Dennis the Menace has nice American twin

Posted by John Patrick Reynolds on

The Americans seem to have woken up to the fact that there is a British comic character called Dennis the Menace, just in time to celebrate the two creations’ 65th birthdays.
An article just appeared on the American website The Smithsonian. This is how it starts:
“They were born simultaneously, in March 1951, two entirely independent and wildly contrasting Dennis the Menaces. One was the creation of Hank Ketcham, a former Disney animator in California. The other was the brainchild of the British cartoonist David “Davey” Law. Neither had any knowledge of the other’s Dennis until both debuted in the same week—Ketcham’s in the funny pages of 16 U.S. newspapers and Law’s in the venerable and anarchic British weekly The Beano. Each Dennis would carry on for decades, spawning TV shows and theme-park attractions.”

You can read more here:

I’ve often been amazed that there was an American comic strip with the same name as The Beano one, and which, moreover, first appeared in the same year as the British one. In fact the two appeared within a few days of each other back in 1951.
The American one came out in 16 newspapers on 12 March 1951, which was a Monday.
The British one first appeared in The Beano dated 17 March 1951, which was a Saturday. However, The Beano is always distributed earlier in the week, so there are just days between the two – and they are of course completely unconnected.
The fact that both have survived is also remarkable – bearing in mind how many comic creations have come and gone in the past 65 years.

The fact of their first appearance is empty coincidence – but there is surely significance in their differing characters and characteristics.
The American Dennis is blond, wears dungarees and is cute. He gets into trouble, of course, but only untentionally.
The British version is altogether darker. His hair is a wild black mess, he is dressed for football and he goes looking for trouble. His favourite toys are weapons – the catapult and the peashooter. He likes nothing better than knocking off policemen’s helmets or tormenting the unfortunate Walter The Softy. He’s a bully, a vandal, a malevolent pocket Satan.
What can one draw from these differences? Are little American boys nicer than their British counterparts? Is the British taste in fiction more anarchic?
The Smithsonian suggests: “American Dennis radiated the irrepressible energy of a young republic. In contrast, British Dennis represented a form of transgression that didn’t even exist in the United States. He emerged during a time of class struggle and waning empire, when the U.K. establishment feared the oik, the yob, the ungovernable prole. In short, British Dennis was a proto-punk-rock-hooligan.”
Well, the cute-but-incompetent American Dennis might represent the “young republic”, but it’s made a mistake with the British Dennis, because the British love their Dennis – he has become a national mascot. We don’t fear him, we identify with him.
But perhaps I should let you draw your own conclusions.

JPR, March 2016

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