Hank Ketcham, Creator of Dennis the Menace

5 September 2003

    Innocence and charisma are still in style. The simple, chuckle-making humour through the eyes of a five-and-a-half-year-old child has captivated comics readers for over half a century. Dennis the Menace was created by Hank Ketcham in 1950, using a child’s naive view of the world to discover fun buried in the commonplace stuff of life.

    The Dennis the Menace panel was named after the real Dennis, the son of Hank and Alice Ketcham. Apparently, there was an incident concerning the four-year-old’s naptime and the chaos he wrought in his bedroom rather than snoozing. His provoked mother stormed into Hank’s studio exclaiming, “Your son is a menace!” The cartoonist made the immediate connection, coming up with a panel about a rambunctious, loveable boy, full of joyful mischief. After only five months after creation, the strip debuted on March 12, 1951 in 16 newspapers under the Post-Hall Syndicate, to the immediate approval of post-war baby-booming families. *(1) Dennis the Menace began appearing on Sundays in 1952. Such acclaim took the comic panel to an amazing 246 newspapers world-wide by 1953 - only two years into syndication.

    Born in Seattle, Washington on March 14, 1920 to Weaver Vinson Ketcham and the former Virginia Emma King, Henry King Ketcham was the son and grandson of U.S. Naval officers. He was always fascinated with cartooning and knew by age six that he wanted a cartooning career. The inspiration began when a friend of his father came to visit. The fellow was an artist in advertising who sketched characters Moon Mullins and Barney Google for the young Ketcham. *(2)

    Briefly attending the University of Washington in 1938, Hank dropped out in the first year and began working for Walter Lantz (the Woody Woodpecker creator) and later, for Disney, at the rate of $25 a week. He used his artistic talents to help produce classic animation films such as "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia," both in 1940 and "Bambi," in 1942. Afterwards, Hank joined the war effort, serving in the Navy in WWII. His skills were put to use drawing cartoons for War Bonds, military posters and training aids.

    Hank took up freelance cartooning from his home in Connecticut, with his art appearing in various magazines including the treasured New York Times. He created “Half Hitch,” a comic based on an unlucky sailor’s stint in the navy. It appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the mid-1940s. (The comic appeared again in newspapers from 1970 to 1975 under King Features Syndicate. “Half Hitch” eventually disappeared from print – though popular with seamen, it did not catch on with civilian readers.)

    The young Ketchams moved from Connecticut to Carmel, California in 1948. Dennis was born in 1946, but not into a pleasant, happy home. His mother was an alcoholic and his father was inattentive with his busy work schedule. Dennis was plagued with learning disabilities and bustled off to boarding school in 1959. In the same year, Alice filed for divorce, but died of an accidental drug overdose short months later. She was 41. *(3) Hank remarried and moved to Switzerland. Dennis was sent to a boarding school in Geneva, but had various troubles. He was sent to another boarding school back in Connecticut. His father remained in Switzerland with his second wife for 18 years, then returned to Carmel, California.

   Drawing his charming panel while out of the United States, Hank used “a great memory and a Sears Roebuck catalogue” to keep himself in touch. *(2) Though he was the motivation for the delightful, popular comic, sadly Dennis and his father had little contact (almost to the point of abandonment) and never became close. On divorce from the second Mrs. Ketcham, Hank married his third wife, Rolande Praepost, in 1977. He became father to two more children, Scott and Dania.

Denis the Menace

    The prolific cartoonist ultimately tired of the decades of grinding schedules and routine, even with the use of assistants and writers. He began the task of finding permanent replacement cartoonists to take over Dennis the Menace. By 1994, the pen had been handed over to two talented artists, Marcus Hamilton (dailies) and Reginald Ferdinand (Sundays). Hank oversaw their work and gave approvals, but did little cartooning himself, preferring to spend his time on fine art and his favourite game: golf.

    Through Dennis the Menace, Hank earned several prestigious awards for his extraordinary work. In 1952, Hank received the “Billy DeBeck Award” for Cartoonist of the Year, (the precursor to the National Cartoonists Society’s “Reuben”). Hank was given the Boys Clubs of America certificate for Best Magazine Comic in 1956. Also through the NCS, he was awarded the “Silver T-Square” in 1978 for his numerous contributions to the art of cartooning. He received the “Inkpot Award” for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year from the San Diego Comic Convention in 1982.

    Hank Ketcham died peacefully in his sleep on June 1, 2001, at the age of 81 of heart disease and cancer. His beloved Dennis the Menace character lives on forever as a sassy five-and-a-half-year-old in books, merchandise galore, television shows and movies, and in the Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey, California, complete with a Dennis statue and a nearly-life-size locomotive for kids of all ages to have fun on. Through the continuing efforts of cartoonists Marcus and Reginald, and the King Features Syndicate, the Dennis the Menace panel now appears in 1,200 newspapers in 48 countries and in 19 languages around the world to millions of adoring fans.

    Speaking about his famous mischievous young character in his 1990 autobiography, “The Merchant of Dennis the Menace,” (Abbeville Press, Inc., 1990) Hank Ketcham said, “But what a dull world it would be without any Dennises in it! Peaceful, maybe—but dull.” And Dennis hasn’t aged a day, keeping all those fans smiling with his eternally popular impish antics.

The daily Dennis the Menace page at King Features:

Read biographies about Hank Ketcham:
*(1) http://www.toonopedia.com/dennis.htm
*(2) http://www.askart.com/Biography.asp

A glimpse into the life of the real Dennis:
*(3) http://www.coolquiz.com/trivia/names/names.asp?name=ketcham

© Susanna McLeod 2003
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on suite101.com.)