Dennis the Menace: Minor Mischief, Major League Chops

Dennis the Menace, the syndicated strip about a monstrous little kid and the mayhem he gets up to, was created by Hank Ketcham in 1951. The strip was inspired by Ketcham’s son Dennis, who was 4 years old at the time; the title was coined by Ketcham’s then-wife, Alice Louise Mahar, who’s said to have exclaimed in exasperation “Your son is a menace!” (Interestingly, she’s supposed to have said “your son“, even though Dennis was her child, too. She died of a drug overdose in 1959, when the real Dennis was 12. I really hope there’s no connection between the cause of her death and Dennis’ rambunctiousness.)

Wikipedia describes Dennis as “precocious but lovable”. I find him to be an irritating little prick who delights in tormenting his poor parents; the kind of kid who grows up to be a sociopath, happily wrecking people’s lives and then feigning complete ignorance. Tomato, tomat-oh! 😉

I had zero interest in Dennis until I stumbled upon a scan of the original art of a daily strip… and discovered that Ketcham’s art is stunning. I could happily stare at it for hours. Bonus: as it turns out, the stories can be quite interesting, especially the ones that don’t pivot as much around Dennis’ self-centered behaviour.

Here are a few strips for your consideration – a couple of dailies, a couple of Sundays. I much prefer looking at them in black and white, as I find that colour detracts from the purity and dynamism of Ketcham’s inking.

DennisTheMenace-HankKetcham-DogRomp
October 4th, 1953.
DennistheMenace-HankKetcham-Mom
August 27, 1975.
DennisTheMenace-HankKetcham-NightScene
May 24th, 1974.
DennistheMenace-HankKetcham-GirlsGlow
August 31st, 1978. Margaret is quite the thorn in Dennis’ side… but a dainty, girly thorn.
DennistheMenace-HankKetcham-FeedKitty
November 8th, 1979.
DennisTheMenace--HankKetcham-Cowboy
July 28th, 1987.
MerchantofMenace-HankKetcham
A page from Ketcham’s autobiography “The Merchant of Dennis the Menace” (Fantagraphics, 2005). Visit Michael Sporn Animation to read a whole chapter of this book, complete with entertaining anecdotes involving Virgil Partch, a friend of Ketcham’s. (Small world… especially in the sphere of cartooning.)

Dennis the Menace became a hit very quickly, and Ketcham started using assistants fairly early on. In the late 1950s and 60s, the strip was ghosted by Al Wiseman. (Speaking of which, do visit this website maintained by Wiseman’s grand-daughter, who doesn’t think it’s fair that the rôle her grandad played in the creation and success of this strip is so downplayed.)

After Wiseman moved on, Ketcham hired Marcus Hamilton to help out with dailies and Ron Ferdinand to work on Sunday strips; Ketcham presided over their work until his official retirement in 1994, after which they inherited the proverbial driver’s seat. He passed away in 2001, but the strip yet continues. To quote from the Dennis the Menace website, “Hank handed over the reins to Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton… two artists totally committed to carrying forward the Ketcham legacy, and keeping Dennis’ fans entertained for decades to come. Scott Ketcham (son of Hank) joined the Dennis team in 2010, helping to keep their creative finger on the pulse of current contemporary trends.” Anytime someone expresses a desire to keep a finger on “the pulse of current contemporary trends”, I get worried. Besides, their eagerness to stay relevant to modern life is conflicting with the attempt to keep things static. That’s the thing about newspaper strips that outlast their creators by decades… They get stuck in some bizarre time-warp, but with all the humour leached out. I bravely went through 50 or so dailies to figure out how Dennis the Menace was “Staying Modern”, so you wouldn’t have to. The results are much as expected: the family roles are exactly the same, with apron-ed mothers in skirts serving lunch or cleaning up, fathers working in offices, playing golf or having a beer in front of the TV (the mere three options available to men, apparently). However, now the family  has a flat TV screen and a laptop, the babysitter has her nose stuck in a cellphone, and cars have some automated features.  Oh, and lest I forget: women very occasionally wear jeans, a true sign of progress.

Incidentally, the real-life Dennis seems to have had one crappy childhood.

~ ds

5 thoughts on “Dennis the Menace: Minor Mischief, Major League Chops

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