SAN FRANCISCO — Hank Ketcham, whose lovable scamp “Dennis the Menace” tormented cranky Mr. Wilson and amused readers of comics for decades, died early Friday morning at age 81.
Ketcham had suffered from heart disease and cancer, said his publicist, Linda Dozoretz.
“He passed away very peacefully. He had had some bad spells and he slipped away in his sleep,” said Ellen James, a neighbor and family friend.
Ketcham stopped drawing the weekday strip at the end of 1994 but let it continue under a team of artists and writers.
Inspired by the antics of his 4-year-old son, Ketcham began the strip in 1951. In March, Ketcham’s panels celebrated 50 years of publication — running in 1,000 newspapers, 48 countries and 19 languages.
“It just took my breath away,” said Brian Walker, who writes “Hi and Lois” with his brother, Greg. “Like the rest of the cartoonists in his generation, he died with his boots on. He may have said he was retired, but he was still working.”
Despite its longevity, the strip changed little since the 1950s. Dennis was always a freckle-faced “five-ana-half” — an appealing if aggravating mixture of impishness and innocence.
“Mischief just seems to follow wherever Dennis appears, but it is the product of good intentions, misdirected helpfulness, goodhearted generosity, and, possibly, an overactive thyroid,” Ketcham wrote in his 1990 autobiography, “The Merchant of Dennis The Menace.”
“But what a dull world it would be without any Dennises in it! Peaceful, maybe — but dull,” he said.
Dennis also inspired several books of cartoons, a musical, a television series, a 1993 movie and a playground in Monterey, not far from Ketcham’s studio in Pebble Beach.
“It’s a joyful pursuit realizing that you’re trying to ease the pain of front-page news or television,” Ketcham told The Associated Press in a March interview. There’s some little bright spot in your day that reminds you that it’s fun to smile.”
A Seattle native, Henry “Hank” Ketcham dropped out the University of Washington in 1938 after his freshman year to pursue his childhood dream. He got his first job as an animator for Walter Lantz, the creator of “Woody Woodpecker,” and then for Walt Disney, working on “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” “Fantasia” and others.
He was pulled away to Washington D.C. by the Navy during World War II where he drew cartoons for military posters, training material and war bond sales. He then moved to Carmel as a freelance cartoonist.
It was there in October 1950 that Ketcham’s first wife, Alice, burst into his studio exasperated after their 4-year-old son, Dennis, destroyed his bedroom instead of napping.
“Your son is a menace!” she screamed.
Just five months later on March 12, 1951, “Dennis the Menace” was born in 16 newspapers. Ketcham couldn’t believe the audience his blond, freckle-faced boy in droopy overalls attracted.
“I’m not a big social butterfly. I don’t worry about people out there and what they feel about it,” Ketcham said. “I don’t even realize there are people looking at it and following it so closely until I’ve traveled and then I realize, ’Holy smokes how come everybody knows about Dennis?”’
One of those times came during his first trip abroad in 1959. He had set up a humor exchange with the Soviet Union to swap Dennis drawings out for Soviet-sketched cartoons during the Cold War.
When the CIA got wind of his plans, they asked him to take snapshots with a spy camera and draw anything that might be useful to intelligence.
“We were flying from Moscow to Kiev, and it was during the day and I looked out the window and I saw some shapes. Big circles and long rectangular shapes,” he said. “I had my sketch book and I would put them down and the flight attendant would walk by and I would put a big nose and some eyes and make the whole thing into a funny face. So I had a whole book full of funny-face cartoons at the end that I didn’t know how to read.”
Sometime later, Ketcham met a CIA official and mentioned his days behind the Iron Curtain.
Ketcham said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have anything to report. He said, ’Yeah, I know, Hank, we haven’t sent any more cartoonists on any more missions.”’
Ketcham stayed in Europe, drawing Dennis from Geneva, Switzerland for nearly 20 years. He took the real-life Dennis, then 12, with him after the boy’s mother died of a drug overdose in 1959. But when Dennis struggled with his studies there, he was sent to boarding school in Connecticut. Ketcham and his second wife, Jo Anne Stevens, remained in Europe.
Dennis went on to serve a 10-month tour of duty in Vietnam and returned suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has little contact with his father today. Still, he’s kept “Dennis the Menace” books, dolls and other cartoon paraphernalia displayed at his house.
“He’s living in the East somewhere doing his own thing,” Ketcham said in March. “That’s just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families.”
Ketcham moved back to California in 1977 with his third wife, Rolande and their two children, Scott and Dania, and drew the comic from his home along scenic 17 Mile Drive.
Unlike “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, who insisted on drawing every panel himself and had a clause in his contract dictating that original drawings would end with his death, Ketcham stopped drawing Sunday panels in the mid-1980s.
and retired from weekday sketches in 1994. Ketcham’s assistants, Marcus Hamilton and Ronald Ferdinand, handled the bulk of the work after that with Ketcham overseeing the feature daily by fax. The team will continue the panels despite his death.
“People used to ask me, ’What will happen when Mr. Ketcham isn’t still around?”’ Hamilton said. “He never directly told me this, but I think he was trying to say, ’Pay attention to how I train you because someday you may have to train someone else.”’
After putting down his pencil, Ketcham grabbed a brush and began a decade of painting oils and watercolors of jazz musicians, dark portraits of women’s faces, cartoonists and golf scenes. He even painted the birthing center at a hospital in Monterey, which worked as physical and mental therapy after his own stint in the hospital.
But even as a cartoonist, Ketcham is remembered as one of the master artists.
“One thing about Hank that I feel, he is the best pen and ink line artist in America today,” said Bil Keane, who created “Family Circus,” syndicated since 1960. “He still is a brilliant technician when it comes to drawing the lines that make his cartoons so beautifully artistic.”
Brian Walker, the son of “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” creator Mort Walker, put together a 50th anniversary “Dennis the Menace” exhibit at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla., which opened Saturday and runs through Aug. 26.
Ketcham’s son Scott attended the opening and called Ketcham frequently with feedback from the tribute, Walker said.
“That’s so wonderful for Hank Ketcham ... that he knew he was being honored by his peers,” said Jan Eliot, who draws “Stone Soup” and once asked Ketcham for guidance on her work. “I admired his drawing very much. His humor was of another generation, and it’s the generation that we’re losing now.”
The comic will likely live on for years without Ketcham.
“It’s just classic. The material as well as the art is well done,” Jim Davis, who created “Garfield,” said in March. “You can relax and just enjoy the feature. You know you’re in good hands when you’re reading something as classic as Dennis.”
Ketcham is survived by his wife, Rolande; his daughter, Dania Ketcham and his two sons, Scott and Dennis Ketcham.
CARRYING THE LEGACY
SAN FRANCISCO — As Marcus Hamilton waited Friday for workers to fix his fax machine that had been struck by lightning while he was away at the National Cartoonist Society awards, he got a call saying cartoonist Hank Ketcham had died.
Hamilton began drawing “Dennis the Menace” for Ketcham in 1994. He was trying to fax his latest sketches of America’s favorite 5-year-old towheaded tornado for Ketcham’s final approval.
“Today was very sad,” said Hamilton, who will continue drawing the weekday 50-year old comic panel. “He’s really been like a second father to me. He’s directed my life for the last eight years.”
But Hamilton said Ketcham passed on a high note. His lifetime of cartooning was honored at the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton where a 50th anniversary “Dennis the Menace” exhibit will be displayed through Aug. 26.
“I was honored to work on this tribute, and I’m glad we successfully completed it and that Hank knew what a success it was,” said Brian Walker, the son of “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” creator Mort Walker, who assembled the display.
Hamilton said he is now proud to continue the comic with Ronald Ferdinand, who began drawing the Sunday panels in the mid-1980s.
Hamilton considers it pure luck that he received that honor. He said his career with Ketcham began after he saw the veteran cartoonist on television promoting a “Dennis The Menace” film in 1993. Ketcham said he would like more time to play golf, paint and travel, and Hamilton picked up the phone, seeing a job opportunity.
“This is his little boy that he’s trained me to draw,” Hamilton said. “I am still flabbergasted that this has all occurred.”
On Wednesday evening, Hamilton said Ketcham sent his last e-mail, which Hamilton printed for future inspiration.
It read: ”... This if of course a continued training exercise to sharpen your talents and prepare you for producing Dennis all on your own.”
“I think he must have had an inkling of an idea that his time was growing short,” Hamilton said. “He was such a teacher.”