Gene Weingarten's chat yesterday had quite a bit on a 38-year-old Dennis the Menace panel and it's possible racism.
The cartoon is here.
The poll based on the cartoon is here.
Here's Weingarten and his chatters on the cartoon. For what it's worth, Weingarten's right, the gag is ok, but just ok.
Missing Option in Survey: The first question does not provide an option for those of us who didn't find the cartoon offensive in the slightest.
Gene Weingarten: We don't care about you.
Postraci, AL: I can't imagine the cartoonist intended the Dennis piece to be hurtful, but it is hard to believe that in 1970 someone could be so ignorant and/or oblivious as to be unaware that this was in bad taste. In comparison, consider the character of Franklin in Peanuts who was introduced about the same time, maybe even a bit earlier. Clearly black, but drawn and scripted without any stereotyping characteristics at all.
Gene Weingarten: Franklin debuted in 1968. The amazing thing is that his race was, to my memory, never mentioned. He was just another Peanuts kid.
It was an intelligent and gracious act by Schulz. He once got a letter from a southern newspaper editor asking him not to put Franklin in a schoolroom with white kids.
Franklin always sat in front of Peppermint Patty in the classroom. Schulz never changed that.
Race Relatio, NS: It was 38 years ago, which puts me in high school, but I remember that cartoon. I don't think I remember any other Dennis the Menace cartoons, since it was the Garfield of its day, still running in a lot of newspapers though never funny, clever or insightful at all. I remember my jaw dropping. I could visualize it even before using the link to confirm my memory.
By 1970, we'd come a long way since Amos and Andy were played by white guys on the radio in the 30s. All in the Family premiered just one year later, with George Jefferson as a regular character, so the sensibilities of the times had most certainly passed Hank Ketchum by even in the cultural arena. And this was seven years after the I Have A Dream speech, and two years after Memphis. It was appalling then, and it's appalling now.
Gene Weingarten: It was appalling then, yep. Ketcham had to issue an apology, though it was grudging and half-hearted. See next post.
Curacao, Netherlands Antilles: The absolute worst thing about that comic in the poll is that it JUST ISN'T FUNNY.
I mean the punchline is delivered in such a way as to totally trip over the joke. I mean that if it were delivered correctly, the joke can't even aspire to a "Family Circus" level of lame humor. I mean that even if I were like a KKK member or something, I wouldn't see the laughs in saying "This other kid runs faster than me!"
The only way that joke works is if you find the drawing laugh-worthy. Since I found the drawing horribly offensive, I hope you'll agree with me that this may well be the unfunniest strip I've ever seen on the comics page.
Gene Weingarten: Now, I disagree with this, and with most of you in the poll.
I believe that if Ketcham had drawn Jackson as a normal kid, this cartoon would have not only been acceptible, but pretty darn good. A worthy punchline, and one with a little bit of a social punch.
I'm not sure I've seen, or would have seen by then, a joke relying on confusion between "race" as ethnicity and "race" as running. Imagine a slight tweaking of this comic:
Let's say that Ketcham had drawn it -- as he has been known to do -- in two panels, not one. And in the first, Dennis says that he has a "race" problem with Jackson (again, who looks normal.) And in that first panel, Henry Mitchell looks concerned. And in the second panel, Dennis elaborates: Jackson runs faster than he does, and Henry looks relieved.
Pretty good comic! Raise the specter of something bad, defuse it, make the point that kids don't see race. That is actually what Ketcham was ham-fistedly TRYING to do, though he failed spectacularly.
But even without the two-panel treatment, the joke would have been the same, had Ketcham drawn this thing with a modicum of sensitivity.
What you would be left with was the question of whether it was insensitive to trade in the racial stereotype that black people run faster. I think I could have defended that, because that interpretation would be in the mind of the reader.
I know. Y'all disagree with me on this.
Dennis: Gene, people don't disagree with you on the comic. People aren't getting the pun.
Gene Weingarten: Is that it? Did people not get the "race" pun?
David Mills: I do kinda disagree, Gene... except that your two-panel alternative improves the joke a whole lot. It also improves it as social commentary, becoming about the father's discomfort.
Gene Weingarten: Right. True. I still think it would have worked, though. Just less well.