by Jean Gould O’Connell
McFarland & Company, 2007
$45.00, 225 pages with index
I come to a biography like this with trepidation. Biographies by the progeny of the famous are often not worth the paper they’re printed on. There’s no guarantee that the author can write worth a darn, and often these books are badly researched or tell stories that are of interest only within the family.
Jean Gould O’Connell’s book is very well-written, so no worries there. The research tends to be a little shaky in the early chapters (she has the U.S. entering World War I in 1915, and has young Chet reading Mutt & Jeff in the local paper in 1906) but improves once she gets further along. And there are plenty of interesting stories told in the book, though there is also a dose of material that could have been trimmed, like the blow by blow account of the renovations done to the Gould’s home.
The author uses as her source material not only her own memories but some extensive taped interviews she did with her dad in 1983, two years before his death. The elder Gould had a lot to say about his early trials of the 1920s trying to get syndicated, which, for me at least, was the most interesting section of the book, a fascinating read.
I’m no Chester Gould scholar, so I’m not a good judge of how much new information is being brought to the table here. Certainly I learned a lot. One particular bit that I found particularly interesting was about Gould’s infamous villain’s graveyard — turns out that the man wasn’t nearly the creepy weirdo I took him for based on those often reprinted publicity photos.
I soured on Dick Tracy a bit recently when I read the reprints of the first years of the strip. I found the early Tracy stories to be sloppily plotted in the extreme, so much so that I’m amazed Gould’s strip survived long enough for him to hone his storytelling skills. This bio, while not admitting that the early Tracy was pretty awful, does explain how Gould plotted stories, and it explains his strip’s early awkwardness.
There’s a lot of meaty stuff in here and I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just mention that there was also unexpected material on how Gould felt about his successors on the strip, and about the way the Chicago Tribune treated Gould and his legacy.
The big disappointment considering the high price of the book is the lack of any color material. There are plenty of family photos and some rare pieces of Gould pre-Tracy art, so I can’t fault the quantity of illustrations, but at $45 I expected an extensive use of color.
Seems to me that the price tag puts this book out of range of casual fans, the ones who would most enjoy it. Serious Gould fans, I’m guessing, have probably already heard a lot of these stories. I hadn’t, and I really enjoyed the book. But I doubt that many casual readers will shell out $45 on a thin book without any color material to justify the price.