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Funny Paper

No One Ever Calls Me "Pancho"

May 28-June 3

By Scocca & MacLeod | Posted 6/6/2001

What demons lurk within the safest, sanest panels on these comics pages! Funny Paper was neither surprised nor stirred when we first heard of the passing of Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham: Right, we thought, old guy, just celebrated 50 years in the saddle, so it goes. Five decades of frogs-in-the-laundry jokes, probably scratched out on the same drawing board in his den. None of the existential dread that haunted Charles Schulz here; Ketcham knew his game, kept the gags simple, punched the clock, and cashed the checks.

Then we went and read the obituaries. It started as obviously as we could have imagined: Mrs. Ketcham stormed in on would-be gag man Mr. K. one day in 1950, announcing that their irrepressible 4-year-old, Dennis, had trashed his bedroom. "Your son," she said, "is a menace." Bingo. A half-century of material from one ruined naptime. Hank never needed to leave the house again.

Except he did leave the house. As the strip stayed in that domestic moment--pipe-smoking Dad (who looked just like Ketcham), pretty young Mom, five-and-a-half-year-old Dennis--with that perfect hep mid-'50s linework, Ketcham's real life beggared the bleakest existential fiction. While Alice Mitchell cheerfully cooked and mopped up after her boy, Alice Ketcham separated from her husband and died of a drug overdose in 1959. The Ketchams retreated to Switzerland. When the real Dennis, grown out of his overalls, struggled with his lessons, Ketcham shipped him off to boarding school in the States. The cartoonist stayed in exile for 20 years, studying the Sears catalog to see what the changing America looked like--and, according to The New York Times, accepting a CIA commission to spy on the Soviets during a cultural-exchange visit. We are not making this up.

Nor this: Dennis went to 'Nam with the Marines. He came back with post-traumatic stress disorder, and was estranged from his father. "He's living in the East somewhere doing his own thing," the Times quoted Ketcham as saying. "That's just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families."

And now the chapter of Hank Ketcham itself is closed, with no appreciable effect on the future of the strip. Postmortem, we learn that the Sunday strip has been a factory operation since the '80s, and the dailies joined it in 1994. Fifty more years and the whole thing will be produced by the COMICTRON 3000 gag-recycler app: If MRWILSON = (GRUMPY + HUNGOVER), let DENNISSAYS = "Wanna hear my new drum?" O brave new world.

UNWELCOME BODY FUNCTIONS DEP'T.: "BURRRP!"--Shoe, in Shoe, Wednesday.

"BURRRAAP"--Garfield, in Garfield, Saturday.

"Gabriel . . . pull my finger."--God, in Non Sequitur, Saturday.

"RIPPP!!"--Barry, pulling a wet lollipop off Curtis' head, in Curtis, Thursday.

SUN CROSSWORD GIGGLES DEP'T: HORA, SLAG, AMOCO, LICK, LOAD (directly atop INME), ABBA, OTIS, HEBE, MOET, SHAD, CHOWDER, LIBERACE.

MOTHER GOOSE & GRIMM: Six days of terrible porcupine jokes.

CLASSIC PEANUTS: Anachronism rears its head as a tennis-playing Snoopy rues the fact that "No one ever calls me 'Pancho.'" As in Gonzalez. Who used to play tennis. With a wooden racket. Retired in 1963, made the Tennis Hall of Fame in '68. Came back in '69. Still with a wooden racket. You might have appreciated the reference in 1973.

ONE BIG HAPPY: The Italians are coming! Everyone in the neighborhood is drawn into the pinching, eating, and dancing. Every girl is "che bellissima.*" ("*How very beautiful," a Phantom-style footnote explains.)

THE PHANTOM: The Ghost Who Walks sics his Bandar pygmy allies on the invading ruffians who haven't already been scared off. "Do not injure. . . . Frighten only," the ever-scrupulous Phantom instructs them. Following orders, the Bandar rain non-lethal arrows on the invaders--"THIP--THIP--THIP." One particularly skilful Bandaracious archer sticks an arrow right into a ruffian's gunstock--while the gun is up by the ruffian's cheek. Then it's time for noninjurious hand-to-hand combat. "Huh?" cries a ruffian, after fearfully spraying the jungle with automatic-weapon fire. "They're a bunch of SHRIMPS! MIDGETS!" Close, Roget. Real close.

In the Sunday color supplement, Graham Nolan directly recycles two panels from the previous week's strip. Or is The Sun doing the recycling? Last week, The Phantom was six big panels, filling almost a third of a page. This week, it's eight small panels, squeezed into a narrower space to make room for a Sears Optical ad. Does the paper have discretion to repeat panels to tweak the format for advertising? All Funny Paper knows is we're going to need that $149 Sears Optical special if the art gets any more crowded.

APARTMENT 3G: Margo, who is starting to display definite signs of coming unglued, invites herself to tag along on her assistant's weekend trip to a Bowdoin reunion. They drive up to Maine in a Volkswagen Beetle--a real one, not one of those new Fisher-Price bodies on a Golf chassis--then put on skimmer hats and socialize with a white bear that's walking on its hind legs. This does not look like a guy in a bear suit. The bipedal bear is wearing a straw boater too. Maybe Margo is hallucinating all this. Maybe she isn't living in her office after all. Maybe she checked into Apartment LSD.

JUMBLE: HE KNEW HIS "STUFF," A PRESS PRESS, CAME UP DRY, SIZE SIGHS, PARE A PEAR, "FOOT" STEPS.

MARY WORTH: More bickering about Dawn's apartment.

MARK TRAIL: Mark's editor invites him to investigate the exciting world of poaching. Ginseng poaching. Sunday's featured animal: the entire insect family--"making up three-fourths of all living things," Trail says, presumably excluding plants and bacteria from the tally. Who do we sic on Mark Trail when he gets his nature facts wrong? The Phantom? At least when there are poachers in The Phantom, they use guns. Not trowels. Drop the trowel, buddy! It's going to be a long several weeks in Lost Forest.

LUANN: Luann patronizes her father for his silly, irrational worries about her plan to date a 21-year-old.

KUDZU: The Rev. Will B. Dunn gets a slot on the Weather Channel for his monumentally unfunny "spiritual weather map." In your fucking dreams, Doug Marlette. In our dreams, you don't even get a slot on the comics page.

ZIPPY: Bill Griffith agonizes yet again about the possibility of taking his comics creation to the Hollywood big time. "This could be it Zippy!" Griffith's alter ago Griffy exclaims. "Scripts, casting, production meetings . . . writers' strikes, earthquakes . . ." Bitch, bitch, bitch. Look, Griffy, if you don't want to sell you, then don't sell out. Don't come crying to us about the challenges of cashing in. We'd rather see the Willy & Ethel movie anyway.

ZIGGY: Wednesday brings a classic, lowest-common-denominator, slap-it-on-a-coffee-mug panel. "The last time I tried to get a grip on reality . . ." Zig says, facing the audience, ". . . it got me in a full-nelson!!" That's the Ziggy we know and hate.

REX MORGAN, M.D.: Wendi Karol talks about her headaches some more. Have you considered the Predator hairdo?

DENNIS THE MENACE: Wednesday: "Well, listen to this," Mr. Wilson tells Dennis, looking at his newspaper. "Your horoscope says . . . you're about to go home."

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