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Old Comics Halloween Eve: Trick or Treating with Wiseman & Toole

This took some digging to find — I don’t know if it’s just my collection or if Hank Ketcham’s comic-book crew simply didn’t have much interest in Halloween stories — but I’m glad I can treat you to some solid funnybook craftsmanship from writer Fred Toole and artist Al Wiseman. This was one chapter in Dennis The Menace Giant #49, “Dennis the Menace All Year ‘Round,” as published by Fawcett in 1967.

The second page is particularly interesting to me — it may have a rare example of Wiseman cutting corners in his work, violating what seems to have been a rule he followed to have no more than one silhouette a page. He loved saving such blacked-out shots for full-body profile drawings, carrying the moment with his expressive body language, which often depicts the moment when Dennis thinks of a plan to achieve his goal but will wreak havoc on the adults around him.

By the time in his run on the series, Wiseman had transitioned from a bravura style — lots of big, show-stopping, elaborate establishing panels and perspective drawing that you never saw in kids comics before or after him — to a deceptively simple but so-easy-to-screw-up-it-takes-guts-to-attempt minimalism. His George Wilson may be almost as difficult to draw correctly as Charlie Brown is.

In the “I dunno Mr. Wilson! Honest!” panel, the slight tilt of Dennis’ head mitigates the malevolence of the devil mask at the same time it leaves us with no sense of what Dennis’ emotional state is behind it. Is he smirking, gloating over how Mr. Wilson is inconveniencing himself to help Dennis dismantle his own gate? Is he simply having some innocent fun on Halloween? Dennis is such a cipher, I suppose it’s none of the above; he’s just asking for a screwdriver because that’s what the plot needs to progress.

The treat to enjoy on this page is the bottom left panel’s addition to accommodate the roof. This could be seen as laziness or poor planning on Wiseman’s part, but I don’t see how the page could be done better and still cover everything the way it does. Shrinking the elements [the roof and the boys] in that panel to fit the square would upset the balance of the shots, which keep the boys at roughly the same size/distance to emphasize the distance between them and Mr. Wilson in the first panel and them to the ground in the last.

I like the vignette quality in the top panel — it’s not just an establishing shot of the garage relative to the house, they add a nice bit of business where Tommy [the clown] peers around the corner while standing next to a nervous Joey [the rabbit] and the purloined gate that they need the ladder & rope for. Cropping off the top of the roof in the panel wouldn’t work either; bad storytelling, even worse graphics. Do we need to see Mr. Wilson’s legs in the panel above? No, we get a full shot of him in the next panel anyway, so the roof helps break up the sameness of that tier’s compositions. This ain’t no use-arrows-in-the-gutters-to-traffic-cop-the-reader-through-the-page layout laziness, fanboy.

I love the borderless panel and its composition so, so hard. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Joey — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on a neighbor who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Mr. Wilson slipping upwards on a screwdriver — forever.

I should take the time to discuss the Dennis team’s lettering beyond pointing out the obvious — it’s beautifully crafted and extraordinarily expressive — but I’m running out of room and I can’t let go of two things:

One, Dennis is the devil, Joey is the rabbit, the dialogue cites Tommy as the clown — who’s in the Frankenstein mask? Why did they need a third sidekick, anyway?

Two, Dennis and his crew don’t even stick around to watch Mr. Wilson flip out over his missing gate. Clearly, this was business, not personal. Oh, your wife forgot to buy candy for Halloween? Fuck you pay me.

Finally, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room whenever I rave on about these Dennis comics; as brilliant a draftsman as Wiseman was, the bulk of his best-known work was wasted on weak, often bizarrely flawed scripts. This story relies on the idea that a childless neighborhood hen like Martha Wilson would forget to buy candy or make cookies for the kids on Halloween. She had treats ready for them every other day of the year, but not today? I kinda like that it’s George who learns a lesson at the end, not Dennis — without examining my heart and soul too much about why, I’ll guess that I’d rather see Wiseman draw Wilson in action than read page after page of Dennis — but that’s probably another reason why these comics can’t quite stand on par with its spinner-rack peers like Barks’ duck comics, Little Lulu and Kurtzman’s MAD, despite Wiseman’s supreme level of craft.

Happy Halloween, kiddies NOW GET OFF MY LAWN

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