Thursday, January 12, 2006

Old School Surprise

Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace: 1951-1952 (Volume 1), Fantagraphics Books, 2005

I have always been a regular reader of the Sunday comics section of the newspaper and, in fact, it is still the very first thing I turn to read (unless I’m being published that day, naturally). With the loss first of Bloom County and then, even worse, Calvin and Hobbes, that Sunday Funnies section was almost a wasteland. Sure, there was Doonesbury, the funniest thing left, but the dreck that just runs and runs and runs forever because they can’t cancel it. It’s just awful. Blondie? Ugh, the same stupid jokes. Beetle Bailey? The Wizard of Id? B.C.? Garfield? I still read them even though it pains me.

In the last few years, things have improved somewhat slightly. While there’s still Dilbert, sucking away at the banal ridiculousness of office life, Frazz and Get Fuzzy are what passes for bright spots in an otherwise Mary Worth level tedium. Luckily Opus, Berkeley Breathed’s return, is sprightly enough that there’s no lingering smell of mothballs.

And the weekly funnies are no better and in many ways worse. But by far and away the three worst offenders to good taste — which I’ll explain in a second — are Ziggy, Dennis the Menace, and (the single worst thing produced in America after Toby Keith and the entire menu of Hardees) the appallingly, cloying, smarmy little festering hole that is Family Circus.

Now, by good taste, I don’t mean what most people think of. Yes, these three one panel comics are what your grandmother might think of as good taste — bland, white bread pabulum utterly devoid of humor and drenched in high octane sentimentality — but what I mean is that whisper of an edge necessary to even pass as humor. I’m not saying Dennis needs to fart in Mr. Wilson’s face or Ziggy should drop the f-bomb on those bastards at the complaint desk. I’m not one who believes you have to be patently offensive to get laughs, but you have to be slightly unsettled to be made to laugh.

The simplest definition of what is funny is that the joke upends our expectations and there is absolutely nothing unforeseen in most of today’s comic strips. Guess what? Dagwood Bumstead eats big sandwiches and runs over the mailman. Hysterical. In any other profession this kind of lifeless repetitiveness is dismissed as “phoning it in.” And today’s comics pages are nothing if not routines on speed dial.

Which was why I was surprised to see the respected graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics putting out volume one of Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis the Menace. They’d done such a swell job with their Complete Peanuts, and the volume was so alluringly designed that I had little choice but to investigate. And here’s where I got my second surprise.

Dennis the Menace is funny.

I mean really funny. I mean laugh out loud and show to other people funny. At least it used to be. Today’s Dennis wouldn’t dare run a strip such as Ketcham’s fifteenth single panel, Dennis coming out of his house woozy looking, his head surrounded by bubbles, a young friend sitting on the step. “You were right about that word, Freddy,” Dennis intones. To another bored friend he suggests a month later, “We might take our clothes off and go calling on the neighbors. That’s always good for a laugh.”

What’s a secondary surprise is the same sensation I had when reading those early Peanuts strips — how much slapstick violence there is throughout. How much that used to be a part of comedy routines and has been sanitized out of modern humor. Consider the panel where Dennis marches angrily upstairs while his father points up to Dennis’ room with a pissed expression on his face. “I’d talk tough, too, if I outweighed you a hundred and thirty pounds,” Dennis snarls as he goes. Or the panel where Dennis’ dad hits the ground with a resounding thump, knocking off glasses and dropping his book and pipe while Dennis says to his friend, “It’s easy, see? You just stick out your foot.” Another: as Dennis bounces on the couch in the background, in the foreground, the harried looking babysitter on the phone: “This is Polly, Mrs. Mitchell. How do you make Dennis go to bed? Oh, really? Well, where do you keep the club?”

More: as Mr. Mitchell rolls up his sleeves while brandishing a hairbrush, the broken ruins of a lamp between he and his son, Dennis moves into a boxing stance, “I’m warning you — I’m going to defend myself.” By far the best in this vein is the one in which Mr. Mitchell is down on his knees wearing boxing gloves and angrily shouting to the absent Dennis, “Come on back, you little cry baby! You have to learn to take it!” while his son’s gloves have been abandoned in favor of a baseball bat poised for a homerun to the cranium from behind.

The world of Dennis the Menace is filled with such things. Barbers who wish their chairs were electric so they could fry Dennis, little kids Dennis gets into fistfights with and asks amid the fray what’s his name, babysitters showing off their scars, old ladies who whomp grown men for things the child does. There are pratfalls and boffo socks to the chin, parents winding up for the spank, harried policemen and grocers and toy store clerks, and a constant volume of fights breaking out or about too. And it’s all truly amusing.

As a character, Dennis’ main verbal flaw seems to be a kind of innocent honesty that gets other people into trouble, as when he shouts to his mother while holding the phone receiver that some “old windbag” is on the line or when he tells his clearly angry mother as his father looks on in mortification, “I didn’t like the zoo, Mom. It’s a dark ol’ place, and they play music, and women come out and don’t do anything.” Or when he tells his mother at the beach that he and his dad met a really cute girl but he doesn’t remember her phone number. This tactless honesty quickly becomes a stock joke, but it never gets tired because there are simply too many situations in which to employ it and too many butts to suffer for it.

Another absent element from today’s comics is alcohol which runs through Dennis like it ran through the fifties. “Boy, he’s loaded!” Dennis tells a friend after sitting on Santa’s lap. “And not with presents.” In another he shouts excitedly to a friend that there’ll be a big party at his house because his dad is buying twenty four cans of beer. The Mitchell’s are always finding Dennis loud and braying in their bedroom the night after they tied one on. Whether or not these are funny in complete isolation of everything else is debatable, but what they do pass the laugh test on is unexpectedness.

Visually, the years presented in this volume couldn’t be more different from the softer lines developed in later years. Dennis is sprightly drawn with zippy lines and an almost sketch-like suggestiveness. Noses on Dennis’ parents are two sharp lines, the backgrounds fade at the edges, blushes of embarrassment or anger three simple stacked lines across the cheek. The early Dennis strips are not only completely entertaining for humor, they’re also a lesson in graphic economy and a joy simply to look at.

With this pleasant surprise, I’ve been given a new comic to enjoy. Ketcham’s strip got its start only one year after Charles M. Schulz made his first splash with the lines “Good ol’ Charlie Brown… How I hate him!” and both of them sparkle with a kind of dark menacing humor. While the Peanuts gang took the strip to levels of existential despair some novels can’t even match, Dennis seems to have ultimately hit a selling formula that stuck and gone into a rut fairly early on. I’ll be watching each succeeding volume as it comes out (always granting Dennis proves as popular as Peanuts for the publisher), trying to find that ineffable moment when funny becomes formulaic.

The seeds are all there at the beginning. Within two years there were no less than three strips, none of which would fly in today’s Sunday paper, in which Dennis (with or without his friend) barges in on his mom in the bath. Somewhere the rebel became the scamp became the cute little boy Mrs. Wilson loved and Mr. Wilson loathed. In these early years before I switch teams, I’ll throw my lot in with Dennnis, for now.

UPDATE: The evidence, so it doesn't get lost in the archive shuffle.

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