Tuesday, 8 July 2014

We Need To Talk About Dennis

Let's discuss Dennis the Menace. It's been too long coming. Dennis is arguably Britain's most successful comic character. Really, who else comes close? Judge Dredd? Maybe. Bananaman? Ask me again in a couple of years. The girls of St Trinians? I guess they count...

Anyway, first (especially for my overseas readers) I need to make one thing ABSOLUTELY clear. When I refer to Dennis the Menace I do not mean this prick:
Ugh. I HATE American Dennis the Menace. I mean, look at him. He doesn't menace, he puns. He hilariously misunderstands adults.
That's NOT menacing. It's positively sweet!
All right, his perpetual snubbing of Margaret will lead to severe emotional problems later in life. Maybe she will never form a real relationship. That is quite menacing. If he's deliberately playing the long game. He seems to annoy Mr Wilson more by accident than design. Maybe I'm not giving him enough credit.

However THAT Dennis cemented himself into popular culture through things like a TV sitcom in 1959 and a pretty poor movie from 1993 which amazingly got Walter Matthau in one of his final roles. I best remember the 1986 cartoon series boring me as a child. Seriously, I'd rather be watching The Raccoons.

In one of those moments of cosmic spookiness the American Dennis the Menace (by Hank Ketchum) and the British Dennis the Menace (by Davey Law) were both first printed within 5 days of each other in 1951.

OUR Dennis (hereafter just Dennis, cos, y'know, he is the real one) was a trouble maker from day one. The Beano, issue 452.
Here he is, being told off by his Dad.

His style quickly evolved as his popularity grew. It's like the coming of a comics messiah, we always knew he should have been here.
Law continued drawing Dennis until he retired in 1970. Law retired. Not Dennis. Along the way he gave us the familiar red and black striped jersey, Walter the Softy (Dennis' perennial antagonist) and Gnasher (Dennis' faithful doggy companion, now inseparable), originally a stray which Dennis entered into a dog show.
Dave Sutherland took over and is the version with whom most of you will be familiar. I know I am. Sutherland continued with Dennis until 1998. You may also know his work on Biffo the Bear and The Bash Street Kids (the latter he took over from the great Leo Baxendale in 1961 and is STILL drawing every week as of July 2014).

In 1974 Dennis had become so popular he had taken over the front cover from Biffo, unseating him after 26 years. He has remained there until this day.
Growing up in the 1980s, the last good time for British kids' comics, meant knowing Dennis better than your own family. looking through a handful of issues from 1987 (which I happen to have lying around) shows the perpetual fight with "the softies" as an unsettling normalisation of gay-bashing....
Seriously, Walter and his "friends" all seem to conform to pre-political correctness caricatures of homosexuals.
Everything "sweet" is effeminate and therefore "wrong".
And don't you dare blur those gender lines!
Obviously such behaviour must be punished!
These days, Walter tends to be meaner to Dennis to more justify the fights. More of a teacher's pet-type crawler. Think Martin Prince from The Simpsons. Actually much of todays Dennis is heavily Simpson influenced. Simpfluenced.

The Sutherland years gave us Dennis' friends Curly and Pieface as well as his pet pig Rasher and Gnasher's son Gnipper (I'll come back to that story at a later date).

After a short-lived TV cartoon series for the BBC in 1996, in 1998 David Parkins became the third David to take on the Menace and got to design a new (ish) look for the strip.

His tenure saw the introduction of Dennis' sister, Bea (named through a reader poll, like the Blue Peter cat) who was, well, a bit like Maggie. She also brought new levels of scatology into the comic. Honestly, in my day even Oink! weren't allowed to say "fart", now barely a page of Toxic goes by without one. Tch. Kids today don't know they're born.

Anyway, in 2003 Nigel Parkinson and Jimmy Hansen took over (with another back-up strip by personal favourite Tom Paterson) during which time monthly comic Beano Max was launched, with Dennis as cover star as well.
Then, in 2009, the publishers decided it was time for a rebranding. There was a new cartoon series
co-produced with Australian television in production and a decision was made to match the aesthetics and characters from that.

An aside here: does anyone else remember "Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future"? It was a child-friendly comic aimed at all those new-found Dredd fans who discovered the Mega City One tough guy through the massive hit movie starring Stallone. It didn't last long.
I digress. The same creative team work on the strip at this time and the cartoon show was surprisingly good (honestly, I'm watching some on The YouTubes as I type this, some alarming Aussie accents aside it gets the tone right) but the design did not seem right for the comic itself.
In 2011 the strip was relaunched with Parkinson and Barrie Appleby in control. Some interesting stuff happens here. First, Dennis now gets three pages instead of two. The editorial style of the comic would also mean sometimes it got more. Or popped up on other pages throughout the issue. There was also a renewed interest in "celebrity" guests.

It is a fairly long-standing tradition for well-known people to endorse their appearances in The Beano. Some specifically asked for it. Sometimes the weight of history can make these decisions seem wrong.
Yep, that's Paralympic hero Oscar Pistorious racing Walter. According to a press release from the Beano editor from 2012: "he's just like Dennis, who never does as he is told." Oh dear.

Could that be the most misjudged guest appearance in The Beano?
...Let's move on.

This is all leading to an observation I made regarding Dennis' dad. See, in 2011 Dad was redesigned. The creators wanted a dad who seemed more real to the kids of today. Gone was the slipper-wielding authoritarian with the toothbrush moustache of old and in came... well, a bloke who looked like a middle-aged Dennis.
He didn't see himself as above his children and desperately wanted to still seem "cool". He was like today's parents. At least if those friends of mine who have bred and share their baby pictures on the Facebooks are anything to go by. I think this was a bold move and a correct one. It definitely makes the characters more relatable and, yes, closer to The Simpsons.
Then something got me thinking. Dennis has been around for a long time now. Is this menace the same kid?

You know how James Bond has been around for over 50 years? In the movies it is believable that he is the same character between Dr No (1962) and A View to a Kill (1985) but no further. Even though there is a reference to Bond's wife Tracey in Licence To Kill. And one of the Brosnans.
There is a theory which attempts to square the continuity by showing that "James Bond" is a codename used by SIS/MI7/whatever for their top agent. Who happens to have similar character traits. And whose wife was murdered. This almost works up until Skyfall where it all falls apart. Buy me a drink some day and I'll explain it to you.

Anyway, how do we (let's be honest, we're all nerds at this point) square the Dennis' Dad circle? Why did he change? Why did Klingon foreheads change? How did the Second Doctor know Jamie and Zoe had their memories wiped? Sure, we could just shrug and move on like most people BUT THAT MEANS THEY WIN!

Don't know who "they" are.

Sorry.

Anyway, it hit me recently: The Dennis the Menace of my childhood is the father of the current Dennis. Today's Dennis is Dennis Junior.

Then I read the current Beano Summer Special (aside: really pleased they still make Beano Summer Specials) and found this flashback to Dennis's Dad's childhood:
Well that confirms it! I have deliberately chosen the pictures from past strips to show "Dad" in every era was consistently drawn like that (scroll up and have a look if you like) until 2011. And now we have this.

Then, whilst finding relevant pictures for this blog I read a strip I missed before, from January this year. It's another flashback panel:
I am now convinced. It is 100% canon that MY Dennis has now grown up and is dealing with his own menace spawn. Maybe one day this current Dennis will discover Karma in the same way.

Now, the only problem is the cartoon. When it started in 2009, Dennis's dad looked like
and since last year he was all
...so is it canon?

5 comments:

  1. Gnasher going missing. I still have nightmares. They get worse when I remember what he brought back with him. Scrappy Doo basically.

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  2. Gnipper was no Scrappy. Also you forget his sisters (Gnatasha, Gnaomi, Gnora and Gnanette) as did the writers. I am going to cover that story in full, including its Radio 1 guest star.

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  3. If all this is true, would Gnipper have grown up into the current Gnasher?

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  4. Replies
    1. Holy Moley! I've just realised you commented! You, sir, are doing the Lord's work. Thank you. But can you shed any light on the "official" line?

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