Birthday bumps to a lovable menace! Published in Deccan Herald on March 9th, 2024

This is where it all began. I am standing in Carmel Valley, outside the picturesque cottage in which Hank and Alice Ketchams son Dennis was supposed to be asleep but was taking his bedroom apart, making it look hurricane-stricken and causing his mother to explode, Your son is a menace!” How we have all resonated with this blonde little imp dressed in his trademark blue striped T-shirt and red dungarees, first as children and then as parents! How we have enjoyed his turning Mr Wilsons life upside down, his well-intentioned but ill-timed outspokenness, his unanswerable questions, his innovative pranks and his vulnerability!

Actually, it all began when six-year-old Hanks fathers friend drew him sketches of the cartoon characters of that time. Hank knew then, that drawing was all that he wanted to do in life. His love for drawing made him drop out of college and head to Los Angeles to draw for Walt Disney. After being rejected by Walt Disney, then being hired by Disney and later being conscripted in WW II, Hank Ketcham became a full-time freelance cartoonist working from this lovely cottage in Carmel-by-the-sea, where Alice burst into his studio shouting Your son is a menace!” Then and there he decided to create a character modelled on his son and his antics and Dennis the Menace was born - a five-ana-half” year old bundle of energy, who was too young for kindergarten and too old for the playpen.

Dennis first appeared in print on the 12th of March 1951. In a year and a half, 193 newspapers in the US and 52 outside were carrying the comic strip to 30 million readers. So that Dennis the Menace stays fresh and vibrant, Hank Ketcham hired a team of gag writers to ideate and artists to help him sketch the daily and the weekly strips. 

In 1981, he selected and trained Ron Ferdinand, a New York-based graduate of the School of Visual Arts, born in the same year as Dennis the Menace, and turned over the Sunday strip to him, retaining the daily strip with himself. In 1993, as he entered his seventies, he contemplated hiring someone to take over the daily strip from him. Marcus Hamilton, a North Carolina-based freelance cartoonist was the chosen one. Hank Ketcham trained Hamilton and handed over the daily strip to him in 1995. Ferdinand and Hamilton continue to draw the Sunday Strip and the daily strip, respectively, even today after almost three decades and are acutely conscious of the legacy they have been entrusted to carry on. In an email conversation with this writer, Ferdinand says “ Hank Ketcham was a great man and teacher. He had a wonderful sense of humour. He was very patient with us trainees. He always showed us visually what he envisioned and it was so inspirational to watch him draw.” Hamilton, who lost sight in his right eye in childhood, has a photo of Hank Ketcham on the top right-hand corner of his drawing board and believes Hank is keeping a watch on how Marcus is handling his little boy.

The real-life Dennis, sadly, has not had as happy a life as his cartoon counterpart. He was only twelve when he lost his mother to a drug overdose, diagnosed with a learning disability and shunted from one boarding school to another. Father and son drifted apart. Hank acknowledged that Dennis Ketcham had borne the brunt of the popularity of Dennis the Menace and tried to make reparations. Dennis served in the Vietnam War and lives in relative anonymity. Hank Ketcham passed away in 2001in Monterey. A committed resident of both Carmel and Monterey, he donated money to set up the Dennis the Menace Park and carried out many initiatives for artists and cartoonists. His most enduring legacy, however, remains Dennis the Menace who appears in 1000 newspapers today in over 30 languages.

Newer cartoon characters have emerged. The reading habit is becoming a casualty of video games and the internet. So, is Dennis losing a bit of his relevance? Ron Ferdinand does not think so. My daughter-in-law is a 3rd-grade teacher. Before I speak to her class she shows them all the DENNIS comic books, paperbacks, YouTube Cartoons and TV shows. By the time I come and speak the kids are very excited about DENNIS.”

Dennis has brought cheer to generations of parents who drew reassurance from his antics and made parenting less of a punishment. Overwhelmed mothers still shout Mayday”, and helpless fathers still throw up their hands, we have all sent our children to the corner at one time or the other, but we know that our children are not monsters, thank God! They are just loveable brats, like Dennis the Menace.


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