Comic Culture


Marcus Hamilton

Host Terence Dollard talks to Dennis the Menace cartoonist Marcus Hamilton. Hamilton shares how he got his dream job on the iconic newspaper strip.

AIRED: December 21, 2020 | 0:27:45

[adventurous orchestral music]

- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.

I'm Terrence Dollard, a professor

in the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is syndicated cartoonist Marcus Hamilton.

Marcus, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Thank you, Terrence.

I'm very happy to be here, I appreciate the invitation.

- Marcus, you were working on one of the great

all-time American comic strips, "Dennis the Menace,"

and this is a strip that was created by Hank Ketcham.

I was wondering if you could tell us

how you got involved in this strip?

- Well, let's see, where do I start?

Actually, I was an illustrator for 21 years,

but growing up, I loved to draw cartoons.

I used to go to all the Disney movies,

and my parents even saved

some of the Seven Dwarfs that I had drawn

when I was about eight years old, and framed them.

I didn't know it until they passed away

and I found them stored away.

So they encouraged me to go into art.

My heroes were Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell.

I either wanted to work at Disney Studios

or be an illustrator like Norman Rockwell.

Went to Atlanta Christian College and Wilson,

you may be familiar with that, it's now Barton College.

Majored in commercial art.

And my wife Kaye and I,

we were married going into my junior year

and she worked to pay all of our bills

while we were there.

Anyway, upon graduation, I took my first job

at WBTV, the CBS affiliate here in Charlotte,

and in the art department,

and I met a great friend, who's still my friend,

Jim Scancarelli, who now draws "Gasoline Alley."

I loved the job because I was around entertainers,

I collected autographs of all these famous people

that came through to promote their programs and all that.

Learned a lot about graphics,

moved to a design studio in Downtown Charlotte,

did annual reports and things like that.

But on my own, I wanted to be an illustrator,

that was still in the back of my mind

because I'd already sent some samples of my work

to Disney Studios, and I got a Mickey Mouse rejection slip.

So I thought, "Okay, that goal is over,

I'm gonna be an illustrator."

So I started sending samples of my paintings and drawings

to all the magazine art directors,

and eventually I got a phone call

from the art director at "True Magazine."

He said, "Marcus, I like your portfolio you sent.

Would you be willing to do 41 drawings

of all the new model cars coming out?"

I couldn't turn it down, it was my first opportunity

to do a national assignment.

So I did 'em over the weekend,

while still working at the design studio.

My boss down there was very encouraging of me

to go into freelance work,

he knew that was my first love.

So anyway, I sent those drawings,

the art director called me, said, "We liked that,

would you be willing to do a full page illustration?"

Well, sure, so after a while he moved

to "Golf Digest Magazine," continued to call me,

and in 1971, I decided to take a big leap of faith

and quit my regular job

and go into freelance illustration.

I loved it, I got to do illustrations

for every magazine,

"Saturday Evening Post," I did a cover of Bob Hope

for a Christmas issue.

I got to meet Bob Hope in person

when he came to Charlotte.

I did "Good Housekeeping," "Cosmopolitan" magazine,

it was everything I'd ever enjoyed and wanted to do,

I was able to do it.

But then computer graphics started becoming popular

in the late '80s and early '90s,

and put me out of business.

The art directors no longer wanted hand-drawn artwork,

they wanted that slick graphic look.

And at that particular time,

I didn't even have a computer,

but now I know a lot about Photoshop and all that.

But anyway, as my career was going down the drain,

so was my salary as a freelance illustrator.

My wife, Kaye, let me know

that I should get a real job again

or we were gonna lose our house and everything else.

So I ended up working at Walmart, making $5.50 an hour,

and I had just turned 50 years old,

questioning everything about my life,

and my career, and my faith.

At some point of total frustration,

I can remember saying this

on the way to pick up my wife at work.

I said, "Lord, I have trusted you with my life,

and look where it got me.

I don't see any evidence of you working,

and I'd like to know what's going on."

Well, the next day is when I was sitting at home alone,

channel surfing, came across the beginning of a program

and they were showing scenes

of the new "Dennis the Menace" movie

with Walter Matthau as Mr. Wilson.

And they said, "We're gonna interview the man

who created 'Dennis the Menace,' Hank Ketcham."

Well, I thought I'd watch that,

'cause I've always enjoyed "Dennis the Menace."

In that interview, Mr. Ketcham said,

"I wanna find somebody to draw Dennis

so I can travel, and paint, and do things

I've always wanted to do,

but I got this daily deadline facing me."

Well, when he said "Try to find somebody to draw Dennis,"

it just sounded like an opportunity.

So I called my friend, Jim Scancarelli,

who, at this point, was already drawing "Gasoline Alley,"

and I thought, "Well, maybe Jim

has Hank Ketcham's phone number."

I called him, Jim said, "Yeah, I got it

at one of the Reuben, the NC,

the National Cartoonists Society get-togethers,

and Mr. Ketcham gave me his contact information."

So I dialed that number out in Monterey,

and Mr. Ketcham answered the phone.

I said, "Mr. Ketcham, I'm an artist in Charlotte,

and I just saw you on TV,

and you said you'd like to find someone to draw Dennis.

If you're serious about that,

I would love to have the opportunity."

He said, "Well, send me some samples of your work,

let me see what you do."

So I sent him the Bob Hope cover,

and the cars I drew for "True Magazine,"

everything I could think of, I sent him copies.

Couple of weeks later, I got a big white envelope

in my mailbox out here in Mint Hill, North Carolina,

where we live now, and it had "Dennis the Menace"

on the envelope, and I couldn't open it.

It was just, my heart started beating a little faster

'cause it wasn't a rejection slip, I could tell.

So I thought, "I'm gonna let my wife open that."

So I was driving over to pick her up,

got to the first stoplight, I couldn't wait any longer.

I pulled off the road and opened that envelope,

and there was four typewritten pages from Mr. Ketcham.

He said, "Marcus, I like your work.

If you're serious about pursuing Dennis,

show me how you would draw him in four different scenes."

And he gave me the gags, or the captions to go by.

I was so excited, I couldn't believe it.

I rushed around to bookstores

trying to find any comics of "Dennis the Menace,"

so I could see how to draw him.

I did those four sketches and sent 'em off to Mr. Ketcham,

anxiously awaited a reply.

A week later, another big white envelope,

I pulled out all of my drawings.

Mr. Ketcham had crossed out everything I had done,

and out to the side he had written comments

on how I could improve my drawing

to look more like his.

Well, it was not discouraging in any way,

it was exciting because here was one

of the most respected cartoonists in the business,

willing to take a chance on a total stranger

he had never met.

So I put together, I redid the drawings,

sent 'em out to him.

He sent me some pen and ink, the little ink nibs,

the Gillot 170s, and a bottle of ink,

so I could use the same medium

and everything that he was using.

And it was just so exciting

to think he was giving me this chance.

It wasn't by luck, I don't believe.

And then he called me and he said,

'What are you doing in October?"

Like he gave me the dates,

and I said, "Not really anything."

He said, "Well, I wanna meet you and Mrs. Hamilton,

so I'm gonna fly you out here to Monterey, to my studio,

and you can stay a few days and work with me."

- This is a fascinating story

because what makes this so interesting

is that, you know, you're at, at the time,

you were at an age when a lot of people are thinking,

"Well, you know, it's time for me

to start to think about retiring, and the next step,"

and you're thinking about a whole new career.

So it's just interesting,

the generosity of Mr. Ketcham

to have you and your wife go out to Monterey.

So what goes on then?

- We flew out there, and Mr. Ketcham

was in the airport at Monterey.

We flew to San Francisco, caught a commuter flight

down to Monterey, I'd never been there before.

But as the plane was pulling down the runway to stop,

I saw Mr. Ketcham standing in the window there.

And I said, "Kaye, that's Mr. Ketcham."

So we got off the plane.

He meets us, and he wants to carry our luggage for us,

and I said, "Oh, no, no, we got it."

He said, "Well, I've got you a car,

we rented you a car, and you're gonna follow me,

and I'm gonna take you down to a bed and breakfast inn,

where my wife, Rolande," his wife,

had reserved us a room in Carmel, at Carmel-by-the-Sea,

oh, I mean, it was unbelievable.

So we got down there, and as we were following him

he took us down to the beach and came back up.

And then we got out of the cars,

and while Kaye was going in and unloading everything,

he was talking to me and telling me

everything that was gonna happen.

He said, "I took you down to the beach

because I wanted you to see where I spent the night

when I was 19 years old."

He said, "I was born in Seattle, Washington,

but always wanted to work for Walt Disney."

I thought, "That's funny, so did I."

But he said, "I hitched a ride with,"

I think it was with his uncle to go down to Burbank.

He said, "We stopped at Carmel

and slept on the beach on the way down there,

and I just wanted you to see

kinda what led me down to Burbank,"

and he wasn't hired by Disney.

Instead, he had to go to what's-his-name,

Walt Kelly, I can't even think of the name,

that did "Woody Woodpecker" cartoons.

- Oh, Walter Lantz.

- Yeah, Walter Lantz, you're smarter than I am.

Anyway, he worked there for a year and a half,

and then Disney decided to hire him.

So he got to be an in-between cartoonist for that,

so that was great.

But anyway, Hank was telling me,

he said, "Now there's a big difference

between the daily panel and the Sunday page.

The Sunday page has eight to 10 panels to work with,

talk balloons, color."

Now this was back in the early '90s

when they weren't doing daily panels in color.

He said, to tell the whole story,

and we've got Ron Ferdinand, who's doing the Sundays,

and Karen Matchette was there too,

and they were alternating doing the Sundays

while Hank was doing the dailies.

He said, "Now, the daily is the single panel.

You're gonna read the joke, or the gag,

and then you've got to figure

how you're gonna tell that whole story in one image."

And I think what made him hire me

was the fact that when he saw my samples

that I had done illustrating for magazines,

he saw that I had to read the script

and then come up with one image

that would capture the reader's interest

to read that story.

And in essence, that's the same thing

the daily panel does, and I thought that was interesting.

And then he said, "And you've got to have fun

while you're doing it.

If you have fun, enjoy what you're doing,

the readers will pick up on that.

If it stops being fun, they'll pick up on that

and they'll stop reading."

I never forgot that.

And it was an education just standing there talking to him.

But then during the week,

he said, "Now, Kaye can go shopping

or whatever she wants to do,

but you're gonna be in the studio with me, and Ron,"

and Dottie at the time was his secretary,

and Karen Matchette was there working with Ron

on the Sundays.

And I got to go into Hank's studio,

and he would discuss gags,

how he selects the gags from the writers

that send 'em in, we still have writers that do that,

and then he would let me watch over his shoulder

as he would start drawing circles for heads

and how he was gonna move the figures around

in that little image.

And I said, "How do you come up with,

how do you know what you're gonna put there?"

He said, "Well, the cartoonist is the director.

If this is a movie and you're doing a scene,

the characters are your actors,

and you are in charge of putting them

where you think the scene would work best.

You're also the cameraman.

You're gonna move that camera

from one angle to the other

all the way around that situation,

so you'll never run out of fresh ideas.

And as you move and put those characters

in different positions, you are going to sense

which one works the best for you to get that gag."

I've never forgotten that,

and it was just an education working with him

and with Ron and Karen.

Then after that, when I got back home,

I had done a few drawings while I was there in his studio

based on, I wasn't next to him,

he was in his studio and I was at my drawing table.

He would come out and look at what I had done.

And I also kept some of his reference panels up there

so I could see how it it was drawn.

And he came over and he said, "Henry's nose is too long."

I said, "Well, that's your panel, I didn't do that."

[Terrence laughs]

Oh, uh-oh, I shouldn't have said that. [laughs]

But then he invited Kaye and me to go eat dinner

at his home in Pebble Beach,

and while we were there, we got to meet Rolande,

his wife, and he ended up telling her

what had happened when I noticed, or when he noticed

Henry's nose was too long,

and I told him he drew it,

and she thought that was so funny, thank goodness.

But he had a great sense of humor.

He was so strict on how he would critique my work,

and thankfully I didn't take it personally.

A lot of cartoonists or artists

take criticism too personally.

But I remember one that I worked on,

this is after he started having me do it,

this took about six months for him to train me

over the fax machine,

and after we went out to California to meet him in person,

and I would fax my drawings,

he would cross them out and send them back to me,

and I would redo 'em.

- Well, I do have a question about the tools.

You mentioned that he sent you some ink

and a Gillott 170.

- Yeah. - So this is

a different approach to art than you're doing

if you're doing, let's say, an illustration

of 41 cars in a weekend, which is just mind-boggling

that you were able to do that in one weekend.

The art tools that you're using in color

versus the ones that you're using

for a black and white daily news strip,

is that a steep learning curve?

Because I mean, yes, you're a professional artist,

but at the same time it's kind of focusing

more on line weight rather than maybe color and light.

- When I was illustrating,

I was working in a multiple image and medium,

that's how I kept my job for 21 years

was I didn't focus on one style.

I used Rapidographs back then,

which was the equivalent of the pen and ink,

except, you know, you got ink in the cartridge,

and you got a different size point

for each thing you're drawing,

so I was very familiar with line art

and how to do a drawing, an illustration in black and white,

but I'd never used a Crow Quill pen,

like Mr. Ketcham did, that makes a thick and thin line

with how you push down on that pen nib.

But he made sure that I understood the technique,

and he would critique me.

What I was gonna tell you about that panel

that he was critiquing, it was Dennis and Joey,

his buddy, sitting in the sandbox playing,

and Dennis's cat, named Hot Dog,

was over using the bathroom in the sandbox.

And Dennis was saying, "I like my sandbox,

but Hot Dog really likes my sandbox."

So when I sent the first sketch,

faxed it out to Mr. Ketcham, he faxed it back.

He said, "I don't like the way you drew the cat.

You need to try looking at some cats," and all that.

I did it again.

He sent it back, and he said, "You really don't know

how to draw cats."

And I sent back this, "Well, we've got two cats,

I thought I knew how to draw 'em."

And I did another sketch.

So then he faxed back, he took a, made a print

out of Encyclopedia Britannica of a cat's skeleton

and sent it to me, and didn't say anything.

He just sent that picture.

I looked at it, and so I did the drawing again

with Dennis and Joey in the sandbox,

and put a skeleton over in the corner of the cat,

and faxed that to him.

And I worried for two hours

that I should never have done that. [chuckles]

But he had a great sense of humor.

So when the fax machine comes on,

I run over and grab it, and he has done a drawing

of himself at the drawing board as a skeleton.

And he says, "If you'd done it right the first time,

I wouldn't look like this."

[Terrence and Marcus laugh]

I'm so glad he had a good sense of humor,

but we just had, he passed away in 2001,

and I was actually working with him since 1993.

So we had a great relationship.

He critiqued my work even after he retired.

He was doing fine arts paintings,

he had his own show that traveled the country,

called From Menace to Matisse,

because he loved Matisse's artwork.

And yeah, he did drawings of famous musicians.

He loved jazz, and I got to host his show

when it came to Salisbury, to the museum up there.

He was just such a gifted, talented guy,

the way he composed his images,

the way he created his characters.

I have been blessed,

and even though I thought illustration

was gonna last me until retirement,

like it did for Norman Rockwell,

when that career ended, I thought "That wasn't my career,

that was my preparation, so that I was ready

to handle going to pen and ink

and doing one single image to tell a story."

- Dennis has such an iconic look,

and although you worked with Hank Ketcham

and you sort of, I guess,

studied at the master's hand, so to speak,

there is a noticeable difference

between what you do Monday through Saturday

and what Ron Ferdinand is doing on Sundays.

If you're looking, you can see that difference,

and you could also see the difference

in the new artist who seems to be coming on board,

which is, I believe, Scott Ketcham?

- Yes, well, everybody has their own way of drawing

in the style, even though you are copying

or mimicking Hank Ketcham's drawings,

you have your own way of doing and seeing things,

and Ron has a neat style, his is looser than mine,

and I like it.

In fact, when I came out to visit Mr. Ketcham

for the first time, and it was time for me to go home

after being there three or four days,

I said, "Could I possibly have

one of your original daily panels"?

He said, "Sure, go through the drawer."

Well, he had thousands of 'em there,

and I'm going, well, I like that. [speaking gibberish]

And I pull one out, and I said, "Could I have this one"?

It was Dennis and Joey getting ready to talk to Santa Claus.

He looked at it, he said, "No."

I said, "Well."

He said, "I didn't do that one, Ron did it."

[Terrence and Marcus laugh]

So I'm sorry, of all the things,

I've embarrassed myself so many times with him already.

Ron's style, he was training Ron to do the dailies,

and Karen, and he let Karen go when he hired me,

and I felt so bad about that.

But here again, Jim Scancarelli,

who's had an influence on everything,

since he had Hank Ketcham's phone number

and worked with me at my first job.

He also was getting phone calls, Jim was,

from these different magazines,

like, well, Fred Lasswell wanted to get an assistant

to do "Snuffy Smith" at one time,

but he lived in Florida.

And so Jim had heard that Fred was looking for somebody,

he said, "Marcus, why don't you send him some samples?"

So for a couple months I was doing some "Snuffy Smith"

workouts, and Fred really liked it,

but he said, "I just wanted somebody that lives closer,

and we don't, we're not so far apart."

And I said, "Okay."

Then Jim calls me, and he said,

"'The Flintstones' need an illustrator

because they're letting the other one go."

And so I started trying out for that

and did several of "The Flintstones" strips,

and the guy in New York, I can't remember his name,

he liked it, in fact, he was gonna hire me

and that was after I saw Hank on TV,

and when we flew out to Monterey to meet Mr. Ketcham,

one of my first questions was,

"I've been given the opportunity to draw 'The Flintstones,'

do you think I could do that and Dennis?"

He said, "Absolutely not."

He said, "You're gonna be so busy drawing Dennis,

you're not gonna have time to do another comic strip."

I said, "Okay, that's all I needed to know."

So anyway, while we were there eating lunch and all that,

Ron, Karen, Dottie, and myself and Kaye,

went out on the dock there at Monterey,

and ate at one of the restaurants,

Hank went to eat with the old guys,

the other cartoonists that lived in Monterey.

And while we were there, I was talking to Karen.

She's such a nice, talented young lady,

and I felt so bad when I found out

that Hank was gonna let her go.

I said, "What are you gonna be doing"?

She said, "I guess, freelancing or something."

And I said, "How would you like to draw 'The Flintstones'"?

She said, "You're kidding."

And so when I got back, I called the art director,

and I said, "You got the perfect person that could do this

because she's been doing Sunday Dennises,"

and he said, "Really"?

So he hired Karen after she left Hank's,

and she did "The Flintstones" for a while,

that was when the movie was coming out too,

but she's still doing great artwork freelancing.

She worked on "For Better or For Worse"

with Lynn Johnston.

So she's very talented and well-respected,

and so is Ron.

- I was wondering if there's a strip

that really stands out to you during your career

working on "Dennis the Menace,"

one that you still look back at and say,

"Wow, I really had some lightening in the bottle."

- Hmm, well, there's several

that have stuck in my head,

but one that really, it wasn't so much the actual drawing

as the subject.

It was right after 9/11,

and I think it was, oh, one of the cartoonists,

I can't think of who it was.

He came up with the idea

that all the cartoonists would do a tribute

to those who had lost their lives during the 9/11,

but because we are eight weeks ahead,

we couldn't do it like an editorial cartoonist

the next day or the same week.

He said, "Why don't we do it on Thanksgiving day?

We'll just have the cartoons all paying tribute

to those that went through that terrible experience

and lost loved ones."

And so I did Dennis, his mom and dad,

kinda like they were praying,

and the flag in the background.

And then they auctioned all of the artist's work off.

And that one piece brought $5,000,

I couldn't believe it, but they got over $50,000

for all the cartoons that were donated by the cartoonists,

and that money was given to the fund

that was supposed to help the families

of those who had lost loved ones.

And that one probably meant more to my heart than any.

Art-wise, I don't know. [chuckles]

- Well, Marcus, they're telling us that we're out of time.

I do wanna say, I mean, it's amazing

that comics in the newspaper make us laugh,

but they also touch our hearts,

and it's amazing that the one that stands out to you

is one that paid tribute

to such a tragic event in our country.

But Marcus, I do wanna say thank you so much

for taking time out of your schedule

to talk with me today.

- Thank you, I appreciate the time, Terrence.

And I've enjoyed talking with you.

I wish I'd given you more time to talk back.

[Terrence laughs]

- I'd like to thank you at home for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again soon.

[adventurous orchestral music]

[exciting orchestral music]

- [Narrator] Comic culture is a production

of the Department of Mass Communication

at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

[adventurous orchestral music]


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