Mint Hill Man Carries On Dennis The Menace Legacy
Today the U.S. Postal Service begins issuing stamps of five legendary comics: Archie, Beetle Bailey, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dennis the Menace. Dennis was the creation of Hank Ketcham, but lives on through the drawings of Mint Hill's Marcus Hamilton. The Menace turned out to be Hamilton's saving grace. Hamilton was an artist in demand throughout the 1970s and 80s. His illustrations appeared in all kinds of magazines. His painting of Bob Hope in a Santa hat even landed on the cover of The Saturday Evening post. That career lasted for 21 years before computer graphics put Hamilton out of business. That "slick art", as he calls it, held no appeal to Hamilton. Once he was out of the business he turned to Walmart. "I was transferring people's photographs onto video tape and I was thinking, 'Is this how I'm going to spend the rest of my life? I want to draw. I have the talent and I don't understand why nobody wants me to draw anymore,'" recounts Hamilton. But he wasn't done yet. In 1993, the movie Dennis the Menace starring Walter Matthau had just been released. The comic's creator Hank Ketcham was granting interviews. "I just happened to be at home by myself flipping channels on the TV and saw Mr. Ketcham mention that he'd like to retire if he could find someone to draw Dennis. And it was like, 'Boing, there's an opportunity," remembers Hamilton. Hamilton still had contacts from his illustrating days. He got Ketcham's phone number and, soon, he was in Ketcham's California studio. "If I ever stopped and thought about it, I would've been so nervous and scared that I can't handle this. But I never looked at it that way," says Hamilton. "To me it was almost like I was 20 years-old again. Here was a man that created a character that was world-famous, that was willing to give me a chance to take over. It flabbergasted me and it still does." In January of 1994, the first Dennis the Menace drawn by Hamilton's own hand appeared in newspapers. But you couldn't tell. Hamilton signed Ketcham's name. Ketcham worried that newspapers would drop the comic if they got wind that someone else was drawing Dennis the Menace. This is how it went for 8 years. During that time Ketcham was overseeing everything Hamilton did. Hamilton would fax his drawings to Ketcham and he would fax back a critique every day. An easy rapport developed between the two, although Ketcham was a tough critic. "He taught me to never give up. Don't do your first idea and even when I do my third or fourth idea and send it to him, he would fax it back and say, 'You need to start over,'" says Hamilton. "There was one time I drew a panel thirteen times before he ever accepted it." Hamilton didn't grow up a fan of Dennis the Menace. He was more interested in serious comics like Prince Valiant. But today Dennis the Menace is everywhere you look in his home-studio. A painting of Dennis adorns the ceiling and Dennis the Menace drapes frame a window. Hundreds of Dennis comic books, t-shirts and dolls pack the room. "I got all the Dennis memorabilia surrounding me. That helps inspire me to think about the characters every day when I have to sit down and come up with a new situation for every single gag that I get. The captions are called gags," says Hamilton. Hamilton doesn't have Ketcham as a guide any more. He died nine years ago. Hamilton has been signing his own name to the comics ever since. But make no mistake this is Ketcham's comic and Hamilton says he's just safeguarding the legacy. "I have his photograph on my drawing board. I see it every morning when I'm drawing," says Hamilton. "It's like he's looking over my shoulder to make sure I'm doing justice to his little boy."