“An unexpected legacy”

Dennis
Steve Bunche got a bunch of old comics collections from a neighbor and found some gems, including several Pogo books and a copy of BACKSTAGE FROM THE STRIPS. Unbelievably, the above strip is from 1970. Bunche explains.

But the main reason why I’m happy to have received BACKSTAGE AT THE STRIPS is that it contains a strip I never forgot since I first saw it in there three decades ago, namely the following unbelievable DENNIS THE MENACE daily from 1970, and not 1917.

Yes, this actually ran nationwide in 1970, which beggars the question of just how out of touch creator Hank Ketcham was. Were the 1960′s something that didn’t happen for him? Whatever the case, the Cleveland Press printed this apology the day after the strip ran, printing it in place of what would have been that day’s DENNIS THE MENACE installment:

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.

What truly amazes me about it is that I don’t think Ketcham actually meant any harm and just didn’t know any better. DENNIS THE MENACE always kind of existed in a 1950′s-style, suburbia-that-never-was OZZIE AND HARRIET universe of bland (though very well drawn) blandness that was informed by generations of outdated humor, and the depiction of the kid as a Sambo stereotype was just a part of the once-accepted visual language. Too bad Ketcham apparently hadn’t payed attention to social advances and depictions of us “race” types since the mid-1940′s.

Comments

  1. There was a Dennis strip in a collection I had as a boy that has haunted me for many decades. Dennis is sitting in a barber’s chair rubbing his head and telling the barber: “Cut it real short and paint it black.” As a kid, I just figured I didn’t get it. As an adult, I can’t figure out if Dennis is going through some ethnic identity issues or just being puckish.

  2. There was a Dennis strip in a collection I had as a boy that has haunted me for many decades. Dennis is sitting in a barber’s chair rubbing his head and telling the barber: “Cut it real short and paint it black.” As a kid, I just figured I didn’t get it. As an adult, I can’t figure out if Dennis is going through some ethnic identity issues or just being puckish.

  3. “Too bad Ketcham apparently hadn’t payed attention to social advances and depictions of us “race” types since the mid-1940’s.”

    Geez, where were the editors at the syndicate and the newspapers? Sure, some of them may have been of that same jaw-droppingly clueless mindset as Ketcham, but ALL of them? Wow….that’s astonishing for 1970.

  4. Wait. How is this bad? The kid is SUPPOSED to be a menace. It’s good to finally see him living up to his title.

  5. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Luckily, young Bill “Jackson” Foster would overcome this insensitive portrayal, leave the strip, receive his doctorate, and find a positive role to play in the Marvel Universe.

  6. I thought he went to Archie, where he got his own title, FAST WILLIE JACKSON.

  7. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Well, the joke isn’t really that he turned into another comics black guy, and therefore we should decide which one, which would be asinine, but that the fate of Bill Foster indicates that 1970 didn’t have a monopoly on the questionable treatment of black comics characters. Same song, different tune and all that.

    It’s funnier if I explain it, though, Gene. Thanks!

  8. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Unless Fast Willie Jackson is as pitiful as the name implies and you’re with me in spirit, in which case I apologize.

  9. Ben May says:

    Whenever something like this happens, I love how everyone just assumes the artist “didn’t mean it.” How the hell do you know? Unless you know him or her personally, that’s kind of a jump to make. For all we know, Hank was a flaming racist and meant every line.

  10. “For all we know, Hank was a flaming racist and meant every line.”

    Well, we know if he DIDN’T mean it. But we don’t know if he DID. I love how some people immediately assume the worst.

    The cartoon is pretty tasteless, but most people probably don’t read the caption before going into “offended” mode. Maybe the joke is supposed to be that Dennis, being a kid, doesn’t know or understand the world around him. He hears “race riot” and assumes it’s a race.

    That said, Ketcham could have drawn him to resemble a black kid, rather than this strange ebony creature. I never could figure out why some thought black people looked like those caricatures, or why they thought those caricatures were funny.

  11. Well, it explains Henry Mitchell’s shocked expression: “What the hell is that reject from ‘Happy Hooligan’ doing in the 20th century?”

  12. James Van Hise says:

    Seeing this strip reminds me of the problems which ensued in the 1970s when Warren, and then Kitchen Sink began reprinting the old Eisner Spirit strips which featured Ebony White. Eisner was completely unprepared for the criticism they received and his explanation that everybody drew black people that way in the 1940s didn’t fly with everyone. Even Eisner recognized in the 1940s that this character eventually didn’t work as Ebony disappeared from the strip in the late 1940s and was replaced with a white kid.

  13. michael says:

    ah, old cartoonists/illustrators and their crazy old man ideas!

  14. Good cartoon. Very topical.

  15. There’s something off about the later works and actions of older cartoonists-
    one need go no further than Al Capp (“Lil Abner”) to understand what I’m talking about.
    If he wasn’t putting down hippies or shilling for Richard Nixon, then he was feeling up the office girls that didn’t run fast enough.
    It’s almost as though they didn’t quite get the sea change in values and attitudes from the ‘good ole days’ to the 1960s and 70s. Granted, they weren’t the only ones, but reading about some of these incidents is enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable about the medium and those who came before.
    Still, given some of the goofy stuff guys came up with in the 1970s and beyond (who doesn’t love all those well toned men in loin cloths with laser guns that dominated fantasy art for a while?)… no one is beyond reproach.

  16. Tom,

    Did you really not know that there really was an Archie comic called FAST WILLIE JACKSON? Just takes a moment to google it…

    Granted, I can’t take credit for the Dennis cartoon’s doubtless-coincidental association of “speed” and “a Presidential name” in making the joke, and I don’t think the Archie book meant “fast” in the same way.

    Maybe for the joke to work, you had to be from the era when the Archie comic was around, but I had the impression you were…

  17. Also, though Bill Foster is hardly a character to last the ages, I see nothing “questionable” about his status as a black character.

  18. Actually, FAST WILLIE JACKSON was NOT an Archie book, but an Archie RIP-OFF book, published by Fitzgerald Publications, the same folks that did GOLDEN LEGACY, a series of bio-comics about assorted black historical figures. Most of the FWJ stories appear to be by Archie stalwart Dick Malmgren, and some of them are lettered by Bill Yoshida as well, so it’s easy to mistake them at first glance for the real thing. They’re pretty lousy overall.

  19. Thanks for the correction, Devlin.

  20. I will never draw or write about any minority ever. I am too afraid that someday people will think I am a racist because the definition of racist and non-racist depictions of minorities changes from decade to decade.

  21. Didn’t Ketchum live abroad in France at the time of this cartoon? IIRC, he spent most of his career overseas, basing his view of suburbia on what he remembered and what was reported in the popular press. I recall reading an interview where he said he decided to return to the U.S. because he was starting to do panels where Dennis’ dad wore a beret and rode a bicycle…

    If he was living abroad in 1970 (and I don’t recall when he returned), then the caricature of the African-American child would not necessarily have been considered racist or derogatory where he was living.

    But, man, it is offensive looking…

  22. Allen says:

    Hank Ketcham was living in Switzerland at the time. In his autobiography, he admits that he had to get photographs and other reference items from the US to make sure he wasn’t falling away from typical suburbia.

    I bought “Backstage from the Strips” back then, and remember this being in there (and I still have it somewhere). There might be more on that in this book; I’ll have to find my copy. I seem to recall that Ketcham was surprised at the reaction of this strip, and decided to avoid the issue by not drawing black characters any longer. I think he did do one earlier (or was it later?) portrayal of Jackson that was much more realistic.

  23. “But, man, it is offensive looking… ”

    One can find an offense in everything if one is looking hard enough.

    The world would be a better place if everyone stopped looking so hard and so often for things that aren’t really there.

  24. The Beat says:

    Fred, offense is in the eye of the beholder. I’m offended that you don’t find this offensive. And I’m sure you are offended by my offense.

    Everyone go read about Edward Bernays and some back in a week.

  25. Beat, “offense is in the eye of the beholder” helps support “One can find an offense in everything if one is looking hard enough.”

    The easily offended are a nuisance. Why would you be offended that I don’t find it offensive? or was that a joke? If it’s not a joke, then that makes you part of the group that needs to stop being so easily offended.

    Just because someone is offended doesn’t mean it’s justified. Also, one can state a feeling of disapproval without being offended. While I disapprove of the depiction of the black kid, I do not believe it warrants the term “offensive”.

    However, disapproval seldom warrants the tabloid-like headlines and attention which news outlets (and blogs) benefit from.

  26. Alan Coil says:

    Old Hank didn’t mean to offend anyone. He was just a kindly old man just trying to make a living—like Dave Sim.

  27. The Beat says:

    Fred: I was joking, but this is not a joke.

  28. Yes, absentee parenting is not a joke.

    The television is not a babysitter.

    It’s time to stop blaming the media for the shortcomings of education and parenting. It’s like blaming the bullet for a gunshot wound.

  29. The Beat says:

    Fred:

    We are not talking about “the media” as a general, nebulous enemy — we are talking about specific, hurtful imagery.

    Big difference.

    Anyway, I see you are not interested in an actual debate.

  30. Um, wow. Not even commenting. Speaks for itself.

  31. Fred? Heidi posted her comment eight minutes after his. Christ, give the guy time … he may actually have a (gasp!) job, where he doesn’t have much time to post on internet message boards.

  32. I wasn’t planning on coming back to this thread because rarely does anyone commenting on these posts actually try to listen to what the others are trying to say. It ends up being just a bunch of lines drawn in the sand of an hourglass that is rapidly emptying itself into an abyss.

    Anyway… here we go….

    “We are not talking about “the media” as a general, nebulous enemy — we are talking about specific, hurtful imagery. ”

    I was. I don’t know who this “we” is you’re referring to. The person who wrote the entry of the link you so kindly offered was as well. Because comics is a medium and a video tape of cartoons is a medium, I cited media to cover both instead of writing them out. Media isn’t a general nebulous anything. It’s a specific grouping of various forms of audio and visual creations which distribute ideas to the masses.

    “specific, hurtful imagery” may be what you’re focused on, but when I read that article in the link two things immediately popped out at me:

    1. The parent put on a program and immediately left the room to the care of the television. If you don’t know what’s going into your child’s head, then it’s your fault when they cry about something they don’t understand.

    2. The child watching the video tape never explained what the problem was so that it could have been addressed rationally, educationally, culturally, and with a nod to historical context.

    This leads me to conclude that the problems within this scenario don’t result from the content of the video tape but with the behavior and minds of the individuals exposed to said content.

    All people don’t react the same way to the same content. The kid in the article was upset, but some other kid from the same ethnic background could find it hilarious and silly. The content is the content. The person viewing the content is the variable, and changing the content to suit the variable is an exercise in futility because no matter what you do anyone can find an offense in anything if they look hard enough. Some people play Grand Theft Auto and want to go out and shoot people and steal cars afterward, and some people play that same game and then decide to order a pizza before going to bed. You can only control the content that enters your brain or the brains of those in your care, and if something upsetting gets through, it’s not the fault of the upsetting content. Blaming content is puritanical-american religious-right-nonsense thinking.

    I don’t want to live in a world of historical revisionism. This type of content and all other content that the revisionists want to censor needs to stay out there as an example of past stupidity because if you let the world forget, new stupidity will run in to take its place.

    To bring this back to the actual topic of the original post, I clearly stated that I did not approve of the depiction of the black kid in the strip. It’s very likely that education yet again is at fault for it showing up in the first place. The creator probably never found a need to learn any other way to draw a black person until that strip was published, and it’s appearance was suitably met with disapproval and also unjustifiably met with cries of offense from the over-sensitive types–individuals who probably never bothered to look for the meaning (an anti-racist meaning, I might add) of the strip. It brings levity to an important issue of the times, and it’s very unfortunate that the cartoonist did such a great job of derailing his message by never learning a better way to depict a black person.

    That’s what I see when I see that cartoon, and I wish more people were able to see it that way instead of the standard shock and awe followed by the throwing of stones. The only reason this post is so lenghty is because the provided link opened up a whole new level of debate (which you knew would happen, so I can only assume you wanted to increase the number of comments attached to this article and this potential motive is further supported by the shameless effort at “calling me out” by saying “Anyway, I see you are not interested in an actual debate.”)

    “specific, hurtful imagery” exists and will always exist. An emphasis on education and active parenting in an effort to help those hurt by such imagery should be the main focus in order to help them understand, address, and move on instead of hiding the content away somewhere it cannot be seen.

    “Wisdom is preferable to ignorance”, The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass By Joel A. Devine, James D. Wright.

  33. “All people don’t react the same way to the same content. The kid in the article was upset, but some other kid from the same ethnic background could find it hilarious and silly.”

    ……Really? do you REALLY think another kid is going to look at that crap and think it’s funny? I assume you don’t believe your own argument, because I don’t know anyone that stupid.

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