The “Death-Trap” (or sometimes “Near Death-Trap) has been a common plot device throughout the history of the Dick Tracy comic strip. It allows for suspenseful storytelling and encourages readers to return to the strip.
A typical death-trap in the strip would consist of a character (usually Tracy) being placed in some perilous situation by a villain. The villain would then remove themselves from the premises, usually to escape, establish an alibi elsewhere, or commit some new crime with the knowledge that Tracy and compatriots would not interfere. The hero would survive this seemingly deadly peril through their own resourcefulness, the timely arrival of an ally, or simple luck.
Notable Death-traps from the strip’s history include:
- The Decompression Chamber Trap – Trapping Tracy in the decompression chamber of a diving vessel, the Blank intended to kill Tracy (and the unconscious Stud Bronzen) by setting the chamber to increase the air pressure inside until the 2 men were crushed. Tracy was rescued by Pat Patton, who nearly opened the chamber without equalizing the pressure first, which would have caused Tracy to suffer a (probably fatal) case of decompression sickness, commonly known as "the bends".
- The Sulfur Trap- Tracy was captured by the petty criminals Duke and Sugar, who tied his limbs to the legs of an upside-down table. They then set a bowl of sulfur on fire and left it in the sealed room with Tracy, intending that he should die from the fumes. Tracy managed to survive by breaking a window, releasing the deadly fumes and attracting the attention of nearby police officers who freed him.
- The Caisson Trap- Tracy was dropped down a deep caisson at a construction site by Jacques, who then arranged for a large boulder to be dropped on top of him. The shaft narrowed enough that Tracy was not crushed, and he survived when he realized that the caisson met up with the site of an underground tunnel being dug. Tracy was rescued moments before the boulder fell the last several feet (see "Notes" below).
- The Paraffin Trap- Tracy and Pat were captured by B-B Eyes and placed inside large ceramic pipes. The pipes were then filled with warm paraffin wax, which quickly hardened, sealing the 2 detectives in place. B-B Eyes and his gang then left, intending to come back once the wax hardened so they could dispose of the incapacitated Tracy and Patton. Tracy was able to rock the tube over on its side, then roll it next to a furnace which melted the paraffin. He then freed Pat.
- The Mirrored Room Trap- Tracy and police officer Dennis O’Copper were lured into the basement of Pruneface’s hideout with a series of mirrors that prevented them from escaping. Pruneface then set some poison gas to fill the building. Pruneface’s accomplice Cal Bullet communicated with the police officers through a vent, warning them about the gas before he was overcome. Tracy then realized that they could use the building's ventilation system to pump the gas upward before it could settle in the basement. The gas was released up a chimney, which attracted attention of nearby workmen (a bird fell dead and one of the workmen inadvertently inhaled some of the gas, causing symptoms of gas poisoning), and Tracy and O’Copper were rescued soon after.
- The Ice Block Trap- Tracy was abducted by Mrs. Pruneface and her associate Emil, who concocted a unique method of killing the detective slowly and painfully. Tracy was chained to the floor and two large blocks of ice were placed on either side of him. A sturdy plank with a sharp spike through it was set on the ice, with the spike aimed at Tracy’s heart. A small refrigerator was then set on the plank to add weight and the stove was turned on to increase the temperature in the room. Mrs. Pruneface and Emil then left Tracy to die as the spike slowly pierced his heart. Tracy survived when he realized that the floor was slightly slanted and was able to shift the ice blocks so the spike merely tore his shirt and scraped his side. He was subsequently rescued before being crushed. NOTE: Years later, this death-trap was re-used by the shape-changing criminal Putty Puss but with the floor level. Tracy was still able to effect an escape.
- The Fan Blade Trap- After being drugged by Heels Beals, Tracy was left tied to the bed in Beals' apartment. Beals had sharpened the blades of a table top fan and had positioned it in a way that they would cut Tracy's throat when it fell. Tracy was saved when Pat Patton discovered his whereabouts and freed him
- The Starvation Trap- Captured by Itchy and Kitty, Tracy was tied to a pipe in their hideout and fed two turnips a day and all the water that would cling to a fork. He lost weight dramatically over the course of many days until he was discovered and rescued by Junior. NOTE: Years later, this death-trap was re-used by the shape-changing criminal Putty Puss.
- The Granite Island Trap- Tracy was deposited on a barren island in the Atlantic ocean by Miss Egghead and the Dropper. He survived with the aid of Supt. Whitehall until the two men were rescued by a military vessel that was retrieving an experimental craft.
- The Santa Maria Trap- Tracy was tied up by Angeltop and tossed into the pilings of the replica Santa Maria sailing ship in the City lagoon, where she intended that he should drown in the same manner that her father had. Tracy was able to use the same nail that had snagged Flattop to cut his bonds, and he made good his escape with the aid of Sam, Lizz, and Groovy Grove, who had deduced his whereabouts.
- The Wedding Church Trap- Later, Angeltop planted a bomb in the church where Junior Tracy was to be married to Sparkle Plenty. Tracy and all other in attendance would have been killed in the explosion if Lizz had not been freed from Angeltop's captivity and warned everyone to evacuate.
- The Cryogenic Trap- Tracy was captured by the recently revived Pruneface and Dr. Kryos Freezdrei and placed in suspended animation in one of Freezdrei's cryogenic tubes. He would have died in the subsequent explosion at Freezdrei's lab if Sam Catchem had not been alerted to Tracy's whereabouts by Mossad agents. Tracy was freed, and Freezdrei was believed to have been killed in the explosion.
- The Greatest Hits Trap- During the Grand Opening of the Land O' Plenty theme park, Tracy was kidnapped by Putty Puss and placed into replicas of both the Ice Block and Starvation death-traps. He escaped when his son Joe observed a tear from Tracy's eye and realized that he was not a wax figure.
- The Black Sound Trap- The criminal Flipside trapped Dick Tracy and Sparkle Plenty in a recording booth with his deadly Black Sound device after he learned that they had discovered his payola and bootlegging schemes. Before the device could kill Tracy and Sparkle, it shattered the windows of the booth, allowing them to escape.
- The Slot Machine Trap- Sam was knocked unconscious by Empty Williams' associate Bonnie, and he was placed inside a hollowed-out slot machine. The machine was then left in an alley where it was picked up by a city trash collector. The machine was taken to the junk yard where it would have been crushed (with the unconscious Sam inside) if Tracy had not managed to track it down and arrive in time.
- The Diving Suit Trap- Sam was captured by the criminal Phishface and placed inside an antique diving suit. The suit was then submerged in the water of a local aquarium with a limited oxygen supply. Sam would have died (while unknowing aquarium patrons looked on), if not for the intervention of Lizz and the MCU.
- The Giant Spyglass Trap- Lizz was tied to a chair on the roof of Willie The Fifth's building. He aimed a giant magnifying glass at her, intending that the focused rays of the sun should cause the heat to kill her. She was rescued by Tracy.
- Because Chester Gould habitually plotted as he went along rather than in advance, he created a seemingly inescapable trap for Tracy in the Caisson. Gould resorted to drawing his own hand erasing the boulder and lifting Tracy out of the pit. This Deus ex Machina resolution was rejected by editor Joseph Patterson as unacceptable, as he believed if would destroy the strip's credibility with readers. The ending was rewritten and redrawn at Patterson's insistence.