Beginning in 1951, cartoonist Hank Ketcham invited newspaper readers to feel a little bit better about the behavior of their own children. Dennis the Menace featured the misadventures of a five-and-a-half-year-old boy with a wild streak who is prone to calamitous encounters with delicate furnishings, pets, and his long-suffering neighbor Mr. Wilson. Adapted into movies and television, Ketcham’s character has become the reference point for the perils of hyperactivity. Check out some facts about Dennis’s real-life doppelgänger, the strip's unfortunate attempt to address race relations, and how Dennis tried to soothe tensions with the Soviet Union.
1. THE STRIP WAS INSPIRED BY A BOWEL MOVEMENT.
As Dennis lore goes, Ketcham was pursuing a career in cartooning in 1950 when his first wife, Alice, once interrupted him to share the news that their four-year-old son Dennis had just demolished his bedroom by playing with the fecal matter found in his underpants. Declaring him a “menace,” Alice stormed out, leaving Ketcham to ponder the fictional consequences of such a tiny terror. Within five months, 16 newspapers were printing Dennis the Menace, a number that would eventually grow to over 1000.
2. ANOTHER DENNIS THE MENACE DEBUTED THE SAME DAY IN THE UK.
In a curious case of correlating creations, Ketcham’s Dennis debuted at virtually the same instant another Dennis the Menace was being unveiled in England. The UK Dennis was part of a weekly magazine called Beano and featured an older boy who was less of an accidental troublemaker and more of a highly-focused and intentioned one. To avoid confusion, the UK Dennis was later retitled Dennis the Menace and Gnasher. (Gnasher is his dog.)
3. READERS GOT MAD WHEN KETCHAM INTRODUCED A BLACK CHARACTER.
Some two decades into the strip, Ketcham decided to contemporize Dennis’s neighborhood by introducing a black character named Jackson. Although Ketcham’s design was alarmingly stereotypical, he attempted to incorporate messages of tolerance into the strip, with Dennis exclaiming he has a “race problem” with Jackson because “he can run faster than me.” However well-intentioned Ketcham’s choices, readers were not happy about the caricature. In St. Louis, protesters threw rocks and bottles into newspaper windows; in Detroit and Little Rock, Arkansas, crowds gathered to complain. Ketcham apologized and retired Jackson.
4. KETCHAM DISLIKED THE DENNIS BOOK COLLECTIONS.
Many cartoonists look forward to having their strips collected in paperback because the book royalties can make for an appreciable boost in their income. Despite having sold millions of copies of Dennis strips, Ketcham took them off the market because he felt the paperbacks weren’t reproducing his artwork properly. “I backed out of the paperback business because the paper was so cheesy and the reproduction was so bad and the space allotted was ill-suited,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “I spend too much time on my graphics not to have them treated a little better.”
5. HE WAS KIND OF A VIOLENT LITTLE MONSTER.
By and large, Dennis is an affably rambunctious kid—prone to making a mess, but generally not a total delinquent. That wasn’t entirely true in the early strips, when Ketcham depicted Dennis inciting physical fights between adults, tying swan necks into knots, hitting other kids with a shovel and laughing about it, and filling his sock with sand to use as a makeshift bludgeon. It wasn't until a few years into the strip that Dennis settled down.
6. HE HELPED FIGHT THE COLD WAR.
In 1959, Ketcham and his wife were asked by the U.S. State Department to go on a tour of Russia as a part of a “humor exchange program.” With its modern, middle America depictions of appliances and cars, the strip was a perfect talking point to critique Communist regimes. The U.S. government also wanted Ketcham to doodle anything he saw as a kind of cartoonist subversive. But Ketcham was so paranoid about being caught by Soviet supporters that he wound up drawing over whatever sketches might have been useful. A U.S. government employee later told Ketcham they hadn't bothered sending any more cartoonists on missions.
7. JOHN HUGHES WAS A FAN.
Writer/director Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) was a regular reader of Dennis the Menace. Following the success of 1990’s Home Alone (which Hughes wrote) that featured a booby-trapping kid named Kevin, producers were eager to try and replicate its success with a feature adaptation of the strip. Ketcham went with Warner Bros. on the condition Hughes wrote the script. “He’d been reading it for years,” Ketcham said. “We spent a lot of time talking about the characters and I gave him all the books I have on Dennis.” Dennis the Menace, with Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson, was released in 1993.
8. HE WAS A “SPOKESTOON” FOR DAIRY QUEEN.
Dennis spent an astounding 30 years as a mascot for the Dairy Queen frozen treat chain, appearing in commercials and on packaging before the franchise decided he was losing his appeal among young consumers. He retired from ice cream endorsements in 2001.
9. SOMEONE STOLE DENNIS’S STATUE.
A three-foot-tall Dennis statue erected in 1986 in Monterey, California became the target of a troublemaker in 2006, when an unknown person (or persons) stole the tribute from its perch in a city park known as Dennis the Menace Playground. It was missing for nearly 10 years before turning up in Florida—at least, that’s what authorities believed. A scrap metal company found it among a pile of material to be melted down and assumed it was the statue from Monterey: Dennis curators later discovered it was actually another statue that had been stolen from a Florida hospital. The Monterey statue remains at large.
10. THINGS DIDN’T GO SO WELL FOR THE REAL DENNIS.
Ketcham’s son may have outgrown his bedroom-destroying habits, but a series of misfortunes led to a life far more chaotic than his cartoon counterpart. Expelled from boarding school, Dennis Ketcham served in Vietnam and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He and his father reportedly had little contact prior to the elder Ketcham’s death in 2001.
The cartoonist once commented he had some regrets about naming his creation after Dennis, saying it “confused” his son. Talking with People in 1993, Dennis said he wished his father “could have used something other than my childhood for his ideas.”