Ketcham if you can!
Monday cartoon day.
I have been showing a lot of cartoons by Mort Walker which he did before starting Beetle Bailey between 1948 and 1952. In that same period there were two other important cartoonists, both if which I think are great. One was Virgil Partch, who was a large influence on a whole generation of cartoonists. The other was someone who worked together with Partch at Disney in the early forties. After the war, he took to magazine cartooning and soon he was a master of the genre. Like Mort Walker, he stopped doing cartoons in the early fifties when he started his own newspaper feature. The feature was Dennis the Menace. The cartoonist Hank Ketcham.
Like Walker, Ketcham managed to place cartoons in all of the major magazines of the day. Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, True. Where the Post was Walker's main outlet and True belonged to Partch, Ketcham sold most of his stuff to Collier's, a man's weekend magazine which could be read by the little woman too. Before landing at Collier's he sold cartoons all over the place, appearing in monthly cartoon magazines such as Judge and 1000 Jokes, as well as others. He also did a lot of advertising, especially in the later years. He never joined up with a company, so my guess is he was sought after because of his style.
Last year Fantagraphics published the first real collection of Ketcham's wonderful cartoon pieces. They had already published three volumes of The Complete Dennis the Menace (with more to come) but Where's Dennis is a welcome addition. Ketcham's cartoons are almost always laugh out loud funny, often better than the more popular Dennis. It is well known that Ketcham relied on gag writers for his dailey panel about Dennis' shananigans, but I am not sure if he used those for his cartoons. Some of the worst Dennis cartoons are nothing more than illustrated gaglines, but most of the cartoons seem to have been written with the drawing in mind. In a good cartoon, the cartoon itself is a large part of the fun. In Backstage At The Strips Mort Walker advises strip artists to 'have your character hit over the head once a week'. This is not only a reminder of the fact that slapstick and visual humor is a large part of the fun in a good strip, but also that the cartoony aspect of it is it's pure reason for being. We don't read the comics get our daily quota of funny lines and zingers, we want to see the world through the eyes of a cartoonist. The simplification of the outside world, body movement and facial reactions are what makes one stgrip stand out from the other. It is why we come back to it and it is why it has to be consistant on the one hand and keep renewing itself on the other. In his cartoons, Ketcham understood this like no other. They are each and every one of them a revelation as to how the world can be seen and simplified into a couple of lines. For some reason this tickles our funnybones. The same way an experienced stand-up comedian will tell you that shorter always is funnier.
I will be giving Ketcham's cartoons a lot of space over the next few weeks. I will even have a look to see if I can manage to get in a review of the Fantagraphics book (which, apart from the fact that is was long overdue, has it's problems). To kick it off, I will start with an early piece about Ketcham, from Lariar's 1945 edition of Best Cartoons. I don't know how long this series ran, but the earliest one I have seen is from 1943 and the latest for 1956. In the earlier editions Lariar included short descriptions of the most popular cartoonists, often accompanied by a self-portrait.
These next three cartoons are from the Summer 1945 issue of 1000 Jokes, a quarterly Dell publication featuring gags and cartoons. They are best known among collectors for having photo's or charicatures of celebrity comediens on them. We have come across it here on this blog, when I pu lished some of the written pieces Mort Walker did for them when he was the editor for one short year in 1950.
To illustrate how much that self-portrait remained unchanged, I am including a 1954 sunday page of Dennis the Menace, which has a photograph of Ketcham. According to most sources, Ketcham gave the sunday to his assistants (about which more later) in 1954, a year after the sunday was started. In the late fifties, this was running so well that he never even interfered with them. This self-referencial sunday is either one of the last one he did himself, or a very self-consious attempt to reiterate his importance after handing it over to a ghost artist (but possibly not yet a ghostwriter).