Welcome to a brand new feature here on UnitedMonkee: Strip Search. My first foray as a kid into sequential art was not the comic book, but the daily comics in the newspaper which we called “funnies” in my house. Perhaps it was that nickname that kept me firmly focused on only the comedy strips of the time and away from the more dramatic ones like Prince Valiant, Mary Worth and their ilk. My dad and I would trade the funnies back and forth in the mornings depending on who got to the breakfast table first. Our local paper, The Toledo Blade, had a special entertainment section called and colored Peach which we read every day for quite a while. The only problem was that The Blade didn’t really get too wild when it came to the strips they syndicated. You had your basics like Hagar The Horrible, Blondie, Garfield, Marmaduke, Dennis The Menace and Dilbert. It seemed like once Calvin And Hobbes went away, the paper stopped paying attention to new strips. Actually, I take that back, they added Zits which became a fast favorite, but after that? Well, honestly, I don’t even remember because my dad eventually started getting The Detroit Free Press, a paper with much better, more interesting strips like The Boondocks, Liberty Meadows and Get Fuzzy. Sure there was some redundancies, but we enjoyed reading both sets.
For the most part, I stopped reading the funnies when I went to college because the newspaper was no longer a part of my life and hasn’t really been since, aside from some trips home or visits from the in-laws who always buy a paper when they visit, they haven’t been a part of my life since. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I started getting interested in comic strips again, though not the ones being currently produced. With the huge increase of reprints from the long history of the medium and creators bestowing the virtues of those older creations it got me excited about exploring some of those strips. I’ll be honest, Dennis The Menace was not on that list. Sure, I liked the one-panel daily strip as a kid and even watched reruns of the 50s TV series on Nickelodeon as a kid as well as the mid-80s cartoon, but I kind of wrote the strip off as goofy kids stuff. What made me rethink that stance? A sale at a Borders in Jersey I happened to find myself in last weekend where I found Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis The Menace Volume 2: 1953-54 and Volume 4 from Fantagraphics for about $4 a piece! I’m a sucker for a good deal, especially when the books normally run $24.95, so I bit.
I was very pleasantly surprised with how entertained I was by the strips as I burned through this 653 page collection of every non-Sunday strip from Dennis’ third and fourth years in existence. If you’re not familiar, Dennis Mitchell is a five year old boy with a mother and father. He’s classically known for being precocious, overly honest as only children can be and what some people today would call spirited. Going in, I of course knew that his neighbor, the short-fused Mr. Wilson tended to be on the receiving end of Dennis menacement, but interestingly enough, he’s hardly in this collection. Neither are his friend Joey or his female nemesis Margaret who were prominent in the cartoon. Most of the strips revolve around Dennis’ boyishness getting on the nerves of his parents Henry and Alice with his ever-present canine companion Ruff along for the ride usually. Most of the gags revolve around Dennis’ ignorance of the adult world. He’s often misinterpreting sayings and metaphors his parents use to describe their neighbors and friends usually within earshot of those same people. He also worries his mother in the way that a boy of the time would: by getting into all kinds of trouble, occasionally coming home naked or bloody (not both mind you). I’d like to think that creator Hank Ketcham was attempting to poke fun at the seriousness of adult life and possibly the guards and niceties we hide behind which often sacrifice honesty and truth. I also found it interesting that I could relate my childhood more to a five decade old comic strip than kids today. Not to sound too much like an old man, I spent huge amounts of time running around the nearby park with neighborhood kids and being kids. I was never as mischievous as Dennis, but I’m sure most kids today are either kept inside for fear of abduction or would rather sit around and play video games. I hope I’m way off on that, but we’ll see.
I also want to talk about Ketcham’s art for a moment. The intro to this collection by comic strip historian R.C. Harvey goes on and on about Ketcham’s style, but the most important thing I read in there was that Ketcham liked to play with perspective and silhouettes to keep himself interested, but he also didn’t want the cartoon to draw too much attention away from the overall joke. As it is, these early strips have a looseness to them that does draw attention away from some of the details. You might think that with only so much space, an artist would take the easy way out and skimp on the backgrounds, but nearly every strip has a plenty of things to look at in the panel aside from the main action/figures. I found myself staring at his line work and seeing how deceptively complex they actually are. He also does great work when it comes to expressions. There’s not an abundance of line work done on his faces, but what he can do with a few dots and lines to show disapproval, embarrassment or a barely stifled laugh is pretty hysterical and impressive.
As much as I enjoyed the collection, I can’t say it was a 100% win for me. I like the majority of the strips, but as you might expect, some of them just fall flat. It’s impossible for your average younger person today to grasp every joke made in a 50 year old comic strip, but the great thing about reading a collection of single strip comics (each getting its own page) is that you can easily move right on to the next installment if the previous doesn’t do it for you. And overall, that’s the beauty of this book: while it feels, looks and is robust, the collection is very easy to read through. I read the whole thing in an evening and probably could have moved on to the other one I have waiting for me, but wanted to space them out so I didn’t get them confused when writing about them. One of the problems I’m having with some of the other comics I’m trying to read is that, with such high page counts and in-depth strips, it’s exhausting to get through. This hardcover measures 5 3/4×6 1/2×2 1/4 inches which really is the perfect size. They probably could have doubled the page length and covered twice as many years, but that would presumably also drive the cost of production up. I think this is the perfect presentation and like many of these fancy hardcover comics strip reprint projects, the series of these would look amazing up on a shelf. I have visions of shelves filled with various strip collections I like that make me want to move into a larger space. The price point for these books might be a little hefty without a sale, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes peeled for more of these volumes in the future.
If you’re curious or want to read along with me. I’ve also got the very first Gasoline Alley Walt & Skeezix book from Drawn & Quarterly which I’m loving as well as the first two Dick Tracy collections from IDW and Peanuts Vol. 14 also from Fanta which has been shockingly fun and entertaining so far. If anyone has any suggestions for other old strips to check out, let me know. I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for a sale on that Complete Calvin And Hobbes collection because I’m a huge fan of that series and want to read the whole thing in a nice format.