Bringing The Spirit and Dick Tracy Together, For the First Time

2017 marks the Eisner Centennial, as Will Eisner would have turned 100 years old this month. To help celebrate, Mike Curtis, Joe Staton and the team behind “Dick Tracy” brought The Spirit to the comic strip for the first ever crossover between the two iconic characters.

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Dick Tracy is one of the last remaining legacy strips, and since the two took over in 2011, they’ve made a point of bringing other characters into the comic. They’ve had crossovers with other Tribune strips that had already ended, like Little Orphan Annie, the supporting cast of Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley and Snuffy Smith, and they even incorporated the Fearless Fosdick parody of Tracy from “Li’l Abner.” They’ve had references to The Shadow and Doc Savage. They got permission to use the likeness of Boris Karloff to introduce the character he played in 1947’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome to the strip for the first time.

In short, they’re having a lot of fun, so we contacted the pair to discuss the latest, and perhaps most unexpected pairing they've presented to date.

CBR: You guys ended 2016 with one character’s cancer going into remission, a rousing Sunday of the characters singing “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie,” and the arrival of The Spirit. How did this happen?

Joe Staton: It was Mike.

Mike Curtis: Denis Kitchen, too. Basically we had talked to Denis Kitchen before about another crossover when we used Fearless Fosdick [from “Li’l Abner’]. That went well, so we decided to go after The Spirit and Denis made it all happen.

You guys have had story lines with a lot of other comics characters, not to mention characters and real life people from outside comics. It feels natural to include The Spirit in that sense.

Staton: We’ve been doing lots of other people’s characters. Annie and the supporting cast of Terry and the Pirates are “in house.” The Trib owns them. Snuffy Smith is not a Trib character, but he made a short appearance -- there was not a long term commitment there, so we could do what we wanted. With The Spirit, the Eisner estate and Denis would keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t go astray. We had to be very careful, but they were very good with what they let us do.

Curtis: Very much so. One thing I do want to point out is that I write the script and do roughs, then Joe does pencils and Shelley inks and letters it. We had been sending copies of everything to Denis and the Eisner estate in case they had any last minute changes – or better ideas.

Staton: I did a little explaining of my approach to The Spirit before we got into it. I was taking on the Spirit from a specific earlier part of Will’s strips. Because Tracy and Denny Colt have pretty similar hats most of the time, I wanted to make them a little more distinct. Earlier in the run the Spirit had a hat with a wider brim and a taller crown, and sometimes he had a topcoat. I was trying to make Denny Colt distinct from Dick Tracy.

Mike, talk a little about the story.

Curtis: The hard part was finding something that would be of interest and enough of a challenge for both Dick Tracy and The Spirit. It’s like those “World’s Finest Comics” where you have to have somebody who’s tough enough to take on Superman, Batman and Robin. I won’t give away anything in the story, but Perenelle Flammel, who’s the wife of Nicolas Flammel, is auctioning off her immortality formula. The people who are bidding to buy it are Daddy Warbucks, The Dragon Lady, the Octopus, who sent Mr Carrion over to bid for him, and Diet Smith.

I always enjoy when we have Diet and Warbucks together. Back when we did the Annie crossover, there was one daily that I really enjoyed where they were talking about time travel and Warbucks is ribbing Diet Smith and he says, I know you have a Montauk Chair in there. Things you have to look up like that. I think that makes it a more interesting story and a more interesting strip if the reader can enjoy it on one level, but if they want to dig a little bit, they can enjoy it more.

What do you think the relationship is between Gould and Eisner and their work? Both The Spirit and Dick Tracy are both reactive characters.

Staton: Will’s approach to stories, and to life, was more humanistic than the Gould approach. Tracy keeps order, and The Spirit just wanders into life and sees who’s hanging in there. They’re both crime fighters they both can take a lot of abuse, but they are from different takes on the world. There’s a little bit of that in the crossover too.

Curtis: They’re both reactive characters. In the classic Spirit story “Ten Minutes,” the Spirit shows up for three panels, I think, in the whole story. There’s a lot of Tracy stories where he’s not the lead.

Staton: Sometimes the Tracy villains have stories going on for months before Tracy shows up and gets into things.

This year is the Eisner Centennial, as we were saying; who was Eisner to you?

Staton: When I came into comics, I knew that he was always called the Orson Welles of comics. I think it was just for him opening up possibilities beyond just six boxes on a page, both in terms of the graphics and in terms of the characterizations. The humanity of the characters. Will showed that comics could be a little bit more than people generally thought they were. Will is the great popularizer of the graphic novel and now graphic novels are covering all kinds of territories. Will showed up there was more to be done that more could be done.

Curtis: Did you ever meet Will?

Staton: Somewhere along the line, I actually got an Eisner for a "Superman/Batman Adventures." Will was giving them out that year, and was signing them all, so I have an Eisner, signed on the back in gold pen by Will. The funny thing is, the plaque is actually the wrong title of the comic. [Laughs] It’s supposed to be "Superman/Batman Adventures," and it says "Batman and Robin Adventures." I would never turn it back in to get the correct one, because Will wouldn’t have signed that one. That’s the only time I ever met Will.

You guys are wrapping up the story in April, so people can go back and catch up before the finale. This is one of the longest stories you guys have done on the strip.

Staton: Mike will write long stories that don’t take place in one long stretch. We had a story with Mr Crime for a long time, and there would be other stories intervening and I have no idea how long all that ended up being.

I did want to mention the colors you guys have on the Sunday strips, which really stands out.

Curtis: Shane Fisher is our coloring guy on Sundays, and on gocomics.com they have someone else doing the dailies.

Curtis: There are five of us on the team. There’s Joe and myself, Shelley Pleger does inks and lettering. Shane is our colorist, then we have Walt Rymer, who’s our police advisor -- he does the Crimestoppers.

That’s as large of a team as any strip right now.

Staton: I think so. Terry Beatty works pretty much on his own on “The Phantom.” Sometimes I’m amazed what he can do on his own. Sometimes Shelly, our inker, can do most anything.

Curtis: We do need to mention that Shelly is going to be doing the main strip for one story while you take a break.

Staton: When I signed up years ago to do "Tracy," I had some other things I was planning. Between keeping up with "Tracy" and there being a boon in doing cons, I haven’t been able to concentrate on any other projects, so I’m taking off for one continuity and Shelley is going to be doing the whole strip – pencils, inks and letters – and then I’ll be back on. We have no doubt that she’ll do a brilliant job.

What are you doing when you step away from the strip?

Staton: It’s no secret; Nic Cuti I have the character E-Man, a character that actually owes a lot to Will and to Jack Cole. We have this new story of E-Man, and it’s going to run as three parts in the Charleton Arrow, which handles a lot of characters from Charleton, which is where I started out way back when. I’m actually working on an E-man story right now, and Shelly is working on Tracy

Is there a character you really liked in this story?

Staton: I really like drawing The Spirit. I always wanted a shot at Denny Colt. We bring back our character Doubleup, I always like him. The Dragon Lady shows up. She’s much harder to draw than you would think.

I have to ask, is there a chance we’ll see a collection of the strip one of these years?

Staton: We keep on hoping!

Curtis: Joe and I have collected two stories which we give out at conventions. One of them is the Gruesome story with Boris Karloff. The other is Dick Tracy meets the film pirates, which is Silver Nitrate and Sister Sprocket.

Staton: Those are characters we made up. I thought of them and designed them and they’re certainly in the tradition of Gould, but we made them up out of whole cloth.

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