Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Complete Dennis the Menace" Reveals Genius of Hank Ketcham

I have always loved Dennis the Menace, but after reading the first three volumes of Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis The Menace, a series of compact hardcovers published by Fantagraphics Books reprinting, in order, every Dennis panel, I've gained an even deeper appreciation of Hank Ketcham's cartooning genius.
One thing I had not realized before reading the third volume, covering the years 1955 and '56, is that Ketcham possessed a gift for caricature that rivaled the late, great Al Hirschfeld. The October 14, 1955 panel features a rendition of then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower that captures the war hero turned politician perfectly. He is shown holding a telephone and saying, "You have a collect call from whom? Dennis who?"
While a comparison to Hirschfeld is natural, likening Ketcham to Norman Rockwell may seem odd, but is, I feel and I'll explain why, quite apt. Both artists depicted somewhat idealized versions of ordinary American life. Furthermore, both Ketcham and Rockwell were masters of relating entire, richly detailed stories with a single image, and used a mastery of facial expression to aid in the telling of that story. Where, however, Rockwell used layers of paint, Ketcham needed only a few well chosen and carefully placed ink lines to convey an amazing range of mood and emotion.
Of course, Ketcham, unlike Rockwell, had the luxury of captions to help him tell his story. Comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey theorizes that comics reach the lofty level of "art" when words and pictures combine in such a way to produce an effect that neither alone could. Here, again, Ketcham excelled. As an example, let us consider the Dennis panel of October 19, 1955.
Dennis' mom, Alice, and three friends are playing bridge (I assume its bridge, because that's what suburban housewives played in the idealized 1950's America that the Mitchells lived in, isn't it? Besides, no poker chips are in evidence as they are when Henry, Dennis' dad, is shown playing cards). One of the ladies has her shoes off, and Dennis says to her, "I don't see how you got your big feet in those tiny shoes." This is funny in and of itself, but the expressions on the women's faces tell the rest of the story. The woman Dennis address is appalled. The woman to her left smiles in silent agreement. A third woman wears a look that seems to say that she wishes she could say stuff like that and get away with it. Alice, meanwhile, remains placid, she is used to Dennis behavior and is unfazed by it.
The very same panel also epitomizes the primary appeal of Ketcham's creation: the character of Dennis Mitchell his own bad self. Unlike the wise beyond their years protagonists of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, 5-year-old Dennis is all kid. Anyone who has, has had, or even knows a small child can identify both with Henry and Alice's frustrations and Dennis' antics, which, to be perfectly honest, were always more merely mischievous than even moderately menacing. The latter is also the source of Dennis the Menace's appeal to small kids themselves, not to mention those of us who small children when we first encountered that Mitchell boy.

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