Fashionably Late Old Comics Wednesday: Dennis in San Diego
Hey Kids, A Shameless Attempt To Post Something Nominally Comicon 2012-Related!!!
Jumping ahead a few decades, long past Al Wiseman’s time as the primary engine of the Dennis The Menace comic books, we discover a series in serious decline; I’m unsure what writer/artist team working on the series is at this point, but the artist is clearly not a Wiseman-style perfectionist. We can only pray that the 1978 versions of Sea World, Tijuana, Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo didn’t really look like this.
I thought it was clever metacommentary to draw Dennis’ mouth in a way that looks like he lost his dentures in a series that probably was feeling its age by this point, but then I noticed that Henry and Alice also have messed-up mouths, like their jawbones were removed and the flesh just hangs there, Roger Ebert-style. There’s definitely a firm sense of anatomy required to draw the Dennis type of cartooniness, and this comic rarely has it.
The knock on Dennis as a character is that he’s barely a character, just a collection of generic kid tics and interests, but shitty funnybooks like this do a good job of showing that the Wiseman/Toole Dennis had something approaching a soul. The prime of the Dennis Giants showcased an enthusiastic but destructively clueless kid who saw himself as the hero of whatever exotic setting his parents have dragged him to for summer vacation that year, even though he never seems to learn that the combination of his nominal lack of understanding and his assumption that every context/culture follows the same rules as the ones he already knows inevitably leads to disaster and his father coming one step closer to an early heart attack. Insert “Dennis = ’60s/’70s US foreign policy” metaphor here.
The Dennis in this comic seems to be doped up on Benzedrine, barely operating as more than a talkative, toothless zombie. The results read less like a comic book designed to entertain kids and more like a wish-fulfillment pamphlet for their parents. You could make a good vacation comic book with a heavily medicated Dennis — less rock, more talk — but the writer[s] here don’t even try to double down on making a solid piece of edutainment:
No one corrects Dennis about the fishes. I suppose the sheer volume of psychotropics needed to blunt his psyche into passivity has also ground off his short-term memory, so Alice and Henry know that they would just be wasting their breath telling him those are dolphins.
It’s curious how much of a non-participant Alice Mitchell is in a lot of these vacation stories, although it makes some sense; from a ’70s middle-class kid’s POV, vacations would be one of the only times a father would have a concentrated, active presence. Look at Alice’s puckered overbite in that last panel and try to imagine how it could have a jawbone inside.
This is the panel where Alice’s feminism finally germinated. Either that, or her “yellow fever” lesbianism. Again, I really hope this literally isn’t what Sea World looked like at the time; I’m depressed enough already.
One of the standouts in the Wiseman comics is how he merges the look of cartoon-realist images of the locals with the Ketcham-defined look of our tourists; Dennis In Hawaii is a master class in this style, the Rosetta Stone to understanding how every girl Jaime Hernandez has ever drawn is constructed. The artist of “Dennis in San Diego” at least attempted to hit this staple of the vacation comics, with unfortunate results:
Prepare yourself for the most damaging thing Dennis THE MENACE does in this entire comic:
If your mom only knew you would bathe regularly if the tub was filled with latex balls, a small glaze of feces, a hypodermic needle or two and a poisonous snake. [Look at the above panel again and imagine Dennis' hair is gray; that's an old-man caricature, isn't it?]
The Mitchells take a very quick daytime trip to T.J. — no time to really take in the local flavor, not even catch a donkey show — but I like how lazyass/racial the location art is and how easily distracted Alice is when it comes to leather goods.
Another classic Wiseman move is the silhouette panel, often depicting such vivid “acting” that it’s easy to believe that they were harder to do than if he simply drew the figures outright. This execution of the technique is just hacky, although a clever solution to drawing Dennis and Henry in the darkness of the space exhibit.
Finally, the family goes to the SD Zoo, where they take the tram ride through a bunch of what look like panels swiped from Safari Cards photos:
I share this page for the proboscis monkey, who simultaneously looks like Jimmy Durante in Planet Of The Apes makeup and a monkey who just heard and understood that its hideous nose will never stop growing until it’s granted the sweet release of death, and now can’t stop screaming in horror.
They apparently made good on their threat to return to San Diego in issue #186, an issue I don’t have and probably don’t want. Cool drop shadow on that caption box, though, and I like the idea that a two-rail wooden fence was once considered enough to keep the elephants and llamas safely apart from each other.