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Dennis the Menace - Introduction by Brian Walker Print
Written by Brian Walker   
Article Index
Dennis the Menace - Introduction by Brian Walker
Page 2
Page 3

Although the style of Dennis the Menace remained fairly consistent over the years, Ketcham tried many different tools and techniques. “I went through an experimental phase where I vacillated from pen-and-ink to brush only, to pencil only, to inking finishes directly with no preliminary pencil guide whatsoever,” he recalled. He eventually settled on the Gillotte #170 pen and the #3 Winsor and Newton sable brush, both popular with cartoonists. Noel “Bud” Sickles, an accomplished comic artist and illustrator who was a neighbor in Westport, once showed Ketcham how to attack a piece of paper aggressively with a pen. He learned to push the instrument to its limits, alternating between thin lines and bold strokes, and discovered that he liked the way “the tiny, flexible pen point skates across the two-ply plate-finish Strathmore.”

rough by Hank Ketcham
Ketcham's tribute to his peers' characters, preliminary rough for finished drawing

Ketcham earned respect among his peers for his single-minded devotion to the craft of cartooning. Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus, once called him “the best pen-and-ink artist in America today. He still is a brilliant technician when it comes to drawing the lines that make his cartoons so beautifully artistic.” He was a stickler for detail and objects such as automobiles, bicycles and appliances had to be rendered meticulously. A master of composition, he varied the angle of perspective for the maximum dramatic effect. A skilled draftsman, he used all of the tools of the pen-and-ink medium, including cross-hatching, silhouetting, and chiaroscuro. His lines were smooth and clean and he brought his characters to life with subtle nuances of expression and posture.

Ketcham approached each panel as a mini-masterpiece. “I seem to have trapped myself over the years into creating such realistic situations that I must resort to elaborate designs that penetrate space and give the illusion of depth – like peering through a window in the page,” he remembered in his autobiography. “I try to draw so convincingly that the reader won’t notice.”

In the late 1960s, Ketcham decided to add a black character to the cast of Dennis the Menace. “I named him ‘Jackson’ and designed him in the tradition of Little Black Sambo with huge lips, big white eyes, and just a suggestion of an Afro hair style,” he explained. In the introductory panel, Jackson was in the backyard with Dennis, who said to his mother, “I’ve got a race problem with Jackson. He can run faster than me.” The ill-advised attempt to integrate the feature did not go over well. Protests erupted in Detroit, Little Rock and Miami and, in St. Louis, rocks and bottles were thrown at the offices of the Post Dispatch. Ketcham issued a statement explaining that his intentions were innocent and Jackson went back into the ink bottle.

Half Hitch strip
The reinvented Half Hitch strip, early 1970s

Around this same time, he decided to try launching a second feature. He observed that strips like Steve Canyon and Beetle Bailey had succeeded with a military theme, but none had starred a Navy character. He resurrected Half Hitch from his WWII-era freelance cartoons, developed a concept for a comic strip, enlisted the aid of Herb Gochros and Bob Saylor as writers and Dick Hodgins, Jr. as artist, and sold it to King Features Syndicate. Half Hitch ran from 1970 to 1975, but failed to build up an adequate list of clients to make it profitable.

After decades of meeting his daily deadlines, Ketcham finally retired from the production process. In the early 1980s, Ron Ferdinand took over the Dennis the Menace Sunday page and, in the mid-1990s, Marcus Hamilton began drawing the daily panel. Ketcham continued to closely supervise these artists until his death on June 1, 2001, at the age of 81. In his final years, he had more time for other artistic pursuits and painted a series of portraits of famous cartoonists and jazz musicians.

Although he tried to convey a positive outlook in his cartoons, Ketcham was not immune to tragedy in his own life. In 1959, after his first wife died of a drug overdose, he relocated with his son Dennis, who was twelve years old at the time, to Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained for seventeen years. Dennis was eventually sent to boarding school in Connecticut and later served a ten-month tour of duty in Vietnam. After the war he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and became estranged from his father. Ketcham always regretted the burden he created for his son when he named his famous character after him. “He was brought in unwillingly and unknowingly,” he told an interviewer, “and it confused him.”

Ketcham’s second marriage ended in divorce and he was survived by his third wife, Rolande Praepost, and their two children, Scott and Dania. He lived long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dennis the Menace.

“You hope it will last a week or two,” he told an interviewer. “You can’t project, you can’t sit and dream, you go in there with your positive thoughts and concentrate on what you’re doing and let the professionals do their job. If you both do your jobs, it will be a success.”

Asked to sum up the appeal of his famous character, Ketcham mused paternally, “He makes people smile and laugh when they read his words and see his actions, which express an innocence shared universally by five-year-olds. Some things fortunately never change.”

Looking at a Dennis the Menace panel is like seeing the world through Hank Ketcham’s eyes. His unique artistic perspective enabled readers to briefly recapture the simple joys of childhood and imagine a life of white-picket fences, green grass and golden sunsets. Although it portrayed an idealized picture of American family life, Dennis the Menace has endured because Hank Ketcham’s vision was timeless.

Hank Ketcham's has always been a secret pleasure and comfort to me. It's one of the true classics of the comic strip genre, and as American as apple (and mud) pies.

Brian Walker has a diverse background in professional cartooning and cartoon scholarship. He is a founder and former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art (now the International Museum of Cartoon Art), where he worked from 1974 to 1992. Since 1984, he has been part of the creative team that produces the comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois. He has written and edited more than a dozen books on cartoon art, including a two-volume history for Harry N. Abrams Inc., The Comics Since 1945 and The Comics Before 1945, as well as numerous exhibition catalogues and magazine articles. He has served as curator for over 65 cartoon exhibitions including three major retrospectives, “The Sunday funnies: 100 Years of Comics in American Life” at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, “100 Years of American Comics” at the Belgian Center for Comic Art in Brussels and “Masters of 20th Century American Comics” at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. He is currently the chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society.

Featured books by Hank Ketcham (click covers for complete product details)

Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952 (Vol. 1)
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952 (Vol. 1)
Price: $24.95
$16.63
You Save: 33.33%
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1953-1954 (Vol. 2)
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1953-1954 (Vol. 2)
Price: $24.95
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1955-1956 (Vol. 3) [Sold Out]
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1955-1956 (Vol. 3) [Sold Out]
Price: $24.95
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1957-1958 (Vol. 4)
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1957-1958 (Vol. 4)
Price: $24.95
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1954 Box Set [Sold Out]
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1954 Box Set [Sold Out]
Price: $39.95
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1955-1958 Box Set [Sold Out]
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1955-1958 Box Set [Sold Out]
Price: $39.95
The Merchant of Dennis the Menace
The Merchant of Dennis the Menace
Price: $19.95
Where's Dennis? The Magazine Cartoon Art of Hank Ketcham
Where's Dennis? The Magazine Cartoon Art of Hank Ketcham
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