Last summer, writer Mike Curtis and artist Joe Staton shocked and delighted old time comic buffs when they (kind of) brought the long deceased Moon Maid back to Dick Tracy. The story won them a Harvey Award, and put Dick Tracy back on the map as one of the best comics being created today. Well, how do you follow up that sort of success? Obviously by doing the unthinkable. This summer there are some familiar faces in Dick Tracy as Curtis, Staton and the rest of Team Tracy sends Tracy on an epic search for a kidnapped little girl in one of the strangest and unexpected comic cross overs of all time. Dick Tracy is going in search of Little Orphan Annie!
This isn’t just the return of the Annie characters after a four year hiatus. This is Curtis and Staton’s chance to finish one of the strangest loose ends in comic history. In 2010, , Tribune Media Service pulled the plug on Annie in the middle of an adventure, ending the eighty six year run in a bleak and unexpected manner. Annie, who had been kidnapped by a villain called The Butcher of the Balkans, was left an unwilling captive while Daddy Warbucks gave up all hope of ever seeing her again. The Tribune promised it was the end of the story “for now” but there was little commitment in resolving Annie’s fate. With the Annie franchise turning ninety years old this past month, and on the heels of a new heavily revamped film coming out this Christmas, Curtis and Staton will be making comic history by using the casts of both Dick Tracy and Annie to help find the eternally optimistic little girl, and revive a classic dormant property. It’s something for old time comic strip lovers to cheer about. The sun might just come up tomorrow after all.
Last year Mike Curtis and I did a lengthy interview about the Moon Maid saga and the origins of his and Joe Staton’s run on Dick Tracy. Mike and I have stayed in touch ever since and the two of us have become good friends. For the latest story Mike decided to bring Joe into the conversation. Unfortunately, our talk was faced with more technical problems that even Diet Smith couldn’t fix out all the bugs. But through determination and a sense of humor, we managed to create a lively discussion about Dick Tracy, Annie and things to come.
Sam Tweedle: It’s really great to have you two guys together. Mike and I have spoken many times, but I’ve looked at a lot of your work while I was growing up Joe. I was a DC kid and I can remember your work at DC Comics.
Joe Staton: You’ve seen a lot of it then.
Sam: We featured a story on the Moon Maid storyline last year. Let’s bring things up to date with your team winning the Harvey Award last year for Best Syndicated Strip. How has that changed things for you guys and Dick Tracy in general?
Joe: It hasn’t really changed things too much. Some people will notice and congratulate us. That’s about it.
Mike Curtis: We did get that big New York Times article.
Sam: Well this was the first time that an adventure strip has won the award.
Mike: It is.
Joe: It’s certainly the first time a strip this old has won it.
Sam: I really enjoyed your last storyline with Tabby Angus and his racehorses. I noticed you had a lot of fun naming the race horses. A lot of Easter Eggs for old comic fans. Mike, how much reception do you get from readers by dropping in Easter Eggs like that? Is it appreciated, or are the references often too obscure for today’s reader?
Mike: We get a lot of good feedback. People notice them.
Sam: Since you guys took over Dick Tracy you’ve created a lot of great original characters in the Chester Gould tradition. Do you design the characters together?
Joe: The way it works is that sometimes Mike has a very definite idea of what they look like, so he’ll sketch out an idea and I’ll elaborate that. Sometimes he just has a name and I’ll come up with something based on the story.
Sam: What characters have you designed Mike, and who have you designed Joe?
Joe: Right off the bat….what was the little red headed girl, Mike?
Mike: Hot Rize!
Joe: Yeah. Hot Rize. Mike designed her right off the bat. One that I did was Abner Kadaver. I pretty much did him. Mike had a pretty well worked a design on Tabby Angus.
Mike: I had a different idea for Mêlies but you redesigned him.
Joe: Yeah. I pretty much based him on the shot from the movie [A Trip to the Moon]. Sometimes when we can’t nail it down sometimes Shelley Pleger will take over. Shelly designed Rikki Mortis.
Sam: I have a crush on her.
Joe: Yeah. I had turned in three sketches of her and let them pick what they wanted, and they settled on the Goth look, but when Shelley saw it she said “This will never work. This is too complicated.” So she started all over. The design is pretty much hers. I keep Shelley’s sketch of Rikki Mortis on my wall for inspiration.
Sam: Two other recent villains that really grew on me were the Nitrates. They were so deliciously weird.
Joe: I pretty much went with Mike’s design for Silver, but when I was working for Sprocket she just got a little stranger.
Sam: I know both of you are long time Dick Tracy fans from when you were kids. Mike and I spoke in our past interview about his favorite Tracy characters to work with. Who are some of yours Joe?
Joe: I really enjoyed Sprocket and Blackjack. Blackjack is my favorite character to draw so far. I like those big googly eyes. He’s over the top with his characterization. I’ve certainly enjoyed drawing Moon Maid. We are committed to keeping Flat Top dead, so I only get to draw him in the occasional flashback, but I enjoy drawing the entire Top family.
Sam: Why are you keeping Flat Top dead?
Joe: I think there are certain points in history that shouldn’t be changed. I think Flat Top should stay dead.
Sam: So it’d be like bringing back Uncle Ben in Spider-Man.
Joe: Right. You should not bring back Uncle Ben. We brought back a lot of characters. B.B. Eyes cheated death. But he’s not as much of an awesome character as Flat Top. Some dead characters have to stay dead.
Mike: Flat Top is dead and buried, basically. Shaky is my favorite. I’d love to bring him back but we can’t because the last time we saw him he was a skeleton.
Sam: Now over the past few months I have gone on record as saying that, in my opinion, the search for Annie is the comic event of the summer. You guys have been working a lot of classic comic characters in the strip which has been a lot of fun, but this is going to be something far more involved. How long did it take you to get the permission to do this story?
Mike: We wanted to do this since we got [Dick Tracy] but we didn’t want to do it as a one off. When we first did cross overs we’d only have the characters for one day.
Joe: Right. We had Hot Shot Charlie for just a panel or two, but Annie needed more.
Mike: Very much so.
Sam: How about giving us a recap for the people who don’t know. How did Annie end?
Mike: Annie had been kidnapped by the Butcher of the Balkans, but he said he would not kill her but she would travel with him from now on. Daddy Warbucks had resigned himself to the fact that he would never find Annie alive. I know. That doesn’t sound like Warbucks to me either.
Sam: Will the Butcher of the Balkans appear in your story?
Sam: Is he the main villain?
Sam: Is it a new villain or someone we’ve seen before.
Joe: All of above. (Laughs)
Sam: What a weird weird ending.
Mike: I know. It was a strange ending.
Sam: But this is a great story opportunity for you guys. So beyond the Dick Tracy characters, who are the characters you’ll be using in this story?
Mike: Annie, Daddy Warbucks, Punjab, the Asp. The Great Am is in there. Also characters from the radio show are in it. Ma and Pa Silo are in it. You can’t get too much earlier than that.
Joe: And some other cross over characters will be appearing also.
Sam: Where is Sandy in all of this?
Mike: I had to do research to find out where Sandy was. Warbucks has him. He will show up in this
Sam: One of my favorite Annie characters from the early days of the strip was Annie’s Emily Marie doll. Will she be in it?
Mike: I’m not sure what happened to her. I’ve got a book where it references Emily Marie but Annie says that she was stolen. I’ve been trying to find out what happened to her. Once I find out what happened to her I plan to reference her.
Sam: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the public about the upcoming storyline?
Joe: People are realizing that this is the first time that this kind of thing has happened.
Sam: Was there any licensing problems in order for you to be able to do a story with Annie for so long?
Joe: Well the Tribute owns it all, so it’s all “in-house.” Once we got the go ahead from them then we were fine.
Sam: But it’s interesting what you guys have been doing, showing that all of the characters that the Tribune owns are in the same universes. That’s sort of a Marvel or DC concept but hasn’t been played very often in the newspaper strips.
Joe: Some of the King Features characters have done small cross overs.
Mike: The Phantom and Mandrake have had crossovers.
Joe: We’ve certainly done the most of it though.
Sam: How long is your Annie story going to last?
Mike: Five months.
Sam: And it’s all written?
Mike: Not every little bit.
Joe: There are still some things that we are waiting to see how it ends up.
Mike: Now I’ll give you a clue that I’m not giving anyone else. Ready?
Sam: Is that it?
Mike: That’s it. It’ll make sense later.
Sam: Okay then. The art style between Dick Tracy and Annie is so different, especially with the Annie characters lacking eyeballs. Over the last while characters without eyeballs have been added to almost prepare readers for the design change. As an artist Joe, how do you merge the two styles? Is it easy?
Joe: It’s really difficult to draw characters without eyeballs. It’s hard to figure out where to place their eyes. Things that I normally do with characters looking over their shoulders or looking to the side can’t be done. It’s a whole new set of problems. When we do the crossover I try to pick up on the style of the artist, and I thought the hardest would be Leonard Starr’s Mary Perkins, because Leonard Starr can really draw. It’s hard to walk in those shoes. But its turning out that Annie is harder to draw than Mary Perkins, because Harold Grey couldn’t really draw at all so there weren’t any rules. It’s hard to figure out what he was doing.
Sam: So is it safe to say that you are not a fan of Grey’s art?
Joe: Well, he made images but I don’t think you could say he could draw.
Mike: Chester Gould and Harold Grey were cartoonists and writers. They were not necessarily artists. So that is the challenge for Joe.
Joe: Shelley is also helping me figure out how to draw Annie, figuring out a girl of Annie’s size and age and just trying to help me nail down the look.
Sam: How old would you say Annie is?
Joe: I’m shooting for twelve. Just back from being a teen.
Sam: So what happens to Annie after the storyline completes. Are you going to send her on her way or will we see more of her?
Joe: She’s going to get together with Moon Maid and go into business. (Laughs)
Mike: We can’t give away the ending.
Sam: Is it too far in the future to talk about 2015?
Mike: We’re planning that out now. You know how I write, so basically all stories may be revised when my pen hits the paper. But we are already making tentative plans for plot line for the next year. The Nitrates will be back. The Blackhearts are back next year. Do you know who Phillip J. Reilly is? He’s an author who writes about horror movies that are never made. Apparently he has access to a lot of the universal files. So there is a book about Dracula vs. The Wolfman, which was to be a color film featuring Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. Well I contacted him because if he is interested in rare horror films, that’s the kind of thing that Rikki Mortis would get as a present to Abner Kadaver. Phillip J. Reilly will be appearing as himself.
Sam: Was there any pressure from the syndicate to work in aspects of the upcoming Annie film, such as replacing Daddy Warbucks with Benjamin Stacks, or to change certain character’s ethnicity?
Joe: The new film is off limits to us, which is fine. We’re working on what’s gone before.
Sam: Now this is just a guess about what happens, but are you going to do a Patty Hearst type thing with Annie?
Mike: I’m kind of taken aback by the question.
Joe: I don’t know what that’d entail. Annie has joined a gang of bank robbers? You’ll have to see.
I’ve said it on numerous occasions, and I’ll say it once again. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton’s Dick Tracy is the best comic being produced today. Its colorful characters, wild plots, masterful storytelling, brisk and classic art and attention to both detail and history makes it a joy to read for both old and new readers. While I’ve become disenchanted on some of the editorial directions of some of my favorite comic companies, Dick Tracy reminds me daily just why I love the medium of comics. But the best thing about Dick Tracy is the fact that it is absolutely free. You can read Dick Tracy every day at http://www.gocomics.com/dicktracy. It truly is the best of the best in comics today. Dick Tracy’s search for Annie has just begun so it’s not too late to jump on board!