Interviewed: Dick Locher talks about his cartooning career, future and Parkinson’s

During the American Editorial Cartoonists Association convention, I had a wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist and Dick Tracy cartoonist Dick Locher. He had mentioned in an earlier panel a couple of upcoming milestones in his career: drawing 10,000 cartoons, 40 years with the Chicago Tribune (stared in 1972) and 50 years working on Dick Tracy as an assistant beginning in 1957. I also learned that Dick is living with Parkinson’s Disease. If you’ve seen the photos that I posted earlier, he’s slimmer and has the telling signs of trembling fingers. What I was quick to observe during the interview is that at 81 years of age he’s still mentally sharp, attentive and has his trademark genuinely friendly nature about him. He’s the epitome of a classy individual.

Unfortunately, I recorded the interview after the banquet with a lot of background noise. I’ve opted to transcribe the interview. It is essentially word for word. His wife, Mary, joins us in the end.

Alan: You had mentioned that you’re coming up on drawing 10,000 cartoons.

Dick: Yup.

Alan: Have you hit that marker yet?

Dick: Not yet, just about.

Alan: How far away are we?

Dick: About 200.

Alan: Wow. In your career, you started with The Chicago Tribune, in what year? How long have you been with them?

Dick: Since 1972, Alan. So that’s about, what? 39 years?

Alan: That’s just an amazing career that you’ve had, plus with your work with Dick Tracy. When did you start working on the strip?

Dick: I started with Chester Gould as an assistant in the ’50s – 1957, 58, 59, and 29 years with Dick Tracy.

Alan: That’s been an amazing run. What stands out? What are the big memories do you have?

Dick: If there is anything that it’s that I have stood on the shoulders of giants. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve met good people, I’ve met fantastic people. I’ve met some real jerks in life, and you learn as much from them as you do your good friends. And I’ve been blessed; I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with a legend who created an icon. And that was Chester Gould. He told me, ‘Everything, Dick, is black and white. Forget the gray crap.’ He was Mr. Law and Order. If you notice his strips they were black and white. Stark black, stark white. I asked him one time what was his favorite part of the strip. He said it ‘just exactly what is going to be your part, it’s the characters. The characters that you create.’ And he was right. He was a pioneer.

I do like editorial cartooning. You get to get your point across real fast – 8 seconds worth. The Tribune did a survey where editorial cartoons were read in 8 seconds. There’s no part of the newspaper like it. It’s a unique format.

Alan: Does anything stand out in your career as an editorial cartoonist?

Dick: Yeah, I got to go to lunch with Ronald Reagan.

Alan: Really?

Dick: In the Oval Office.

Alan: Tell me a bit more about that.

Dick: Well, I had done a cartoon on him. I drew him dressed up as Superman in a phone booth heading for the Contra in Central America, and he couldn’t open the door. He saw that. He had one of his aids, Pat Buchanan, give me a call and he said, ‘the president wants to straighten you out.’

Alan: (laughing)

Dick: Just like that.

Alan: In those words?

Dick: In those words.

Alan: Did that make you nervous?

Dick: It made me nervous at first, then I thought, ‘hey this is a great opportunity to get a chance to talk to him.’ And it was. It was fabulous.

Alan: He was a likable guy from what I hear.

Dick: He didn’t miss a word. He didn’t stutter, he didn’t stammer or pause. Just zing zing zing. We had a lot of fun and on the way out, he said, “Don’t forget. Have a jelly bean.”

Alan: The trademark jelly bean.

Dick: The trademark jelly bean. This John Locher Award was named after our son that we lost rather tragically. About a week after comes a note from the White House that read, “Nancy and I grieve with you. Signed, Ronnie.” Now, how did he know? That was awesome from the President of The United States.

Alan: To send you that. That was amazing. I can see why that stands out, not just for the position that Reagan held as the president, but as the human side of the presidency.

Dick: Exactly that. It’s something that nobody gives any president credit for – the humanity. Totally jaw dropping.

Alan: Since you brought up the Locher award, I assume that is going to continue on? I think your report said that is well established, it has funds behind it that are secure and so forth. As you look past this award – what did you say? This is the 24th year?

Dick: Right, 24.

Alan: How do you think, with the newspapers still trying to find their way, do you think that will impact your award? What will it mean to young people aspiring into a field that not…

Dick: The enthusiasm is there, you can tell. There’s an underground, and it’s electric and they talk to each other, these young kids in college. Now, the cartoon in the paper is on a slow slide, but it will emerge in another format. You can’t stop it. In 2004 they found a cartoon on a pyramid that said in essence, “Pharaoh is a jerk.” That makes this the second oldest profession. So if it can last that long, it will last longer.

Alan: Have you had to adjust the rules to allow animation or other forms of political statement?

Dick: No we have not done that.

Alan: Do you foresee it?

Dick: Oh yes. Absolutely. We won’t draw the line anywhere. If the animation shows up in a new format, we’ll be there.

Alan: Do you see that at the collegiate level? Are there animators out there?

Dick: Oh yes. They’re crude, but interesting and determined.

Alan: I won’t take up too much more of your time…

Dick: Do you want to know my favorite cartoon?

Alan: I do.

Dick: I haven’t done it yet.

Alan: (laughing) I bet you’ve said that before. That was a canned joke!

Dick: (smiling broadly) Yeah it was canned. Sorry about that.

Alan: That’s okay, I’ll use it. It’s a great joke. I love the story this morning that you told about Chester Gould and the Tommy Gun.

Dick: I still have the damn thing.

Alan: Do you?

Dick: Yeah

Alan: That is awesome. There is such a history of cartooning, I mean the Daily Cartoonist’s major focus is on print cartooning, newspaper and so forth, but I’m trying to reach out the web comics people…

Dick: Which is good.

Alan: I sense from them that they don’t understand the rich history. They’re a bit arrogant. They don’t understand the shoulders that they are standing on. This is just my personal observation. I’m not asking for a response. But you are a certain bridge to a history in comics that I’m afraid we’re going to be losing as gentleman like you grow older.

Dick: We’re losing the carrier…

Alan: Yeah, and that’s what I love about that story (of the tommy gun). I wish we could compile these anecdotal stories to give a richness…

Dick: It would be fun to do that. That would be interesting.

Alan: I think I have a project.

Dick: I think you do. Let me share something that’s been on my mind. I’m a firm believer that the papers do not give people what they want. If they would adjust, and instead of saying, “we’re going to forge ahead come hell or high water.” Tailor it to the people. The older people are the people who read the comics. The younger kids are watching the screen.

Alan: Sadly, but true. At least that’s what I see in my children, unfortunately.

Dick: The cartoon will always be there. We don’t know in what format. Animation is great, but how many customers are there for animation? You know, we tried to sell animation to the networks one time and they said, if we wanted to do an political statement everyday in animation everyday, we’d make our own. We don’t need outsiders. That attitude has changed a little bit. There’s some great animation – fast, quick sequences that I see on the Sunday morning shows. It’s rare right now, it’s good filler, good stuff and it’s good for a laugh and that’s what we right now.

Alan: I would agree in today’s climate. A couple of last questions. As far as the Parkinson’s. Is that something you’re comfortable letting people know about?

Dick: Oh, absolutely. I have to laugh about it.

Alan: How long have you known, how long since you were…

Dick: Five years.

Alan: Oh really? And your still drawing though. Right?

Dick: It steadies when I get to the drawing board. It stops.

Alan: That’s amazing. Because everything still looks as it always has.

Dick: Well, I’m a lucky guy. Very lucky.

Alan: So you’ve already turned over the artwork of Dick Tracy to another artist?

Dick: No, no. I still do it.

Alan: No? I thought I reported that… Isn’t someone else was assisting you now?

Dick: I have an inker.

Alan: An inker. But you still do the pencil and still the writing.

Dick: Right.

Alan: Okay, because you’ve talked about retiring. What does that mean? Editorial cartoons, Dick Tracy, both?

Dick: Eventually it will be both, of course. But it won’t tell me, I’ll tell it.

Mary: He has no immediate plans to retire.

Dick: She does, I don’t yet.

Mary: It’s kind of like that saying, “The reports of my early demise are…”

Alan: Greatly exaggerated. Well that’s great. I was under the assumption that you were still writing, but someone else doing the drawing.

Mary: He has an assistant, but Dick still does all the pencil drawing.

Dick: Yeah, he’s working into it.

Alan: Is he the one who will eventually take over?

Dick: We don’t know.

Mary: It’s up to him and of course the syndicate as well.

Dick: It’s up to him, God and Warren Beaty.

Alan: (laughing) Warren Beaty. How many papers is Dick Tracy in?

Dick: Around a hundred.

Alan: Okay, so it’s still got a good size list.

Dick: For a strip that’s 79 years old, that’s not bad. Only one thing scares me. When I can’t go to the drawing board anymore. That’s scary. It’s like the cowboy. You can take anything away from the cowboy, except his domain.

Alan: True.

Mary: And his horse.

Alan: Ha! and his boots. I thank you both for your time.

Dick: Alan, it was a pleasure.

22 thoughts on “Interviewed: Dick Locher talks about his cartooning career, future and Parkinson’s

  1. Nice interview w/ a true comics veteran.

    But Alan, I fear you’ll touch off another flame war w/ your “arrogant” remark. Start ducking now.

  2. Great interview.

    However, one of your comments about those who draw webcomics would benefit from a couple minor edits (in caps below):

    “I sense from SOME of them that they don?t understand the rich history. SOME OF THEM are a bit arrogant and don?t understand the shoulders that they are standing on.”

  3. @Dan – the tommy gun story was shared at a panel earlier in the day. I’d try to relate it, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t do it justice. Would be better if I could get Dick to retell the story in a podcast format.

  4. @Scott M. Good point. I’m often astounded when cartoonists don’t know what I consider pretty basic comic history, but there are also those out there who are walking encyclopedias.

    And Berke Brethed, admittedly, wasn’t a student of the comic strip, so I suppose arrogance and ignorance goes both ways.

  5. Alan, I told the tommy gun story to my wife, and even my paraphrasing of it had her on the floor laughing … I think I’ll try and write it up for the Notebook soon. If I do, I’ll send it along.

  6. @ Alan. Great interview. Since my last name is Tracy I’ve always had something of a connection to the property. I was teased mercilessly when the movie came out. I still get asked to see my wrist radio. He seems like a wonderful man full of wisdom and creativity.

    As fr your “arrogant” comment. I don’t know you well. Obviously you attend some conventions but I don’t know if it is your habit to attend the kind of conventions where Webcomics tend to exhibit.

    I will say that as a reader, meeting the creators of some of the comics I read; Ryan Sohmer, Lar deSouza, Jeph Jacques, Randy Milholland, Danielle Corsetto, Jenny Breeden and many others made me want to get into the business. The kindness and support and camaraderie they showed for each other was, for someone working in the cutthroat legal field, a breath of fresh air.

    I think if you got to know some of these webcomics creators personally you might reevaluate that position (and of course this assumes you don’t know them already but from what you said I feel I must assume because it does not reflect the community I know).

    Webcomics is a new business with a new model in a relatively new medium. You might have mistaken arrogance for the fact that many are in an all out battle to make their business work. That hunger and drive makes things like history and legacy less important. Many won’t have time for it. I concede it is valuable though. But what you see as arrogance may simply be the priorities and choices a small business creator has to make. Webcomics is a different world and there are only so many hours in a day.

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