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Monday, August 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Antics of "Dennis the Menace" back in print

The Associated Press

"Peanuts" turned to gold for Fantagraphics. Now the once-struggling Seattle comics publisher hopes another American cartoon icon, "Dennis the Menace," can rake in millions with his decades-old antics.

In September, Fantagraphics will publish the first book in a 25-volume series, "Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace." The series will run 11 years and reprint every "Dennis the Menace" newspaper strip — nearly 11,000 strips spanning more than 44 years.

The 624-page first volume will reprint the first two years (1951-53) of the cartoon life of the mischievous young boy who bedevils his parents and neighbors.

In conjunction with this first collection, the company also will republish Ketcham's autobiography. The cartoonist was born in Seattle and died in 2001 at age 81.

The first Dennis book is coming on the heels of a great turnaround for Fantagraphics, which was on the verge of going broke just two years ago. Three best-selling "Peanuts" reprint editions and a boom in the graphic novel industry made the company successful again.

"It's safe to say that we're healthier than we've ever been," said spokesman Eric Reynolds. "We were a week away from going out of business. It's been an incredible turnaround."

The first volume of "The Complete Peanuts" was published in spring 2004 and has since sold 110,000 copies. It was the first Fantagraphics product to hit The New York Times best-seller list in the company's 29 years. The fourth book will be published in October.

"People look forward to the 'Peanuts' books because it's great stuff," said Emily Harrold, a sales clerk at Zanadu Comics in Seattle. "The early strips are clever and innovative. It's so special to see them in chronological order."

Fantagraphics was better known for underground and alternative comics than mainstream fare like "Peanuts," but a long friendship between "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz and Fantagraphics President Gary Groth helped the company land the deal.

"For a small independent publishing company to get a license for the biggest cartoon character in the world was surprising," said Reynolds. "It's been the biggest thing we've ever done."

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The success of "The Complete Peanuts" books impressed Ketcham's family, and they approached Fantagraphics about reprinting vintage Dennis cartoons, Reynolds said.

Inspired by his "rambunctious" young son, Ketcham created "Dennis the Menace" in 1951, and the strip started running in 16 newspapers. It reached 100 papers by the end of its first year, and now Dennis trails only Charlie Brown of "Peanuts" in cartoon popularity. "Dennis the Menace" appears daily in more than 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries, and is translated in 19 languages.

Ketcham dropped out of the University of Washington in 1938 to work for Walter Lantz, the creator of "Woody Woodpecker." He later joined the Disney Studios, where he inked cels for the classic animated films "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia."

His autobiography, "The Merchant of Dennis the Menace," was originally published in 1990. The new version, redesigned by Fantagraphics, will have vintage photos of Ketcham's childhood home, family photos, early sketches and many other illustrations.

Fantagraphics hopes this second dip into the past will bring the same kind of success their "Peanuts" collection has brought.

Reynolds noted that sales of "graphic novels" — books that feature comic material — have doubled in the past couple of years.

"Getting into the big bookstores has been a boon for us," Reynolds said. "Wider distribution and the Internet have made it so much easier to find our books."

Before moving to Seattle in 1989, Fantagraphics started out as a trade magazine called The Comics Journal in Washington, D.C. It later published comics by Robert Crumb and other underground artists. It has also reprinted collections of classic newspaper strips "Pogo," "Prince Valiant" and "Krazy Kat."

Its other titles include "Ghost World," which inspired a 2001 film that was nominated for an Oscar.

Fantagraphics almost went belly-up in 2003, but it was saved by a frantic last-minute promotional campaign, in which it implored customers and retailers to buy more Fantagraphics products.

"We bought a lot of stuff from them because it was impossible to imagine a world without Fantagraphics," said Zanadu's Harrold. "We're so glad they pulled through because they publish some of the best books in our industry."

The company now publishes about 50 softcover books and 25 comics annually.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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