Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Volume six of Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace features every single-panel cartoon written and drawn by Hank Ketcham from 1 January 1961 to 31 December 1962, in a thick, square hardcover book 656 pages long, with a very useful ribbon bookmark bound in. There’s an unfortunate typo on the spine of this edition which numbers it as 1959–1960, the same as the previous volume, but the text inside is correct. Despite that slip, the overall design and production of this series is gorgeous, from the use of different colour combinations to differentiate each volume, the illustrated endpapers and the dividers that present each month’s strips, the images on the covers beneath the dust jackets, even to the perfectly judged page numbers. All the details add up to make these books a real pleasure to look at.
The eleventh and twelfth years of Ketcham’s internationally popular newspaper strip continue the mix of strongly graphic and dynamic cartooning with jokes about the irrepressible child whose hyperactive behaviour is embarrassing and exhausting for his parents, neighbours and others. “How firm can I get without actually belting him one?” asks the teenage babysitter to a tuxedoed Henry and fur-coated Alice Mitchell as they prepare to leave the house for an evening out. Dennis is in the foreground leaping off the furniture. Not the kind of gag that would ever run in a newspaper today, but it’s not a typical panel. There are very few corporal punishment jokes in these books. It’s the single biggest contrast between Ketcham’s syrupy worldview versus the edgier universe of the UK’s version: the Beano’s Dennis The Menace ended many strips with a beating from his exasperated dad. Even when he didn’t, lots of plots involved escaping The Slipper. The UK’s Dennis is almost twice the age of Ketcham’s Dennis, so the difference in ages is a big factor. But unlike him Dennis Mitchell is only accidentally a menace; he’s oblivious to the true effect he has on those around him, as in a panel from October 1962 where he strolls in the front door from his day at school and tells his mother proudly: “My kiddiegarter teacher has to take little white pills just because of ME!”
The years from 1960 to 1970 are the peak for Ketcham’s strip both in stylistic terms and for story–for one thing, tiny children freely wandering the city by themselves interacting on equal terms with sailors, policemen and construction workers are firmly in the realm of fiction now–and this is a rich collection of beautifully executed comics. It’s also the last to be published by Fantagraphics so far: there hasn’t been another book since volume six in 2010. If or when the series resumes publication, the next three or four volumes will be essential purchases for readers who enjoyed this one. Ketcham produced Dennis The Menace for 42 years, from 1951 until he retired in 1994. When he put down his pen, he handed the daily panel over to his assistants and new Dennis cartoons continue to be published in daily newspapers.
This sixth volume is also available slipcased with volume five, Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace 1959-1960 in a boxed set.