Opus 63:


Opus 63: Remembering Hank Ketcham, 1920-2001 (June 6, 2001). A good place to begin is at the end—which was in a museum. The drawings of Hank Ketcham have every credential and entitlement to a place on the wall in any art museum in the world. His drawings are indisputably Art with a capital ‘A,’ a grace note in black-and-white pen-and-ink.

The museum I have in mind at the moment, however, is the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, where Brian Walker had curated a superb show of Ketcham’s art to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dennis the Menace. The mischievous tow-headed freckle-faced eponymous kid with a prominent cowlick is perpetually "five-ana-half," but the cartoon that bears his name was 50 on March 12, 2001. The show in Boca Raton was to open on Saturday, May 26, but I and several hundred other cartoonists were in the Museum the evening before for a special pre-opening reception, the kick-off of the annual Reuben Awards weekend of the National Cartoonists Society.

Ketcham was not there. At the age of 81, he was in California at his Monterey studio, his body worn with age and ailments. He had been battling one kind of cancer or another for almost 18 years. He had lost his bladder to the disease and no longer strayed far from home.

A week to the day after the NCS reception, Hank Ketcham died. Quietly, in his sleep, early in the morning on June 1. He had been in and out of the hospital the day before with an erratic heart beat. Survivors include his third wife, Rolande, and their children, Scott and Dania, as well as the original Dennis. Private memorial services were on Wednesday, June 6 (today); Ketcham asked to be cremated.

The cartoon Dennis will go on: Ketcham had seen to that. He had turned the cartoon and its merchandising into a team effort years ago. Ron Ferdinand has done the Sunday strip since the mid-1980s. But Ketcham orchestrated the daily symphony in black-and-white himself until the mid-1990s, when he passed the baton to Marcus Hamilton.

The Boca Raton exhibit consisted mostly of Ketcham’s daily panel cartoons—scores of originals, many framed and matted in groupings of two or four with similar narrative or visual themes. Here was Dennis with a babysitter; Dennis with his next-door neighbor, the eternally persecuted Mister Wilson. Here were four scenes of Dennis in the rain; and here, four more, all snow scenes. There were also Sundays, mostly Ferdinand’s work.

I was standing at a showcase that contained preliminary pencil sketches and final art Ketcham had done for a poster. I was standing next to Marcus Hamilton, whom I had met soon after he started with Dennis. I was marveling, aloud, about the artistic invention on display—the lightness of touch in the pencils, the swirling curlicue lines of a pen that skated effortlessly across the smooth surface of the paper, the spectacular spotting of solid blacks and the seemingly infinite array of pattern and texture that Ketcham deployed to give graphic variety (and, hence, visual interest) to his art.

"I asked him once how he came up with his compositions," Marcus said. "I was looking over his shoulder as he sat at the drawingboard, and I said, ‘How do you decide what you’re going to draw and how you’ll arrange it? Do you have something in mind when you start drawing?’ And he said that he just picked up a pencil and started sort of doodling, and pretty soon, something would come to him—the scene would take shape in his mind, or he would start to see the action from a different perspective—and then he’d start to focus in on it, blocking the figures in the panel and so on."

I knew what he was talking about. Ideas about drawing come from actually drawing. And Ketcham had the kind of graphic imagination that seemed inexhaustible in the variety of its imagery. He could take essentially the same set of basic situations and, day after day, present them in a visually different fashion, virtually every time. This is an artist’s sensibility. It is an artist’s gift.

Ketcham’s artwork made Dennis a monument to stylistic achievement. His drawings are decorative in design, masterfully a blend of contrasting patterns and textures, fat lines and thin ones, mass and shape, meaty solid blacks, and stark white. At this sort of thing, Ketcham had no equal.

And Ketcham scarcely gave up the feature when he turned it over to Hamilton and Ferdinand. Ketcham’s influence was constant, they told me. Both Hamilton and Ferdinand submitted rough sketches to Ketcham for approval before inking. And Ketcham was an exacting (not to say exasperating) task master, demanding changes and alterations so that even when the actual drawing was done by someone else, the resulting picture would fit his vision as nearly as possible. Even inked art was approved by the master, who often wanted changes even at this final stage.

"It eased up quite a bit when Hank took up painting," Ron told me. But then when Ketcham’s health began failing him a couple years ago, and he could no longer stand up for long periods to paint, he turned again to Dennis, and the critiques began with renewed passion.

They continued until the last possible moment.

Just before the Reuben weekend, both Marcus and Ron wanted to get ahead of their deadlines enough to be able to go to Boca Raton. In consideration, Ketcham relaxed his routine.

"I’ll give you until Memorial Day," he told Ron. The Reubens weekend would end the day before.

Ron sent faxed his Sunday strip rough to Ketcham on the preceding Thursday. It came back immediately with a note from Ketcham: "I said ‘until Memorial Day.’" He hadn’t made a single comment on the sketch.

But when Ron returned to his studio on Monday, Memorial Day, there was a fax from Ketcham—the Sunday strip sketch, liberally marked-up with Ketcham’s directions for changes. And on the day before he died, Ketcham faxed Ron more notes on the next Sunday strip.

By now, though, Hamilton and Ferdinand are ready to go solo. More than ready.

And they expect to continue their present assignments, working for Ketcham Enterprises, which owns Dennis. King Features will continue the feature’s world-wide distribution.

After fifty years, Dennis appears in over 1,000 papers in 48 countries and 19 languages.

The enduring success of the feature is undoubtedly due to the universality of its star’s personality. An appealing if aggravating combination of impishness and innocence, Dennis is the kid everyone recognizes as his or her own children.

Dennis inspired scores of reprint books, a stage musical, a television series (1959-1963), a 1993 motion picture (with Walter Matthau—"a four-alarm fire" of a success, Ketcham called it), and a playground in Monterey.

And "Dennis the Musical" seems Broadway bound. Variety columnist Army Archerd reported today (June 6) that Ernie Chambers, who wrote the tv movie Dennis the Menace and executive produced the Matthau movie, has cranked up new music for the stage version he launched in 1987 (playing in Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and Kansas City). Chambers believes that the success of "The Producers" and all family entertainment makes this a good time to bring Dennis to Broadway.

As for the real Dennis—Ketcham’s first son, who, at the age of four, inspired the cartoon creation—it is widely known that he and his father were estranged for years. Ketcham usually acknowledged the invasion of his son’s life that the cartoon feature committed. "He was brought in unwillingly and unknowingly," he said, "and it confused him."

But there’s more to the story. Young Dennis suffered from severe learning disabilities, and, by the age of eight, he was attending a private school. His mother, meanwhile, could no longer cope; she died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1959.

Shortly thereafter, Ketcham re-married, went to the Soviet Union in 1959 on a goodwill mission, and wound up living in Geneva, Switzerland for nearly eighteen years. He took young Dennis with him, but the boy did not acclimate to European life and was returned to the U.S. to attend a boarding school. They spent little time together afterwards.

Dennis married, became a father, did a ten-month stint in Vietnam, and returned with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was now estranged from his daughter as well as his father.

Acknowledging that it was all sad and regrettable, Ketcham also realized that it was now beyond any influence he could exercise. By this time, he had other children with his third wife. And he had the responsibility—without let-up—of producing a daily cartoon feature and operating a business upon which several people depended for a livelihood. He kept at it.

At the drawingboard, producing his cartoon, Ketcham had an enduring motto: It should look as if you’re having fun, he said of the effect he aimed at when drawing Dennis.

For a time, after relinquishing the production task to Hamilton and Ferdinand, Ketcham sought his fun at an easel instead of a drawingboard. He painted in oil and watercolor.

According to Ketcham, Dennis wasn’t for posterity. "People look at it for 30 seconds," he said, "then it gets used to wrap fish. Now, my paintings, that’s something else. My bid for posterity is my paintings."

The commemorative show in Boca Raton included samples of this undertaking—portraits of famous cartoonists and pictures of jazz musicians. Ketcham was a passionate jazz buff. And his music-themed watercolors—with titles like "Dark Town Strutters Ball" and "Sophisticated Lady"—give visual expression to his love of the syncopated sounds. Combining lively line and splashes of brilliant color, they are stunning.

They look like he was having fun doing them.

For a complete biographical account and appreciation of Ketcham’s life and work, click here to be transported to the lengthy treatment in the R&R Hindsight department.

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