Once upon a time there were American companies that actually produced and sold toys. One of them, the Ideal Toy Company began in the early 1900s by producing teddy bears and dolls, eventually becoming famous for their Shirley Temple doll in 1938. In 1951 they came out with this little cutie. She’s 12 inches long and has a stuffed full-sized vinyl body, another newbie in doll making standards at the time. What makes her unique is not an oversize talent like Shirley’s, but the fact that her parentage was straight from the comics.
I was around 8 years old when I saw her up close (in the box like the photo on the right) for the first and only time in my life. Her name was Bonnie Braids. We were visiting my aunt and uncle for Sunday dinner and their oldest daughter was selling chances as a school fundraiser. The chance tickets had numbers on them and the purchaser held on to one end while the other end would go into a big pot from which one lucky ticket would be drawn and the doll given to the holder of the matching ticket stub. Who were the famous comic strip parents? Can you remember? Would you like to guess? Hint: little girls were much the happier that she didn’t take after her famous father–in looks at least. Have you guessed yet?
Remember the square-jawed, fedora wearing face with the square jaw and axe shaped nose who was the creation of a cartoonist called Chester Gould? That famous detective was Dick Tracy and he debuted in the Detroit Mirror on October 4, 1931. He and his beautiful blond girlfriend Tess Truehart had a tumultuous relationship over the next 18 years because of his devotion to his police work and the danger associated with it. Finally, on Christmas Day in 1949 he married her. By this time, he had already taken under his wing an abandoned street kid featured in a long episodic storyline that introduced us to a street kid he’d adopt and call Dick Tracy Junior–who eventually became just plain Junior in the series.
Some of Tess’s fears about the dangers of her husband’s profession hunting down bad guys would become real after their daughter Bonnie was born in 1951 and add dramatic new turns in the strip when the baby was kidnapped. The thing about Dick Tracy was that women read the cartoon because of the Gould inserted family dilemmas and men read him because of the bad guys. After Junior grew up and began to have a series of adult relationships, we worried about him too–for good reason it turned out over and over. The first girlfriend, Model, was accidentally killed by the brother of a criminal who’d killed a police officer.
When Kennedy became president and avowed the importance of space exploration and said we’d put a man on the moon before the end of the decade (the 60s), Dick Tracy explored space too. There was even a character who came up with the technology to make that possible. If I’m not mistaken, his name was Groovy. With the aid of his two-way wristwatch radio, Dick Tracy moon alien criminals just as effectively as he did cop killers on earth as he traveled in a magnetic propulsion system to the moon in the 1960s. While there he befriended the governor of the moon–there’s a humanoid-like group of people living there as Tracy discovered. Naturally those people meet a bad end and he has to get away quickly. On the way home, he finds a stowaway on-board. Both he and the strip take her in, and she marries Junior in 1963.
They produce a daughter, Honey Moon, half human and half moon-alien, whose distinguishing characteristic is a yellow wisp of hair and antennae growing from the top of her head. Remember her? There was a doll with her name too, but none of them looked much like the cartoon version. Moon Maid eventually meets her end when a criminal who has only a year to live and wants to see Dick Tracy die before he does–has Tracy’s car wired. Too bad she borrowed Dick Tracy’s car at just that time. Not to worry about motherless Honey, however, as eventually another character comes along. That’s Sparkle Plenty who marries Junior and raises Honey, who has learned to style the wisp of yellow hair that grows now in a long wavy line that covers the antennae on her head. They also have a daughter of their own that they named Sparkle Junior. Sparkle (the first) is the daughter of B.O. Plenty and Gravel Gertie, who are very interesting characters in their own right and I could go about them too, but I won’t, not today anyway!
If you look back through the corresponding years while Gould was in charge of the cartoon (until 1977) , you’ll see the Dick Tracy storyline follows the corresponding political and social fears of the country. What made it a must read for me–as I was growing up–were the series of grotesque characters that kept appearing, grotesque taking the meaning “characterized by ludicrous or incongruous distortion by appearance or manner. I was growing up in an area at the time with many examples loosely associated with grotesques, only I wasn’t aware of it at the time.
A few more names I’ll throw out: Sam Catchem, Tracy’s sidekick; and a few of the baddies like Pruneface, Littleface, the Mole, and Miss Egghead. For those really die-hard Dick Tracy fans who want more, I’ve found a fabulous cartoon site with scans of Tracy characters by Mike Lynch as a tribute to Chester Gould where you can click on individual pages of cartoon character scans, or if you prefer you can click directly onto each page individually by clicking here, here, here, and here. You can get seriously lost in a nostalgic cartoon world. Be forewarned.