes customers' hats in a barber shop and dusts them off after a haircut or shave. Stooge Viller asks George which is the north side of the building, and after he responds he asks George to raise a window on that side. Viller then removes a thousand-dollar bill that has been taped in that window casing and George appears dumbfounded and says: "Lawdy me!" George is portrayed as bald with the characteristic white oval around his big lips. He addresses Tracy as "suh" and informs him that he didn't remember having seen that window raised in twelve years. George addresses Viller as "suh" and "boss" while Stooge calls George "boy" (Oct. 29-30, 1939). The fourth is Bob, the doorman at the Club Rhumba. He wears a fancy uniform and hat, but has big eyes, the same white oval mouth, and says "Yowsa" three times to Tracy. However, Bob does help Tracy by revealing the name and license number of the gentleman who had just left the club after a shooting (Mar. 19-20, 1940). The fifth is an African-American nanny named Julia who is caring for the three infant triplets of Constable Ferret and his wife Mary. Julia is drawn with features similar to those of most of the other African-American characters (May 27, 1941).
In April of 1942, Gould introduces the character of a diminutive Indian swami named Matri who holds his hands out to order around the star actor Yollman, whom he has placed in a hypnotic state. When Matri is hit and killed by a bus while crossing the street, the policeman says: "He's a little fellow, isn't he? Looks like a Hindu" (May 2, 1942).
In February of 1943, Gould has an African-American maid open the door at the Potter mansion for a man who claims to be delivering groceries, but soon knocks her out with his billy club and proceeds to kidnap his son. The maid is again a large woman wearing an apron who has eyes and lips similar to those described above. Although she speaks perfect English when first responding to the man ("But I said I didn't order any groceries, big boy!"), when explaining later what had happened, she turns to dialect: "Musta been a stick-up man. He brought dose groceries, den he hits me on d'haid and locked me in d' washroom" (Feb. 19, 21, 1943).
In May of 1943, an African-American porter on a train recognizes the orchestra leader 88 Keyes and tells a fellow porter that he follows all of the jive bands and is sure it is Keyes. The other porter responds: "Sho nuff!" and the first one goes over to ask for an autograph. Keyes says that his name is Jefferies and the first porter is very disappointed because he considered himself a jive authority. When a flash report comes over the radio about Keyes, the first porter realizes that he was right after all. The second, using "jive talk," tells him: "Brother, you was digging in de groove and I doubted you. 88 Keyes is here. On dis train." Both porters are depicted as balding with the same large eyes and oval white mouth seen on so many African-American characters (May 18-23, 1943).
There are some other "background" African-American characters without speaking roles whom Gould depicts with facial characteristics similar to those already discussed. Late in 1933, Gould includes a nameless and voiceless African-American cook serving a hot meal to Tracy and Junior. She resembles Della and wears big earrings, but no kerchief, and has kinky hair (Dec. 31, 1933). There are also train porters shown several times. In one particular scene, one of the two porters who had witnessed a fight between Tracy and "Stooge" Viller is visibly shaking (Feb. 24, 1933) as Memphis did several times and Della had done when she was "scairt."
In March of 1945, Measles is attracted by the aromas of food cooking in a railroad station hand's boxcar shack where he meets Paprika Gonzales, an exotic-looking young lady more interested in playing the radio and dancing than in helping with her family's work load. Her mother is a large woman with dark hair and an apron, large earrings, and a kerchief. She cooks with bacon fat. She and her husband both speak in broken English. Papa Gonzales is constantly smoking, but is not portrayed as noticeably ethnic in appearance. Paprika calls the criminal Meester Measles and a "gringo," but otherwise speaks grammatical English. Measles calls the mother a "double-crossing old greaseball." Although Gould uses some Latino stereotypical characteristics in portraying the Gonzales family (Mar. 15-Apr. 7, 1945), they are not as graphic and comical as were those for the character Greasy about twelve years earlier.
When Vitamin Flintheart knocks out Measles with a bottle of cognac after he jumps on the Hollywood Limited train, Vitamin summons a railroad porter to bring a broom and a dust pan to clean up the mess on the floor. The African-American porter, who is portrayed similarly to the other black males described above, responds: "Yowsah, Boss! I'se coming!" When the porter sees Measles lying on the floor, he is so frightened that his hair stands up, and he runs off down the train car corridor (April 16-18, 1945). In another train scene the same year, an African-American porter is shown from a side view with very kinky hair. When another character asks him if he has a razor blade and offers him a tip, the porter responds: "Why I think so, Boss" (Aug. 18, 1945). Thus within only a few months, Gould avoided showing the stereotypical comical black face he had included so frequently and using the "Yowsah" expression also uttered so many times previously. Although using the term "boss" is deferential, this was a mark of respect that was often an expected part of a porter's job at the time and for another decade or two at least.
Chester Gould did create a stereotypical "hillbilly" character in B.O. Plenty. He and his sweetheart Gravel Gertie provided periodic comic relief in the comic strip for decades, but there is nothing about either character that is identifiable as representing any racial or ethnic group. When Gould next created a minority character in June of 1949 with the Latino helicopter pilot Pedro Zelene, he is portrayed as an attractive young man who speaks excellent English and has acquired advanced skills as a pilot. Although Pedro has a criminal past that Pearshape exploits to force him to aid in an escape, Pedro sincerely regrets his earlier mistakes and is devoted to his family. In 1950, Gould introduces the Borneo man, who is very short and looks very different and even thanks Vitamin Flintheart for his kindness by giving him the treasured shrunken head of a Borneo chief, but he is also well dressed, very polite, and speaks perfect English (May 31-Jul. 2, 1950).
All of the ethnic and racial stereotypes Gould created from 1931 to 1945 focus on minority groups who are "other" than white Americans. Except for a couple of Asian characters, most are uneducated (and demonstrate that in their speech) and generally in servile and submissive roles. Although the graphic features especially used to portray African-American characters may have been intended to provide some comic relief from a mostly serious and often violent comic strip, it is hard to believe that most African-American readers would not have found them highly offensive and racially insensitive. They do, however, provide insight into racial/ethnic attitudes in America during the Great Depression and World War II and help explain how minorities were frequently viewed.
From guest contributor Richard D. Weigel, Western Kentucky University
Would you like to read another article by Richard D. Weigel?
Dick Tracy and World War II
Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present)
Fall 2013, Volume 12, Issue 2