My love of comic strips goes back to my early childhood. When I was a boy, my father read aloud to my siblings and me. In addition to reading books aloud, he regularly read the Sunday comics to us. We always called them the “funnies.” Every Sunday morning, before our mother got up, one of us would hand Dad the comics sections from our local newspaper, and he would start reading. One Sunday, when I was around seven or eight, I decided to play a trick on him. I dug through the stack of old newspapers next to the fireplace, found the comics from the previous Sunday, and slipped them inside the current week’s comics. Then, after Dad woke up, I handed him a double dose of comics to read aloud. He began by reading Dennis the Menace, and then he turned the page and found another Dennis the Menace. To my glee, he also read the second one. He went on to read both weeks’ worth of every comic strip, never letting on that something was not quite right. Needless to say, I reveled in my own Dennis-the-Menace moment.
I still regularly read Dennis the Menace although nowadays I tend to identify more with the character of Mr. Wilson. Given my long history with Dennis the Menace, I was pleased to learn that one of the current creators of this comic strip is from the Charlotte area. His name is Marcus Hamilton, and he has been creating the daily Dennis the Menace comic strip since 1995. Hamilton, however, is not the only creator of comic strips with Charlotte connections. Charlotte can also claim Jim Scancarelli, the current writer and illustrator of Gasoline Alley, and the late Doug Marlette, the writer and illustrator of Kudzu.
Marcus Hamilton did not create the character of Dennis the Menace. That honor goes to Hank Ketcham, who started the Dennis the Menace comic strip in 1951 and continued to write and illustrate it until the mid-1990s. When Ketcham began making plans to retire in 1993, he set out to find someone who could keep his comic strip going. Hamilton, a Charlotte-based illustrator, heard that Ketcham was looking for a successor, and the opportunity appealed to him. He contacted Ketcham, who was living in California at the time, and applied for the position. Ketcham liked Hamilton’s style of illustration, so he flew Hamilton to California, and they spent three days working together on the comic strip. Hamilton later said, “I learned more in those three days than I did in four years at college.” Hamilton has been illustrating the daily panels of Dennis the Menace ever since.
Jim Scancarelli, like Hamilton, worked as a freelance illustrator in Charlotte for years before entering the world of comic strips. In fact, both of them worked as artists for WBTV (Charlotte’s CBS-affiliated television station) in the 1960s. Also like Hamilton, Scancarelli ended up taking over an existing comic strip. Gasoline Alley, the comic strip that Scancarelli now writes and illustrates, debuted in 1918, making it the longest-running current comic strip in the United States. Frank King originated the strip and continued to produce it until the mid-1950s. King created a large cast of colorful characters who live in the fictional town of Gasoline Alley. In 1956, Dick Moores stepped in as the writer/illustrator of the strip, and in 1979 Moores hired Scancarelli as his assistant. When Moores died in 1986, Scancarelli took over Gasoline Alley. In commenting on this transition, Scancarelli recently said, “When I came along, I put my own personality into it. The art is a little different. Dick had a certain way of doing the expressions, and I’ve kept the characters in character but put my own swing to them. Now it’s more fun because I don’t have to sit there and emulate him as much as I did in the beginning.”
For Doug Marlette, the creation of his comic strip Kudzu was tied to his career as an editorial cartoonist. Marlette worked as the cartoonist for The Charlotte Observer from 1972 to 1987, and he launched Kudzu during this time in his career. Kudzu ran from 1981 until 2007 when Marlette died in a car accident. At its peak in popularity, the strip was syndicated in 300 newspapers nationwide. Kudzu is set in the fictional town of Bypass, North Carolina, and much of the humor relates to the tensions between the traditional South and the New South. Although Kudzu is no longer published in newspapers, there are several collections of the strips that are still available, including Gone with the Kudzu.
Marcus Hamilton, Jim Scancarelli, and Doug Marlette are all major players in the world of comic strips. It takes a special talent to be able to tell a story in just a few panels, and these three cartoonists excel at telling stories in this compressed format. Their artistry, wit, and insights into human nature are reflected in their comic strips. As I see it, their comic strips are delightful contributions to Storied Charlotte.