Gigantic Gumshoe: The Dick Tracy Statue

May 19, 2013 — The three things I know about Dick Tracy from living in a world cancerous with popular culture are: 1) He makes yellow overcoats masculine. 2) We have an entire society of pissed-off people because we still don’t have his watch. 3) One time in the early 1990s, Warren Beatty produced, directed, and starred in a film version of the property. It was during his Madonna years. I watched it back then, but only remember primary colors and disfigured villains.

So I’m not a Dick Tracy aficionado. Nothing against him, just not a hardboiled detective story kind of guy. So you’d think a bronze statue of him in a random town in the suburbs of Chicago wouldn’t interest me too much. And you’d be right. But it does interest me just enough.

Because oversized bronze statues of fictional characters are right where I like to make stands and/or have picnics. Like Dr. Suess’s menagerie. Or King Neptune. Kermit the Frog. C.S. Lewis.

But a post needs a proper introduction. So here’s what I know about Dick Tracy now that I’ve visited his statue and need to sound authoritative. If you’re ever on Jeopardy! remember to phrase your answers in the form of a question.

Dick Tracy was the main character of an eponymous newspaper comic strip that began in 1931 and whose newsprint can still be pulled off with Silly Putty to this day. It was created by Chester Gould, who was born in Oklahoma but moved to Chicago for college and career. It was while at the Chicago Tribune that he came up with Dick Tracy, which ended up debuting through syndication in the Detroit Mirror. I realize that none of this backstory involves a random suburb of Chicago.

The city of Naperville jumps into this story basically because, since 2010, it has a nine-foot-tall, 2,000-pound multi-hued bronze statue of Dick Tracy in its Riverwalk Park. Gould isn’t from Naperville. Nor is Tracy. Bob Odenkirk is, but that’s a digression.

There are two reasons that this big, bronze fighter of crime overshadows Naperville. The official one, and the one I learned from visiting the place.

The official connection between Dick Tracy and Naperville is that it’s the current home of the guy who has off and on been illustrating the comic since the 1950s and also carrying writing duties since the 1980s, after Gould’s retirement. Getting the statue up was his crusade for justice. That’s a legit connection, sure, but not in my mind gigantic-statue, associate-the-character-with-the-town legit. But vague connections don’t stop Illinois cities. Just look at their sibling town of Metropolis, which just because of its name, erected a massive statue of Superman as its marquee attraction.

Like I said, that’s the official reason. The real reason that Naperville embraced the idea of a metal comic character in its midst is that Naperville loves bronze statues. In the few minutes of driving around the city, I saw a dozen full sized figural bronze sculptures that range from civil servants and sports players to veterans and citizens. Apparently, it also has a few Dr. Seuss characters. The place just might not have a cemetery, though, and deals with its dead that way. I didn’t really ask anybody.

But the statue is its own validation.

Dick is located on the edge of the DuPage River behind the Naperville Township Office on Water Street, right beside a covered walking bridge that spans the river.

The statue is a dramatic one, to be sure. They’ve treated his flogger to give it a yellowish cast without leaving the bronze spectrum, and said coat is swept back as Tracy talks into the wrist radio wrapped around his ham of a fist, I assume responding to a message about some poor stiff behind a flophouse with a slug in his gut from a hatchetman who’d clammed him up after some botched box job. A dame with great gams was probably involved. He looks as superhero as an average Joe in a yellow fedora can.

Mostly, the statue interests me because it kind of makes Tracy look like a monster…or one of the grotesque villains that he chases. That’s because the hard lines of his features look somewhat Frankensteinian when overscaled to this size. It reminded me of Sin City’s Marv, who probably only exists because of characters like Dick Tracy and who probably has a more direct connection that I don’t know about since I’m out of the crime story loop. There’s also something sinister about the statue’s thin-lipped smile. But that’s the thing about these hard-nosed, job-obsessed investigators, they’re always a flat-footed step behind the crooks…which means they’re always a step behind the crooks.

And because the life of a street detective is soul-tainting, it’s nice to see the old gumshoe hanging out at such a beautiful spot on the river, laughing at all of us for putting cool tech into our phones instead of our wristwatches.

I cropped this from Google Maps. It's from a golf course in Wheaton, Illinois,
seven miles north of Naperville. If golf courses did more of this stuff,
I'd be more interested in the sport. Just kidding.

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