Thursday, September 15, 2005


When I read that Fantagraphics, as a followup to its Complete Peanuts series, would be releasing the Complete Dennis the Menace, I was skeptical (and I doubt I was the only one). I could readily believe that in Ketcham’s prime the strip had been superior to what currently appears in papers, but still I rarely if ever saw Ketcham’s name on lists of great cartoonists. Nor did the strip have any nostalgaic aura for me: if I’d been exposed to it as a child (and I’m pretty sure that whatever acquaintance with the characters I had derived from the comic book, not the strip), it had left only the vaguest residue in my adult mind. So when I picked up a copy of the first volume of Fantagraphics' series and flipped through it in a comics store, it was out of sheer idle curiosity.

But what I saw was a complete surprise. This Dennis was no lovable scamp, but a genuine menace, almost an anarchist. He took no guff from adults: in the May 16, 1951 cartoon, Dennis’s father is kneeling on the floor, wearing boxing gloves, and saying "Come on back, you little cry baby! You’ve got to learn to take it!" while Dennis is creeping up behind him with a baseball bat. The cartoon that decided me to buy the book was the June 7, 1951 one: Dennis is in the nursery school sandbox, explaining to another boy: "You fill your sock with sand, like this, see? And then -- WHAM!" And Ketcham’s art was sharp, too. So I decided to splurge a little, and bought the book.

Unfortunately, as I read more of the book, I began to suspect that in my surprise at the early strips' unexpected bite, I'd overestimated the book as much as I’d previously underestimated it. For one thing, in the later strips Dennis loses his maliciousness. And along with it, he loses much of his personality, becoming a generic mischief-maker. Even before this, he had been a limited character. Imagine Calvin without Hobbes, Spaceman Spliff, Calvinball, his inventions or his philosophical dicta, and you can see how such a character could become monotonous, as Dennis does. And Dennis's parents are even more generic.

In general, the humor in these strips relies not on the characters' distinctive personalities, but rather on readers recognizing their behavior as that of the "typical" suburban family. Most of the strips in the book would not suffer at all if they were redrawn to feature anonymous characters who appeared in only a single strip. This undoubtedly reflects Ketcham's background in magazine cartooning (described in the book's introduction), where every cartoon has to be self-sufficient.

Single-panel cartooning, at least as practiced by Ketcham here, is a very limited form of cartooning. With only one line of dialogue per strip, there can be no conversations (except for a few awkward strips giving one side of a phone conversation), making characterization difficult. By the same token, it makes very rigorous demands on the cartoonist, especially on a daily basis. If (s)he can't come up with a fresh gag each day, (s)he has nothing to fall back on. It’s surely no coincidence that a large proportion of single-panel strips have not been tied to regular characters, thus enabling their creators to utilize any gag that comes to mind regardless of whether it fits a preexisting cast or setting. Ketcham, who was tied to regular characters, had enough clunkers to be distracting: the series of strips about barbers, especially, falls flat (with one exception). I sometimes wonder whether any daily cartoonist is really well-served by a "complete" collection, but I suspect this is particularly true of Ketcham.

As for the art, while I have to take the stronger claims for Ketcham's genius on faith, I can tell that he’s highly skilled. He’s especially good at depicting the shocked or angry expressions on the faces of Dennis's adult victims. But for some reason, I don't particularly enjoy looking at the art in this volume. I can't fully explain why. But part of it is that his compositions tend to be busy, with little use of negative (white) space or solid blacks, and little textural differentiation between foreground and background. For me this produces an impression of monotony, though others may disagree.

While I liked Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952 a lot more than Walt and Skeezix 1921-1922, in the end I decided to exchange it. Keeping it just didn't seem likely to be the best use of the twenty-five bucks I spent for it. But I will look for subsequent volumes when they appear.

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