The hero of Dennis The Menace hasn't been an actual menace for decades, so it's pretty alarming to look back at the first year of Hank Ketcham's one-panel daily cartoon and find him saying, "Here's the church and here's the steeple, close the doors and squash the people!" When Ketcham started Dennis The Menace in 1951, newspaper comics were already converting from adventure strips to sitcoms, but though strips like Peanuts and Little Lulu featured mischievous and precocious children, none were as anarchic as Dennis. In those early panels, Ketcham's kid swears and steals, and even his father drinks, hits, and leers at other women. Dennis The Menace had more in common with Woody Woodpecker than Charlie Brown.
The two years' worth of cartoons in Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis The Menace 1951-1952 pick up from where Ketcham left off as a magazine gag cartoonist and commercial illustrator in the late '40s. Some of the earliest panels have a New Yorker-ish vibe, with Dennis commenting wryly on post-war suburban values. (Dennis on a classmate: "Notice how he shows all his teeth when he smiles? He learned that on television.") By the end of the book, Dennis has become more of a straight-up brat, and Ketcham has stumbled across some of his reliable conceits: Dennis playing cowboy, Dennis tormenting babysitters, Dennis telling dinner guests what his parents really think of them, and so on.
Ketcham also experimented with his line a little early on, tightening and thickening without losing the looseness and spontaneity that remains the strip's best aspect even now. Growing up, Ketcham wanted to be Walt Disney, and the influence of his years as an animator—including a stint at Disney before World War II—are evident in his broad facial expressions and nuanced poses. Even when his jokes are lame, the densely packed, never-the-same-twice drawings are consistently amusing.
Hand-in-hand with the first Complete Dennis The Menace volume, Fantagraphics is reprinting the 1990 autobiography The Merchant Of Dennis The Menace, which describes Ketcham's Disney obsession and post-success globetrotting, all in a jovial voice. Ketcham barely acknowledges the suicide of his first wife, or the way their actual son Dennis became estranged from his famous father and his famous name. But he's honest about his career-long reliance on gag writers and finishing artists, and boasts more about his business acumen than his craft. He sowed the seeds early for what the cartoon would become later: another version of The Family Circus, with Dennis mangling words and cozying up to his grandpa, and sitting in the corner once a week not because he'd done anything wrong, but because that's what "Dennis The Menace" does.