Illustrator moves from laugh lines to fine lines

While much of 1950s popular culture has disappeared, some vestiges still remain.

One of the most enduring is "Dennis the Menace," Hank Ketcham's sweet and sometimes naughty comic-strip kid, who appears in more than 1,000 newspapers in 68 countries and is translated into 14 languages.

Mr. Ketcham still maintains control over the comic strip. And though now long past most people's retirement age, he is enjoying a new career: painting.

Since 1990, Ketcham has channeled most of his energies into dramatic portraits of classical jazz greats, fellow cartoonists, composers, and artists from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol. He thinks of the last 10 years as his evolution "From Menace to Matisse" - coincidentally the title of an important retrospective this month at Every Picture Tells a Story, a Los Angeles gallery devoted to the art of illustration.

The works can also be viewed on the gallery's Web site, Sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, these portraits capture just about everyone outside his family who has touched him in some way - painterly, often stormy impressions taken from all kinds of sources including old record covers, self-portraits, and portraits by other artists.

His passion for his subjects is evident throughout.

"It's interesting, when I get into painting, I get very involved and focused on the thing," Ketcham says. "And when I'm through, I'm almost out of breath. After a few days, I may say, 'Gosh, how did I do that, it's kind of good.' Or I say, 'I better do that again, because it isn't very good.'

"The world is my oyster. I can do what I want. I'm learning all the time. I'm not afraid to make mistakes. I ask my artist friends' advice sometimes, but mainly I'm just going by my gut reactions."

Ketcham finds every day a new adventure. Golf has been very much a part of his life and many of his longest friendships have been formed on the fairways and greens.

"But now I stay inside and paint and let the family be the golfers," he says. "Changes like this are new chapters in your book. You never look back in anger, you just turn the page. I figure that Rembrandt and Picasso and Monet didn't play golf."

He started painting because he realized he couldn't go any further with cartooning. "I wanted a new mountain to climb and decided the fine arts were just the thing I was looking for. I was trying to apply painterly ideas in my drawings, and I turned to painting and found release for the creative oils still boiling in me - and no deadlines."

But fine art or no art, Dennis must "menace" for his many fans daily. "I have two assistants whom I trained for many years, Marcus Hamilton and Ronald Ferdinand, who are doing well with Dennis. We're in constant contact, and I still have my footprint on the panel. I've got to love it myself.

"Dennis appeals particularly to the 61 and older crowd," and Ketcham knows how to speak to them. As long as he sees his family laughing occasionally, he feels he's on solid ground. The enduring appeal he feels is in the contrast between the parents' point of view and the child's - an appeal that has proved universal.

"It doesn't make any difference what you wear or the color of your skin, it's a little five-year-old looking at the kneecaps of the adults," Ketcham says. "He is turning over rocks to see what's there, and he has a lot of energy, questions, love, and trust, and when he goes to school the world widens.

"But until then, the world is protected. [Children] have trouble communicating with the adults, and it's the impatience on the part of adults that makes the humor.

"The little guy has everything under control, and everything he speaks is the truth - from his point of view. The elders want to be sleeping or something else, and they don't care about gooey things or mud being tracked everywhere. But the child doesn't know about that yet - he's just having his fun."

The only things that have changed in the panel are the toys, Ketcham says - both Dennis's and the adults'. The automobiles changed over time, the Mitchell's got a TV, then later a color TV. Now a computer has sneaked into the house. But Alice is still a stay-at-home mom. "I'm interested in making her world visible - and then there are a lot of loving moments between Dennis and his mother I want to show."

Sometimes Dennis gets into trouble, and when he does he is sent to the corner with his dog, Ruff, and his teddy bear.

"I don't like any spankings," Ketcham says. "But when Dennis gets irritating, he ends up in the corner. Ruff listens to everything he has to say. Dennis talks to the Lord, too, and it's a marvelous place to inject humor. He says in one panel [as he kneels in prayer], "About this afternoon: If you'll look at the instant replay, you'll see it wasn't all my fault!"

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