A few years back I was at a gathering for art dealers at a friend’s house and was glancing through one of their portfolios, when I came across a Dennis the Menace drawing by Hank Ketcham. “You do realize this is the best art in the book”, I commented. The owner looked at me trying to decide if I was kidding, or just that much of an idiot.
There was some pretty fair talent in his book; probably some Romita Jr, Buscema, Perez, Bryne, Gil Kane and others who I truly admired. But I would stand by my assessment. Don’t be fooled by the simply cartoon style. When your start to examine what an amazing draftsman Ketcham was, the acting of his characters, the composition, and most importantly his abstract designs with the wonderful spotting of texture and blacks, I don’t think any of those gentlemen would have thought they were being unduly criticized.
Hank Ketcham started taking drawing seriously at the tender age of six, when he got him first drawing lesson from a friend of family who was a commercial artist. He immediately began to spend all his spare time tracing his favorite cartoon characters and developing his own approach to the drawing. And he quickly decided at that young age that he wanted to grown up and be a cartoonist.
Throughout his high school days he edited and drew not only for his school paper, but also did his own weekly circular for the neighborhood. And he also discovered animation and became a devoted fan. Hank had started taking classes at the University of Washington when he read about Walt Disney looking for artists after the success of his Snow White animated feature. Taking what meager savings he had, the brash young man soon became a college dropout and headed south for the glamorous world of Hollywood.
Initially rejected by Disney, Ketcham supported himself with the help of relatives and various odd jobs until another break came his way: Walter Lantz was looking for talent to work at his studio drawing Andy Panda and friends. While Hank honed his craft at the Lantz studio, one of the job perks was being able to walk around the Universal Studios backlot, occasionally catching a glimpse of W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen Deanna Durben, and many others.
It wasn’t long before he was called back to the disney studios where he spent the next several years working on Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and Wind in the Willows. And he was working and socializing with the like of Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Walt Kelly, Virgil Partch and Richard Shaw. In our modern era, there are no shortage of great schools of higher learning where you earn a degree in cartooning and animation, but in those days, Ketcham was getting the best education possible for his career and in the only way possible: by getting on the job experience.
Things were going so well when WWII erupted for America with Pearl Harbor, and Hank was soon in a sailor’s uniform. However, once his graphic skills and background was discovered, he was quickly plucked from the typing pool to work on designing an animated film to promote the US Navy. The only combat he saw during the war years was arguing with the brass and an occasional co-worker about which direction a project might be headed. He also started selling gag cartoons to any number of publications as a freelancer during this time, including the popular Half Hitch (based on his own Navy experience) as a regular feature for The Saturday Evening Post.
When the war ended, Ketcham’s freelance success as a cartoonist convinced him not to return to working at Disney in California, but instead to try his hand at the other end of the country in NYC. He settled in Westport,Connectictt with his recent bride Alice and their new arrival, Dennis. His neighbors were the cream of hall of fame illustrators, from Robert Fawcett, Austin Briggs, Noel Sickles, Norman Rockwell,etc. Not only was he socializing with all this talent, he was soaking up whatever instruction they could give him. Consequently, his cartoons had a quality and substance far beyond the simplicity you saw at first glance.
And at home, the young son also was bringing dramatic changes, as he inspired Ketcham’s signature cartoon feature: Dennis the Menace. The strip’s success was immediate, and within a couple of years, both fame and fortune were a normal part of the Ketcham’s home. Unfortunately, while Hank’s life was a dream come true, both his wife and son became victims of the success. Alice died of a drug overdose about the time she was forty, and Dennis was beset with behavioral problems. At some point in his early adult hood, he and his father became estranged and rarely communicated, except Hank bitterly commented, “when he needed cash.” It’s unfortunate that two of Ketcham’s idols,( and eventually good friends), Rockwell and Bing Crosby, were also men who were universally admired, but had severe family problems.
As the strip skyrocketed with it’s success, Ketcham moved to Carmel, California where he worked for a number of years and established a base. In later years, he would spend several years traveling the world, settling in Geneva for several years after remarrying; he eventually returning to northern California. He continued to work on Dennis until 1994, when he retired and took up oil and watercolor painting which he continued to do until his death on 2001. One of my proud possessions is a pencil drawing along with a note he sent me in response to some of my own work.
So take a look at a few of the examples of Hank Ketcham’s work. While they are very simple drawings, notice they the draftsmanship and perspective are impeccable. Were you to draw any of these frames up as realistic illustrations, there would be very little you would have to do to add to or correct the drawing. Then look at the characters themselves with there acting and expressions. While the figures themselves are stylized, if you were shooting reference to do them realistically, you would have to give your models very little direction. It’s all there. The same can be said of the compositions. While there are simplified to a few shapes and lines, a Rockwell or a Fawcett would be adding little to them if he were doing an illustration for Post or Colliers.
But what really takes the work to another level is the abstract design that Ketcham creates in every frame. The way that the blacks are spotted, the negative shapes in the frames themselves, and intricate use of texture have all be created by a master. Look at the way he creates dappled shadows from sunlight filtering through trees on his characters. Notice the stark lighting often used to emphasize a story point. Each and every one has been painstakingly created with a great deal of thought. There is a magic in the work that defies examination. I guess you just have to read and enjoy Dennis as one of the hallmarks of comic strip art.