Sunday, July 21, 2024
HomeEducation / CultureHold ‘em’ Joe

Hold ‘em’ Joe

By Tony Deyal

Early in the New Year, my 2020 vision was tested by a bold headline on the cover page of a Trinidad Sunday newspaper “CLOUD OVER CAMILLE” with a picture of the former minister of planning, Camille Robinson-Regis.

While many of the local commentators linked the headline to a $143,800 bank deposit with a questionable “source of funds” declaration, a serious matter the ease of which I had referred to in Biblical terms as passing a Camille through the eye of a needle, I was more interested in the cloud since it tickled both my fancy and memory.  However, my cloud sourcing, unlike others that deal with the internet and suchlike, was among the newspaper “comic strips” of the past. There, gesturing hypnotically like Mandrake, using my “X-ray” vision like Superman, and shouting “SHAZAM” like Captain Marvel, I found my cloud.

The only newspaper of my youth was the Trinidad Guardian and on a special page next to the daily horoscopes, it featured a range of comics among which was the satirical “Li’l Abner” by Al Capp. It was there, in my melange of memories, I found the missing link. Joe Btfsplk was a really nice, well-meaning, guy who was also the world’s worst jinx. Wherever he went he had a small, dark rain cloud hovering perpetually over his head and he brought misfortune to all those around him.

In my favourite Joe Btfsplk story, he captured his cloud in a jar and then fell in love with a young lady. When her very angry ex-boyfriend showed up, Joe opened the jar, released his cloud to get rid of the boyfriend and then realised that the normal lifestyle wasn’t for him. He resumed life with his head in his cloud, satisfied to be who he really was. Joe and his dark cloud, and Camille and her Trini version, opened the floodgates of memory and I rummaged through the past seeking other similarities.

“Mutt and Jeff”, reputedly the first daily comic strip, was an early favourite.  Even though I was too young to question their living arrangements, I was old enough to laugh at their humour, initially at the racetrack and later trying a bunch of “get rich quick” notions. Through it all, Mutt’s wife, affectionately known as “M’love” and son Cicero, provided some background entertainment.  Interestingly, Camille’s “dark cloud” is not the only political comic connection.  Over the years, any two comic political figures, whether in the same party or political rivals, have been deemed “Mutt and Jeff”.

In fact, in Trinidad and most of the other islands, depending on the topical political issues, the prime minister is generally “Mutt” and the “Jeff” changes with the circumstances. Right now, many people are trying to find a scapegoat “Jeff” for the leak in the roof of the newly opened Parliament, the “Red House”, renovated at a cost of $445 million. Instead of blaming Joe Btfsplk and his dark raincloud, one wit invented a Chinese construction manager aptly named “Lee Kin”.

But politics was never on my mind as I devoured the daily strips. While my mother and her female friends and family loved the “soap-operas” of that time, “The Heart of Juliet Jones”, which featured a 30-year old brunette and “Rex Morgan M.D.”, about a small-town doctor, my strips of choice were “Mandrake The Magician” and “The Phantom” both started by American writer and cartoonist, Lee Falk.

Mandrake was the ideal fantasy for youngsters like me who loved to read and were hooked on adventure. It took us out of our poverty and humdrum reality to a world that would never be ours. For a relatively long time, we thought that Mandrake, his girlfriend Narda and Lothar, Prince of Seven Nations, his African sidekick, were real and lived in the US in a fabulous palace called Xanadu. We never doubted that Mandrake had the power to hypnotise everybody, including extra-terrestrials, and could also become invisible (long before Harry Potter), change his shape, levitate and teleport without all the gimmicks of Captain Kirk and the enterprise.

We all wished our fathers would give us hats, cloaks and wands like the ones Mandrake got from his father Theron but while I could shape a piece of a guava branch into a wand, and pretend my flimsy plastic raincoat or my towel was a cape, all my father had was an old brown Wilson hand that clearly was out of sync with the rest of the fantasy.

“The Phantom” was all adventure and, to my mind, much better than any of the movies which followed the comic strip. It caught and captured my generation. Christopher Walker was the 21st member of his family to become the Phantom. The initial Phantom’s father was killed during a pirate attack and his son swore an oath on his father’s skull to fight evil.

This is how the story of “The Ghost Who Walks” started. His wife Diana, his horse Hero and his dog, Devil were so much part of our lives that while I was too young to have a wife and too poor to have a horse, I named our dog, Devil. The Phantom had no superpowers and had to rely on his own physical and intellectual abilities to fight the forces of evil. This was a large part of his appeal. What made him different was that he was the first of the “super” heroes to wear the “skin-tight” costume and a mask. While he was very much like Tarzan, he was the precursor to Superman, Batman and Captain America all of whom later became extremely popular with readers in Trinidad and globally, and more than seventy-five years later are still box-office hits in today’s cinemas.

Unfortunately, in the Caribbean, it is impossible to forget the politics or, as much as we would like to, ignore the comedy and mismanagement that so often characterise our attempts at self-rule. In Trinidad, as it was in Jamaica recently, our new police commissioner is Dick Tracy and Sam Ketchum at the same time. However, despite the two-way wrist radio, the Crimestoppers’ Textbook is not working and our villains are worse than Flattop Jones, killing at least 538 people last year. In the World Population Review, under “Crime Rate By Country” 2020, Venezuela heads the global list. Trinidad and Tobago, sixth in the world with 73.15 murders per 100,000 population, tops the Caribbean.   Obviously, the dark cloud is not restricted to Camille. It is clear that Joe Btfsplk is very much alive and kicking right here in TNT.

*Tony Deyal was last seen asking which comic character best captures the politicians and politics of the Caribbean.  Mickey Mouse!!!






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