This story began as a thought about British and American sensibilites around children and what they are like. But having done a bit of research, it turns out there’s more to be said on the topic of Dennis the Menace than I had originally intended, not the least of which is the remarkable coincidence around the title of the cartoon.
So, here’s the story from the American perspective first: In March 1951, a cartoon called Dennis The Menace began, syndicated across 16 newspapers at first, about a little boy in Wichita, Kansas. Dennis Mitchell, the hero, is five and a half. He’s actually quite a helpful soul, except his plans often wind up in catastrophe and mahyem, although he often walks away, free of repercussions, leaving his poor harrassed neighbor Mr Wilson clearing up the mess. For all that he’s a mischievous imp, his angelic looks help to get him out of trouble. His faithful companion is his dog Ruff, and he likes nothing more than riding around on his skateboard or his bike.
He came from the fertile mind of Hank Ketcham, who had a four-year-old son called Dennis, whose over energetic antics, complete with accidental catastrophe, and a reluctance to go to sleep, proved to be hugely inspirational. As with Matt Groening and the Simpsons, years later, Hank named the respective members of Dennis’s family after his own family. Hank Ketcham became Henry Mitchell, Hank’s wife Alice – who started the whole thing off after a traumatic bedtime with the real Dennis, by wandering into Hank’s studio and breathlessly exclaiming “YOUR SON…IS A MENACE!” – is Dennis’s mum Alice.
So, in essence Dennis the Menace is a charming tale of an over-engergetic but essentially sweet-natured boy who is (mainly) unfairly labelled a trouble-maker by his grumpy neighbor.
However, on the other side of the Atlantic, trouble was brewing.
Also in March, and also in 1951, the Beano comic, a staple of British childhoods since 1938, began their new cartoon series, called Dennis the Menace. There is no possibility that either of the creators of either comic strip could have known that the other was being created, and there is no way anyone could have guessed what kind of popularity either character would have. However, the fact is that the UK Dennis and the US Dennis occupy similar places in the hearts of their respective nations, despite being entirely different characters.
The UK Dennis does not have a surname, nor does he accidentally find himself creating trouble wherever he goes. He does create the trouble, but it’s entirely on purpose. He’s the self-style wildest boy in the world. A real anti-hero. This Dennis is older than his namesake, and much, much tougher. He lives his life in a constant battle against the Softies, lead by his mortal enemy Walter (fond of such awful things as reading, flowers and dolls), and against all figures of authority. Dennis does not have a cute side parting and dungarees, he wears a Sid Vicious spikytop and a ratty black-and-red striped sweater, of the sort Kurt Cobain used to wear. He too has a dog, called Gnasher (and, oddly, a pig called Rasher and a spider called Dasher), who has a similar hairdo and attitude to his master.
Both strip cartoons have made the transition to the TV screen, and although the UK Dennis didn’t make it to the movies, both have enjoyed huge popularity with their readers. The UK Dennis was put on the front cover of the Beano in 1974 and has been there ever since. It’s arguable that the UK Dennis is more of an actual menace than Dennis Mitchell – put into musical terms, the US Dennis is the Monkees, and the UK Dennis is the Sex Pistols – however, it bears repeating that both cartoons began in the same month of the same year, totally independently of one another, and went on to take over the world.
I can’t be alone in finding that fact entirely mind-boggling.