Ask Chris #228: Dick Tracy, Annie, And The Ending To The Weirdest Crossover Of The Year
Q: How did Dick Tracy solve the case of Li'l Orphan Annie's disappearance and was it appropriately insane? -- @willwise3
A: Oh Will. Will, Will, Will. I want to take a moment to thank you for letting me talk about what is unquestionably the single greatest crossover of the year. For those of you who may have missed it, the Little Orphan Annie comic strip ended a while back with what has to be the most harrowing cliffhanger to ever hit the newspaper page. After eighty years of adventures, Annie went out in the middle of a story where she'd been kidnapped by an actual war criminal called the Butcher of the Balkans, locked up on a boat bound for an unknown shore, with Daddy Warbucks wondering if he would ever see his beloved daughter again. Seriously, that was the last strip, and Annie's final fate until it was announced that Dick Tracy would step up and solve the case last summer.
As for whether or not that story was "insane," well, let me put it this way: It involves SUPER-POWERED MOON PEOPLE, ATOMIC WEAPONS, AND A TIME MACHINE.
When I was a kid, I briefly got obsessed with Dick Tracy when the movie came out, and I remember grabbing these oversized reprints of stories from the '40s. At least, I thought they were oversized. I was eight. But aside from the size, the one thing that really stuck with me was that they were incredibly violent, at least for my young sensibilities. Despite the fact that they featured the cartoonish villains that I'd seen in the movie with the goofy and bluntly descriptive names that were the trademark of the series, there were people getting shot and bleeding out on the concrete all the time in those stories, so after the brief obsession faded, that was the impression that I had of the strip: Cartoony characters and alarmingly realistic violence.
And that was pretty much confirmed the last time I checked in with the strip, back when I started following the Comics Curmudgeon, which was, coincidentally, around the time that a Dick Tracy story ended with someone being mauled to death by their own trained attack dogs. But it turns out that in the sixty-plus years between those stories, there was a whole lot I didn't know about.
See, here's the thing about Dick Tracy: It's weird. And not only that, but it's weird in almost exactly the same way that Batman is, right down to moving away from crime stories and into this bizarre sci-fi era in the '50s and '60s, before swinging back into gritty crime for the next couple of decades. I've mentioned this briefly before, but in Tracy's case, it involved a tenure as the sheriff of the Moon, helping to police a society of antennae-sporting Lunarians and a superheroine named Moon Maid, who supplied his Earthbound police force with flying cars, all of which were eventually written out of the strip when Moon Maid was killed via car bomb and the Moon severed diplomatic ties with Earth.
So yeah: Batman moved into the '70s and just stopped talking about how he used to hang out with versions of himself from the future. Dick Tracy had to deal with diplomatic incidents involving exploded Moon people.
Anyway, in 2011, Joe Staton and Mike Curtis took over the strip, and it turns out that they're pretty big fans of all the completely bonkers stuff that's gone on in the past, and it didn't take long for them to set about bringing it all back and putting together the most mind-boggling, over-the-top crime stories in comics, not the least of which involved bringing back the Lunarians, including Tracy's grandkids:
And that brings us to the story about Annie.
If you're interested in reading it for yourself (and you should, it's legit one of my favorite comics going right now), you can find Dick Tracy online at GoComics.com, with this story starting on June 1, 2014. For the rest of you, here's how it all goes down, and I promise I am not exaggerating one bit. Well, except about the Moon people, they really only show once and don't get involved with the Annie stuff. Everything else, however...
It starts off reasonably enough, with Daddy Warbucks showing up to ask the Major Crimes Unit and Chief Detective Dick Tracy to help track down his daughter. It seems that he and his sidekicks have been tipped off that she's no longer being held by the Butcher, and is somewhere near the City. So where is she?
Oh, you know, it's probably what you expect. She's in 1944.
See, before he ends up finding Annie in what appears to be the past, Tracy's investigation leads him to a secret project called Blue Image, where Diet Smith, the guy who built Tracy's Wrist Wizard, has been working on a time machine.
But it turns out that this is only a red herring! Annie ends up tipping off Tracy to her whereabouts with a coded letter containing her location -- in coordinates, because it's comics and in comics everyone seems to know their exact latitude and longitude at all times -- sending Tracy to the mysterious Thunder Island, which has been closed off by the order of the government since a nuclear accident -- which is another red herring, because it wasn't a nuclear attack at all, but rather an accident involving chemical weapons that were being developed for use against the Nazis! But when Tracy goes to check it out, he blacks out, his car goes into the water, and when he wakes up...
...he thinks it's 1944 and that he is and has always been the sole policeman for the town of Simmons Corners!
The reason for all this? EVERYONE IN TOWN IS BEING BRAINWASHED BY HYPNOTIC MESSAGES TRANSMITTED VIA OLD TIME RADIO. Everyone, that is, except for Annie, which makes sense given that the show that's hypnotizing everyone is Orphan Belinda, a parody of the Little Orphan Annie radio show.
Fortunately for Annie, she's able to snap Tracy out of it, at which time they decide to investigate the town by pretending that they're pretending to date, which is not a typo.
As it turns out, the whole thing is a plot by a crook named Axel, who has rigged up a Village straight out of The Prisoner in order to convince a scientist named Kenyon that it's World War II and he needs to create a new and devastating explosive so that he can fight the Nazis. Why, exactly, he felt that he had to go all the way back to the '40s to find motivation for building bombs, I have no idea, but Curtis and Staton do make sure to point out that the chemical weapons accident left the buildings abandoned and untouched since 1944. I guess when you come across an entire vintage town that's guaranteed to be left alone since everyone thinks it's radioactive, you just end up building the rest of your supervillain plot around it until t snowballs into being a Whole Thing.
Needless to say, it does not work out so well for Axel.
If you take nothing else away from this column, please let it be this: People sure do explode a lot in Dick Tracy.
And that's the end of that. After four solid months of increasingly bizarre action, Annie is rescued and goes back to live with Daddy Warbucks, and Tracy is called upon to explain the whole thing in a single strip to a person who does not believe him despite the fact that he works for a police department that uses MOON CARS.
That's a word balloon Steve Ditko would be proud of.
It's easily the crossover of the year and probably in the running for crossover of the decade, but here's the best part: Later this month, Dick Tracy is crossing over with Funky Winkerbean, which means two things. One, that Moon People are officially going to be canon in both Funky and Crankshaft, and two, that there's a really good chance Les Moore and his miserable smirking face are going to get blown up good.
I cannot wait.