Hank Ketcham’s Dennis The Menace Volume 1: The Cult-Classic Comicbooks by Al Wiseman & Fred Toole
Review by KC Carlson
Dennis the Menace, the classic American comics panel by Hank Ketcham, debuted in 1951, introducing tiny terror Dennis Mitchell (based on Ketcham’s own four-year-old son) and his family: father Henry (sometimes “Hank” — who remarkably resembled creator Hank Ketcham), mother Alice, and oversized mutt Ruff. Before long, there was also a whole neighborhood of kids, frightened-for-their-life babysitters, and exasperated neighbors (mostly just George (“Mr.”) Wilson… his wife Martha quite liked Dennis and constantly provided freshly-baked cookies). The “strip” still runs today, still as a single panel Monday through Saturday, and on Sunday as a full-fledged comic strip. Ketcham is no longer involved; he retired from the strip in 1994 and passed away in 2001. Ketcham’s former assistants, Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand, have produced the strip since 1994.
The strip was so popular it spun off several television shows and feature movies beginning in 1959, both live-action and animated. Dennis was also featured in advertising at various times for the Sears Roebuck Wish Book Christmas catalog, A&W Restaurants, and Dairy Queen.
Probably the most beloved Dennis the Menace spin-off, at least for a couple of generations of fans, were his appearances in his own comic book series. Dennis the Menace comic books first appeared in 1953, published by Standard comics, and subsequently under different publishers (including Pines and Hallden/Fawcett) until 1980. Several hundred Dennis comic books and specials were published during this time. (And were so popular that many of the Giants were frequently reprinted.) Dennis the Menace was later briefly revived (by Marvel Comics of all people) in 1981-82. Marvel published thirteen 32-page standard comic format issues with new material and three digests of reprints during this era.
Papercutz’ new book collection Hank Ketcham’s Dennis The Menace Volume 1: The Cult-Classic Comicbooks by Al Wiseman & Fred Toole draws from the earliest 1950s issues (90% of of the stories in this volume are from the 1950s), including stories from the first three issues of the series.
In case you’re not familiar with Dennis the Menace, you might guess from that title that the kid was and is an absolute terror. And you’d be correct — until you read deeper. Dennis was mostly a wound-up rambunctious five-year old with no “off” switch, and a highly imaginative one, considering some of his “capers”. One of the best involved Dennis and friends “borrowing” some metal ductwork from some unsuspecting handy men, creating an imaginative and elaborate chute/ride incorporating trees, ladders, wagons, and gravity that looks to be more exciting than most roller coasters. Despite this mischievousness, somehow Dennis also manages to save his father $450 dollars (in 1959 dollars!) on duct work that they didn’t actually need! It’s a much-remembered 12-page story called “The Heat’s On Off On Off On Off…” included in this book.
This book is full of stories (and memories) like this. Despite the fact that these stories are now five or six decades old, I remember reading many of them when I was a child. Imagine the power that these stories have, that they still induce such strong and emotional memories even a lifetime later. Some of these stories are actually older than I am, but frequent reprintings of the best ones in the 1960s and 70s helped to lock down those memories.
And although artist Al Weisman and writer Fred Toole are not always spoken of in the same reverence as other creators who worked in this genre of comics — like Carl Barks or John Stanley/Irving Tripp or Bob Bolling or Walt Kelly or Sheldon Mayer — maybe they should be. Folks like Fred Hembeck and Bill Wray (who both wrote fascinating text pieces about the characters and the creators for this volume) certainly think so. Jim Wiseman (son of artist Al) also provides many memories of growing up with Dennis.
The best news I’ve heard lately is that Papercutz has scheduled a Dennis the Menace Volume Two for release next summer, with that volume devoted to the art of Owen Fitzgerald, the other classic Dennis comic book artist! I hope that this new book series finds enough success that we’ll eventually see complete reprints of the classic giant-size Dennis the Menace comics, many of which revolved around specific themes. My favorites were the amazingly clever Vacation Specials where The Mitchell family would hit the road and travel to many wonderful destinations, including Washington, DC, Mexico, Hollywood, California, and even to Camp (guest starring Mark Trail, of course). The Mitchells’ visit to Hawaii was especially meaningful to me as a child, with the scene of the family visiting Pearl Harbor being much more memorable and powerful to me than any documentary or textbook depiction of those events.
This is a really FUN book. Don’t miss it!
(The publisher provided a review copy. Thanks, Sven!)