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Dennis Mitchell, who is an only child, has always been a spunky “five-ana-half” years old. He has an unruly shock of blond hair, a freckled face with a smudged nose, and button eyes. His favorite outfit is a striped shirt, worn with overalls and crepe-soled saddle shoes. Dennis’ constant companion is Ruff, a big, fluffy mutt who doesn’t mind being bossed around.
Henry Mitchell is a thirty-two-year old W.A.S.P. who was born in a bustling mill town in central Minnesota. He is six-feet tall, weighs 162 pounds, wears horn-rimmed glasses, suffers from allergies and is an avid weekend golfer. After a stint in the U.S. Naval Reserve, he majored in business administration in college. He now earns a decent income from an aeronautical engineering company, which enables Alice Mitchell to stay at home and take care of their rambunctious offspring. The former Alice Johnson studied diet and nutrition at the state university, was a good tennis player and manages to maintain her trim figure and perky good looks. She also works hard to keep the house clean and her family fed.
Ketcham sketch of the Dennis cast, circa 1980s
George Wilson is a retired U.S. Post Office worker who collects stamps, plays the ukulele, and putters in the garden. George and his wife Martha don’t have any children of their own so Martha more than makes up for it by doting on the neighborhood kids and pets. Dennis’ next-door-neighbors are among his closest friends and provide him with an endless source of wisdom and conversation. He never has any qualms about making himself at home in their house.
Joey McDonald is like the younger brother Dennis never had. He follows Dennis everywhere like a shadow and is convinced that his mentor has the right answer for every situation. Dennis’ nemesis, Margaret Wade, is attracted to him because she thinks she can mold him into her ideal of a respectable young boy. Although her curly red hair, good grades, clean room, accomplished piano playing, and ballet dancing fail to impress Dennis, she never gives up. The constant rejection only encourages her unshakable self-confidence and bossy nature. Gina Gillotti, who was named after the famous Italian actress and the Gillotte #170 pen that Ketcham used, has the warmth and charm of her European ancestors. Unlike Margaret, she accepts Dennis for who he is and their relationship is one of mutual attraction. Dennis remains blissfully unaware of the competition between Margaret and Gina for his affections.
To establish credibility, Ketcham conjured up a detailed and specific world for his characters to inhabit. In his conception, the Mitchell family lives in a two-story, three-bedroom colonial-style fixer-upper with an attached garage on a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas. Inside the home is a front hall, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, a bathroom, a master bedroom, and, of course, Dennis’ messy room. The houses in the neighborhood are close together and have small backyards with white-picket fences. The nearby town has many of the common amenities of a typical American hamlet: a main street lined with stores and restaurants, doctor and dentist offices, a barber shop, soda fountain, bank, post office, library, movie theater, church, park, art museum, and schools.
Thematically, Ketcham adhered to a positive approach. “I make a point of staying away from the ugly side of life,” he explained. “It’s just my nature. I’d rather have upbeat things around me. Lord knows, there are enough things dragging you down.”
Dennis tends to be insatiably curious rather than mischievous. When he gets into trouble, his parents make him sit in a small rocking chair facing the corner of the living room. At night, Dennis apologizes for his transgressions and promises to do better in his bedtime prayers. Repeated situations like these reinforce Dennis’ basically wholesome nature.
Panel from the Bicentennial series of dailies
Ketcham reflected the cyclical patterns of daily life in Dennis by marking the changing seasons and celebrating holidays, like Valentine’s Day, Easter, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, as well as special family occasions, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and birthdays. He avoided specific events, like the World Series or the Superbowl, in deference to his many foreign clients. One exception was a special two-week sequence he did to commemorate America’s Bicentennial in 1976. In the story, he transported the Mitchells back to colonial times where they tried to cope with life in pre-revolutionary America. He spent many hours researching this series for historical accuracy. Other continuing story-lines, which were featured on an occasional basis over the years, included a visit to Uncle Charlie’s farm and Dennis’ first trip on a commercial airplane.
Unlike his contemporary, Charles Schulz, who wrote, penciled, inked and lettered every Peanuts strip for almost 50 years, Ketcham never had any reservations about hiring assistants to help meet his daily deadlines. “This sort of thing is rarely a ‘one man show,’” he explained. “An individual quickly scrapes the bottom of his creative barrel and, unless he has professional assistance, the quality suffers, noticeably. The readers soon lose interest, and the newspapers start to cancel.” In 1959, Ketcham’s staff in Carmel consisted of Lee Holley, art assistant, Fred Toole, comic book script writer and office secretary, Arch Garner, merchandise designer, Al Wiseman, comic book artist, and Bob Harmon, gag writer.
Many of his former assistants described Ketcham as a demanding taskmaster. There was never any doubt who was in charge of the production process. Each panel was designed by Ketcham, who saw his role as similar to that of a film director. “I set the thing up with the camera and spot the actors in a certain area,” he explained. “If I don’t like it I move the camera to the left or right or bring one of the people up close and balance it that way. When I have that figured out I go in and draw. I become the actor for every character. So it becomes an acting situation after you’ve done the staging.”