(I have included a couple panels for the purpose of review. All credit and ownership to Fantagraphics for publishing and Hank Ketcham Enterprises, Inc.)
This amazing book from Fantagraphics collects every single panel Dennis the Menace comic strip from 1955-1956. All the holidays, all the drama, all the pain, all the struggles. Dennis bothers his parents, Mr and Mrs Wilson, babysitters, other kids, the police, and so much more. No teachers though. Which, side note, I can’t think of how old Dennis is meant to be. I would have thought school age.
I’ve read the Dennis newspaper strips and the classic comics. I’ve watched the old black and white show plus the cartoon and some of the movies along the way. All of that said, these are some of the funniest single panel gags not only from Dennis, but that I’ve ever seen.
None of this is pushing the envelope, it’s not being edgy, it’s not a “different time when you could get away with more”. Although there is a lot more pipe smoking than would be seen today. It’s just flat out funny over and over again.
Maybe it’s because I’m now a parent. Maybe because this is early in the run and really really good. I enjoyed Dennis’s mischief as a kid but now I see so much more in the strip. I see the innocent joy and trouble of a child. He doesn’t mean malice. There’s no evil intent. He’s just pure id going with the flow and having fun, and oftentimes that fun has consequences for the adults.
I can see myself now in Dennis’s parents. Parents who love their child even when he’s a monster. Parents who still love each other but will never ever have another child because what if that kid is just like this one. Parents who need time to be by themselves, to remember who they were when not an extension of a child, so he is your child for the next hour and then the door closes. The best comic strips, the best stories really, are ones that resonate with everyone and these Dennis strips are relatable to every kid and every parent.
In addition to the pipe smoking there are some other things that wouldn’t be seen on a comic strip page today. The Mitchells are worried they heard a burglar and dad grabs a gun. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s a funny comic. But that’s the problem, it’s a comic. While comic books have spent the last 40 years waving the “we’re not just for kids anymore” (sometimes waving that too much and too hard) the newspaper comic strip is perceived as for kids. Editors receive letters anytime there’s a serious topic. Many people just see the page as the inspiration for a million Snoopy and Garfield stuffed animals. Damn shame because the older strips were for everyone and there are modern strips that take risks but they don’t get the same subscription numbers that yet another pet strip will.
What really surprised me and made me laugh was the little bit of sex that snuck in. Sailors whistling and Dennis’s mom. That same mom giving her husband dirty looks when she knows he’s sneaking a look at another woman. Nothing impure or immoral, just recognition that people look good and that can lead to funny moments in our lives.
This is only one volume, and there are many in this series, but in one book I now see Hank Ketcham as an unsung talent for comics and comedy. He packs so much humor, emotion, and character into a single panel. This book contains two years of days, minus Sundays, and I may have laughed out loud hundreds of times. If you remember enjoying any version of Dennis as a child, or if you want to introduce your own child to timeless humor, grab one of these collections.