Shocking Shoot-’em Up

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 9:08 AM

The image immediately above is no doubt the most shocking to be seen on the funnies page in a generation: Joe Cobb, the cop hero of Robb Armstrong’s JumpStart, getting shot in the chest, “pap,” by a thuggish sort in the hallway of an apartment building. Raw violence of the most lethal sort. The image in this December 6 strip reminds me of olde timey Dick Tracy, the 1930-40s incarnation of Chester Gould’s famous strip, in which the cleaver-jawed protagonist could often be seen shooting it out with the bad guys, examples of which I’ve posted just below.

Some years ago, I interviewed Dick Locher who had inherited Dick Tracy, and he talked about the things that were verboten then. We met in his office in the Chicago Tribune Tower in July 1994.

“It used to be that you couldn’t show a character falling-down drunk,” Locher began, referring to the “ten commandments” of syndicated comics. “You couldn’t show somebody being massacred by machine-gun—probably because of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre here in Chicago. Couldn’t show a couple in bed. Couldn’t show the inside of a woman’s thigh. Couldn’t show a woman drunk. And you couldn’t show somebody being stabbed. And Chester Gould never paid any attention to any of those,” he finished with a laugh.

“Yes,” I grinned, “—as you were ticking those off, I was thinking of the incidents in Dick Tracy that showed Gould just doing them all.”

“Exactly right,” Locher roared. “He had somebody impaled on a flagpole once. That violates every rule there is. We can’t do that now. We can’t show somebody being shot, directly. Syndicates won’t stand for it. Readers won’t either. We can show robbery,” he continued. “We can show rapes. We can show arson. But only on the front pages of our newspapers. Not in the comic strips.”

“That’s too bad,” I said, “because one of the big fascinations of Dick Tracy in the old days was that line that was drawn from the muzzle of the gun to the villain’s forehead and out the other side with a little of the bad guy’s brain being sprayed out the other side, too.”

“There are so many groups out there now,” Locher said, “just waiting for you to do something. And they’ll boycott the paper, and they’ll march out in front. And they just can’t wait. And the syndicates say, We don’t need that kind of aggravation. And what we don’t need is a lost client paper. They say,You’re giving us so much aggravation, we’ll just cancel. So they don’t want that. So you have to tow the line. Action like that happens off-screen. Sam Catchem can say to Tracy, Oh—nice shot, Tracy,” Locher laughed. “And that’s a handicap to work under in a detective strip. Even in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ on television, they can show somebody being killed. We can’t do that. And, boy!—that’s working with your hand tied behind your back.”

The anti-violence taboos for Tracy presumably continue apace, which probably accounts for the prevalent practice lately of rendering this classic adventure strip as a succession of talking heads. No action at all. Nothing moves so nothing can offend the squeamish multitudes out there. Locher is still penciling the strip, he told me; but it’s being inked in the Locher manner by Jim Brozman. And most panels in a recent week’s releases depict nothing but a tight close-up of someone’s face.

As you might expect in these culturally sensitive times, Armstrong’s JumpStart shooting did not escape unscathed. Regular readers of the strip doubtless recognized that Joe was probably protected by the metal medallion he was wearing around his neck, the gift a few days before from a homeless family he’d helped. And sure enough, the next day, the secret of his survival was revealed. But was too late for the readers of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, where, earlier in the same week as the JumpStart strip, two city police officers were shot. The strip prompted a couple dozen irrate phone calls, many, according to Editor & Publisher, from the law enforcement community in the area.

Editor Karen Magnuson issued an apology: “We regret not back-checking the proofs and we are revisiting our procedures to ensure we check comics proofs more closely in the future.”

Armstrong responded, too, apologizing and pointing out that his strips are drawn nearly a month before publication, long before any police were shot in Rochester. Ironically, the strip was part of a series Armstrong was doing, advocating the importance of bullet-proof vests for law enforcement officers. Armstrong’s syndicate, United Feature, told the Democrat and Chronicle that two other newspapers had complained, both published in cities that had recently experienced “police-related incidents.”

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