Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Dennis The Menace

“I’m here ‘cause I’m not sleepy. Ruff’s here ‘cause you whistle when you snore.”

My parents are visiting me. We were reminiscing. “Don't you remember?” asked my dad, “when you were five, you were a terror —- we called you Dennis the Menace.”

In India, a newspaper used to be no more than ten pages long, not the phonebook-sized tome that we now think twice about reaching for at the store each Sunday. There were no funny pages, merely two cartoons -— one by a top-notch Indian cartoonist, usually R.K. Laxman, and the other by a top-notch Western cartoonist, usually Hank Ketcham or Charles Schulz. Dennis was thus a venerable Indian institution, a household name.

I loved the strip dearly when I was a kid. I rediscovered it as an adult, and was amazed by something I was oblivious to as a child —- Hank Ketcham’s quiet artistry.

For example, in the above panel, check out the lightness of touch of his drawing; the interesting contour of the shadows in the top right, done with straight lines; the patch of white that offsets the shadow right below it; the black spotting of both Mr. Mitchell’s hair and of the night sky that counterpoint all the white. It’s just a measly little cartoon, but visually, it’s tight and economical; and yet in execution it seems quick and effortless.

What I like most about Ketcham’s style is that he doesn’t use a ruler. All the straight lines -— the shadows, the night stand, the dresser, even the panel borders -— are inked in free-hand. The effect is beautiful -- not technically perfect perhaps, but with the fingerprints of human imperfection. Which enhances its casual small-scale realism and pulls you right in.