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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August 2, 2017: Troubled Children: Dennis the Menace

[August 4th marks the 125th anniversary of the day that Lizzie Borden may or may not have taken an axe and given her mother forty whacks and her father forty-one (more on that crucial ambiguity in Friday’s post). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories or stories of deeply troubled children, leading up to a special weekend post on two children who are anything but!]
On three telling aspects of a longstanding, troublemaking presence on the funny pages.
1)      Autobiographical origins: Cartoonist Hank Ketcham’s four year old son Dennis was such a youthful troublemaker that Hank’s wife Alice was known to exclaim, “Your son is a menace!” Shortly thereafter, on March 12th, 1951, Hank debuted a comic strip entitled Dennis the Menace, featuring the Mitchell family: father Henry/Hank, mother Alice, and son Dennis. I don’t mean to suggest that every comic strip is based on the life and identity of the cartoonist, necessarily—but I’m willing to bet that quite often, even when he or she changes certain elements, there’s at least an autobiographical core (ie, Dik Browne didn’t live in Viking times, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t a good deal of Hagar the Horrible in Dik nonetheless). In any case, Dennis’s mischievous exploits are portrayed with such precision and begrudging love that it’s no surprise to learn that there was a real-life kid behind the freckles and overalls.
2)      Multicultural misstep: Every comic strip that’s around for decades must evolve over that time (although they don’t always—I’m looking at you, Garfield), and not all of those changes are going to work out, particularly when they engage with complex cultural issues in periods of social shifts. In the late 1960s, Ketham introduced Jackson, an African-American neighbor of Dennis’ drawn very overtly in the stereotypical (and by this time quite outdated) “pickaninny” style. I’m not sure I can any more concisely sum up the problems with this character, both in image and in how Ketcham used him for humor, than does this May, 1970 strip. There’s not really ever a good time to introduce such a racist character, but the late 1960s was a particularly bad time, and as might be expected protests erupted at newspaper offices in Detroit, Little Rock, and St. Louis, among others. Ketcham agreed to shelve Jackson, although the quotes of his in that last hyperlinked story indicate that he never quite understood why such a racist depiction wouldn’t be the best way to add a new culture into his strip’s world.
3)      Still serialized: Ketcham retired in 1994 and passed away in 2001, but Dennis continues to this day: drawn by his former assistants Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand, and serialized in at least 1000 newspapers in nearly 50 countries. That the strip is still going strong 66 years after its debut certainly reflects the universal appeal of a mischievous but lovable young boy and of family and neighborhood life. But at the same time, I would argue that the longstanding presence of so many decades-old strips—my hometown paper, the Charlottesville (VA) Daily Progress, features a significant percentage of the same strips I grew up reading a few decades ago—reflects a genre that is somewhat slower to adapt than the culture and society around it. Am I suggesting that Dennis, Hagar, Dagwood and Blondie, Garfield, and their venerable peers aren’t always the most engaged with life in 2017 America? Yes, yes I am—and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing (timelessness isn’t necessarily less desirable than timeliness), it needs at least to be balanced by newer and more 21st century strips.
Next problem child(ren) tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?

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