Once again we betay the very name of "Stupid Comics" and discuss comics that are not stupid. In fact the comics we're talking about today are some of the best American comics produced in the 1950s, the Dennis The Menace comics of Al Wiseman and Fred Toole. Based on the popular newspaper strip, Fred Toole's scripts put Dennis into outlandish predicaments around the globe, while Hank Ketcham assistant Al Wiseman's art evolved out of the Dennis house style and into a masterpiece of clean-line mid-century comic book art. These comics sold millions and millions and millions of copies- you're probably a few hundred yards from a "Dennis In Hawaii" or "Dennis In Hollywood" special wherever you go in North America. However, we aren't here to talk about Dennis the Menace, or his British namesake, or the many Dennis The Menace clones that romped through the comics in the 50s and 60s. What we're talking about here is what the advertising agencies call 'brand extension', where a popular property is extended via a similar product with a similar name. On TV they call them "spin-offs," in the movies one might say they were films set in the same cinematic universe, when musical groups do it we call them "side projects" but in comics we just call them "back-up strips" and forget about them. Except when they appear in those great 50s Dennis comics, and when they're kind of... sort of... well, let's look at them, shall we?
Hey hey it's the Punky! Somewhere in the twilight time after "punk" stopped being defined as a jailhouse "receiver" and before "punk" meant spiky-haired meth-addled slam-dancer, Punky arrived to fill Dennis pages with stories of a slightly younger, pre-verbal child with some Dennis hair and a Dennis proclivity for getting into amazing amounts of trouble. But what possible trouble could Punky get into? He can barely walk!
Well, he can use the exciting new miniature transistor radio to harass women on the street. That's what.
I know we talk a lot about the "free range kids" of the past and how they were allowed to roam at will throughout the world, but bundling a toddler up alone and leaving him out in the sub-zero weather to roll snowballs down the incline, well, that's just asking for trouble.
For one thing, this giant snowball menaces citizens and law enforcement personnel. On the other hand, we get to throw a Fred Toole reference in the background. It evens out.
The cops are always on Punky's trail. In a few years they'll be arresting him along with everybody else at Black Flag gigs down at the Fleetwood in Redondo Beach. Those punk rockers are animals!
That's right, even the FBI is after Punky. Just one more way "the man" is keeping the kids down.
However, when we consider the kind of trouble Punky gets into, we have to take into account the absolute cluelessness of Mr and Mrs Punky, who can barely keep track of Mom Punky's hair color, let alone Punky. Here we see that they've hired TWO BABYSITTERS for the SAME GIG, a 50s parenting no-no of the highest order!
And when Punky hops a ride on a cart filled with supplies for the top-secret Flight X-182, well, everybody thinks somebody else is looking after him! Way to ignore the younger generation, everybody- this is why they turn into punks!
Just want to stop here and bask in this terrific Al Wiseman artwork. A deceptively simple line, flat colors, bold shapes, and eye-activating use of negative space give his work a lasting appeal that's both extremely specific to the mid 1950s AND timeless. Not a lot of artists can accomplish this, especially in a second-tier backup strip called "Punky."
This is the kind of thing they don't train you for in the Air Force, dealing with toddlers stowing away on board your round-the-world flights! Meanwhile Dad Punky is the image of the smiling 50s man, all Brylcreemed hair and blithe assurance that Everything Is Fine.
Seriously lousy parenting. They can't be bothered to telephone and check on their son. They can't even be bothered to confirm which of the two babysitters they left him with.
It is kind of amazing how many of these Punky stories end with him in the clutches of law enforcement. Then again, consider his clueless parents. SOMEBODY's gotta take care of this kid.
Look at the proud face of that Air Force test pilot. He broke world speed records in a fantastic new jet plane - while changing diapers!
Meanwhile a few pages over, another Dennis side character was coming into her own. She is woman, hear her roar!
Yes, it's Screamy Mimi! Named after the dreaded "Screaming Mimi" Nebelwerfer mortar used by the Germans in WWII, this little girl also posesses a high-pitched screech and an appetite for destruction!
Normally a quiet, soft spoken girl, Mimi McBride can, in times of stress, become a superhuman siren of sonic annihilation, much to the distress of her long-suffering, seemingly single mom and everyone else within a five mile radius.
Is it a crime to shout "lion!" in a crowded zoo? Can't somebody get this kid hooked on lolly pops or chewing gum or cigarettes, anything to quiet her down?
Weakened by the specific frequency of Mimi's scream, the lion cage bars give way! Now it's time for (a) lion rampage, and (b) a giant lawsuit against the Nev-R-Bend Cage Bar Company of Muskegon Illinois! Lawyer up, suckers!
The Scream of Mimi can hurt, and the Scream of Mimi can help. It's all in the timing. Now let Mom have a minute. It's been a long five years since Dad "went to the store for some earplugs."
The fame of Mimi's vocal stylings has spread far and wide and even the Zippy-Oats company comes a-calling! You see, wet oats can form a gooey, sticky paste that, applied correctly, will quiet Mimi down for at least fifteen minutes!
And yet, right at the brink of stardom, Mimi's golden throat rusts up.
Here we enjoy some commentary from the long-suffering adults who have to deal with Mimi on a regular basis. I know Dennis and to a lesser extent Punky were reflections of the lives of the creators, raising their own rambunctious children in the 50s, but Screamy Mimi really seems to be coming from a very real place here, somebody involved had to be dealing with a super-loud child on a regular basis, and for that they have my profound sympathy, and also thanks for inspiring these comics.
Little Ronnie Howard is BLOWN AWAY by the unstoppable force of a revived Screamy Mimi who is GOING TO COLLEGE! YAY!
Can the sonic blast of Mimi's voice transcend the speed of sound, thereby negating the laws of physics that govern our very existence? Apparently it can!
Two things about this sequence: (1) note Al Wiseman getting some storefront love there in panel three, and (2) yes Mom, you CAN in fact be arrested for impersonating a police car.
If college doesn't work out for Mimi, she can get a job in the north woods hollering "timber." Just get two or three states full of lumberjacks ready in advance to simultaneously make the last chainsaw cut!
Finally Mimi the human fire alarm gets to fulfill her purpose in life, which is to be a human fire alarm!
"Oh yeah you're going to need these ear muffs George, because Mimi's staying here for a little while. Two or three months, maybe. Just let me see if I can get the ringing in my ears to go away. She'll be fine. Enjoy!"
Anyway, thanks for joining us on this walk through Dennis The Menace's backup strips, which, again, are terrific comics that aren't really stupid, mostly, and which should be back in print to entertain and slightly confuse children for generations to come. See you next time, and remember to use your indoor voices!
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