How is this for synchronicity? Back in March 1951, American newspaper readers were introduced to a cute little tyke with a penchant for causing chaos wherever he went. This was Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace.
While over in the UK, readers of The Beano, DC Thomson’s top selling comics weekly, were introduced to a belligerent, seething rage monster with a penchant for causing chaos. This was, uh, Dennis the Menace. This little terror was the creation of Scottish cartoonist Davy Law, prompted after his editor had heard a music hall song with a chorus “I’m Dennis the menace from Venice.” Law also created Beryl the Peril and Corporal Clott.
Somehow both strips have taken up a place in the hearts of their respective nations. Both have made it on to the tv screen, but American Dennis has a touch of brinkmanship with his own movie. They’ve also managed to do this without litigation or the usual spats that accompany this kind of coincidence.
If your not familiar with either strip, American Dennis tugs at the heartstrings. You know he means well, it’s just that what he says might lack tact or his actions have unintended consequences. British Dennis on the other hand is more savage. There is a malevolent mirth in the strips but he’s fully conscious of his actions. His destructive behaviour is quite deliberate and persistent, even if he faces humiliation or punishment at the end. Actually, British Dennis has mellowed in recent years, that might be a result of the tv shows, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
So which one is the original? I might be biased on this front. It might also seem a straightforward matter. American Dennis made his syndicated debut in 15 newspapers on a Monday, March 12, 1951. (I was trying to find an image of the very first Ketcham spot, Don’t know if I have succeeded, they doesn’t appear to be anything clearly labeled as such.)
British Dennis made his debut as a half-page strip (see above) in The Beano, No 452 which was dated March 17th, 1951. Now that might seem like second place, but, well it’s a big but... In line with common practice with UK comics, that is a week ending date. It tells the newsagent when to take it off sale and replace it with the new issue. So the comic was out before that date. Some folks will tell you Beano 452 was available five days earlier which would make it a draw. I reckon it was on the counter the previous Saturday, giving Dennis a two day lead on his American counterpart. Besides, we’re eight hours ahead to begin with. British Dennis was there first. Even if it was by an Abbysian wire-haired tripe hound’s whisker. From that initial half-page he would become The Beano’s cover star.
Dennis has evolved a bit over the years and these days is more rascal than rogue, although that rebellious streak persists. This might be a side effect from various tv versions over the years (a cgi version is on the way) and other changing mores.
But a couple of years ago, they gave the Menace parents a makeover, courtesy of Gok Wan. Then they gave the game away. We have in fact been reading about a dynasty of menaces. What’s the plural of Dennis? It seems the Dennis my brother read is now “Dad” which probably means the Dennis I read is granddad. The strip might seem to be set in an eternal here and now, but apparently there has been an off stage transition on more than one occasion. that’s why the current Dennis is a softer version - the meds and therapy are finally working. I’m not sure this reveal actually works (not that it needs to be logical). It makes Dennis’s dog Gnasher rather old and presumably his sister Bea should have become Auntie Bea by now. But what the heck!
I need some help with this last bit. I’m sure I have the right copy of The Beano in front of me, but can’t see the forest for the trees. A recent issue has Dennis’s Dad taking a call at work and a colleague addresses him by name. Now Stateside, Hank Ketchum named the cast of his Dennis the Menace after members of his family. Then there was that bloke next door. Traditionally, The Beano’s Dennis has left Mum and Dad unnamed. On occasion the parents would even sign letters “Dennis’s Dad”. (Actually some sources call Dad, Harold Menace, some call Mum, Sandra Menace, and others Angel Menace). However, I’m sure this recent issue breaks from that surreal practice and the warehouse worker who gives Dad Dennis the phone calls him Mr Wilson? Am I imagining that?