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Dennis is still with us - and still a menace to Mr. Wilson

Few cartoon characters have held the public's affection longer than Dennis the Menace, that blond little rascal who's both maddening and endearing - and all too familiar to millions of parents. Dennis is having a resurgence of sorts, with a TV movie based on the comic strip, a popular weekday morning television cartoon show, and a musical comedy in the works.

``Dennis is back,'' says the comic's creator, Hank Ketcham.

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But then Mr. Ketcham, who stopped in Boston recently on his way back home to California, doesn't really think Dennis ever left. The cartoonist, a tall, slim man with a shock of silver hair and a quick grin, says the type of values and experience he has tried to convey through Dennis are timeless.

Certainly the themes of the strip are substantially unchanged since its beginning back in the early 1950s. The latest Ketcham cartoon book, ``Dennis the Menace - Five Years at the Same Location'' (Perigee Books, $4.95), is ``about the fortieth,'' he says. It has the same kinds of encounters between Dennis, his long-suffering parents, and nonplused Mr. Wilson that have made fans chuckle for over 30 years.

As Ketcham explains it, Dennis's world view is that of a five-year-old surrounded by adults who have little time to answer his questions. So he comes up with his own answers.

``Dennis is too old for the playpen, too young for jail, and not old enough to know better,'' Ketcham says. The cartoonist has been married twice and has three children. As he says, ``I know the story of being a father.''

The comic strip itself sprang to mind when his first wife stormed into his studio once after a tussle with their 5-year-old, Dennis, and proclaimed, ``Your son is a menace!''

It's all very wholesome by today's standards. But is Dennis a little tame for readers who've acquired a taste for politically spiced comics, or comics with a slice of the surreal?

``Wholesomeness is never out of vogue,'' Ketcham asserts. ``I want to remind people that you don't have to be off base or rude to make people laugh.''

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``I never try to second-guess anybody,'' he adds. ``I use myself as the sole barometer of what's amusing. I'm gambling that others will laugh with me.''

It's hard to argue that Ketcham has miscalculated very often, since Dennis is carried in some 1,000 newspapers across the United States and has been for a number of years, he says. The strip is also carried overseas, in 14 languages and 48 countries.

Over the years, production of the comic strip has grown from basically a one-man operation out of Ketcham's home to a small industry. There's the corps of writers - a half dozen in various parts of the country - he regularly draws on, the assistants who help draw the cartoon, as well as clerical help.

``Being a syndicated cartoonist is a grind, you have to make constant deadlines,'' Ketcham says. He accepts perhaps two or three gags out of every 15 his writers send in, ``and that's quite a lot.'' What he looks for in the drawing is instant recognition of whatever is in a panel - bikes, telephones, appliances. ``There's so much competition for the eye today, so I want people to get it like this,'' he says, snapping his fingers.

The biggest Dennis project on the drawing boards is a musical. A story has been written, music is being composed and revised.

The show will revolve around the relationship between Dennis, a child with lots of questions, and his neighbor Mr. Wilson, a senior citizen with lots of answers. Ketcham sees it as a timely theme, given current concerns about our treatment of children and the elderly.

``I wouldn't be surprised if next year Dennis the musical was very much in evidence,'' he predicts. ``And it'll be the same story I've been telling in 10-second intervals over the last 37 years.''

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