Sep 27, 2015

Dennis the Menace

Newspaper comics aren't for kids.  They never have been.  We couldn't understand Blondie and Dagwood or Hi and Lois; if the husbands and wives hated each other so much, why didn't they just leave?  Comics starring kids, like Peanuts,  were even worse; references to contemporary sports and politics that we knew nothing about, using words that no real-life kid would even think of.

Dennis the Menace was an exception, a single-panel strip detailing the adventures of Boomer kid Dennis Mitchell, drawn as about five years old but enjoying the freedoms of someone much older.  Hank Ketchum's single panel strips first appeared in 1951, and could be seen in thousands of newspapers through the sixties, as well as an iconic sitcom starring Jay North and a feature film starring Mason Gamble, as millions of parents of Boomer kids saw a reflection of their own lives.

 I encountered Dennis through the series of cheap paperback reprints that appeared regularly in garage sales and library book sales every summer: Dennis the Menace...Teacher's Threat, Dennis the Menace -- Nonstop Nuisance, almost thirty titles in all.

I noticed 3 things right away:

1. Dennis was my exact opposite.  I was quiet, mild-mannered, and didn't like to play outside.  He was rambunctious, aggressive, destructive, uninhibited, a “little savage."

I was occasionally scared, and I cried when I was upset, but Dennis never waivered from his hypermasculinity. He displayed not a moment of weakness.  He was, as adult characters kept saying, "all boy."

2. His foil, Margaret, was an absurdly exaggerated "girl."  Although extremely intelligent, she pushed a doll carriage, jumped rope, played “dress up,” and could think of no possible future except as a housewife, or maybe an airline stewardess.  She was not shy about her intentions: first civilizing Dennis, teaching him manners and fashions, and then marrying him.

But Dennis would have none of it:

He slugged Margaret in a Tunnel of Love because he thought she was trying to kissing him.

At a party, he anticipated that Margaret would want to play “post office,” a kissing game, so he brought a stamp to put on her nose.

3. Dennis was not only uninterested, he couldn't even recognize heterosexual desire when he saw it.

When he saw an adult couple kissing, he concluded that “They’re fighting.”

 A sailor kissing his girlfriend: “Makes you wonder what kinda guys they got protecting our country."

A cowboy with a woman on his arm: “She must be his sister.”

His Dad and neighbor Mr. Wilson ogling a cheesecake calendar: “They’re talking about football. 40-23-36 is signals.”

It didn't last.  Sometime during the 1970s, the reprint books introduced Italian immigrant Gina, tall and slim, in a mod outfit.  No prissy girl-stereotype, she liked skateboarding and soccer, didn’t disapprove of dirt and bugs, and could beat up any boy. Dennis was entranced. Maybe he never met a girl that he had anything in common with before.

"Gina makes me feel all funny inside," he announced to his parents.  And met his heterosexaul destiny.

But in the 1960s, Dennis gave gay kids the freedom to not to be interested in the opposite sex, in spite of what parents, teachers, and peers kept telling us.