thrift store finds: dennis the menace-make believe angel

(Thrift Store Finds is a mostly-weekly “column” of sorts where I discuss some of the cool books I’ve happened upon in my neighborhood’s St. Vincent DePaul store. Please don’t mistake me for an expert on any of the things I am writing about… I’m just a fan of a bargain.)

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of my initial experiences with characters from the Sunday funnies did not, in fact, come from the funnies themselves. Rather, the great licensing and marketing juggernauts that were begat from those Sunday comic strips is where I first learned of certain characters. I think I talked about Heathcliff in this respect. I have similar experiences with Dennis the Menace.

Hank Ketchum’s daily one panel gag strip featuring the trials and tribulations of the Mitchell family, focuses primarily on the titular Dennis. When I was a kid, I did not read the Dennis the Menace comic strip, although I was familiar with the charcter. There were two Dennis the Menace TV shows running concurrently when I was growing up: a surprisingly long-running animated series from the 1980’s was on weekday morings, and reruns of the live action program from the 1960’s aired daily on Nickelodeon.

I enjoyed both these TV shows as a kid, especially the black and white sit-com starring Jay North. It doesn’t seem like the type of thing a young kid in the Eighties would dig, but I’m guessing that Nickelodeon ended up kindling a love of classic TV in a lot of kids who grew up in that time, as they padded their lineup with old black & white reruns quite frequently. I honestly can’t imagine kids today sitting for half an hour to watch an old episode of Lassie, but I watched it every morning before I went to school.

Geez, where was I? Oh yeah, Dennis the Menace!

The one thing that really bothered me about Dennis the Menace was quite simply… he wasn’t menacing. Occasionally he was Dennis the Mildly Annoying, but more often he was Dennis the Cutesy. Dennis the Adorable. Very little menace about this kid, from what I could see.

Of course, the standards for menacing change with the seasons- at the same time I was gorging on old re-runs of Dennis the Menace, the media was all abuzz about how Bart Simpson was ruining a generation children by inspiring them to be underachievers, “and proud of it!”  Nowadays, in the wake of South Park and Family Guy, that notion seems quaint. Hell, South Park did an entire episode pointing out how supremely evil and badass their Eric Cartman character is when you compare him with Bart.

Where was I, again? Oh yeah! Dennis the Menace.

My original point: Dennis the NOT Menace while being a total puss in his other-media incarnations is also a total puss in his daily newspaper comic. The Comics Curmudgeon, one of my favorite blogs on all things comics culture, points this out weekly. In its’ current version (probably drawn by the great-grand-nephew of Hank Ketchum, I’m not going to bother to check), Dennis spends most of his time lobbing gentle puns at adults who roll their eyes and look perplexed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a comic strip like that, understand. It’s just… we were promised MENACE. I was told there would be MENACE.

In the respect of all things menacing, stumbling across Dennis the Menace: Make-Believe Angel was a bit of a revelation. Imagine my surprise to find an actual menace within these pages! First published in 1961 by famed comic paperback publisher Fawcett Crest, Hank Ketcham had been doing his comic for about 10 years already when this saw bookshelves. These Dennis strips are chockablock with Dennis being a surprising butthole most of the time, with very little redeeming qualities. Every once and awhile Ketcham throws in a cloying strip, but for the most part he’s remarkably unsentimental when it comes to depicting children and families.

Think about the time that these comics were originally published and you’ll realize that it’s pretty remarkable that Ketcham was able to mine this vein of humor so successfully. In 1961, some of the more popular TV shows about families included Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and My Three Sons. Not exactly a bunch of world-class troublemakers in the bunch. Hell, even the Dennis of the 1960’s TV show wasn’t very menacing. No matter what the comic has gradually devolved into, you got to give it to Hank Ketcham in the beginning… there’s a lot of not-so tame stuff going on here. To wit:

How many newspaper comics can you think of that would show ANYBODY ogling a centerfold now?

How about dudes with guns?

Ketcham doesn’t soft pedal the fact that Dennis’ parents often don’t like their son very much either.

Anyhow, it’s a great comic. I’m already excited to find other Dennis comics from the same period.

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2 Responses to “thrift store finds: dennis the menace-make believe angel”

  1. Dom Pastore Says:

    Hi Chris…
    just to clarify…the original Dennis the Menace is an English character from the Beano comic…and he is quite menacing…much more so than the American Dennis…
    You really should check out our Dennis…especially as I can tell you enjoy the “old-school” styles of comic…it would be right up your alley…!!!

  2. i think I had this book once upon a time, too. The rosy cheeked cherub looks familiar.

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