Dennis the Menace at 70 – one of the first naughty comic books kids and ‘game changer’
When the Beano’s editor heard an old music hall song with the chorus “I’m Dennis the Menace from Venice”, he was struck by a flash of inspiration.
George Moonie thought it was the perfect name for a new character who would be a naughty schoolboy, and ordered his staff to get to work.
Chief sub-editor Ian Chisholm and artist Davey Law put their heads together in a Scottish boozer and brought Dennis to life on the back of a fag packet.
Chisholm took the Player’s Navy Cut cigarette carton and sketched a picture of “a knobbly kneed boy with dark spiky hair” and Law developed his basic drawing into a full design.
Today that comic book character is celebrating his 70th birthday, even though Dennis will always be a very badly behaved 10-year-old boy.
He didn’t always wear the trademark black and red stripy jumper (the colours, incidentally, were later chosen because they were the two strongest inks available to printers in the 1950s).
In the very beginning Dennis was sketched wearing a tie and blue jumper but Law knew it wasn’t quite the right look for him.
After a makeover, Dennis gave the DC Thomson-published Beano a much-needed boost at a time when it was starting to lose its edge.
Cartoonist Lew Stringer, who has worked on the Beano as well as its rival the Dandy, says: “I think it’s fair to say that Law’s Dennis the Menace was a game-changer and possibly the most influential character in the history of British humour comics. The Beano was flagging by 1950 and no longer radical.
“But there was an energy to Dennis the Menace, it was modern and became one of the first naughty kid characters of the post-war period.
Although Dennis has now become a valuable merchandise brand for DC Thomson, at the heart of it is still the weekly strip, amusing children of all ages, just as it always has.”
Law carried on drawing the character for 20 years until he died in the late 60s.
By complete coincidence, the American comic strip of the same name debuted in US newspapers in exactly the same week as Britain’s Dennis.
They were very similar, both causing mayhem and even carrying a catapult.
More importantly, both were hugely successful.
Mike Stirling, editorial director of Beano Studios, said previously: “Both characters actually appeared in print on exactly the same day.
“The US version, created by Hank Ketcham, was a nationally syndicated newspaper short, whereas our Dennis lives in Beanotown.
“I’ve always believed we were marginally first, due to the print deadlines for a weekly comic and a newspaper.”
Back in the UK, Dennis’s popularity continued to grow. In 1974 he replaced Biffo the Bear as the Beano’s cover star, a position he has remained in ever since.
His loyal companion Gnasher, of the fictional Abyssinian wire-haired tripe hound breed, wasn’t introduced to the comic until 1968.
Beano writer Jim Fowler had read how pets often look like their owners and was told to “take Dennis’s hair then give it a face and four legs.”
Gnasher was a hit and the pair became inseparable, which sparked the comic’s name changing to Dennis the Menace and Gnasher.
Dennis terrorised teachers, played pranks and caused havoc in Beanotown but the main recurring storyline is his campaign of terror against “The Softies”, mainly Walter.
There have been several adaptations for telly from a puppet show in 1990 on ITV to a CBBC animated series in 2017.
Critics of that series said Dennis had been “softened”, replacing his trademark catapult with an iPad to tone down the violence. Walter, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, was toughened up so he wasn’t perceived as a victim of bullying.
In a book about his time in charge of the comic, Euan Kerr, who edited the Beano between 1984 and 2006, revealed how he turned Walter into a “confident, likeable character” and toned down the bullying.
He added: “We eventually gave Walter a girlfriend too as a measure to combat any further criticism.”
The Dennis the Menace Fan Club was launched in 1976 and picked up more than a million members, aged seven to 70.
Celebrity fans and members of the club have included Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, Star Wars actor Mark Hamill and princes William and Harry.
To mark Dennis’s 70th birthday, the Beano has released a special birthday issue, guest-edited by Strictly star and YouTube prankster Joe Sugg.
Stirling adds: “For 70 years, the Menace family has been spreading laughs and unique Beano cheer across multiple generations of children and adults alike.
“It’s fantastic to see the impact today’s Dennis has on kids, just like his dad and grandad did before him.”
Dennis the Menace – 15 fast facts
1 Dennis’s surname is actually Menace. His mum and dad are Sandra and Dennis Menace
2 The first three artists to draw Dennis were all called David
3 Dennis acquires his iconic striped jumper in April 1951, although his friend Curly is seen sporting it in earlier episodes
4 The original Dennis and the new Dennis have subtly different designs. The order of the red and black hoops on their jerseys are opposite – the original Dennis wore black-red-black-red from the collar down. Today’s Dennis wears red-black-red-black from the collar down.
5 Dennis and Minnie the Minx are cousins – their mums are sisters
6 Dennis’s catapult is made from oak, surgical elastic and leather cut from one of his dad’s old biker jackets.
7 In the 75th anniversary edition of the Beano, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham were immortalised in the Beano, when Becks decides to move to Beanotown
8 When Dennis met the Prince of Wales in 2012, he broke with protocol by offering to shake his hand
9 While readers are used to knowing what Gnasher thinks, Dennis can only talk to his dog just once a year on Halloween
10 In the first ever Dennis strip, the family had a pet terrier, which hasn’t appeared since
11 Dennis is said to be based on a man called Robert Fair, whose parents were friends with Davey Law. Law’s daughter Rosemary revealed: “Robert was a little brat when he was a boy and my father based Dennis’s energy, movement and sense of mischief on him when he was doing his drawings.”
12 Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s red and black jumper, bought for him by wife Courtney Love off an Irish fan, was actually an official Dennis the Menace sweater but neither of them ever realised.
13 In 2016 Boris Johnson was parodied as Dennis the Menace in Private Eye by cartoonist Nick Newman due to the fact Dennis is “relentless” and has “no learning curve”.
14 In 1967, Law introduced Dennis’ female cousin Denise but she never caught on so he quickly wrote her out. Minnie, however, was more successful.
15 From the late 1980s, Dennis was no longer spanked with a cane or a slipper as punishment to reflect the change in the times.