Welcome to the five hundred and sixteenth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the first five hundred (I actually haven’t been able to update it in a while). This week, what was the offensive first attempt by Dennis the Menace to add an African-American cast member? Plus, will George Perez never draw Vibe? Finally, what notable response did the artist on Grant Morrison’s last issue of Animal Man to Morison’s script?
NOTE: The column is on three pages, a page for each legend. There’s a little “next” button on the top of the page and the bottom of the page to take you to the next page (and you can navigate between each page by just clicking on the little 1, 2 and 3 on the top and the bottom, as well).
COMIC LEGEND: The first African-American character in the Dennis the Menace comic strip was an offensive racial caricature…in 1970!
The world of comics has long been a place where racial issues have not always been handled very well. The Golden Age of comic books during the 1940s saw a number of attempts at African-American characters that ended up being basically offensive racial caricatures, like the watermelon loving member of Bucky’s Young Allies, Whitewash Jones. And it wasn’t like people didn’t think that they were offensive THEN, even, like the group of schoolchildren who helped get Fawcett Comics to stop the use of their Steamboat character in Captain Marvel (as noted in this old Comic Book Legends Revealed).
By the late 1960s, though, comic books were getting slowly better with their use of African-American characters, like Captain America’s partner, the Falcon (introduced in 1969). Comic books, though, had a good deal more freedom than the world of comic strips, which were viewed by a much larger and varied audience.
In a Comic Book Legends Revealed installment a month ago, I featured the story of the schoolteacher who convinced Charles Schulz to finally add an African-American cast member to his Peanuts comic strip in 1968.
While Schulz’s response to the desire to see an African-American character was well-reasoned and impressive, on the OTHER end of the spectrum was Hank Ketcham’s response to similar requests.
Hank Ketcham was the creator of the Dennis the Menace comic strip from 1951 until his retirement in 1994.
It was a strip about a young boy (based on Ketcham’s own son, Dennis) and the various bits of mischief he would get into (he would especially cause trouble for his neighbor, Mr. Wilson)…
It was adapted into a popular TV series from 1959-1963…
In the late 1960s, Ketcham was getting a lot of the same pressure that Schulz and other comic strip creators were getting to integrate his strips (Ketcham by this point was living in Geneva, Switzerland, with Dennis and his second wife. He lived in Geneva from 1960-1977).
In his autobiography, he discussed the time….
Back in the late 1960s when minorities were getting their dander up, painting signs, joining in protest marches, and calling attention to their plight, I was determined to join the parade led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and introduce a black playmate to the Mitchell neighborhood.
While the “dander up” phrase is a bit odd, this is all generally positive stuff so far. But then…
I named him Jackson and designed him in the tradition of Little Black Sambo with huge lips, big white eyes, and just a suggestion of an Afro hairstyle. He was cute as a button, and in addition to being a marvelous graphic, he would reflect the refreshing, naive honesty of preschool children as yet unexposed to prejudice and rancor. It was a splendid opportunity to inject some humor into the extremely tense political climate. I urged my writers to give this priority and rolled up my sleeves with enthusiastic anticipation.
Here is what he came up with from 1970…
The strip caused enough of an uproar that the Cleveland Press specifically apologized for the strip:
Yesterday’s DENNIS THE MENACE cartoon offended a number of Press readers. The Press apologizes for the affront caused by the cartoonist. It assures subscribers that such a thing will not happen again.
Ketcham, for his part, wrote a statement:
not to apologize but to express my utter dismay at the absurd reaction to my innocent cartoon… Any regular Dennis-watcher would surely know that I am never vindictive or show any intent to malign or denigrate… It was my depiction of Dennis’s new pal that got their tails in a knot. I gave them a miniature Steppin Fetchit when they wanted a half-pint Harry Belafonte.
It seems that Sammy Davis, Jr., was the only one who could safely poke fun at the minorities.
Yikes. Ketcham’s biggest argument was that all of the characters in the books were cariactures. Like the father had a big pointy nose. But, really, come on.
Ketcham eventually conceded that it was a bad idea, and introduced a more reasonable version of Jackson…
Check out my latest Movie Legends Revealed at Spinoff Online: Did Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society originally die at the end of the film?
On the next page, speaking of stereotypes, did George Perez refuse to draw Vibe because Perez felt that he was too much of a stereotype?
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