Brainiac On Banjo: The Wolfe In Creep’s Loathing

A brave man once requested me to answer questions that are key. Is it to be or not to be? And I replied, oh why ask me? — “Suicide Is Painless,” lyric written by Michael B. Altman (age, 15)

For 89 years, one of the more reliable cultural stalwarts in the global pop culture has been the adventures of private detective / gourmand / orchid-raiser / fussbudget genius Nero Wolfe. His fictional history encompasses 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories written by mathematician and pro-labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt, anti-fascist Rex Stout through 1975. Wolfe has been featured in a gargantuan number of movies, radio shows, television series, stage plays and postage stamps produced all over the world.

As careful readers of Brainiac On Banjo (et al) may be aware, I am among Rex Stout’s many rabid fans. What appeals most to me is the dialogue between Wolfe and his assistant / legman / tormentor Archie Goodwin — quite frankly, I have found these particular scenes (of which there are many in each novel) to be among the best and more entertaining exchanges of words in the English language. A decade after Stout’s death the Wolfe series was and has been continued by Chicago Tribune journalist Robert Goldborough, who, to date, has written 16 more Wolfe novels including an origin of the Wolfe/Goodwin “team.”

And, now, Wolfe is back and he’s in a rather surprising venue. He, Archie, and many members of the regular cast presently are appearing in the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip, by permission of Stout’s estate. Wolfe has been no stranger to the comic strip world: he had his own strip in 1956, written by DC Comics stalwarts John Broome and Ed Herron and drawn by Mike Roy and Fran Matera.

These days, Dick Tracy is written by Mike Curtis and drawn by Shelly Pleger, and such crossovers have been an ongoing feature in the strip since Curtis materialized on the scene with our pal Joe Staton as his original penciller. Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Warbucks have in the Dick Tracy strip so often that they are virtual regulars; Friday Foster, Brenda Starr and her husband Basil St. John also have appeared. All are owned by the Tribune Content Agency (hmmmm… this Tribune thing keeps on popping up, doesn’t it?), which is what they’re calling newspaper syndicates these days. But non-Tribune icons have appeared as well, including The Spirit and the Green Hornet.

Thus far — this storyline began on Sunday, February 26th — Curtis and Pleger have been quite faithful to Stout’s work, slowly permitting Wolfe and Goodwin’s many eccentricities to unfold without undermining pace of the story. Personally, I think it is nearly impossible to approach the power of their dialogue scenes in the prose versions. The newspaper comic strip, along with the rest of the newspaper, has shrunk to the size of what Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould called postage stamps. I’m not letting the cat out of the bag by telling you that the villain is Wolfe’s three-time adversary, Arnold Zeck. He’s kind of like The Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, except Zeck is a lot more subtle.

I will note we still have newspapers and postage stamps, but both are lying on their backs gasping for air.

The comic strip also remains extant. You can read the overwhelming majority of them at two websites: (the King Features strips) and Andrews/McMeel’s, where we find Dick Tracy and hundreds of others. Both sites feature reprints of many classic strips as well.

To be specific, Dick Tracy can be found at; GoComics offers Tracy strips going back to 2001. The Nero Wolfe books and stories can be procured from the usual suspects, including Amazon which also offers them in their Kindle ebook format.

I highly recommend you check them out. They are great fun and, oddly, educational. I’ve learned a lot about food, orchids, and temper tantrums.