Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gosh Recommends... Dennis the Menace

Story and Art: Hank Ketcham.

No, not the stripy-jumpered star of the Beano but rather his US counterpart (although I’m guessing you probably knew this already given that you’re reading this here). This Dennis started life the same year as ours (hence the lack of legal implications) from the from the dip-pen of one Hank Ketcham, and Mr Ketcham and his dip-pen are precisely the reason you ought to be picking up these books.

This version of Dennis the Menace is probably best known to UK audiences via its 1980’s animated TV series (retitled Dennis for obvious reasons), and the 1993 Home Alone cash-in movie version. This latter production starred a perfectly cast Walter Matthau and Joan Plowright as Mr and Mrs Wilson (who must’ve wondered what they’d done wrong to end up there) and, as Dennis himself, a young boy with a name that only an American child actor could have: Mason Gamble. If Master Gamble’s interpretation is your only exposure to Dennis the Menace then you really ought to do yourself a favour and seek out the source material.

In the past few years Fantagraphics have taken on the task of reprinting all of Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace strips. So far four volumes have been published in hardcover with a softcover edition of the first volume just released. Alongside these releases Fantagraphics have also released Where’s Dennis?: The Magazine Art of Hank Ketcham (Edited by Shane Glines and Alex Chun) and The Merchant Of Dennis: The Autobiography of Hank Ketcham.

In some ways it baffles me that these Dennis the Menace collections don’t sell nearly as well as the Peanuts equivalents. Like Peanuts the strips themselves are gently comic, rather than laugh out loud funny, although this often doesn’t prepare for the occasional really funny, dark or even borderline sinister gag that can take you quite by surprise. Like Peanuts it’s also steeped in that lovely 50s Americana that gives you that wonderful feeling you can only usually achieve by watching a live action Disney movie on a wet Bank Holiday Monday while enjoying some hot tea and toast.

The cartoons themselves are almost always one panel gag strips, presented squarely with a hand drawn panel border and rarely featuring any speech balloons. This makes them large enough to fully show off Ketcham’s artwork and so each strip also works as a lovely illustration.

I was completely new to Ketcham’s work. These collections really opened my eyes to what an amazing cartoonist he is. I found myself thinking I’d take a quick flick through its pages but ended up dwelling on page after page. Just take a look at the artwork. It’s astounding! Like Alex Toth’s work there’s not a line on the page that doesn’t need to be there. I suspect that the late-great Mr Toth might’ve been a bit of a fan himself.

The brilliant Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame (as if you didn’t know) is certainly a fan. On the back cover of the first volume he writes: “I’ve learnt more from a single panel of Dennis the Menace than a six month art course”. That’s not hyperbole (well it is, but its not just hyperbole) you can really see what he means. The influence is very apparent. His Little Maggie strips especially owe an obvious debt to Dennis the Menace.

So in short, if you like Peanuts or Alex Toth or Jaime Hernandez, then take a look at Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace volumes.

Recommended by Nat