Hank Ketcham and The Art of Dennis

Hank Ketcham made it look so easy…and that was the trick. His loose, thick cartoony line seemed to skate across the page. A Dennis the Menace daily feels so comfortable and easy to take in at a glance, as if we are in the flow of Ketcham’s relaxed line. And his imagery is equally easy, almost as abstract as a UPA cartoon (Gerald McBoing Boing, Mr. MaGoo). But unlike the jazzy cartoon aesthetic of the 50s, Dennis the Menace was firmly situated, perhaps petrified, in the iconography post-WWII white suburbia. And Ketcham himself said he aspired for his art not to call attention to itself and almost look not there.

But of course, this kind of easy transparent style was the result of tremendous skill and care. Take for instance this otherwise anodyne daily of Dennis making yet another disastrous assault on his perennial target, the cookie jar. Ketchum’s loose, flowing pen line was much admired by fellow cartoonists because it was at once light in spirit and cartoony but also controlled and precise. He credits Noel Sickles with teaching him how to use a pen more like a brush and relax his line so it seemed to flow so effortlessly.

Consider the sheer economy of this scene, how so few lines establish his figures and setting. He establishes his modern suburban kitchen setting with such selective specificity – refrigerator and cabinet handles are sparse and abstract, but the three storage jars on the counter embody the post-war mid-century modern style. And yet the broken cookie jar is detailed and minute, pulling the eye to the center of the chaos.

I have read some fellow artists praise Ketcham’s mastery of drapery, and here is a great example of using that detail to carry the weight of mother Alice’s reaction. Henry and Alice Mitchell only speak for themselves on occasion in Dennisworld. Most often they are reacting graphically to Dennis’s transgressions in minute details – the positioning of an eyebrow line, body posture, slightly splayed feet. In this panel, we don’t even need Alice’s facial expression to complete the scene. Ketcham positions us at kid level and uses the drape of her skirt and flying kerchief to render the reaction shot.

Hank Ketcham mapped mid-century American suburbia so simply and beautifully. He was a perfectionist with establishing perspective that made you part of the scene. In this early 50s panel, his composition and staging of characters is everything. It establishes the dynamic among characters and separates Dennis from the group in just the way he is emotionally. And Ketcham’s Disney training comes through in the ways each of the adults is animated and characterized individually. Every person in the scene is laughing in a particular way that suggests their own character and backstory. And it was all told visually with that signature loose and flowing pen work that makes a well-planned panel feel effortless. No wonder so many of his contemporaries envied his artistry.

Perspective was critical to Ketcham. He often finds ways to place us in the scene that also involves us in the flow of the action or in relation to a character’s perspective. The panel above underscores his thoughtful use of point of view to heighten meaning. Here Dennis and the gang’s boyish conspiracy feels more intense, intimate, secretive by being set back from the action.

The aesthetic of Dennis the Menace is centered in the brilliant design of Dennis himself of course. First it is important note that Dennis is impossibly small. Compared to the adults around him, this five-year-old is considerably smaller than his age, barely reaches the knees of his distinctly lanky parents. His bunched, oversized coveralls keep him even more grounded and often give him the appearance of a cannonball in motion.. Dennis rarely trips, falls or loses control. It is the physical and human world around Dennis that loses its footing. Adults grimace, recoil in shock or just scatter and lie akimbo in his wake. Ketcham describes Dennis as innocent. But the power of this strip is the way Ketcham embodies that innocence visually. Dennis is pure innocent determination embodied in physics. Either his low center of gravity keeps him steadfast in his attitude or momentum expresses the conviction of his chase or escape.

In earlier stints at the Lantz and Disney animation studios, Ketcham absorbed his strong sense of animated motion and rich characterization. But he also found at Disney and his work on many Donald Duck shorts the visual model for Dennis himself. With his butt sticking out, legs angled back to balance a cantilevered belly out front, Ketcham describes Dennis in one of his model sheets as “not unlike D. Duck.”  

Nudism is one of Dennis’s favored modes of expression…and Kaetcham’s. He flees his dreaded bath by careening bare-assed and in flight into the neighborhood. He is not just unselfconscious but truly free. When he stands principled against clothing, butt to the viewer, the open arms and declarative mouth dramatize obliviousness, not shame. The otherwise buttoned down Ketcham somehow finds in nude Dennis a way to celebrate visually a sense of liberation in nakedness that in an unlikely way anticipates counter-cultural ideas a decade in advance.

Which is to say that Dennis the Menace exemplifies what makes the comic strip medium distinct. In its best hands, cartooning is not just an illustrated or dramatized punch line. The artwork embodies and deepens the meaning of the idea.

Dennis the Menace on Silly Ol’ Girls

Hank Ketcham says he always found it odd that he spent his life in service to a five year old. But of course Dennis the Menace was never for kids, really. At his best, Ketcham used Dennis as a device for poking gently – ever so gently- at the straitjacket of post-WWII suburban repression and painful social self-consciousness. And Ketcham himself was as straight laced, conventional and revenant as we imagine the Mitchells and their world to be. How else could such a pint-sized hellion find so many lines of propriety to transgress so habitually?

Ketcham’s breathtaking tone deafness to the songs of change singing around him in the 60s especially would surface in a famous episode we will save for another post. But for now let’s enjoy Ketcham at his cleverest, usually in the 1950s, using Dennis as a wry observer of pre-feminist gender typing.

The Unsung Black Heroes

Newspapers by and for predominantly Black audiences were a thriving part of the American press throughout much of the 20th Century in most major cities, even if they have been woefully invisible to most media history. More obscure have been the comic strips and their artists that appeared in many of these major newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Atlanta World and Pittsburgh Courier. The dearth of surviving hard copies and poor microfiche renderings have complicated attempts to retrieve that history to publish much-overdue reprints of some of this work. The 1993 Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington is among the only extended reprints of a single Black artist I have found. Recently, however, a few industrious comics historians started filling in this blind spot. Ken Quattro’s indispensible Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books was among my favorites of last year (reviewed here). Also full of great reprinted work is Dan Nadel’s It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980. And Rebecca Wanzo’s more scholarly The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging has a unique take on how many Black cartoonists navigated the shoals of stereotype.

Earlier this year a small treasure fell into my lap courtesy of Library of American Comics head Dean Mullaney. During an email exchange about the possibility of reprinting Black cartoonists he sent me this pristine rendering of a rare surviving 8-page color comics section syndicated by the Smith-Mann company and appearing in the Pittsburgh Courier for Nov. 11, 1950. Smith-Mann distributed a full-color section to the Courier for only a few years, from August 1950 to Nov. 1955, according to Allen Holtz, who has done some legwork on Smith-Mann at his essential Stripper’s Guide. The sone of one of the syndicate’s founders has posted his own history and extensive samples of the Smith-Mann comics section at The Museum of Uncut Funk.

This Nov. 11 1950 edition Dean sent me includes espionage adventure Guy Fortune (by Edd Ashe), western The Chisholm Kid (by Carl Pfeufer), gag strips Sunny Boy Sam (by Wilbert Holloway) and Woody Woodenhead (by Edo Anderson), sports adventure Don Powers (by Sam Milai), romance strip Torchy Brown Heartbeats (by Jackie Ormes), adventure Mark Hunt (also by Ashe), sci-fi adventure Neil Knight of the Air (credited only to “‘Carl and Mac”), and animal adventure Lohar (by Bill Brady). The full 8-page section is below. In the coming weeks I will tease out a few of these strips and artists for more detail.

Death Becomes You: Tracy Villains Meet Their Fitting End

Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.

The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,

Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939

Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.

B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942

More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.

Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944

In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.

The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944

Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.

Gargles Eats Glass – 1946

Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.

Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947

Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.

T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950

Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.

Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953

Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.

Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956

Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.