The Gould villains are the strongest appeal of the story. Tracyís world is decidedly black and white where the bad guys are sometimes so evil, their very flesh is deformed to announced their sins to the world. The evil sometimes is raw and coarse like the criminally insane Selbert Depool (thatís looped, spelled backwards, a typical Gould move) or the suave, yet arrogant Shoulders, who canít help thinking that all women like him, or even bordering on genius like the Nazi spy Pruneface who is not only a machine design engineer but also dabbles with a chemical nerve gas. Tracy tackles all sorts of crime too. Bicycle thieves, con men, pickpockets, gangsters, saboteurs, kidnappers, hit men, arsonist, junkies and, of course, twisted freaks hellbent on revenge. In an odd slip, one of his villains, Oodles, a jolly sort with a ballooning mop of black hair that hid his face, became too attractive. Gould had him hide out for a few weeks, lose over a hundred pounds, clip his hair and come out an unattractive, emaciated bum. However, by the most popular character was Flattop, a freelance hitman who had a large head that was as flat as an aircraft carrier's flight deck. He was hired by black marketeers to murder Tracy and he came within a hairsbreath of accomplishing that before deciding to blackmail his employers for more money before he did the deed. This proved to be a fatal mistake since it gave Tracy time to signal for help and he eventually defeated his assassin in a spectacular fight scene even as the police were storming the hideout When Flattop was eventually killed, fans went into public mourning.
Reflecting some of the era that also produced film noir, Gould taps into the existential despair of the criminals as small crimes lead to bigger ones and plans slip out of control and events happen sometimes for no reason at all, but because life can be unpredictable and cruel. Treachery is everywhere as henchmen are killed ruthlessly by their bosses and bosses are betrayed by jilted girl friends and good people in the wrong place at the wrong time are gunned down.
L'il Abner creator Al Capp had a great deal of fun with some of the oddities and extremes of Tracy, which Capp parodied within L'il Abner as "Fearless Fosdick." In Tracy, bullets invarialy went clean through their human targets and exited, shown in mid air with a dotted line tracing their trajectory. In "Fosdick," large circular pieces of the hero were removed by any projectile, often leaving him looking like Swiss cheese.
Gould changed Tracy with the times, sometimes with mixed results as with the introduction of science fiction elements such as the two way wrist radio which proved to be the first of a variety of personal wrist communicators and other futuristic gadgets provided by the eccentric industrialist, Diet Smith. This eventually led to what Gould thought was the logical conclusion in the 1960s of the Space Coupe, a spacecraft with a magnetic propulsion system. This led to a much derided science fiction period that had Tracy and friends having adventures on moon and meeting Moon Maid and her race in 1964. This in turn led to an eventual sharing of technologies and the villians had to be even more exaggerated in power to challenge Tracy in a escalating series of stories that completely abandoned the urban crime drama roots of the strip. The period ended with the Apollo 11 moon landing which forced Gould to stick to more earthbound stories. In the 1970s, Gould tried to modernize Tracy by giving him a longer hair style and mustache, adding a supposedly "hip" sidekick, Groovy Grove, and some lesser low-brow criminals.
More successful was the substory of the Plenty family, a family of goofy redneck yokels headed by former villians, B.O. and Gravel Gertie which provided a humourous counterpoint to Tracy's adventures. Another successful addition was of Lizz the Policewoman as one of Tracy's sidekicks who proved to an active and formidable female character in a manner that was groundbreaking for comic strips.
However, the later stories were often shackled with a stubborn grousing condemnation of the rights of the accused which often involved Tracy being frustrated by criminals because of legal technicalities and prosleytizing about it. The fact that newspaper comics has sharply reduced space for each feature also negatively affected Gould's storytelling abilities.
Gould retired from the strip in 1977 and Dick Tracy was taken over by Max Allan Collins and Rick Fletcher. Collins reversed some of Gouldís sci-fi tinkers by having the character Moon Maid killed off in 1978 and generally taking a less cynical and simplistic take on the justice system. Artist Rick Fletcher was replaced by Dick Locher, who eventually took over the scripting duties as well.
Dick Tracyís success spread to radio and to movie serials. Ralph Byrd first played Dick Tracy in a movie by the same name in 1937. Byrdís career continued through a series of B-Grade Tracy movies, perhaps the best of which is Dick Tracy meets Gruesome, with the titled villain played by Boris Karloff.
Warren Beatty revived some interest in Dick Tracy with his movie version in 1990. Beatty was after a four-color universe effect, with clothes in bright primary colors but the movie was slightly overwhelmed by the casting.
Although the comic strip's public profile has diminished since the Beatty film, it is still run in newspapers and is popular enough for a new upcoming animated television series. Apart from that, it is a common allusion in North America for unusual looking criminals often described as resembling the strip's grotesque villians while the lead character's wrist communicator is the typical example used when the possibility of an actual communication device being developed is raised.