Calvin vs. Dennis vs. Michael
I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the title and thinking, “Calvin. DURRHH!” Yes, but why? Why is Calvin such a beloved character when Mike Patterson and Dennis the Menace only give us emotions like mouth foaming rage or simple eye rolling?
To an occasional reader, Calvin is, for all intents and purposes, a brat. Just like Mike and Dennis. He mouths off, he destroys things, he even locked his babysitter out of the house for several hours. And we laugh.
I think the simple answer is Calvin is a much more well rounded character than his comic strip peers. For all the chaos he causes, there are just as many strips depicting the other aspects of his personality. Whether he’s philosophizing, imagining he’s an explorer, struggling with his conscience, or crying over the death of a baby raccoon, Calvin is more than ink on paper. He feels the emotions we feel. He’s selfish, ironic, thoughtful, imaginative, frustrated, excited, lazy, pessimistic, and stubborn. In other words, he’s like us.
To contrast, Dennis the Menace, which has been in print much longer (1951 to the present, compared to Calvin’s 1985-1995 run), is a flat, one dimensional child who’s original ‘brattitude’ has simply mellowed into a “Gee, kids say the darned’est thing!” gag-a-day. Dennis is a one-panel strip, and therefore has boxed itself into a corner, no pun intended. There isn’t much room for personality and what little does come is as menacing as toenail clippings in the bathtub. The writers/artists would love you to believe that Dennis is a scamp and a troublemaker (As evidenced by every adult he comes in contact with) but when all he does is use cute wordplay, we don’t buy it. To be fair, Dennis used to be menacing back in his heyday (Enough so that it put a rift between creator Hank Ketchum and his son, the real life inspiration for Dennis), with a scowl and a smart mouth. But his extreme toning down has taken its toll. Today’s Dennis is pretty much interchangeable with ‘Family Circus’s’ Billy, except grownups don’t cower from Billy. They leave that to the readers.
Mike Patterson is another story. Mike is from ‘For Better or For Worse,’ that oh-so rare strip that until recently had its characters age. Now Michael, a grownup with a wife and kids, is back to his kindergarten incarnation where he’s currently fawning over his future bride. For many years, strip readers have reviled Mike, but not for the reasons you think.
Mike was once a somewhat bratty though realistic enough kid that went through his teenage phase, college years, and eventually got married and had some Patterspawns. Unfortunately, Mike grew up to be a selfish, pompous ass. Though he’s proclaimed to be a great writer, anyone who’s read his monthly letters on the “FBorFW” website knows different. The dribbling syrup and stupid prose makes readers gag. Mike is also a workaholic, as stated by wife Deanna, who in her own letters claims that Mike often retreats to his own world in the attic, leaving Dee with the kids, the housework, and all the chaos of a suburban household while he ignores everyone.
Readers turned from disgust to outright repugnance several Christmases ago, when Mike and Dee’s home caught on fire in the middle of the night. Mike quite literally abandoned his wife and kids on an icy fire escape so he could run back inside…and get his laptop. Making it to the ground, the three huddled together as they watch the house burn to a crisp and wondered in fear if Michael was still alive. Unfortunately he was. When firefighters finally pulled the idiot out, his first words to Dee were not an apology or concern for his family. It was simply, “Take my laptop.”
His outrageous behavior was never addressed in the strip, only a passing line in Deanna’s monthly letter that implied she gave him a stern talking to. In real life, this would be grounds for divorce, but since Dee and Mike are childhood sweethearts (When he wasn’t calling her “fat”), they are Fated.
Readers are now subjected to Mike’s early years and often express their disgust at his very presence. However for the most part, it’s not what Mike is being portrayed as. It’s what loyal readers know what he’ll grow up to be: an egotistical, pretentious jerk. How can anyone enjoy the antics of Little Mike when all they can think about is ‘Stone Season?’ (‘Stone Season’ is Mike’s ‘novel.’ Parts of it were posted on the website, possibly as a torture device that would make Bin Laden beg for sweet death.)
So in conclusion, Calvin, even in reruns, will stand out among all the “bratty” comic strip children as as imaginative as any real child, as smart as any Descartes, and as interesting as any character ever created. He simply puts Mike and Dennis to shame. Unfortunately for us readers, it is Mike and Dennis we must put up with for eternity.