As of March 12, King Features/North America Syndicate’s Dennis will have been a fixture on the pages of American newspapers for a half-century. A remarkable record, considering the advice Ketcham was being given in 1950 when he was contemplating doing a newspaper feature: "Look, Hank," his advisors said, "don’t do a panel because they shift panels all around the newspaper and it’ll get lost." And to that bit of wisdom, they added: "Don’t submit anything featuring a little kid—we’ve had that to death and they won’t even look at it."
In proving the experts wrong, Ketcham has had talented assistance. Bob Bugg did the Sunday Dennis (the comic strip incarnation of the feature) for several years, then in the early 1980s, Ketcham surrendered the Sundays to Ron Ferdinand, who, prior to this assignment, had hoped to get into animation. A decade later, Ketcham found Marcus Hamilton (or vice versa) to do the daily panel. (Ferdinand tells his story in Cartoonist PROfiles No. 112, December 1996; Hamilton, in No. 124, December 1999.)
Although ostensibly "retired" and painting watercolors since the arrival of Hamilton, Ketcham nonetheless maintains tight control over both daily and Sunday Dennis from his studio in California. Communicating by fax with his assistants (both of whom are on the East Coast), Ketcham critiques every release in rough layout and final form. "After viewing what I’ve sent," Ferdinand reports, "Hank might say, ‘I want a closeup here, or a silhouette here.’" Ketcham is a perfectionist when it comes to his creation and does not hesitate to order re-dos.
A stickler for research, Ketcham sent Ferdinand and Hamilton to Hawaii last summer to do on-the-scene sketches in preparation for Dennis’ trip to the islands in November. (While there, the duo had an audience with the legendary tiny bubbles man, Don Ho, who is now over 900 years old and still counting those bubbles.)
Like several others of the post-war generation of newspaper cartoonists, Ketcham graduated to newspaper syndication after matriculating in magazine cartooning. Born in 1920, Ketcham learned his craft in the animation studios of Walter Lantz and Walt Disney before serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
His experience at the Mouse Factory was invaluable. In later years, when asked where he went to school, Ketcham invariably replied: "The University of Walt Disney."
There he learned his craft, its art and its science—how articles of clothing stretch and drag as the body moves, the importance of balance and weight transfer, the significance of "the line of action" (the power that fuels movement)—and about acting, which is what a cartoonist must direct all his characters to do.
As a Navy photographic specialist stationed in Washington, D.C. where he drew cartoons to sell war bonds, Ketcham worked an 8-hour day, which left evenings free for freelancing gag cartoons to civilian magazines. By the end of the War, he was doing a weekly pantomime cartoon about a diminutive sailor called Half Hitch in the Saturday Evening Post. After the War, Ketcham joined the ranks of cartoonists making the rounds every Wednesday to show their week’s work to magazine cartoon editors at the New York offices.
In the process, Ketcham’s education continued. One of those from whom he learned was New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow—the only other cartoonist living in Westport, Connecticut, when Ketcham moved there after the War. Commenting on one of Ketcham’s cartoons, Barlow pointed out a couple of minor graphic details that, if added to the drawing, would improve the illusion of reality while imparting also an engaging element of charm.
The cartoon showed a farmer going down the road in his horse-drawn wagon. Barlow said: "Farm wagons generally have a lantern swinging from the undercarriage. And in most cases the farmer’s dog will be loping behind."
Ketcham appreciated the criticism: "I was impressed with his insight," he wrote in his autobiography, "and from that moment on was more sensitive and aware of details that might enhance the art."
It was a significant moment in the evolution of Ketcham’s style: as anyone who has studied his work knows, his drawings are distinguished by a profusion of telling details, tiny snippets of visual reality that seem to have been tossed casually into the composition but which are actually carefully selected and strategically placed in order to add to the sense of time and place and actuality that Ketcham strives for in his panel cartoons.
Once he began selling regularly to the major magazines, Ketcham left Connecticut and settled in Carmel, California. It was there in the fall of 1950 that his wife, reporting to him in his bedroom studio, explained the commotion he’d just heard by saying, "Your son is a menace." To which Ketcham muttered, "Dennis? A menace?" The euphony proved irresistible—to the cartoonist, to a syndicate, and to newspaper editors around the country.
Ketcham rounded up a dozen little kid gags and sent them off to his agent and within a month, he had a syndicate contract to produce Dennis the Menace. It debuted March 12, 1951, and before the end of the year, over a hundred newspapers had signed up.
It was undoubtedly the rhyming name that cracked the legendary industry resistance to panels about little kids. Ketcham had earlier experimented with a kid comic strip dubbed Little Joe; it hadn’t sold. But "Dennis the menace" sang like a national anthem.
If the name attracted attention, it was Ketcham’s artwork that made the feature a monument to stylistic achievement. His drawings are so decorative in design, so masterfully a blend of line (often elliptical), texture, solid black, and stark white, that they are works of art in every sense of the expression.
At this sort of thing, Ketcham has no equal. He is a master technician—his line is always crisp, his blacks spotted with dramatic precision, his shading and hachuring deployed with dramatic emphasis. And his graphic invention seems inexhaustible in its variety. Within the limited confines of a single panel cartoon, he is constantly varying his presentation—changing the point-of-view; embellishing this time with texture, next time with meaty blacks in stunning contrast to parched white; dropping out segments of the picture to create geometric patterns within the drawing; contrasting patterns and textures, fat lines and thin ones, mass and shape.
Says Hamilton: "Next to Hank’s classy penmanship, what I admire most about his work is his ability to take the same characters and similar situations and always make them look distinctively different and fresh! that has inspired me to strive to see everyday situations as a creative challenge."
Ketcham’s drawings are full of telling details that add dimensions of reality to the pictures. And each such detail—whether a simple bud vase on the piano or a cat arching its back or tools in the father’s workshop or appliances in the mother’s kitchen or a stack of phonograph records next to a player or the bark on the trunk of a tree in the backyard—each is rendered in Ketcham’s unique manner, each a stylistic triumph no matter how seemingly inconsequential in the context of the cartoon’s gag.
Although his drawings seem casually sketched, they are very carefully considered, thoughtfully researched, and painstakingly worked over to make them unobtrusive. Despite the visual pyrotechnics of his style, Ketcham hopes to slip the picture by almost unnoticed.
"I try to draw so convincingly that the reader won’t notice," he says. What he hopes to avoid is a drawing that attracts so much attention to itself (either by being inaccurate or by being too amusing) that the reader is distracted from the idea of the cartoon.
Interviewed by the NCS Cartoonist on the eve of the anniversary, Ketcham explained his preference for the panel cartoon over the comic strip: "I didn’t do too many strips [when contemplating newspaper syndication]. I was just playing around to see what I could do. I could take a panel with the right gag and break it up into several drawings to make a strip. But then you’d have to put balloons in it and that gives you less room to draw. The challenge isn’t quite so big as it is in the panel where you use the whole area for your art. I didn’t have the freedom in a strip that I had in a panel."
But, he continued, "the main reason I chose the panel was because that’s what I’d been doing all those years in the magazines. 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. So that was quite a challenge.
"I’m like a [movie] director," he went on. "I set up the thing with the camera and spot the actors in a certain area. 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. You should also become a good editor--to be able to evaluate the gag. When others might not see anything, you might see that by changing this over here or moving that in there, you can see the possibilities in something. Then it becomes valid."
Ketcham has steadfastly avoided the topical realism of contemporary life, the morality of which he finds "dreadful." In his cartoons he controls the world, and he creates people he enjoys. "If they aren’t what I like," he said once, "I erase them. The newspaper headlines can be murderous and bloody, but in my world, the birds are singing."
With this determination underpinning his work, it is understandable that he could produce the quintessential American suburban family life cartoon from the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland for 17 years—1960-77, the most tumultuous in recent U.S. history. Relying on Sears catalogs and his memory, he simply went on reproducing a picture of American life that he had lived as a young father during the happy Eisenhower years. And he still does it—deliberately, determinedly.
In the late 1960s, Ketcham made an exception to his never-never-land rule. "Determined to join the parade led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," he said, he introduced a black playmate for Dennis.
"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 hairstyle," Ketcham wrote. "He was cute as a button, and in addition to being a marvelous graphic, he would reflect the refreshing, naive honesty of preschool children as yet unexposed to prejudice and rancor. It was a splendid opportunity to inject some humor into the extremely tense political climate. I urged my writers to give this priority and rolled up my sleeves with enthusiastic anticipation."
In the introductory cartoon, Dennis introduces Jackson to his mother, saying, "I’ve got a race problem with Jackson. He can run faster than me."
"A harmless little play on words," Ketcham thought. And so it was. But the uproar Jackson caused was not harmless. In St. Louis, rocks and bottles were thrown through the windows at the Post-Dispatch building. Delivery boys were assaulted in Little Rock. Newspaper editors in Miami were threatened.
But it wasn’t the joke. It was the picture. Ketcham had doubtless chosen the hoary visual cliche for his depiction of Jackson solely for its graphic potential: he saw the design possibilities in that stereotypical blackface image. But his readers weren’t designers. And the venerable racial caricature was, by the late 1960s, despised by minority groups and shunned by most other Americans whose sensibilities were not determined by bigotry. Ketcham’s readers saw a cruel stereotypical image instead of a cute design that would enhance the cartoonist’s drawings with attractive solid blacks.
"Any regular Dennis-watcher would surely know that I am never vindictive or show any intent to malign or denigrate," Ketcham wrote later in his autobiography. "It seems that Sammy Davis, Jr., was the only one who could safely poke fun at minorities. To this day, Jackson remains in the ink bottle. A pity."
If anything, the experience confirmed Ketcham’s resolve to stay away from real life.
As Judith Weinraub observed in the Washington Post in May 1990: In the "essential world" of the cartoon, "women are ladies, and profanity doesn’t get stronger than ‘heckuva.’ Mom is at home with the kids, and the closest the cartoon gets to touching on world events is acknowledging such holidays as Christmas and Easter."
In 1976, though, Ketcham celebrated the nation’s Bicentennial by transporting Dennis and his family back to New England in pre-Revolutionary days. But the time warp didn’t fundamentally affect his approach.
"I make it 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."
Ketcham launched a second feature in 1970. He revived his wartime Half Hitch but this time as a comic strip; and this time, Hitch had a speaking part. Dick Hodgins, Jr. ("a fine cartoonist with a sparkling pen technique") took on the drawing chores over scripts by Bob Saylor. Despite the enthusiastic support of the Navy, the strip didn’t click among civilians. Hitch was no Beetle. The strip was discontinued in 1975.
Ketcham received the Reuben as Cartoonist of the Year for 1952 from his peers in the National Cartoonists Society (the award was made in the spring of 1953 when Dennis was but two years old), and at this year’s Reubens Weekend in Boca Raton, Dennis’s anniversary will be celebrated at the International Cartoon Art Museum.
The golden gala actually begins March 5-10. Ketcham has chosen five vintage panels, one from each decade, to run on successive days of this week. Then for the 14th (the cartoonist’s birthday), Ketcham did a panel recognizing Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, where Dennis’s 50th will be celebrated with a look-alike contest and an appearance by Jay North, who played the towheaded moppet on the tv series 1959-63. Ketcham will be on "Good Morning America" on Monday, March 12, for the actual anniversary of the feature, and on "The 700 Club" on the 14th.
And what of the original Dennis, the actual son of the cartoonist? For many years, Ketcham and his son have been estranged. The cartoonist is acutely aware of how much he invaded his young offspring’s privacy by making his name a household word. "He was brought in unwillingly and unknowingly," Ketcham told Weinraub, "and it confused him."
In that interview in the NCS Cartoonist, Ketcham summed up his approach to his life’s work: "Writing is the platform that in most all arts is what holds the thing up. You get your gags and then you have to translate those words into a graphic. And if it says that Dennis is sitting on a park bench and an old lady comes by and Dennis says something, you have to visualize it. You have to make it an interesting drawing, and I want to make it a funny drawing, too. It should have a lot of graphic thought in it so that when your eye looks over the funnies page, you immediately see the drawings that sparkle and look like they’re exceptional. And that’s what I want."
Exceptional. That’s what Ketcham has achieved for fifty years.
Ketcham’s autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis the Menace, is no longer in print; and neither is the 40th anniversary book, Dennis the Menace: His First 40 Years, a dazzling display of exquisite black-and-white artistry. But you can find both by consulting the Internet (www.BookFinder.com).
And if you want to know more about the state of the art of newspaper cartooning at the time Ketcham launched Dennis, take a look at my analytical history of the comic strip, The Art of the Funnies, for a detailed recounting of the careers of two of Ketcham’s most distinguished contemporaries, Charles Schulz and Mort Walker, who launched their famous features, Peanuts and Beetle Bailey, less than six months before Dennis debuted. But neither of these strips hit 100 papers for a long time! Click here to be transported to more shameless promotional literature.
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