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This introduction is reprinted in its entirety from Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952, the first volume in our comprehensive collection of
Dennis the Menace daily strips. This volume is available in a handsome, brick-like hardcover and, now, an affordable softcover edition.
Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952 (Vol. 1) [Softcover Ed.]
One afternoon, in October 1950, Hank Ketcham was working on a cartoon for The Saturday Evening Post when he heard a commotion coming from the bedroom area of his new home in Carmel, California. His wife Alice suddenly burst into the studio and exclaimed, “Your son is a MENACE!” Four-year-old Dennis Lloyd Ketcham, who was supposed to be napping, had just demolished his room. “Dennis… a menace?” Ketcham mused. “Let’s see, there’s Tillie the Toiler and Felix the Cat. Why couldn’t there be – Dennis the Menace?! Wow! Why not!”
Ketcham penciled up a dozen mischievous kid gags and sent them to his agent, John Kennedy, in New York. Ten days later he received a telegram: “BOB HALL NEW PRESIDENT OF POST SYNDICATE WANTS TO SEE ANOTHER TWELVE SAMPLES STOP LOOKS LIKE WE MIGHT HAVE A SALE – JOHN.”
Dennis the Menace was launched in sixteen newspapers on March 12, 1951. By the end of the first year, it had over 100 clients and the Post-Hall Syndicate asked Ketcham to add a Sunday page to his weekly duties. In 1952, the first Dennis the Menace book collection, published by Henry Holt, sold 121,000 copies in six months and Ketcham won the award as the “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year” from the National Cartoonists Society. A live-action television adaptation, starring Jay North as Dennis, was produced in 1959. Tie-in merchandise included dolls, puppets, books, toys and clothing.
Fifty years and more than 18,000 episodes after its debut, Ketcham’s panel was still appearing in over 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries. Fifty million Dennis books had been sold and the 1959-1963 television series, as well as 96 animated programs, were being distributed by King Features Syndicate. Dennis had transcended pen and ink to become an international cultural icon.
The artist, circa the 1950s
Henry King Ketcham was born in Seattle, Washington on March 14, 1920. In his 1990 autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis the Menace, he remembered, “I grew up in a wondrous cartoon world inhabited by Barney Google, Harold Teen, Mutt and Jeff, the Toonerville Folks, the Gumps, and many others, and was mesmerized by the funny-looking people who could live in a bottle of ink – amusing characters who with a mere squiggle of a pen did as directed.” Young Henry practiced his new-found craft by copying all of the strips in the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer and before he graduated from elementary school, had decided to pursue a career in cartooning.
In 1938, after a year at the University of Washington, he left for Hollywood to get a job in the animation industry. He spent fourteen months at Universal Studios, working as an in-betweener for $16 a week on the Andy Panda series for Walter Lantz before moving on to the Walt Disney Studios. While at the Mouse Factory, Ketcham served as an assistant animator on Pinocchio, Bambi, Wind in the Willows, Fantasia and dozens of Donald Duck shorts. He later claimed that he received his art training at the “University of Walt Disney.”
Less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ketcham enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a photographer’s mate third class. From Bremerton Navy Yard on the Puget Sound, he was transferred to Washington D.C. where he designed posters, animated training films and other materials for the War Bond program. During this time, he also supplemented his military income by selling freelance cartoons to the magazine market and created a diminutive sailor character, “Half Hitch,” who appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post.
Half Hitch drawing for The Saturday Evening Post, circa 1940s
When the war was over, having tasted success in the publishing world, Ketcham decided to pursue his fortune in New York City, rather than return to the Disney Studio. He soon became one of the top magazine cartoonists in the business, selling his work to Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Liberty, and The New Yorker. He lived in Westport, Connecticut, where many famous cartoonists and illustrators had their studios and made the weekly trip to Manhattan, known as the “Wednesday rounds,” to show his latest gag roughs to the editors of the major magazines. He often stopped for lunch and drinks with his fellow freelancers at the Pen & Pencil or Danny’s before taking the train home to the suburbs. In 1948, tired of the unpredictable nature of east coast weather, he moved to California with his wife and two-year-old son.
Pre-Dennis magazine panel by Ketcham, late 1940s
During his years as a magazine cartoonist, Ketcham became adept at rendering single-panel gags. He was influenced by the masters of the medium: Peter Arno, George Price, Whitney Darrow, Jr., and Gluyas Williams. Although his first effort to break into syndication, Little Joe, was a comic strip, it was more natural for him to design Dennis the Menace as a panel. “That’s what I’d been doing all those years in magazines,” he explained. “I wasn’t doing strip stuff – my mind was not geared that way. I wanted to do an eye-catching single panel in which the reader would give you only ten seconds of his time.”
The main characters in Ketcham’s creation, Dennis, Henry, Alice, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, and Ruff, were all fully developed by the mid-1950s. Joey, Margaret, and Gina took a little longer to evolve into their definitive form but, once in place, the core cast changed very little in appearance and temperament over the years.