Ketchum Sketch-em

By | Tuesday, October 31, 2023 Leave a Comment
To no surprise, many popular newspaper comics made the transition to comic books at some point. Indeed, the very first comic books were just reprint collections of newspaper strips. But eventually, comic book publishers would try to take advantage of the longer format so the typically short-form comic strips could utiltize the same characters in stories longer than a few panels. Instead of having only three or four panels of Dagwood ending with a single gag, a story could stretch out over an entire issue.

Frequently, the comic books in question were credited to the original creator of the strip. Often when the art made it plainly evident the original creator wasn't the one who did the bulk of the work. The specific line quality of Charles Schulz, for example, is almost impossible to mimic. My assumption would generally be that they just signed their name to it as a marketing thing. It lent some measure of credibility to the comic book itself; even if it didn't fool anybody into thinking the creator themself worked on it, it at least provided an ersatz stamp of approval.

However, it would appear that, at least in the case of Dennis the Menace's Hank Ketcham, he had a very direct hand in the creation of the Dennis comic books. At least the one from the 1980s. Ron Ferdinand began working with Ketcham in the fall of 1981, and his first professional Dennis work was drawing for the Marvel comic book. One of Ketcham's other assistants, Bob Bugg, drew the Sunday Dennis comic strips and that task fell to Ferdinand when Bugg quit in 1982. (Ketcham was establishing a formal studio in California and wanted all his workers located there, but Bugg refused to move from Connecticut.) All of which is to say that Ferdinand has been working on Dennis since 1981; that's nearly as long as Ketcham himself worked on the character.

But Ferdinand shared something about a week ago that I find fascinating. The image at the right here is a page layout for one of those Dennis the Menace comic books from the 1980s, done by Ketcham himself! Ferdinand noted, "When we were working on the Marvel comic Hank would lay out every page." Ketcham's linework here is rough and sketchy, of course, but still pretty un-mistakeably his. Now, this is only for the Marvel Comics title (which only lasted a little over a year) but it kind of suggests Ketcham still had a pretty direct hand in the previous iterations of Dennis comic books from other publishers. And whether or not this level of involvement would've been the norm even for other comics publishers might've done like that around the same time, like Heathcliff.

But what I find surprising is that it was done at all. Ketcham could've easily just dropped his signature on it, and let Ferdinand go off on his own. Ketcham had been doing the Dennis comic strip since 1951; the character had been a spokesman for Dairy Queen since 1971; Dennis featured in a successful TV show that ran four seasons, which was only canceled because the lead actor Jay North had outgrown the part. Ketcham had plenty of experience with the character and with turning him over to other creators. Yet, in 1981, he still had his hand in the day-to-day operations of telling Dennis the Menace stories beyond the newspaper funnies.
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