Tuesday, September 04, 2018


I’ve always been a fan of Dennis The Menace, but as someone with grandsons of 4 and 7, I am again reminded why Dennis has had such appeal for so long and to such a wide audience. His wide-eyed mischievous enthusiasm totally nails childhood, and kids see themselves in him and parents see their children in him. Writer-cartoonist Hank Ketcham also nailed the adult world fairly well too--boring, clueless, self-absorbed, arbitrary, set in our ways, unable to put ourselves in our children’s shoes. It’s EXACTLY how the adult world is viewed by children, and Dennis often laments how out of it the “grown-up” world is.

Dennis also had a long life as a comic-strip spokesman for Dairy Queen, from 1971-2001 (see pics). Unfortunately, he was dropped by DQ after forty years because he was no longer “relevant” and not recognizable to young people (who were growing to view him as a Dairy Queen character and not as a celebrity with his own life outside DQ). In my hometown of Golden, Colorado, there was a certain combination department store and drug store downtown that was the most important business in the city other than the Coors brewery. That store had a lunch counter which sold sandwiches, burgers, soups, etc., and since they were well-connected in the town, the city council NEVER approved the licenses for any fast-food restaurants in the city limits until the mid-1980’s, long after I was gone. However, the city council DID allow for a Dairy Queen on the north side of town (they did not sell ice-cream at this store) and a Pizza Hut on the southeast side of town (they did not sell pizza at this store) because neither would cut into their business. Thus, I grew up with DQ as a big presence in my teenage life, and I remember pretty much every product and every new ad campaign being introduced by Dennis The Menace. Also, here in Texas, where I’ve lived for almost 30 years now, pretty much EVERY small town has a Dairy Queen (and, coincidentally, a Pizza Hut too). That’s where you go after a Friday night highschool football game, that’s where the family goes for a “treat” after Dad and/or Mom get paid, and that’s where a child or teenager goes to spend their pocket change or that dollar given to them from Grandma. With the “Beltbuster” burgers and deep-fried chicken strip baskets as entrees, every member of the family in whatever small town you’re in can get a huge, three-thousand calorie meal at the local DQ....and then a dessert. They probably offer some kind of fried fish during Lent, but if you’re a salad person, or God-help-us a vegan (!!!!), you’d better go back to Austin or Boulder or San Francisco or wherever with your uppity, citified ways. In my dream world, Ma and Pa Kettle would be teamed with Dennis The Menace in the ad campaign....forget the fact that no one under 65 (except for BTC readers and members of my family) would know who THEY are either. That’s MY America: fried food and ice-cream at the end of a long work-week, and having it pitched to me by my favorite comic strip and cartoon and B-movie characters. And if you have a smart phone (I don’t), you can read the latest BTC while munching on that Dilly Bar after your Double-Beltbuster with jalapenos! Dennis was the perfect corporate image for DQ--after all, who could you trust more than Dennis The Menace to tell you that your meal and/or ice cream treat would be "Scrumpdillyicious."

Fortunately for us all, there are many ways to get a cheap fix of Dennis The Menace in thrift-store or used bookstore printed form. The newspaper strips were recycled in MANY Fawcett paperbacks. I’ve always made a policy of picking up any that I don’t have if they are selling for $2 or less. Also, Dennis had a long life in comic books, and you can find them, particularly the 70’s ones, for next to nothing if you search a bit. Fawcett held the Dennis license from 1958-1980, issuing both comic books with original material and paperbacks with newspaper-strip reprints. In 1970, Fawcett began the DENNIS THE MENACE BONUS MAGAZINE SERIES, which later changed its name to the DENNIS THE MENACE BIG BONUS SERIES, and it ran to almost 120 issues in its almost ten-year run. I recently picked up a 22-comic lot of Dennis The Menace comics for just over 20 cents each--they were marked on the poly sleeves as $1.99 each, but presumably the seller decided that four dollars in hand is better than forty dollars in dreams for comics which have no doubt been sitting in his stock for years as people fought over and bid excitedly on superhero comics. As he was dropped by Dairy Queen, Dennis has been dropped by comic book collectors--I hope the rejection does not drive him to drink, and if it does, he drinks nothing more harmful than a root beer float at his local DQ in Wichita. This lot consisted of a number of the Bonus issues, plus an odd DENNIS AND THE BIBLE STORIES comic and an issue or two of Marvel’s (!!!) revival of the character post-Fawcett. I’ll try to review both of those in a future column.

I can unreservedly recommended the Bonus series....if you find them for under three dollars each, they should be picked up. Of course, I’d doubt that Hank Ketcham did the artwork on these--they have a sloppy, one-take feel to them, which actually works well, in my humble opinion--but his assistants understood the strip intuitively, and even if Ketcham didn’t plot the stories (I’d guess he did.....at least on some of them), they could probably invent perfect scenarios for Dennis in their sleep. Doing a little online research, I see that some of the 1970’s Bonus comics reprint material from 60’s Fawcett comics, while others are newly created. Many are devoted to a theme, but this one, RISE AND SHINE, is so broad it could apply to any Dennis comic. After all, when he enters the room or enters your life, you MUST rise up and pay attention.....or you’ll wind up with water squirted in your face, a dog peeing on your leg, or a face full of egg yolks....which will probably happen anyway even if you do pay attention because that’s the charm of Dennis The Menace. He’s like a one-man Marx Brothers in that he brings anarchy whenever he goes.

The Bonus comics are not paginated, but they seem fat and full, so I’d guess they are 64-pagers, and within those slapstick-filled pages, we’ve got a number of long (10-15 page) stories that are well-developed and extended over a number of hours in the characters’ lives. Dennis’ friend Tommy’s uncle from Australia brings back an anteater which the boys “borrow” and that goes wild; Dennis’ dog Ruff buries a shoe belonging to his Dad, and as Dennis tries to hide Ruff, the dog causes trouble after trouble in the town, all of which gets charged to Dennis’ Dad; Dennis’ friend Joey has a penny and tries to buy a pet with it, and winds up with all sorts of unwanted pets all of which wreak havoc and do damage; Dennis’ father takes the boys camping, but Ruff and/or Dennis destroy all the supplies and they wind up camping in their own backyard; Dennis’ friend Margaret goes bird watching, and Dennis decides to tag along, totally destroying everything (unintentionally, of course).....so much so, that the leader of Margaret’s birdwatching group decides to completely get out of the hobby of birdwatching. However, my favorite story involves his neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Dennis is collecting old newspapers for some school fund-raising drive, and when he goes to the Wilsons to ask for some, Mrs. Wilson allows him to take a stack. In that stack is an important contract Mr. Wilson needs for his business. Of course, by the time this is discovered, the papers are already on the recycling truck....which forces Mr. Wilson and Dennis to track it down, BUY the whole truck full of trash from the driver, go through the entire truck full of trash, which gets dumped on the street, get a police citation for littering, not find the contract, and THEN have to pay the truck driver to take the papers back. It’s a nightmare scenario which is a riot as played out in this comic book story--and, if you can believe it, it has a happy ending with Mr. Wilson thanking Dennis for losing the contract in the first place. I’ll let you read the story and find out for yourself how that happens.

Set in a kind of generic Midwest but with few particulars that give away any particular decade, these 70’s Dennis The Menace Bonus comics are timeless, like a good comedy short or Jack Benny radio or TV episode. They put a smile on my face and remind me that however well I prepare for the future, some Dennis The Menace will come along and mess it all up, so why bother! Take advantage of the fact that these comics are presently out of favor and can be gotten cheap. As we say here at BTC, used vintage comic books are your best entertainment value!


top_cat_james said...

The book is 68 pages - good guess. Stories are by Fred Toole. Art is by Frank Hill, who I always regarded as the worst of the "Dennis" comic book artists - Ugly and slap-dash work that contrasts with the aesthetically pleasing cartooning done by the comic's preceding crew.

While you are correct that DTM gets little respect among the comics cognoscenti, there have been efforts to rectify this injustice. Papercutz has published three excellent compilation volumes that I recommend highly. And earlier this year, Mark Arnold put out Pocket Full of Dennis the Menace, that includes an EXHAUSTIVE index that takes up over half the hefty tome (the source where the first paragraph's info was gleaned).

And just for the record, DQ offers some excellent salads - I get the crispy chicken at least twice a month. Try 'em sometime.

JD King said...

Great article, Bill!