The Comic Strip Doctor: Dennis the Menace

what a wacky mess you've gotten yourself into

This year, Fantagraphics issued The Complete Dennis the Menace Vol.1, a chunky hardback collecting all of Hank Ketcham’s 1951 and 1952 daily comic strips.  Like The Complete Peanuts, the full Dennis will likely be twenty-five volumes or so, enough to fill the mantel of any diehard fan, or at least hold his car up while he swaps out the rims.

Dennis the Menace began mere months after Peanuts, and like Peanuts, it illustrates the continuing antics of a group of children.  While Charles Schulz continued to draw Peanuts for its entire run, Hank Ketcham enlisted the help of assistants Marcus Hamilton (who still draws the weekday strips) and Ron Ferdinand (Sundays).  The strip has for years been written by a team of gag writers, much like a television sitcom is.  Even while he was drawing the strip himself, Ketcham never shied away from enlisting hired assistance; in fact, he championed the idea, acknowledging that he himself wasn’t exactly a bottomless fount of material.

Ferdinand and Hamilton began working for Ketcham in 1981 and 1993, respectively; by 1982 Ferdinand was illustrating the Sunday pages and in 1995 Ketcham handed the dailies off to Hamilton.  Although no longer the strip’s artist, Ketcham oversaw the Dennis machine, personally approving individual strips and presiding over a multimedia empire which, by his death in 2001, included syndicated television programming, a Broadway musical, two feature films, and a bevy of officially licensed products.  Dennis the Menace in 2005 is a brand name, an iconic presence — and a thoroughly boring comic strip.

pass the fried chicken

Ketcham was a fine draftsman, and his successors have accurately and expressively captured the breezy penwork and sketchy-1980s-clipart look of his style.  Unfortunately, they and the gag writers (whom I picture as balding, pudgy men in horn-rimmed glasses, rubbing their comb-overs as they recall the good ol’ days of vaudeville) have seemingly forgotten to make their title character into what the title calls him.

It’s as if you went to a wrestling match that was advertised as “PABLO THE PULVERIZER vs CRUSHER JONES,” and neither Pablo nor Jones did any crushing or pulverizing, but rather discussed Sartre over finger sandwiches.

It’s as if Vlad the Impaler sort of, you know, slacked off on the impaling for a while and took up needlepoint.

It’s as if a hugely profitable marketing behemoth demanded that reliable, inoffensive pap be produced on an assembly-line schedule, and people were lining up to take over the reins and suckle at the teat and churn out crap because, hey, it’s better than digging ditches for a living.

“But Doctor,” you may be saying, and if you are I will remind you that (like Dr. Laura Schlessinger) my doctorate is actually in kinesiology, “how could Dennis be anything but inoffensive pap?  Hasn’t it always been?  Isn’t that, in fact, the point?”

that's right, physically assault him with a piece of lumber!

The above strip is fairly typical of Dennis‘s early years.  In it, Dennis’s mother seems to be advising the babysitter to strike Dennis with a club until he is knocked unconscious.  It was originally published on November 30, 1951.

Like others of his generation, Ketcham returned home from the Second World War a changed man, eager to impose on family and society the order and civility and wholesomeness that combat had robbed him of.  But having seen the horrors of war, Hank Ketcham had perspective.  Any mischief any child could possibly get into would never approach the gruesome reality of men murdering each other on the battlefield. He could make kids as bad as he wanted and they would still never be really bad, on balance.  Thus, he was free to illustrate the anarchy of childhood; the unbridled mayhem that was lacking from other children’s features of the time.

Ketcham’s early Dennis Mitchell is mean-spirited…

who knocked his teeth out this time?
“I’m making a list of people to bite when my teeth grow back in.”

…And adults (including his parents) seem to genuinely dislike him:

cut it off!  it'll grow back!  I'M A STARFISH DADDY

Today, you’re more likely to find Dennis sitting in the corner wisecracking than actually doing anything that would require punishment.  He doesn’t wear the scowl he did fifty years ago; the sourest he ever gets is simply wry. He’s just another Family Circus kid, playfully mispronouncing words and stating the obvious at inappropriate times.  If the newspaper made a mistake and mixed up the Dennis and Family Circus captions (which they’ve done, more than once), I would never notice.  In fact, for all I know, they’ve been doing it for ten years.

In an interview, Sunday Dennis artist Ron Ferdinand said, “I work with 4 or 5 excellent writers, so I get to be picky with the material. I can afford to use only the best scripts and that’s a luxury. The cast of DTM is so beautifully defined that they virtually write themselves anyway.”

Besides the obvious first question (if what we see in the paper are the best scripts, what else must they be writing), I think it’s worth asking, do “beautifully defined characters” make for good comics?  Well, sure, at first blush; but if we already know what Dennis is going to say in any given situation, do we really need to see him do it?  Do we need to retread tired material, over and over?  Do we need to maintain the status quo?

Yes, of course we do.  The merchandising and licensing agreements demand it.  Even though it doesn’t seem like the public is clamoring for Dennis merchandise — it doesn’t matter if nobody I know gives two hoots about Dennis fanny-packs — somebody must be buying it.  I can deduce this logically, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a strip.  Who would bother creating mediocre comics — somebody else’s mediocre comics, remember — if there was no money in it?

There exists a Catch-22: the comic’s unique appeal attracted an audience, and so licensing agreements were created to capitalize on that audience.  Now, in order to maintain the lucrative licensing agreements, the comic must continue on, long after its appeal has faded.  Dennis Mitchell is a recognizable enough character that companies will pay for him to endorse their products.

It doesn’t matter that the comic has already said anything interesting it was ever going to say; that it has contributed whatever it had to contribute.  Dennis the Menace is, today, a once-proud celebrity reduced to homelessness, sucking off the residual goodwill of society while begging for money and doing nothing in return but taking up space in the newspaper that could be otherwise put to good use.  Because do we really need 365 days a year of this?

the answer is, no we don't

Okay, first of all, does he know the word “infectious” or not?  If he knows the word, then he doesn’t need to sound it out like a retard.  If he doesn’t know the word, then why is he asking to go to the doctor?  That’s Problem Number One.

Problem Number Two is, how is this character remotely Dennis the Menace?  His laugh is infectious?  He’s laughing in school?  Where’s the slingshot in his back pocket?  Why is his mom not protectively clutching the crockery as her chaos-spawn ambles through the door, hell-bent on destruction?

I cannot deny the influence that Dennis has had on a generation of comic artists and fans.  But wherever there’s money involved, people keep things alive, zombie-like, stumbling through a world they never made.  I’ll bet if Terry Schiavo had been crapping nickels every hour on the hour while she lay in that hospital in Florida, there’d be no controversy and no emergency legislation and no nothing because she’d still be alive.

I am as much a doctor as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  And I say, with all due respect to the Schiavo family and to the late Hank Ketcham, let this nag die. There will be no resuscitation.  There will be no surgery. And the only prescription from this doctor will be an overdose of sleeping pills…

…That’s what I truly believe.  But that would sort of miss the point of the column.  So, let’s work at odds with Mr. Ferdinand’s “the characters write themselves” philosophy and shake things up a bit, really bringing Dennis back to his troublemaker roots, shall we?

or at least bi

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much.  He is, after all, only (and always) “five an’ a half.”  Despite the fact that keeping Dennis lodged in the status quo is, in my opinion, the wrong way to go — I can see how this may be a bit too much of a radical departure.  Besides, Dennis is already the Dairy Queen spokesman.  He doesn’t have to come out of the closet.

I do recommend that Dennis regain his malicious edge.  Here’s my serious suggestion:

i hope it was butter pecan

Until next time … I’ll see you in the funny papers.

– November, 2005

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