LITTLE ROCK For Mike Curtis, the work starts with an idea for a crime or a villain. “I get a lot of ideas from music,” he said. “Or I’ll put on a movie to set the mood - The Dark Knight or Blade Runner. I won’t even be paying attention to the movie, but listening to the music.”
Curtis, a Greenbrier resident, writes the nationally syndicated daily comic strip Dick Tracy, which chronicles the adventures of the lantern-jawed, trenchcoat-clad detective. The character was created in 1931 by Chester Gould and is one of pop culture’s most enduring figures. Warren Beatty made the film Dick Tracy in 1990, starring Beatty, along with Al Pacino and Madonna. Curtis and his longtime friend and illustratorJoe Staton have been writing and drawing the strip since February 2011.
Curtis has been writing comics since 1986 and is living a lifelong dream.
“I have always wanted to write comics,” he said. “All my life, that’s been my ambition. That might have been a strange ambition for a kid, but it also lets you know that you can do whatever you want to. I never wanted to be a comic-book artist - that’s too much work.”
Born in 1953 in Memphis, Tenn., Curtis said he grew up during “a good time” for kids, when television was very “kid-friendly.” From the age of 6, while his parents worked, he read comic books.
“They had to find something for me to do,” he said with a laugh.
His favorite comic book character isn’t Dick Tracy, but Superman. Curtis said he grew up watching George Reeves play Superman on television.And, of course, Curtis read the DC comic.
Curtis’ affection for Superman led him to put together what he called the third-largest collection of Man of Steel-related memorabilia in the United States.
“I own more than 17,000 Superman items,” Curtis said. “I have something of Superman that corresponds toeverything in this room.”
Batman is another of Curtis’ favorites.
“I wrote a Batman comic when I was 11 and sent it to DC,” he said. “Some nice secretary sent me a postcard saying I had promise.”
Cu r t is de velop e d t hat promise over the coming decades. Before becoming a full-time comic-strip writer, however, he detoured into journalism and law enforcement. He was the editor of weekly newspapers in Jackson, Tenn., and Tupelo, Miss.
“You had to know a lot about Elvis to work in Tupelo,” he said of Elvis Presley’s birthplace. Later, Curtis worked as an Orleans Parish sheriff ’s deputy in New Orleans.
“They had an opening, and I applied and got the job,” Curtis said of his stint as a deputy. “I am the only Dick Tracy writer with actual law enforcement experience.”
Curtis also managed a movie theater and in the 1970s was a horror-film host on a Jackson television station. As host, he played a character called Count Basil.
Getting into character is nothing new for Curtis, who used to wear a Batman costume in the Toad Suck Parade in Conway and can be seen sporting Dick Tracy’s yellow trench coat and fedora.
Curtis’ first comic-writing job was with Harvey Comics, writing stories for Casper the Friendly Ghost and RichieRich in the mid-1980s.
“I sent 30 capsule ideas for Richie Rich to the editor,” Curtis said. “I didn’t know how anyone wrote for comic books. The editor told me I could draw stick figures or do a typewritten script. It’s a lot easier for me to try to draw what a character looks like than describe it.”
Curtis also got a job writing for a New Kids on the Block comic.
“ That was the first job where I didn’t care anything about the characters,” he said, laughing.
In 1992, Curtis and his wife, C arole, established Shanda Fantasy Arts, a comic-publishing company based in their home in Greenbrier. Their most popular comic line is the furry comic titled Shanda the Panda. He said he writes romantic comic stories, while his wife writes adventures.
For several years, he and Staton tried landing Dick Tracy but were only successful in nabbing the assignment last year. He and Staton have a two-year contract with Tribune Media Services to deliver the strip, which Curtis said he’d like to do for 10 or 20 years.
“ That wou ld b e ab out right for turning it over to someone else,” Curtis said.
As the writer, Curtis is responsible for coming up with the story line for a Dick Tracy adventure. After getting anidea for a crime or villain, he will do a “breakdown” or sketch of the panels, writing all of the dialogue and creating colorful character names. He then sends the sketch to Staton in New York state to do a pencil drawing. Shelley Pleger does the inks and letters, and Shane Fisher is the colorist. The result is a spectacular comic panel in Dick Tracy’s traditional primary colors.
“I like to put in a lot of Easter eggs for people to find,” Curtis said, referring to hidden pop-cultural references in the text of Dick Tracy. He said he also includes characters from past Dick Tracy installments that are “guest stars” in current installments.
Music also plays a big part in Curtis’ creative process.
“I h a d on e c h a r a c t e r, Blackjack, who carried a music box,” Curtis said. “He timed his robberies to the song ‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba. When the song ended, the robb er y ended.”
Dick Tracy always used advanced technology to catch criminals. The Two-Way Wrist Radio (upgraded in the 1960s to a Two-Way Wrist TV) is just one of the detective’s most-famous tools. Curtis said he and Staton are continuing that tradition, as well. The Wristwizard, which can project images, is one of the new tools in the Dick Tracy tool kit.
The strip has always beenset in an imaginary or unnamed city that is a thinly disguised version of Chicago, Curtis said.
“Chester Gould went to Chicago and hung out with guys like Al Capone,” Curtis said. “He wanted a cop hero that kids could like, but in those days, the Boy Scouts were cheering for Capone.Dick Tracy was the first comic strip where a guy went out and fought crime.”
Though the stories are fanciful, the strips have a certain level of reality. Curtis said he submits his stories to Jim Doherty, a real-life police officer who makes sure Dick Tracy reads like a credible cop thriller.
Curtis clearly loves his job.
“Any job should be fun,” he said, “especially one that’s comic.”
Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
closegetting to know Mike Curtis
Birth date: May 11, 1953
Hometown: Born in Memphis, Tenn.; grew up in Jackson,
Something on my bucket list: I’d like to have a Superman
script published in a comic someday.
Comfort food: Carnation Breakfast Essentials. I lost almost
100 pounds in four years on that diet.
Something most people don’t know: I once flew 120
feet on a steel cable 60 feet in the air at the Memphis
premiere of Superman: The Movie.
Who has been your biggest influence? I have a mentor,
Ken Selig, who taught me how to write and publish comics.
Also, my adoptive father, Bill Curtis, who took a chance on
Favorite author: Tom DeHaven
Favorite movie: The Godfather
River Valley Ozark, Pages 179 on 03/04/2012
Print Headline: Mike Curtis