Mon | May 27, 2019

Tony Deyal | Comic relief

Published:Saturday | January 12, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The only thing worse than being a comic in the elementary school I attended was getting not one, but two, in the mail. Our headmaster, whose parents had bestowed on him the grandiose title and appellation 'Prince Alfred' Forde, was huge and loud.

His demand for silence in the school reverberated upstairs, downstairs, and even to the next village. Neighbours gossiping by the stand-pipe used to immediately put their buckets on their heads and rush silently home. He prowled through the school with a large leather strap, which, according to some of the older children, he soaked in urine so it could 'sting' harder.

I was nine years old when I had my first major encounter with Mr Forde. I did not know he was behind me when, during Lent, I was performing, for the benefit of a small group of my classmates, a 'stick-fight' song I had heard before carnival: "When ah dead, bury mih clothes/Bury it behind Lily back door/When ah dead, bury mih clothes."

I just heard the loud roar behind me: "You want me to bury your clothes? Well, I will bury you today."

I was dragged to the front of the school where the headmaster had a desk with an all-purpose stool. I made the mistake, in my confusion, of smiling. He slammed me bottoms-up on the stool and toasted my rear with 30 strokes of the strap. Then I made another major error that could have been fatal. I grinned when I was released. He angrily pulled me back down on the stool and dropped another 40 (my cousin Cynthia said) on me. I did not cry and did not laugh either. I begged Cynthia not to tell my father anything since he would beat me, too.

My Uncle Percy, who worked in the city, Port-of-Spain, had no idea what kind of person the headmaster was. He did not know, for instance, that Mr Forde made it school policy that we were not to read comic books at home or in school, and anyone found with one would get licks and the offending literature seized and burnt.

By the time I was four, I had already started reading comics and grew into an avid and insatiable reader of everything in sight. My Aunt Hairoon, Uncle Percy's sister, had taught me to read, and since the only reading material we had was the Guardian newspaper, this was my first primer. We read Mandrake and Phantom together. I could not pronounce the words properly, but I used to gesture hypnotically, hoping to get people to bow to my will.

I named our dog 'Devil', and the name did not help when he bit a policeman. I knew Mandrake's Narda and Lothar, and the Phantom's horse 'Hero', girlfriend 'Diana', and 'Cheetah', the monkey. While my mother and my auntie were into Rex Morgan and Juliet Jones, I checked out Dennis the Menace, Mutt and Jeff, Dagwood and Blondie, the Katzenjammer Kids, Lil' Abner, and Dick Tracy with his trailblazing, 'two-way' wrist radio.

The village had one general store run by a really nice man who still carried his boyhood pet name, 'Sonnyboy'. He sold comics, and I bought them with any money I had. Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Cisco Kid, and Zorro were my favourites, and later, the popular Captain Marvel, a little boy named Billy Batson who, when he said the word 'SHAZAM', was transformed into a costumed adult with the powers of superhuman strength, speed, flight, and other abilities. What more could a little boy who lived in a world of make-believe want, especially when SHAZAM was an abbreviation for Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury? I had met Solomon in Sunday school and the others in Classics Illustrated Comics, my introduction to the world of books.

 

MAJOR EVENT

 

Instead of buying the two comics and bringing them home for me, Uncle Percy decided, as a joke and surprise, to mail them to me at the school. I was the first student to ever get mail in the little country school. It was a major event. The headmaster was livid. He held up the wrapped package, shouted loudly for me to come to the front, waved the offending article, tore it open, gave us a lecture about the dangers of comic books and the trash my parents were encouraging me to read, prophesied a life of crime for me that would bring my parents nothing but shame and disgrace, and finally, reluctantly, handed me the Batman and Superman comic books that my Uncle Percy had sent.

I made sure not to laugh in Mr Forde's presence, but from the time I stepped out of the school, I ran jubilantly home and devoured the books with more gusto than the cake my mother had made.

Later in life, I duly went and paid homage to my heroes Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man but never felt the need to go to any of the recent ones. I realised why when I took my family to Aquaman last Sunday. It was fun. The computer-generated graphics were impressive, but it was not the Aquaman I grew up with. This one walked. At the cinema, I saw a poster for my favourite, Captain Marvel, and told myself that for old times sake, I would go. Then I found out that Captain Marvel was no longer a little boy. He is a 'she' named, not Billy, but Carol.

I have nothing against women superheroes - my wife is one and so was my mother- but I will cling to the past, preserve and protect my illusions, hang on to the heroes who fired my imagination, and instead of getting lost in a Bizzaro universe, stay home gesturing hypnotically and muttering "SHAZAM, SHAZAM."

- Tony Deyal was last seen asking, "What do you call Iron Man without his fancy gadget-laden suit?" Stark naked.