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Originally published Sunday, October 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Dennis the deviant

If Dennis the Menace were real and grown up, he'd be on death row. That's my conclusion from Fantagraphics' new collection. "Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis...

Seattle Times staff reporter

If Dennis the Menace were real and grown up, he'd be on death row.

That's my conclusion from Fantagraphics' new collection. "Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace — 1951-1952" ($24.95) packages the first year of one of the world's most popular characters in a squat volume the size of a glass brick. Its panels depict a far more menacing boy than the cute one currently abiding in the nation's newspapers. He's more Dennis the Sociopath.

In recent strips, Dennis sits in a puddle and says to his friend, Margaret, "The good thing about jumpin' puddles is even if you don't make it, it's still fun!" He warns a boy on his porch, "Better take off your shoes. Muddy feet and moms don't mix very well."

Talk about gag-writing. It's hard to pinpoint when Dennis lapsed into "Family Circus" preciousness. Seattle native Ketcham had passed the duties on to Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton in 1994 — supervising them until he died in 2001.

After years of sap, the first-year panels are eye-opening. They depict a demon-child who predates Damien the "Omen" kid and the "The Bad Seed" girl, not to mention "Calvin & Hobbes." Walking out of an elevator with his concerned-looking mom, malicious-eyed Dennis says, "Did you see that? I pinched that fat dame to make her give me room, and she slugged a guy in back of her!"

The volume isn't just a hilarious chronicle of violence, humiliation and destruction. It's a case-study in antisocial personality disorder.

The Dennis file

Animal cruelty is an early trait that serial-killers share. A swan with its neck tied in a knot warns its mate, "Stay away from that kid with the black pants!" Armed with a slingshooter on a park bench, Dennis asks his mom, "Hey, do you know how to cook a pigeon?"

Sociopaths are unable to empathize with the pain of others. A teacher tells Dennis' mom, "Your Dennis is a happy child. He hit Sammy with a sand shovel and I thought he'd die laughing!"

Young Dennis manifests the violent proclivities that would lead to his institutionalization as an adult. In a playground sandbox, the diabolical-looking boy shows a friend how to make a weapon: "You fill your sock with sand, like this, see? And then — wham!" With a fiendish expression, he performs a variation on the familiar hand rhyme and gestures: "Here's the church and here's the steeple. Close the doors and squash the people!"

Clearly, 5 ½-year-old Dennis is a dangerously "at-risk" youth. He also displays strong Oedipal behavior, continually emasculating his poor father, Henry, and attempting to drive the parents apart through sleep-deprivation and betrayal.

Holding his embarrassed mom's hand, Dennis stops a friend on the sidewalk: "Billy, this is my mother. Some looker, eh?" He walks in on Alice while she bathes, and she covers her nude body in horrified modesty. He tells another friend, "This is my mother, Tommy. Isn't she pretty?" These unsettling bath incidents increase in frequency.

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Note the blatant symbolism when father and son are fishing. As frustrated dad grips a sagging pole, Dennis brags, "Your fish looks like something my fish would eat!" The boy's psychic dominance appears complete when he hops off of a wagon Henry is pulling. "Hold it!" Dennis boasts to friends. "Wait'll I get my whip!"

Dennis persistently tries to drive a wedge between Henry and Alice by exposing their flirtations. He narcs out dad on the beach to a furious Alice: "Boy, did we meet a pretty girl! Her name was Sally Holt. I forget her phone number." Likewise, he deals poor Henry another blow to his masculinity in front of Henry's male friend: "If you're so handy, how come Mom had the man next door fix the leg on the cardtable?"

Only Dennis' nemesis, Mr. Wilson, sees the truth about this young Hannibal Lecter. "Genghis Khan was a little boy once, too," the neighbor tells his cookie-enabling wife, Martha. Dennis, pointing angrily at his little Yale shirt, tells his dad, "Mr. Wilson said this should say Jail 1966!"

The fact that Wilson is a retired U.S. postal worker might be alarming in light of the boy's relentless antagonism. But in the character profiles in his 1990 autobiography, "The Merchant of Dennis" ($24.95, reprinted by Fantagraphics), Ketcham wrote that flat feet kept Wilson out of World War II combat. Even if that rules out post-traumatic stress disorder, "he usually turns to the cooking sherry when he's under stress."

Kids aren't born bad, though. There are hints of physical abuse that could have sparked Dennis' acting-out: Entering the kitchen filthy and soaked, Dennis tells stern Alice, "Hey, Mom. Will you turn on the bath, fix my bed and bring the strap?"

What would adult Dennis look like? His junk-food penchant for cookies, ice cream and hot dogs, and his intense hatred of barbers, suggest he'd be morbidly obese and long-haired.

He'd have issues with women, too. Ketcham describes little Margaret with shocking candor as "threatening, bossy, superior, always pursuing, the incipient castrator. Some of us marry her, some escape, and others are rescued. Here we see the problem in its haziest beginnings."

The real Dennis

Where did all this hostility come from?

Ketcham describes a happy youth on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill in the '30s, flipping burgers at the Grizzly Inn, grooving to Bing Crosby records, hamming it up in bands and plays, and smitten with cartoons after seeing Disney's "Three Little Pigs." But there is a puzzling admission: "I can't truthfully complain that we lived under much tension or nervous strain — but I bit my nails, sucked my thumb, and wet my bed until I was nearly fourteen."

One afternoon in 1950, when 4-year-old Dennis Lloyd Ketcham destroyed his bedroom, his volatile Irish mother shouted to her husband, "YOUR son is a MENACE!" The strip was born.

There's little else about the real Dennis in "Merchant," apart from a mention of his being sent to a boarding school.

Dennis' mother died from a drug overdose in 1959, Brian Walker writes in "The Complete" volume's introduction. Dennis served a tour of duty in Vietnam, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and grew estranged from Hank. "Ketcham always regretted the burden he created for his son when he named his famous character after him."

The burden was inescapable. "Dennis the Menace" appears in more than 1,000 papers in 48 countries. There was the 1959-1963 TV series starring also-troubled Jay North, an animated "Dennis" from 1988-89 and more than 50 million books sold. And don't forget that junk-food-jonesing Dennis is the mascot of Dairy Queen.

Reached at the Monterey, Calif., "Dennis" office, Ketcham's longtime assistant and friend Dottie Roberson said, "They weren't totally estranged. It's a difficult situation, and a person — Dennis had some ... he just had some rough waters in his life. So it wasn't a copacetic childhood."

Whatever became of Dennis?

"I don't know. We don't know," Roberson said. "I have no clue, and we haven't had for quite a few years. A few years before Mr. Ketcham passed away, he dropped out of the scene."

He didn't even show up at his dad's funeral.

"No, and he didn't get in touch with us. Nor did he get in touch with any other family member. Everyone has lost touch with him." Friendly but firm, Roberson said, "He's not the story, and we really are not interested in him being the story. And if I did know anything, I wouldn't tell you then, either."

As for the pronounced edge in those early panels, Roberson said, "I think in general society had that kind of an edge. There was a big difference in how people did relate to comedy, or even the roles that males and females played."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

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