A Dick Tracy comic strip
In the first frame of the second row, author and retired VCU professor Tom De Haven shakes hands with Detective Dick Tracy. (Reproduced courtesy of Tribune Content Agency, LLC)

Author, retired VCU English professor featured in ‘Dick Tracy’ comic this Sunday

Tom De Haven, who wrote a series of novels centered around comics and cartoonists and taught creative writing in the Department of English at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, appeared as himself on Sunday in the comic he grew up admiring.

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Tom De Haven, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor and author of a series of novels centered around comic strip writers, appeared as himself in Sunday’s edition of the nationally syndicated comic strip “Dick Tracy,” shaking hands with the famed fictional detective.

De Haven, who taught in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of English for 28 years before retiring in 2018, said it was “astonishing” to appear in the comic that had inspired him as a child and helped spark a writing career that would include his “Derby Dugan”/“Funny Papers” trilogy of novels, which follows mysterious happenings in the lives of several fictional cartoonists.

“It felt a bit surreal and a bit meta,” De Haven told VCU News about his “Dick Tracy” appearance. “On the most basic level, it was delightful, of course! Who gets to be in a comic strip? Not just everybody! On quite another level, it was a kind of coming-full-circle thing, having been introduced to comics at a very young age by seeing a ‘Dick Tracy’ comic book that reprinted old ‘Dick Tracy’ comic strips from the newspaper.”

In 1956, then-7-year-old De Haven discovered “Dick Tracy,” a comic strip created by Chester Gould that centers around the adventures of the title character as a police detective.

“I was hooked from that day forward. Chester Gould became my hero, ‘Dick Tracy’ became my entry into the world of comic strips and comic books, and my life’s course was pretty much set,” said De Haven in a social media post on Sunday reflecting on appearing in the comic strip. “So how weird to be IN the strip 67 years later!”

Since then, De Haven has read every strip created by Gould, has written essays for magazines about “Dick Tracy” and even interviewed Gould before he died in 1985. It was the same year De Haven published the novel “Funny Papers,” the first in his “Derby Dugan” series.

De Haven later began teaching creative writing — primarily in the MFA in creative writing program — at VCU starting in 1990. Over the next 28 years teaching at VCU, he co-founded the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and established the first yearlong novel-writing workshop in an American university, teaching authors such as Sheri Reynolds and Rachel Beanland, who wrote their debut novels in the program. During the same timeframe, he wrote more than 10 books, including two more “Derby Dugan” novels in 1996 and 2001 and the novel “It’s Superman!” in 2005.

These books served as inspiration for current “Dick Tracy” writer Mike Curtis. In a post on social media on Sunday, De Haven expressed gratitude to the comic strip’s illustrator Shelley Plager and writer Curtis, “whose fondness for my three ‘Derby Dugan’ novels and my Superman novel was the impetus for this bit of magic” — De Haven’s appearance in the comic.

Two men holding an award plaque
Tom De Haven (right), who wrote several novels about comics and cartoonists, was featured as a character in this Sunday's "Dick Tracy" comic strip. A professor in the Department of English at VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences until 2018, De Haven received the University Award of Excellence in 2014. (File photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“The current ‘Dick Tracy’ storyline in which I appear began well over a month ago and is about a production of a musical based on my novel ‘Funny Papers,’ which came out way back in 1985,” De Haven told VCU News on Monday. “The main character in the musical is a bald street urchin known variously as Pinfold and/or Derby Dugan, and the nephew of the story’s villain, Steelface, lands the role. Mayhem ensues, which involves a stolen car racket and a stolen two-way wrist radio, but all’s well that ends well and I appear in town for the opening night of the musical, and that’s how I meet Dick Tracy.”

In Sunday’s comic, De Haven’s character introduces a wrinkle into an ongoing mystery the detective is trying to solve. His character finds animation frames that an art seller claims are from a 1930s “Derby Dugan” animated film … except the cartoon was never made. “These animation cels are forgeries,” De Haven’s character tells Tracy.

De Haven relished the many “strange connections” between the comic’s plotline and real life, he said. For example, he said, “I spent two years writing the libretto for a musical based on ‘Funny Papers’ myself back in the late ’80s, working with two seasoned musical theater composers, and the three of us workshopped scenes at the BMI theater workshop in New York City.”

Among those “strange connections” were the ties to the plots of his novels — the ones that inspired Curtis to reach out and write De Haven into the comic, creating De Haven’s “full-circle” moment.

“The ‘Derby Dugan’ trilogy of novels, whose main character Mike Curtis used in the current ‘Dick Tracy’ storyline, begins with a real boy in the 1890s who is the inspiration for a famous newspaper comic strip character; the last book in the trilogy is about a real-life modern-day cartoonist who goes crazy and ‘becomes’ a comic strip character,” De Haven said in his social media post on Sunday. “Kind of post-modern, wouldn’t you say, when that’s kind of what’s happened here today, in ‘Dick Tracy’? Life imitates art, art imitates life …”