Sunday, March 11, 2001
Pebble Beach, Calif. A little freckle-faced boy leans out from the back seat of a vintage car and taunts a policeman as his parents wait apprehensively for the traffic ticket. The caption reads: "You didn't catch us! We ran outa gas!"
It was March 12, 1951 ï¿½ America's first glimpse of the blond, towheaded tornado known as "Dennis the Menace." Still "five-ana-half" on the comics pages, he celebrates 50 years of publication Monday.
The cartoon still runs in 1,000 newspapers, 48 countries and 19 languages, and "the only thing that has changed is the toys," creator Henry "Hank" Ketcham said as he recalled a lifetime of cartooning in an interview at his home studio.
Even now, Ketcham is surprised that his work is so popular. Other cartoonists also marvel at the loyalty of his readers.
"If Dennis the Menace fell out of his swing and went into a coma the world would probably stop," said Brian Walker, who writes "Hi and Lois" with his brother, Greg. "It just shows how much these characters are part of these people's lives."
Ketcham credits Dennis' innocence for the strip's longevity.
"He doesn't have any answers but a lot of questions and a lot of energy and you've got a lot of loyalty and a little bit of mischief in him, too, but that's the way kids are," Ketcham said.
Being a "menace" also is key, said Jim Davis, creator of "Garfield." "If Dennis were a perfect little boy, he wouldn't have lasted."
Ketcham, who turns 81 on March 14, put down his pencil nearly a decade ago. Today, he moves a little slower while clicking from image to image on his Web site, but his artistic eye is still sharp and critical while overseeing the day-to-day drawings faxed to his home. Ketcham stopped drawing the Sunday panels in the mid-1980s and gave up the weekday panels in 1994. His assistants, Marcus Hamilton and Ronald Ferdinand, handle the bulk of the work now.
A Seattle native, he dropped out of the University of Washington after his freshman year in 1938 to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a cartoonist.
He got his first job as an animator for Walter Lantz, the creator of "Woody Woodpecker," and then for Walt Disney, working on "Pinocchio," "Bambi," "Fantasia" and others.
While Dennis stayed in the suburbs, playing with Ruff the dog, his friends Joey and Margaret, and of course the crotchety neighbor Mr. Wilson, Ketcham traveled the world. For nearly 20 years, he kept the strip going while living in Geneva, Switzerland.
How did he stay in touch with American culture among the Swiss Alps?
"I'm a former kid, you see, and I have that great memory," said Ketcham, wearing black-rimmed glasses. "I had a Sears Roebuck catalogue, which I kept over there, and I have a great team of writers which kept supplying me with stuff."
His inspiration for the strip came from the real-life Dennis, his son from his first marriage.
Ketcham and Dennis' mother, Alice, separated and she died soon after in 1959 from a drug overdose. Ketcham took the then 12-year-old to Switzerland, but when the boy struggled with his studies there, he was sent to boarding school in Connecticut. Ketcham and his second wife, Jo Anne Stevens, remained in Europe.
Dennis went on to serve a 10-month tour of duty in Vietnam and returned suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has little contact with his father today (and has been estranged from his own daughter). Still, he's kept "Dennis the Menace" books, dolls and other cartoon paraphernalia displayed at his house.
"He's living in the East somewhere doing his own thing," Ketcham said. "That's just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families."
Ketcham returned to California in 1977 with Rolande, his third wife, and their two children.
Although his own family hardly fit the idyllic 1950s model, Ketcham has insisted that Dennis' neighborhood remain un-touched, even as other cartoonists responded to wars, scandals and social upheaval.
"In the Dennis world, there's a swing in the back yard and the houses are close to each other with picket fences," Walker agreed. "This isn't a strip about a contemporary kid growing up in America today. It's about Hank Ketcham's daydream about childhood."