Re/Read: The Merchant of Dennis by Hank Ketcham

Re/Read is an occasional column by Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery curator Larry Reid drawing attention to books you may have missed or are worth another read. This time we’ll focus on Hank Ketcham’s engaging autobiography, The Merchant of Dennis.

Hank Ketcham’s story reflects the life experience of America’s “Greatest Generation.” He was raised during the Great Depression on Seattle’s middle class Queen Anne Hill (the very same neighborhood that I later spent my formative years.) A natural entertainer, young Ketcham performed in theatrical productions, musical groups, and was a yell king at Queen Anne High. But his first love was cartooning, an interest he developed at the age of six. He enrolled in art school at the University of Washington before dropping out and hitching a ride to Hollywood, where he hoped to pursue a career with Walt Disney. A brief stint at the Walter Lantz studio was followed by gainful employment at Disney, where he worked alongside luminaries like Walt Kelly, Ward Kimball, and Virgil Parch on masterpieces of modern animation.

World War II interrupted Ketcham’s career, which sent him to Washington, DC to create morale-boosting cartoons as an officer in the Navy. After the war, Ketcham found himself in the suburbs of New York, drawing gag cartoons for popular periodicals. Dennis Ketcham was soon born into the Baby Boom and became the inspiration for the sensational “Dennis the Menace” syndicated feature. The notoriety of his signature creation allowed Ketcham to serve as a high profile cultural ambassador and military advocate. A product of the Cold War, Ketcham was politically conservative, yet he comments, “Producing a daily newspaper feature that concerns itself only with humorous incidents – no continuity, no politics, and nothing timely – is a joy.” Much like his disarming memoir.

The Merchant of Dennis and other books on the history of classic comic strips can be found together with contemporary comix and graphic novels at Fantagraphics Bookstore, located at 1201 S. Vale Street in the heart of Seattle’s historic Georgetown art community. Open daily, 11:30 to 8:00 PM, Sundays until 5:00 PM. Phone 206-557-4910.