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'Dennis the Menace' creator dead at 81

(CNN) -- Hank Ketcham, the man who created the wildly popular "Dennis the Menace" comic strip, has died at the age of 81.

His publicist, Linda Dozoretz, told The Associated Press that Ketcham had suffered from heart disease and cancer.

Ketcham "passed away very peacefully," said Ellen James, a Monterey, California, neighbor and family friend. "He had had some bad spells and he slipped away in his sleep."


Ketcham created "Dennis the Menace" in 1951. Inspired by the antics of his four-year-old son named Dennis, he created the lovable brat with tousled hair who tormented crotchety Mr. Wilson. It made its debut in 16 newspapers and the strip blossomed in popularity through the decades.

In March, Ketcham's panels celebrated 50 years of publication -- running in 1,000 newspapers, 48 countries and 19 languages. The strip also inspired several books of cartoons, a musical, a television series, a 1993 movie and a playground in Monterey, where Ketcham had his studio.

He once said the world related to -- and needed -- a mischievous boy like Dennis.

"Mischief just seems to follow wherever Dennis appears, but it is the product of good intentions, misdirected helpfulness, good-hearted generosity, and, possibly, an overactive thyroid," Ketcham wrote in his 1990 autobiography, "The Merchant of Dennis The Menace."

"But what a dull world it would be without any Dennises in it! Peaceful, maybe -- but dull," he said.

Hooked on cartooning

Henry King Ketcham was born March 14, 1920, in Seattle. He said he was no more than 6 when he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. After watching a family friend sketch cartoon characters, he was hooked on the art.

"I couldn't wait to borrow his 'magic pencil' and try my own hand at drawing these comic-strip characters," said Ketcham. "It was a major discovery, and I was floating on air with excitement."

After dropping out of University of Washington and moving to Southern California, he found work as an animator with Walt Disney, working on "Pinocchio," "Bambi," "Fantasia" and Donald Duck shorts, among other projects.

After World War II, Ketcham settled in Carmel, working as a freelance cartoonist.

As the story goes, he was working one day when his wife burst into his studio. It seems their son Dennis had refused to take a nap and had instead wrecked his room.

"Your son is a menace!" she said.

While the strip thrived, Ketcham's family life split apart. He and his first wife were separated when she died in 1959. He and his son Dennis drifted apart, and they spoke infrequently in later life.

Ketcham married two more times, having two children in his last marriage. He lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for a period in his life, still managing to create the cartoon, before moving back and settling in Monterey.

Ketcham stopped drawing the strip in 1994, letting a team of artists and writers take the reins. He had always surrounded himself with a team of writers and illustrators who contributed to his strip, and credited this theory for the strip's longevity.

"Anyone in the humor business isn't thinking clearly if he doesn't surround himself with idea people," Ketcham told The Associated Press in a 1994 interview. "Otherwise, you settle for ... mediocrity -- or you burn yourself out."

• Hank Ketcham & Dennis The Menace

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