As some of you know, I am working sporadically on a critical reading of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace which explores the brilliant and searing examination of middle-class alienation and despair amongst the American middle class in the post-war era. That Ketcham was able to disguise his indictment of the failures of suburbia and the American dream as a series of allegedly humorous vignettes about a dysfunctional family unable to discipline their attention-starved child is only a testament to his genius.
As it has been awhile since I updated you on the status of this project, I’ve chosen to highlight a few examples of Ketcham’s use of Dennis as a kind of Greek chorus, highlighting the sins of Alice and Henry Mitchell through a series of seemingly innocent statements.
Dennis is clearly suffering either from dyslexia or some other mild learning disability, as an inability to read stands as a severe deficiency for a child in his age group. Rather than seek to get Dennis the help he clearly needs, Henry has condescendingly placed his no doubt prescription glasses on his child, mocking the youth’s desperate desire to function as a normal child.
Ketcham chooses ambiguity here, as the financial state of Henry Mitchell prior to his marriage has never been firmly established. It is possible that Henry worked as an itinerant laborer in the years before the war, which would have represented a distinct decline in Alice’s social class if she had been in a romantic relationship with him. This may explain in some way Alice’s resentment of Henry, and her passive-aggressive attacks against him through her neglect of Dennis, as Dennis now represents an additional anchor tying Alice to her current existence.
However, it is also possible that this is merely the cast-off clothes of one of Alice’s many lovers, as her promiscuity represents her other means of exacting revenge against Henry for destroying her life.
(It should be noted that some lesser Ketchamologists view this panel as proof of a sinister secret within the Mitchell house-hold, that either Alice or Henry is a murderer, but such a fanciful interpretation goes against all the other contextual evidence within the series. A more likely explanation is that researchers holding this view have successfully identified the subtext of Mary Worth and are looking for further examples of multiple murderers on the so-called “funny pages” and in their eagerness to find one have misread Dennis.)
Sexual impropriety is a common theme in Ketcham’s work, but it usually involves either Alice and her many lovers or Henry and his sexual harassment of other women, chiefly as a means of over-compensating for his own repressed homosexual desires. This is one of the few instances in which it is suggested that Dennis is experimenting with his sexuality as well. While it would be over simplistic to read any bestiality themes into this scene, the undercurrent is troubling to modern readers. A more plausible reading is that Dennis simply wishes to “explore his body” in a way that will not be socially appropriate for him for several more years. That Dennis has framed his naked frolicking as an act of aggression on Ruff’s part is telling. What Dennis has learned from his parents and their own sexual acting out is that sex is to be used as a weapon. And so the only way for Dennis to discover the sensation of nudity without feeling guilt is to blame it on the dog.
It is also important that Alice is the one who discovers him in this state. Dennis will certainly be punished for his behavior, and the irony of Alice, whose promiscuity is clearly framed as a negative trait, being the one to administer the punishment, is too narratively compelling to avoid.
To a modern reader, one accustomed to tattoos as a personal statement/fashion accessory, this probably reads as nothing more than a harmless childhood fancy. But it must be remembered that this episode was written at a time in which tattoos were chiefly associated with sailors and criminals. It should also be noted that sailors, especially in the post-war era, had a reputation as promiscuous, venereal disease-ridden adventurers. What Dennis is saying here, is that his ultimate goal and desire is to be a social outcast. It is nothing less than an expression of self-loathing, and evidence that Dennis hates himself almost as much as Alice and Henry hate him.