Friday, May 31, 2013
by Ned Wazowski
Dennis the Menace in the 1950s
Some classics get a little too mellow with time.
Dennis the Menace started out so good. If you’ve never read the early strips from the 1950s, you’re really missing out. In those early strips, he’s clever, carefree, self-centered and more than a little dangerous. Most of all he’s funny – with a brilliant take on the world. However, somewhere along the way his character changed pretty substantially. He became good-natured but dimwitted – unable to see, for example, that Mr. Wilson’s headache worsened, rather than improved, with a little trumpet playing. He was no longer a “menace” at all, just horribly, horribly annoying.
Frankly, I prefer the original Dennis. As long as you weren’t on the receiving end of one of his pranks, I think you could appreciate his offbeat sense of humor. And his mischievousness was so thought out, you’d have to respect his intellect. At least his parents could be grateful that, while they probably wanted to kill him several times a day, if he made it to adulthood he’d have all the skills he needed to be successful at whatever he put his mind to. In those early strips he was already shown to be resourceful, creative, ambitious, self-confident and a good judge of character. Not bad at all, really. He could almost have been president.
The later Dennis though… I get the sense that, while he might be generally less taxing on your nerves (if only because he does some of those things on accident) his prospects as an adult wouldn’t be all that great. His dimwittedness spreads to include poor logic, poor social skills and shoddy knowledge of the world around him. While we’ve all likely had a boss with all those traits, poor Dennis would probably find himself stuck in a Middle Management cubicle.
What was so great about the early Dennis the Menace strips is that Dennis was actually a menace. He purposely did things against the rules because he waned to do them – splashing naked in a public fountain and taunting the police officer with, “Well, just come and get me!” In fact, police officers, those ultimate symbols of authority, were common victims – like the police officer who knocks on the door to say, “I know this sounds crazy, but I helped your little boy cross the street and now I can’t find my badge anywhere!” Only Dennis would fleece a cop who’s helping him cross the street.
In later strips, Dennis’s parents are exasperated, and who wouldn’t be – having to explain things over and over again. But in the early strips, they fought back, with my favorite strip showing Dennis locked out of the house shouting, “Open up, Mom. You’ve rested long enough!”
Well, those older strips have rested long enough too. If you haven’t read them in a while, give ‘em another read.
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