Hank Ketcham and his collaborators have kept 50-year-old Dennis the Menace as rambunctious as ever

Thursday, June 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Hank Ketcham has had 50 years, but all he's ever needed is 10 seconds.

The creator of Dennis the Menace knows that the purpose of his single-panel cartoon, which is in its 50th year, is to provide quick-hit entertainment that no one is likely to linger over.

His objective is for the reader to be able to "look at it and get out in 10 seconds and not be confused . . . [so he has to] keep it focused."

Unlike the ever-precocious, 5 1/2-year-old subject of his cartoon, Mr. Ketcham has been able to maintain his focus on a character whose popularity has spread to books, TV (human and animated) and films. But like most kids, a lot of things grab Mr. Ketcham's attention.

Several years ago, he decided to follow more of those urges, most of them having to do with his true love, painting. He turned over the artistic and production duties of Dennis to other cartoonists (like many colleagues, he has long used writers for the feature) so he could spend more time with his brushes and easels at his home in Pebble Beach, Calif.

The June issue of Art & Antiques magazine features his work, which includes a series of portraits he did as a tribute to the legends of cartooning.

"He's a very creative person who wants to be doing something constantly," says Marcus Hamilton, 57, who draws the daily Dennis cartoons.

"These guys are turning out the stuff while I'm sleeping," says Mr. Ketcham, who turned 80 in March.

It's not unusual for a widely syndicated cartoonist - Dennis the Menace appears in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide - to have other people write the gags and/or draw the panels. What's unusual about Dennis is that the contributions of Mr. Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand, who draws the Sunday strips, are openly acknowledged. Their names do not appear on the cartoon, but Mr. Ketcham confirms their roles in what he calls "the assembly-line process" of producing Dennis the Menace.

Mr. Ketcham "retired," more or less, from doing Dennis five years ago, but he still presides over that assembly line - at both ends and at various points in between. Mr. Ketcham communicates by fax and phone with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Ferdinand, both of whom live on the other side of the country from him. And they both describe him as a taskmaster.

On this point, at least, Mr. Ketcham agrees with them.

"As long as my name is on it, my footprint is on it," he says. "I give 'em a tough time."

"He's a perfectionist and he doesn't let anything go if it isn't right," says Mr. Hamilton.

Even though he's been drawing the Sunday Dennis strips since 1983, Mr. Ferdinand, 48, says he is still subject to Monday-morning quarterbacking from the boss. He'll sometimes get faxes of published Sunday strips from Mr. Ketcham, marked up with such comments as, "Why did you do this?"

"Deadlines are the last thing on his mind," Mr. Ferdinand says. "He's from the Walt Disney school; he doesn't care how long it takes" as long as it's right.

The Disney reference is no surprise. Before World War II, Mr. Ketcham worked on Pinocchio, Fantasia and other Disney productions (he also worked for Walter Lantz in the pre-Woody Woodpecker days). The Seattle native spent the war as chief photography specialist with the Navy, working in Washington, D.C., on various print and animated projects to promote the sale of war bonds.

During this time, he started selling cartoons to magazines, a free-lance pursuit at which he became quite successful after the war. In 1950, he created a whirling dervish of a tyke and named him after his son Dennis, whose mother had once described him as a "menace" after a particularly trying day.

For five decades, Dennis has been running his parents ragged (Alice and Henry, named for Mr. Ketcham's mother and father) and serving as a constant source of consternation for his prissy nemesis, Margaret, and Mr. Wilson, the grumpy next-door neighbor (Dennis' "surrogate grandfather," Mr. Ketcham says). Yet he is the idol of his dog, Ruff, and his best friend, Joey. And Dennis probably has a crush on his adventurous friend Gina.

The uneasy subplot underlying the success of Dennis the Menace is Mr. Ketcham's long-strained relationship with the son after whom he named it. The real Dennis is in his mid-50s and lives in Ohio. He attended boarding schools; his mother died when he was barely in his teens. He served with the Marines in Vietnam and, according to scattered media reports, has had a less-than-stable career. (He couldn't be reached for this story.)

In a phone interview, a bit of Hank Ketcham's crust flakes off when he talks about his son: "He and I were not going in the same direction," the cartoonist says. "That happens."

At about the time his first wife died, Mr. Ketcham moved to Switzerland, where he lived for 18 years, doing Dennis the Menace all the while. He started a new family before returning to the United States in 1977.

'Toon training

A few years later, Ron Ferdinand read an interview in the trade publication Cartoonist Profiles in which Mr. Ketcham said he was starting a "training program" to hire cartoonists for assorted Dennis projects. Mr. Ferdinand submitted his work, and Mr. Ketcham brought him to California from New York for a tryout.

When he arrived, Mr. Ferdinand found that Mr. Ketcham had already hired two other men to produce a Dennis comic book, part of a one-year, 12-issue contract with Marvel Comics. But the other hirelings didn't stay on; they couldn't keep up the pace.

The training was "excruciating," Mr. Ferdinand says. Mr. Ketcham "hired me out of necessity. . . . He saw he could probably mold me."

Marcus Hamilton's first contact with Mr. Ketcham also resulted from an interview with the cartoonist, this time on TV's The 700 Club. He said he would be interested in retiring, but would first need to find someone to take over Dennis. Through a cartoonist friend, Mr. Hamilton got Mr. Ketcham's phone number and called him to make a pitch to draw Dennis.

As he did with Mr. Ferdinand, Mr. Ketcham brought Mr. Hamilton to California for what the latter describes as "strenuous" training. Mr. Ketcham told him he could continue his work as a free-lance illustrator for magazines. What Mr. Ketcham didn't realize was that the advent of computer graphics had left Mr. Hamilton behind, and his magazine work had evaporated. He was working at Wal-Mart for $5.50 an hour.

"Hank thought I had a lucrative career," says Mr. Hamilton, who admits he was "putting all my eggs in the Dennis basket." Those eggs have been hatching since 1993, when he started drawing the daily Dennis. (Panels drawn by Mr. Ketcham appear occasionally; they're recognizable by his trademark "notch" in the upper right corner of the cartoon's border.)

When Mr. Ferdinand began working on Dennis, fax machines were not commonplace, necessitating the move to California to work with Mr. Ketcham. But now that sketches and finished drawings can be transmitted electronically, he has since moved back to New York state; Mr. Hamilton has stayed in Charlotte, N.C.

Lest anyone think Mr. Ketcham plays the role of Scrooge to his twin Cratchits, be advised that he recently sent them and their wives to Hawaii as a sort of "research" trip - to gather ideas in preparation for sending Dennis and his family there in the cartoon. He did the same thing with an artist and writer who worked on a Dennis comic book in the late 1950s.

Mr. Ferdinand and Mr. Hamilton have long since come to terms with having to put Mr. Ketcham's name, instead of their own, on their work. But at least their presence is known: They get their own fan mail and Dennis' artwork is regularly praised, "so we must be doing something right," Mr. Ferdinand says.

"I'd rather honor his legacy," Mr. Hamilton says. "My goal is never to disappoint Hank. I'm his student and, as long as he's willing to teach me, I'm willing to listen."

"It's his baby," Mr. Ferdinand says of Mr. Ketcham's creation. "I'm glad to be the Ed McMahon of Dennis the Menace."

Mr. Ketcham's relationship with his collaborators has worked well, but such success would be tough to duplicate nowadays. "I can't recommend [cartooning] to any young artist with talent," he says.

Brushes with greatness

He would rather spend his days painting.

His portraits of cartoonists from the past include Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), George McManus (Bringing Up Father, a.k.a. Maggie and Jiggs), Chic Young (Blondie), Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Max Fleischer (Betty Boop) and several others.

Mr. Ketcham felt compelled to honor his predecessors. "There is a historical gap in the craft to be filled." The project was his own undertaking, rather than by commission. "Who the hell would commission that?"

Given the enduring popularity of Dennis the Menace, will there someday be such a portrait of Hank Ketcham?

He answers the question succinctly: "I don't give a rip."