Marcus Hamilton a local treasure resides in Mint Hill

Marcus Hamilton with "Dennis the Menace." (Ed Berti)

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The Saturday Evening Post illustration of Bob Hope. (Ed Berti)
A sample of Hamilton’s artwork from his portfolio. (Ed Berti)
The “Dennis the Menace” team. (Ed Berti)
Former Presidents artwork by Marcus Hamilton. (Ed Berti)

Dennis the Menace has been with us since March 12, 1951. This writer was born in 1950, I have been a fan my entire life. The inspiration and creator for the comic strip Hank Ketcham, a cartoonist and illustrator used his son Dennis as the primary character, who was only four years old when he refused to take a nap and messed up his entire room. Ketcham was working in his studio, suddenly the door flew open and his wife Alice, in frustration, exclaimed, “Your son is a menace!” The name “Dennis the Menace” stuck and the comic strip was born, as explained by Marcus Hamilton a local cartoonist and illustrator who resides in Mint Hill.

Ketcham sold the idea to a Syndicate and it was originally distributed to 16 newspapers by the Post-Hall Syndicate. “Dennis the Menace” was officially born, within one year 100 papers carried the cartoon, and today approximately 1000 newspapers in 48 countries and 19 languages publish the cartoon daily around the globe including the Mint Hill Times weekly.

Marcus Hamilton was born in Lexington, North Carolina, graduated college as a commercial art major, was married in his junior year of college to his wife Kay, who worked at a manufacturing job to get him through college wanted to land a job with Walt Disney as an illustrator. He also admired the work of Norman Rockwell.

However, he received a phone call from WBTV in 1965 about a job opportunity. He landed the position to work in the art department and moved to Charlotte. A great deal of conversion was going on at the time from black and white to color and he learned a lot from the experience.

Then one year later when he decided to go it alone as an independent freelance illustrator, he flew up to Manhattan with his portfolio and went door to door requesting a meeting with the art directors of magazines like Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Reader’s Digest. The small company grew as he worked freelance for various magazines for many years. His first freelance assignment was with True Magazine and he performed freelance artwork for Duke Power, Springs Mills, and Piedmont Natural Gas in the corporate world. He also did cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post including a cover on Bob Hope. “The key to success was to keep your work in front of Art Directors,” said Hamilton.

Unfortunately, the rise of digital art, computer graphics put him out of business. “They wanted slick computer graphics instead, hand illustrations were no longer needed.” To pay the mounting bills, he ended up working at Walmart when he was 50. This was a difficult time for him during his career and life. He was having some doubts about his career choice, even though he never lost his passion for being a commercial artist.

Then one night while channel surfing he came across a promotional interview with Hank Ketchum the creator and illustrator of Dennis since 1951. He mentioned he wanted to retire, but first, he would need someone to take over the comic after 40 years. “I will never forget his response, he said he would love to be able to paint and travel, but he always had the daily deadline to meet,” Hamilton said. “He said I would love to find someone to draw Dennis so I could retire.” Hamilton contacted his good friend Jim Scancarelli, the artist for “Gasoline Alley,” and it turned out he had Hank’s contact information. So he phoned Hank and informed him of his interest and Ketcham requested to review his portfolio.

They began communicating through fax and mail for quite a while. “Hank decided to take me on and trained me to draw as he did.” So over the next two years, Marcus would imitate Ketcham’s style on how each character was drawn. “It took many hours of tracing Ketcham’s illustrations to perfect the different characters,” said Hamilton.

During this entire process, Hank brought Marcus to his studio in California and had him draw “Dennis” panels for him. He would correct Hamilton until they perfected a strip that was approved by Ketcham. Once accomplished he was officially welcomed to the team,  “several of the comics between 1993-1995 was actually my work left unsigned, our way of testing the waters with a new artist,” according to Hamilton.

The critique, modifications, and perfection of drawings went on for eight years under the tutelage of Ketcham which in my mind had to be challenging for Hamilton. However, Hank was the creator and mastermind behind “Dennis” and he apparently wanted to leave a permanent legacy and it showed his passion for the character and his commitment to excellence. Marcus when you meet him for the first time, you can sense and understand his calm patience, appreciate his artistic talent, perseverance and complete dedication to the strip, you realize he was the perfect match for Ketcham to become an integral part of the team to carry on “Dennis the Menace” for over two more decades.

Hamilton certainly believes there was divine intervention involved when he was down and concerned about his future leading him to Ketcham and rejuvenating his career and passion as a commercial artist.

To produce the final product includes 12-15 freelance writers, they provide the captions, Hamilton selects the six he will use for the week and then designs his drawings around the captions. There are many steps in the drawing process which is still done by hand, the first step is the initial layout, second are thumbnail sketches, then begin to complete the process, the ink over works best with a blue pencil, then he creates and keeps a folder, when finished scans final drawings into the computer, finally size down to newspaper. “I was trained to never be satisfied with the first drawing, the artist is the director the photographer,” says Hamilton.

Today the comic strip originally created, written and illustrated by Hank Ketcham, continues as strong as ever. The team of former Ketcham assistants, Marcus Hamilton has been doing the daily panels since 1995, Ron Ferdinand, does the Sunday strips since 1981, and son Scott Ketcham, since 2010 continue the legacy through the King Features Syndicate.

The comic strip has been so successful that it was adapted to other media, including television shows, both live-action, and animated mediums, several films, theatrical and direct-video releases.

Hamilton wanted to thank the Mint Hill Times for continuing to run his “Dennis the Menace” panel in the local hometown weekly newspaper.

Being a big fan, and visiting his home studio was fascinating with all the Dennis drawings and is an experience this writer can check off my bucket list. He is not only a talented artist, but he is a humble individual and total inspiration of what can be accomplished if you follow your passion and enjoy what you are doing. “I love drawing “Dennis” and get a lot of satisfaction knowing how much others love “Dennis the Menace.”

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