Hank Ketcham, who created a classic piece of Americana in "Dennis the Menace," the comfortingly lighthearted comic strip about a rascally, forever-5-year-old boy, died of heart disease and cancer Friday at his home in Pebble Beach, Calif. He was 81.
The strip, which turned 50 this year, spawned books, animated cartoons, a television series and two movies. It still appears in more than 1,000 newspapers in the United States and 47 other countries.
Ketcham, who originally found his inspiration for the strip in the antics of his own 4-year-old son named Dennis, drew "Dennis the Menace" until 1994, when he turned its production over to two artists who will continue to turn out new installments. Unlike Charles Schulz, who drew "Peanuts" himself and decreed that original drawings would end with his death, which came last year, Ketcham agreed to keep "Dennis" going.
Fellow cartoonists hailed Ketcham's genius at depicting a slice of American life that has resonated with readers for five decades.
"Dennis," said Mell Lazarus, the creator of the "Momma" strip, "was a brilliant combination of rottenness and charm in one little creature. Hank just nailed him. It just worked, for 50 years. It is in the same position as it was in its heyday. That's quite remarkable."
Others paid tribute to Ketcham's artistry, recalling his dedication to detail, perspective and composition.
"Everybody envied his ability to draw," said Mort Walker, who originated the "Beetle Bailey" strip. "In the humor field, he was the best artist among us all."
Dennis the comic creation is a somewhat pudgy, often dirt-smudged half-pint with a cowlick and freckles who hates carrots but loves peanut butter and ketchup. Aggressively curious, he was, Ketcham once said, a boy who was "too old for the playpen . . . too young for jail."
His world is reassuringly small and suburban, a place of front porches, white picket fences and backyards with dogs and birdbaths. His parents are the Mitchells, Alice and Henry. Next door are the older, childless Wilsons, George and Martha. Rounding out the cast are his playmates--Joey, almost like a younger brother to Dennis; bossy Margaret, his nemesis; and pretty Gina, a potential love interest--and his dog, Ruff.
A first-class mischief-maker, Dennis is always breaking the Wilsons' window with a misplaced baseball, or unleashing spiders around the girls. But crises are always happily resolved.
"It's really Hank Ketcham's fantasy or vision of the ideal childhood," said Brian Walker, Mort's son, who helps produce "Beetle Bailey" and as a cartoon historian curated a retrospective of "Dennis" art now on display at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla.
"There is something very American about it. Maybe that is the secret to it," he said. "In a perfect world we would all ride a bicycle through the neighborhood, climb through the neighbor's window, get sat in the corner for doing something naughty. Then the sun goes down and life goes on."
Ketcham began to draw as a child growing up in Seattle. A seminal moment occurred when he was about 6 and watched an artist friend of his father quickly scribble some of his favorite cartoon characters--Barney Google, Moon Mullins and Andy Gump.
"I couldn't wait to borrow his 'magic pencil' and try my own hand at drawing the comic strip characters," Ketcham recalled in his 1990 autobiography, "The Merchant of Dennis the Menace."
He began to trace every single comic in the Seattle papers and proudly demonstrated his talent for his second-grade classmates. Too skinny to be an athlete and "too dense," by his own description, to be an intellectual, he found humor to be the way to get along in school.
He spent only one year at the University of Washington, where he majored in art and minored in drama. After seeing Walt Disney's "The Three Little Pigs" cartoon, he promptly lost his interest in higher education. He hitchhiked to Hollywood with dreams of working for Disney.
His first job, however, was in an ad agency, for $12 a week. His next job moved him closer to his dream, working with the legendary animator Walter Lantz at Universal.
Finally, he was hired at Disney, where he assisted on "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" and on "Donald Duck" short features.
When the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted in the Navy but managed to continue his animation work while assigned to the office of the secretary of the Navy. There he also drew and wrote promotional materials used to sell war bonds.
In 1943 he created "Half-Hitch," a comic about the adventures of a diminutive sailor that became a regular feature in the Saturday Evening Post and boosted Ketcham into the ranks of big-time cartoonists.
By that time he had married his first wife, Alice, who was an admiral's secretary. Their son, Dennis, was born two years after their marriage, in 1946.
The comic-strip Dennis was conceived four years later.
On an October afternoon in 1950, Ketcham was finishing a drawing at his home studio in Carmel. The Ketchams' son was supposed to be resting but instead had spent his nap time quietly dismantling his room--the bed, mattress, springs, dresser, drapes and curtain rods.
"When the accidental load he carried in his underpants was added to his collection of plastic toys, cookie crumbs and a leftover peanut butter sandwich, it formed an unusual mix," Ketcham wrote in his autobiography. "Enough to drive an Irish mother to the brink." Alice Ketcham stormed into his studio, fuming. " Your son," she declared, "is a menace!"
Ketcham responded by pulling out a shoebox where he stored his gags. He culled out the "kid ideas" and feverishly began to sketch. He airmailed the drawings to his agent, who 10 days later wired him with good news: Send more drawings, a syndicate is interested.
The first "Dennis" comic made its debut in 15 newspapers a few days before Ketcham's 31st birthday, on March 12, 1951. Within a few years it had spread to 193 papers in the U.S. and 52 others abroad. There were Dennis dolls, aprons, cookie jars, clothes. It even inspired a record by Rosemary Clooney and was used by psychologists at Columbia University's Teachers College in lessons on how to use humor to handle children.
Mail poured in by the bushel from readers who told him he must have been spying through their windows. "Our little boy," went a typical letter, "does just the same things Dennis does."
Ketcham's family life during his first marriage lacked the happy endings of his strips. He separated from Dennis' mother, who died soon after in 1959 from a drug overdose. Ketcham took his then-12-year-old son to live in Switzerland, but the boy did poorly there and was sent to boarding school in Connecticut. Ketcham remarried and remained in Europe.
Dennis Ketcham served a tour of duty in Vietnam as a Marine, but returned suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and drifted from job to job. As an adult, he had little contact with his father and once blamed the failure of their relationship on how much cartooning occupied his time.
Hank Ketcham, who once described himself as "more like Mr. Wilson," the grumpy neighbor, "than Mr. Mitchell," told the Associated Press earlier this year that his relationship with his oldest son was "just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families."
Ketcham later divorced and married a third time. In addition to Dennis, he is survived by his third wife, Rolande, and two other children, Scott and Dania.
Ketcham returned to California in 1977, in part because he was losing touch with American culture after nearly two decades abroad.
He was known for painstaking attention to detail. "He was absolutely meticulous," said Lazarus. "When he drew a toaster, that toaster worked. Everything--a tool, a toy, a truck, all the stuff most cartoonists throw away, the window trimming after a character is drawn, Hank took great pains with. It added immeasurably to the charm of the drawing."
Said Bil Keane, who created the "Family Circus" strip: "I fully believe [Ketcham] was one of the best pen-and-ink artists in the nation."
"Dennis" made Ketcham a millionaire many times over.
He lived in Pebble Beach, where he indulged his passion for golf on that community's fabled courses.
The comic strip that made him famous changed hardly at all over the years. That, he acknowledged, was "my world. It reflects how I was brought up and I want to perpetuate that because I believe in it."