Mike Curtis and Joe Staton were longtime fans of “Dick Tracy” when they took over the comic strip as it was celebrating its 80th anniversary. Staton is an Eisner Award winning artist known by his fans for his work on “E-Man” and “Green Lantern,” while Curtis was a longtime writer for many titles at Harvey Comics as well as his own “Shanda the Panda.”
The duo took over the strip in 2011, a time when legacy strips were being cancelled right and left. But under their stewardship, “Dick Tracy” has not only survived, it’s thrived, winning the Harvey Award for Best Syndicated Strip for two straight years. This year, the pair have been telling the story of Tracy’s search for a kidnapped Little Orphan Annie, wrapping up the other strip’s final storyline after it ended in 2010 with an unprecedented cliffhanger. The duo sat down with CBR News to talk about finding their own approach on the long-running comic strip, a run which has included appearances by Boris Karloff, Scott Shaw and various new and old characters.
CBR News: How did the two of you end up taking over “Dick Tracy?”
Mike Curtis: We tried out originally when [the strip’s writer] Mike Kilian passed away. We didn’t get it then. We put together a website, plainclothes.com, which basically saluted Tracy on his upcoming eightieth anniversary. Joe and I did a short story for it in comic strip form. Tribune saw that and liked it, and talked to us about taking over the strip.
Joe Staton: When Dick Locher was retiring, rather than putting out the call for people to try out, they were aware that we had what amounted to samples up online. They called up Mike and said, “We’d like for you take it over.”
What was your initial plan for the strip?
Staton: Basically, we just wanted to do classic “Dick Tracy” stuff with our own twist on it. Mike’s got ideas for stories, and I’ve just always wanted to be doing Tracy from my earlier years. We just wanted to do Tracy as he had been done in his glory days.
Curtis: It’s definitely not so much of a reboot, but getting back to some of his roots, you might say. We had already decided that Tracy wears a hat even if it’s not in fashion nowadays.
Staton: Tracy wears a hat and whenever he leaves the office, he puts on his raincoat. That’s his superhero costume. We wanted to keep the imagery traditional and iconic and recognizable.
Curtis: We said that Tracy not wearing a hat was like Popeye having skinny arms.
Staton: Tracy has tried to keep up with the times over the years. He’s had a crew cut, a mustache — fortunately, he never had a mullet, but there have been many attempts to keep him current. I think he’s outlived all that. We weren’t rebooting it or updating it; like Mike said, we went back to basics. We have so much material from so many years to pick from, we don’t have to bring Tracy up to our time period. He’s Dick Tracy. That’s just what we’re shooting for.
He may be timeless, but “Dick Tracy” has changed a lot over the years. Gould did a lot of science fiction stories in the ’60s and ’70s, and when Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher took over, they got rid of the sci-fi elements, and there have been other periods as well. Your approach seems to be to tie all of them together.
Curtis: That sounds right.
Staton: We even brought back Moon Maid and the science fiction stuff.
How much are you consciously thinking about creating new characters, reviving and reinventing old ones and trying to balance all that.
Curtis: With a lot of the old characters, some of their crimes aren’t really crimes anymore. Like B.B. Eyes was originally a tire bootlegger. I don’t think anybody does that, legally or illegally, nowadays, so we made him a DVD bootlegger.
Staton: And DVDs disappeared while we were doing that story! But whatever there is to bootleg next, he’ll be there bootlegging it.
For people who don’t know, “Little Orphan Annie” ended on the cliffhanger of her being kidnapped — again. You picked up story in late April. How did you approach it?
Curtis: We had been doing crossovers all along with different Tribune-owned properties like Hotshot Charlie and Walt Wallet. We even did a crossover with the Jumble! Our very first week of dailies, we had Moses Shrevnitz, who was the Shadow’s chauffeur. We had done a brief crossover sequence with Warbucks and the Asp of Punjab, and we had Warbucks tells Tracy that if his current idea didn’t work, he was going to contact him and see if they couldn’t figure out some way to locate Annie. It was alluded to several months before we ever got back to it.
Staton: We pretty much stick to Trib. owned characters and obliquely infer other characters from other universes. Although we just did a crossover with “Lum and Abner” so they come in from all kinds of places.
Curtis: That was fun to do because when “Lum and Abner” was on the radio, it often referred to what was going on in the Dick Tracy comic strips. I remember there was a teenager in “Lum and Abner,” who thought Mrs Pruneface was nice looking. [Laughs]
In a way, part of this goes back to when Joe and I were both kids. We grew up reading “Dick Tracy” and “Little Orphan Annie” in the same newspaper, The Jackson Sun, every Sunday. I think “Tracy” was on the bottom and “Annie” was on the top half of the Sunday comics page. They’ve always been companions on the paper. Shortly after we got the job, Joe and I talked about how “Annie” just didn’t have a satisfying ending when the strip was closed down, and we thought that Dick Tracy should rescue her.
When you first proposed this idea, completing the “Little Orphan Annie” storyline, what did Tribune think?
Curtis: We had to sell them.
Staton: If you aren’t accustomed thinking of Crisis on Everybody’s Earth this week, you have to convince people of this idea of shared realities and everybody crossing over. Once they got used to us and Mike worked with our editor, they came along. They’re cool with it now.
Curtis: The thing is, even before comics started doing crossovers, radio was doing crossovers. The Green Hornet is the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew. The radio show “Fibber McGee and Molly” spun off from “The Great Gildersleeve” and a couple other shows. Crossovers and spinoffs are quite an old thing.
Staton: We tie things in from many ages of media, so we’re pulling things in from old radio and old newspapers and current stuff, too.
Curtis: We also have real life people in Tracy, such as Scott Shaw, the animator. We had George Takei and his husband Brad in one story. The Nashville horror host Dr. Gangrene was in the strip. We’re talking to some other real life people now about appearing in “Dick Tracy.”
Joe, what has it been like drawing Annie?
Staton: Annie is really a challenge. She didn’t change much when Gray was doing her, but she did start really young and got a little older, and towards the end of the strip, various people updated her a little bit. We had to decide, what was the age we wanted to shoot for? Of course, you have limited variations on the style, so that limits you. It took some getting used to. We’re shooting for her around twelve, but classic-looking so she’s a challenge. Then, of course, getting enough of Harold Gray’s universe and style in there with the Tracy material as well. I’m doing a lot of fuzzy crosshatching, which I’m enjoying. Once we get back to non-Annie stories, I might keep some crosshatching rather than the stark black and white from Gould. That’s been fun. Everybody knows that Sandy will be back, and I’ve just started drawing him. I like drawing Sandy because basically, I like drawing dogs — one of the few animals I can actually draw.
I know we’re in the middle of the Annie story, so I’m not sure how much you want to say, but can you talk a little about how we got where we are?
Curtis: Back when Annie had her own strip, she was kidnapped by this villain called The Butcher of the Balkans. He kidnapped her — and that’s where the strip ended. We had set up that Warbucks knew Dick Tracy and that he was going to be contacting him for help to find Annie. Earlier this year, he came to town and talked the Mayor into assigning Tracy and his crew on the case.
The story has taken something of an odd turn, recently.
Curtis: Well, it looks like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie may be in a little town in 1944. If someone is just jumping in, that’s where you’re at. Tracy and Annie are in 1944, while in the present day, everyone’s trying to find them.
Staton: Hotshot Charlie from “Terry and the Pirates” is helping out, too.
Curtis: We’ve had a lot of characters in the strip from both “Annie” and “Tracy.” We’ve had the Great Am from “Little Orphan Annie.” Influence, who was a great Tracy villain but now works with the police. All kinds of characters have been popping up. The only character who hasn’t popped yet is Sandy.
Staton: Sandy’s on his way. Can’t do it without Sandy.
I’ve been enjoying that in this town, in 1944 — or whenever and wherever it is — they all listen to the radio adventures of Orphan Belinda with the curly yellow locks.
Staton: Mike, I was going to ask you if anybody is catching the reference.
Curtis: “The London Daily Mirror” ran a comic strip from about 1930 to 1959 called “Belinda Blue Eyes,” or sometimes just “Belinda.” It was basically a British version of “Little Orphan Annie.” It didn’t originally look like her, but I’ve seen the last strip, and she looks like Annie at about fifteen years old. I would love to read more of “Belinda.” I couldn’t tell you how much Belinda is like Annie, really, but I can tell you that at the end, her birth father finds her after losing her for many years. Beyond that, I don’t know. I don’t think she had a Daddy Warbucks, and I don’t think she had a dog either.
Staton: How could you do it without a dog? [Laughs]
Curtis: I don’t know! [Laughs] Back in the ’30s, there were quite a few clones of Annie and Dick Tracy in the United States as well. “Little Annie Rooney” was from a rival syndicate, and she had her dog Zero. You had “Dan Dunn,” who had a square chin and was a police detective. There were a lot of clones of these characters.
Staton: One thing I’d like to mention, I really like drawing the characters from “Annie.” I’ve told Mike that once this storyline is finished and things are resolved as to where Annie is, I hope we don’t lose track of Daddy Warbucks and the gang. They’re different, but they do mesh very well and I can certainly see Daddy Warbucks and Diet Smith, our industrialist character, teaming up for something. I’m hoping they’ll stick around and show up in the stories again.
A while back, you guys put out an ebook collecting the early series of strips you did together. Do you have plans to do more of that sort of thing?
Staton: Right now, Tribune is reorganizing, but we’re working on material for another ebook and hopefully hardcopy books. Yes, more collections are coming along. Other events in the real world will dictate how they’ll be put together and when.
Curtis: We also have a couple ideas for graphic novels of the “Tracy” characters.
Joe, you recently helped Tom Batiuk with the “Starbuck Jones” artwork that appeared in “Funky Winkerbean.” He credited you with not just the cover,but the design work. What was that like? Was it a very different project from “Tracy?”
Staton: It was different, but it was in the same vein. The book that I was supposed to be doing the cover for was an old classic from the ’50s. I was trying to capture the look of a book from that time, so I was trying to pick up on Flash Gordon and old science fiction. Once again, I’m trying to plug into traditional genre material. It’s similar but different and a lot of fun.
Curtis: I should mention that we’re supposed to do a crossover in February with “Funky Winkerbean.”
Staton: There are more crossovers coming
Curtis: Snuffy Smith in November.
When does the Annie storyline wrap up?
Curtis: The second week of October.
Staton: It’s a long story. Gould and Gray had storylines that went on for months and months, but Annie is out longest storyline so far.
Curtis: Gray had one that was nine months to a year, and that introduced the character of Axel at the end of it. That was in ’38. It’s usually called his House of Seven Gables story, although it’s not called that in the storyline.
Staton: The villain from that story is in our current story, Axel, the enemy agent.
Joe, do have any favorite characters you’ve gotten to draw, or characters you will be drawing?
Staton: I have a bunch of favorites. I really liked our sequence about the Nitrates, the brother and sister team. They felt very Gould-ian to me. Anytime we get into a crossover, that’s fun. One of our own characters who turns up occasionally is Abner Kadaver. He seems to be dead at the moment, but he may not stay that way. He either has really good makeup or is dead-looking. He’s fun to draw, kind of a Steve Ditko character. And I really liked when we did stuff with Mumbles. It was fun to draw George Takei.
Curtis: One character that we came up with that we both like working with is a bank robber named Blackjack. A lot of times when people describe our villains, they’ll say Pruneface is a Nazi spy, so and so is this, and they always say Blackjack is nuts. [Laughs] Unfortunately, I wrote myself into a corner. Not just any crime will do for him, which is one reason we’ve haven’t seen him much lately.
You mentioned that after the Annie story wraps up, you’ll be crossing over with “Snuffy Smith” in November and “Funky Winkerbean” in February. What do have planned for the future of “Tracy?”
Curtis: For the story right after “Annie,” I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but RKO made four “Dick Tracy” feature films back in the mid-’40s. They had Gould-esque villains like Cueball, who we’ve already adapted into the strip. The last of those films was “Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome,” which starred Boris Karloff. Gruesome will be in the next story after Annie. We have gotten permission from Sara Karloff to use her father’s likeness, so Boris Karloff will be making a guest appearance, as it were.
We have Silver and Sprocket Nitrate coming back after the first of the year. We’ve got the Blackhearts, and we’ll get back into their story. A lot of Tracy fans are waiting for us to bring back Notta Fallar, who’s also known as Mrs Chin Chillar. She was a bearded lady during the space coupe stories, and she was regularly in the strip for well over a year in various storylines. Gould said she was the most popular character that he had come up with in the strip.
Staton: We have long term plans for some of the characters. Honeymoon is one of our favorite characters, and we were discussing her growing up.
Curtis: I do want to say this — Joe has said this before — we’re planning on doing twenty years on “Tracy,” which will take us to the 100th anniversary, and then we’ll give him to the next team.
Staton: We hope that we last that long, and that “Tracy” lasts that long. By that time, who knows what the media landscape will be, but something like newspapers will be around and “Tracy” will be there.