Hank Ketcham (1920-2001) is a cartoonist who created the Dennis the Menace comic strip, which he worked on from 1951-1994 (and is still published in newspapers today). The strip was based off his son Dennis, who was 4 years old when it debuted, and is set in a suburban neighborhood of Witchita, Kansas.
I can’t remember when I first saw Dennis the Menace, but my guess is it was in the Chicago Tribune (my parents have a subscription). At that time the strip didn’t interest me because I couldn’t relate to it’s humor and, for the most part, dismissed it as something that simply wasn’t for me.
As the years passed I always knew about the strip, due to it’s popularity, but never looked at it closely until one day a friend was in New York on a business trip. The two of us went to Midtown Comics and he said “Take a look at this”. I replied “Dennis the Menace. Are you serious?”. He then explained that Ketcham’s work is well regarded by cartoonists such as Jamie Hernandez (of “Love and Rockets” fame).
I quickly walked over to the comic strip aisle and picked up one of the collections published by Fantagraphics. As I flipped through the book I was impressed at how well-thought-out the compositions in those strips are and could tell that a lot work went into each one; Ketcham never dashed off any of his drawings.
Here’s a strip that he did which explains his working process. I relate to the two figures (Ketcham) at the top, where he draws and re-draws an image. That can be a bit maddening at times, but as an artist I understand the desire to get it “right” (even though nobody ever really does).
Let’s take a look at a few strips from the 1961-62 collection and dig a little deeper into what I find interesting about his work.
In the image above, Mr. Wilson, Dennis’s neighbor, is doing yard work. We see him carrying a wheel barrel full of rocks while Dennis is making a comment about his shirt. Notice the pattern on said shirt, it “fades” as you move down in order to show how light hits it.
Now take a look look at the background, many of the lines simply stop and don’t connect. Ketcham did this to give your eyes room to “breathe” and move around the entire composition. Had he closed up the shapes your eyes would stay there longer than it needed to be. When he does close a shape it’s often done because it’s an important part of the piece (for example, the shirt). This use of “open shapes” is most effective with the sidewalk lines and a mark right above Dennis’s head (which creates the top of a bush). That line connects Dennis to Mr. Wilson.
Also notice the “squiggly” lines in the background that symbolize bushes, they’re simple marks that give you a good indication of what’s there. If you took those marks out of the scene they’d become random and meaningless, but in this composition they read exactly as he intends them too. He does a similar effect for the grass, vertical marks that are selectively placed on the ground.
This one I picked because of the way Ketcham drew Dennis’s Mom. Take a look at her hair, a few abstract marks and you get a sense of what her hairstyle looks like, plus there are a few strands hanging out. The ‘messiness’ of it lets you know that she’s been busy dealing with Dennis and the household. Another nice touch is her shirt, it’s tucked in, but only part of it is. I’m not a parent, but my guess is that this is a scene that many can relate too.
Ketcham also used vertical lines underneath her to show a shadow. He worked in black and white, and was limited to those two options, so using marks like that helped give him a “grey” to work with (or another way to look at it is that he now had a third option).
In a similar way to the previous image (Mr. Wilson doing yard work) he also left many of the shapes open so your eye can breathe a bit and roam around. At times, not closing an image also leads your eye to an important part of the composition. In this case it’s the area where the tiles meet the Mom’s head. He also used a cartoon effect, water splashing above Dennis, to show movement.
In this illustration the simple line under the Father’s eye gives a sense that he’s tired. Now look at the Mom’s eyes, they’re uneven, which conveys a feeling that she’s worried. Additionally, the abstract painting on the wall feels like her. Then take a look at the lines that make her nightgown, they’re a few simple marks, but are just enough to let you know what she’s wearing.
Once again Ketcham used vertical lines to show a shadow on the bed right behind Dennis’s Mom. Those lines, along with black in the window and under the bed, give you a sense of the lighting in that room.
This one I picked for the simplicity of the background, it’s almost a silhouette, especially the buildings. If you break it down it’s a few shapes, lines and dash marks. Now take a look at the variety in the lines used to indicate water, in one section it’s used in a way to show waves. From looking at it I get a feeling that the waves are moving, but also see how they hit the ground and flatten out.
Another visual decision to take note of is how he spots his “blacks”. If you start with the buildings and move over to the shadow on that man (the figure to the right), then down the Mom’s bathing suit and over to the Dad’s head it’ll lead your eye right through the composition. You can also see that the “blacks” on the umbrella point to Dennis and his parents, while the “black” on the pole indicates shadow. Now take a look at his Dad’s swim trunks; they’re a stripe pattern that point directly to his head which is turned towards Dennis.
Notice that once again Ketcham makes sure to keep most of the shapes open and uses lines to indicate shadow (the “grey” that I mentioned earlier).
Anyone else out there who might’ve skipped over this strip for similar reasons to my own, I highly recommend giving it a second look. I’m glad that my friend opened my eyes to it and now think it’s a great strip, one that deserves the praise that it gets.
Below are a few more strips from the 1961-1962 collection. When you look at them take note of the techniques that I’ve mentioned earlier in this article; they’re all there. As I previously said, Ketcham took the time to make sure that every element in his compositions were exactly as he intended. I also think there are moments in Dennis that many people can relate too, especially parents.
Anyone interested in checking out more work by Ketcham I highly recommend the collections published by Fantagraphics Books.
From Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace: 1961-1962 (Volume 6)
©2009 Hank Ketcham Enterprises Published by Fantagraphics