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Christopher Wheeler | profile | all galleries >> Cartoon(ist) Gallery >> Hank Ketcham tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Hank Ketcham

The following obituary is shamelessly stolen from GoodBye! Magazine. The good news is that GoodBye! is published -- it's "on hiatus" at the moment -- by my longtime friend Steve Miller. You don't mind, do you, Steve? For the best in obituaries, visit But I digress. Here's Steve's obit of Ketcham, who died in 2001:

Hank Ketcham, Dennis the Menace Perpetrator

To anybody who bothered to think about it, the comic strip Dennis the Menace has always looked like a train wreck. Nobody familiar with the pathologically cloying sweetness of Dennis the Menace should be surprised that real life was different.

The real Dennis, after whom the strip was named, of Dennis the Menace had a mother who wasn’t endlessly tolerant and resourceful. She drank and popped pill. Father packed him off to boarding school at a young age, and never had a serious relationship with him after he was six. After mother succumbed to suicide, father started a new life in Switzerland while junior endured his adolescence an ocean away. Dennis then enlisted in the marines, and went to war.

Dennis returned from Vietnam a broken man, suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Soon, it was said, there was a restraining order separating son from father in exchange for a modest stipend. Quoth Ketcham pére: “That’s just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families.” Yes, but in a family in which the father lived in high style off the revenues of a strip whose title character he completely alienated. Dennis re-turns six years old each year, and no doubt Hank Ketcham had sweet memories of his son’s youth, before a tumult of addiction and self destruction overwhelmed his family. The real Dennis was disposed of, and the fantasy was bankable.

Hank Ketcham’s memoir, The Merchant of Dennis the Menace, reads like the testimony of a very talented, lucky, and good natured man. A skilled draughtsman from childhood, he dropped out of college in 1938 to work for Walter Lantz, the animator whose main franchise was Woody Woodpecker. Soon Ketcham was in the Walt Disney stable, inking cels on Fantasia. Ketcham joined the navy in WWII, where he produced motivational posters on such defense necessities as food conservation. After discharge, he began selling cartoons to magazines and started a family.

Among the magazines that occasionally bought his work was The New Yorker, which he described as “the cartoonist’s ‘Bible,’ and to make a sale there was akin to being knighted and/or anointed.” True to his humble self-image, he includes in his memoir several New Yorker rejection notices. The panels he actually placed in the ‘Bible’ were pretty funny. As in most of his work, he employed outside gag writers to come up with the actual concepts.

Dennis was born in 1947 and the nicest thing his father has to say about him is that he was “rambunctious.” Ketcham describes his son at age two-and-a-half as “seething with rage and frustration.” At the age of four, Dennis was “too young for school, too big for his playpen, too small to hit, not old enough for jail – and one hundred percent Anti-Establishment.” One day during nap time young Dennis disassembled his bedroom, and spread a peanut butter sandwich and a loaded diaper around his bedroom. Mother was incensed and told father, “Your son is a menace!”

“Now he was ‘my’ son,” Ketcham wrote. She “inform[ed] me that I could jolly well clean up his room.” It is not hard to see this as the moment when father abandoned son and wife and threw his energies into the strip, where he would present Dennis as his fantasy child: naughty and rambunctious, yes, but prayerful and ultimately good and eternally five years old. It was as if Hank Ketcham had himself been the naughty child. Scolded by mother, he went back to his studio to sulk, forever. There, like his son, he did something creative with his crap.

The “menace” comment inspired a proposal for a one-panel newspaper strip that quickly caught fire. By the end of 1951 “Dennis the Menace” was appearing in 100 newspapers and “The sales chart was not an upward curve but more the flight of an arrow.” Two other hot strips that originated at almost the same time were Peanuts and Beetle Bailey. All three comics came at a moment when America was recovering from war, and reproducing epically. “Beetle Bailey” caught a wave of bittersweet nostalgia for service life, while “Peanuts” and “Dennis the Menace” owed their success at least in part to the beginnings of the baby boom.

Ketcham always made respectful noises towards “Peanuts,” which unlike “Dennis the Menace” was both drawn and written by one man. But resentment creeps in around the edges: He wrote that Schulz’s “features would suffer little damage if some thoughtless editor … reduced the reproduction size of the comic section. He said, “Schulz was lucky as hell. He was just coasting along and one day he did a dog named Snoopy and took off … His strip was like him: quiet, whimsical, no loud noises … My characters are real people with real emotions in the spirit of cartooning.”

This seems a little defensive. Dennis the Menace became a TV show, nearly a decade before Peanuts did, although the result might charitably be called stupid. (Ketcham omits it from his memoir almost entirely.) Commercially, Dennis the Menace was probably the equal of Peanuts until the late 60s. But intellectually, it couldn’t compete.

The gag lines pretty much describe the strips, (always diagnostic of mediocrity in cartooning): Dennis standing with a friend in front of his agitated mother in the tub: “This is my mother, Tommy. Isn’t she pretty?” Dennis standing next to a TV repairman: “Here’s your trouble lady. Peanut butter on the vertical rectifier.” Dennis in swim trunks standing next to a contractor: “When ya gonna be finished with the swimmin’ pool?” Dennis praying in an airplane seat: “I been wantin’ a horse for a long, long time … maybe you can hear me a little better up here.”

The Oedipal overtones, the reappearance of the peanut butter story, the eager entry into wealth and the renewal of spirituality: all had parallels in Ketcham’s life. But there was nothing terribly deep about them. Unlike Charlie Brown, Dennis never sported a dark scribble of irredeemable despair in his thought bubble. The closest he got was some time to cool off in the corner. Schulz rarely depicted children being punished; their misery was inevitably of their own making. In what sense is the utterly unreflective Dennis a more real person than Charlie Brown? In a sense, both were real people – and Hank Ketcham was Dennis.

Returned from two decades in Switzerland, Ketcham just got happier and happier as his life unreeled. He complained jovially about the syndicate deal that made him rich, saying it left him feeling “like a fat, happy dog on a leash, you are well taken care of but restrained from straying far afield.” He attributed his sanity to his third wife. And to golf, which he played constantly. Dennis – both the strip and the real person – were at a comfortable distance.

More and more his strip became the work of others, Ketcham merely stopping in after a day on the links to inspect lines drawn and captions written by others. The results reflected the committee authorship. In a panel from the 50s, when Ketcham was more involved, Dennis gleefully tells a motorcycle cop, “You didn’t catch us! We ran out of gas!” In a typically pallid panel from the 80s, he’s hanging on a tire swing and telling his pal Joey, “Yup, five years old is a very good age for boys.”

If father abandoned son and capitalized on their relationship for 50 years, the abandonment disfigured both men. There is the real-life Dennis, as his father said, “doing his own thing” somewhere in New England, drifting from job to job, divorcing and becoming estranged from his own children. And there is Henry King Ketcham, whose peers say this:

“I fully believe he was one of the best pen-and-ink artists in the nation” – Bil Keane, author of The Family Circus
“Everybody envied his ability to draw. In the humor field, he was the best artist among us all” – Mort Walker, author of Beetle Bailey

“He probably had the best line in cartooning. He was a true artist.” – Patrick Mcdonnell, author of Mutts

But when Hank Ketcham froze his misbehaving son at age five, like some kind of reverse Pygmalion, he stopped developing too. Son and father were trapped together in a toxic disconnected embrace that enriched father, humiliated son, and left both floundering. Hank Ketcham had the tools to be a real artist, but stayed on the leash.
No question he was a fine draftsman, but even the vanity stuff he created to sell as prints is hackneyed. He squandered his artistic gifts and abandoned the child who needed him and gave us an insipid comic that should have died decades ago but instead survives him. The committee is firmly in control of Frankenstein Dennis.

He died of cancer at age 81, about par, for those keeping score.
Dennis the Menace vs. Everybody (1956) (inscribed to Ketcham's grandmother with original drawing)
:: Dennis the Menace vs. Everybody (1956) (inscribed to Ketcham's grandmother with original drawing) ::
The Merchant of Dennis the Menace (1990) (inscribed with small original drawing)
:: The Merchant of Dennis the Menace (1990) (inscribed with small original drawing) ::
The Merchant of Dennis the Menace
The Merchant of Dennis the Menace
Original Drawing (9 x 11, 1957)
Original Drawing (9 x 11", 1957)