The Mighty Itanami: a review

[Barry Braithwaite, The Mighty Itanami, Vol. 1, Georgetown, Sphere Entertainment Graphics, Spectrum Creative Productions Ltd, 2017.  42 pp.]

The Mighty Itanami is the latest feature work of artist and writer, Barry Braithwaite. He is Guyana’s finest creator of comic books, graphic magazines and cartoons and foremost in edutainment. He is a very important worker in cultural industries, an artist of exceptional talent and accomplishment, a story-teller, folklorist and diligent researcher.

The Mighty Itanami, Vol.1, is a graphic magazine published by Sphere Entertainment Graphics / Spectrum Creative Productions Ltd. The production and publication materialised with the support of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). The art and story is by Braithwaite, with flats and layers by Makeda Braithwaite, with Raymond Trotz and Beatrice Austin doing the editing and proofs.

It is the latest in an impressive corpus of creations which includes the most accomplished of the graphic magazines – The History of the Pork-Knockers, based on a similar subject and also with sponsorship from the GGMC. The works have drawn on Guyanese mythology in the wake of Walter Ralegh and the history/legend of El Dorado. These include The Jaguar series and The Legend of The Silk Cotton Tree, out of which came stage plays. The most recent publication before Itanami was the story of popular folk hero Anansi.

To call these comic books seems to underplay and under-state works which appear to be much larger, of greater import and stature than what that name might suggest. They are epics. They put elements of Guyana’s history in easily digested form and packages. This is so particularly when works of 2015 – a graphic magazine and a play depicting the 1823 rebellion – are taken into consideration. The story of Anansi – the Caribbean folk hero, the West African god and trickster, is similar to those as research into the mythology of Africa and the Caribbean.

Braithwaite’s work on the pork-knockers might well be the most thorough, deep, sympathetic and revealing account of the history of people considered colourful and controversial. It is at the same time very readable and entertaining. The same can be said of The Mighty Itanami. It wants to be entertaining and to appeal to a popular audience. Advertising itself, the publication prominently proclaims “the lore and legends of the gold bush come alive when you least expect.”  Additionally, the Guyana Gold and Diamond Mining Association (GGDMA) reveals that Braithwaite created the Mighty Itanami as a character “to be featured in the Miners Magazine of the GGDMA some 33 years ago . . . to capture the adventures real and imagined of our world.”

Ralegh’s account of El Dorado in his Discoverie of Guiana (1597) founded Guyanese literature in the written tradition. It triggered off and inspired centuries of fiction, poetry and myth. But beyond that was the endless search for wealth and identity that took place not only in the literature, but literally in the forests, the rivers and the deepest caverns of the interior heartland.  This work tell of these searches in a story that is heroic, adventurous, sensational, supernatural and post-colonial.

It brings out the best quality of a diverse collection of men, nevertheless united by being courageous. Their tale is similar to that of the American Wild West – men who braved the hostile landscape to open up the frontier, risking life and family life. The Guyanese pork-knockers were pioneers, the humble forerunners who paved the way for the modern and better mechanised mining companies. In the process, they created a famous/infamous lifestyle, folklore, myth and legend, about a world (referred to by the GGDMA) which is the environment of a very dangerous life.

It is probably no coincidence that the Mighty Itanami is a super-hero. He performs a function in an environment that has as much treachery and murderous, ignoble intention as heroism and courage. In an environment where success is a dream and extreme hardship a grim reality. There is a need for inspiration, hope and belief to give a sense of purpose, counteract villainy and enhance survival. Neither is it accidental that this hero is protected by a halo of the supernatural and spiritual power in a world whose inhabitants believe in those powers and have even created tales about them, many of which are hostile and antagonistic to mortal men. Of necessity, Itanami is equipped to fight both spirits and men.

He started at the bottom as a ‘lil boy’ apprentice, struggled and survived both romance and betrayal. He fought against treachery, survived and triumphed over death, the spirit world, and the supernatural. But he was also enriched by those spiritual and super-human realms – he benefited from possession of the fair maid’s comb and necklace. Equally importantly, Itanami is ethical. He is a fair and honest man, morally placed to be an avenger against the dishonest and the predatory among the bush men.

The tale told here by Braithwaite is a love story. That might be of some importance because of the reputation of the bush as unchaste and cynical. It is a success story in a place where a shining star is needed to counteract tales of treachery. Perhaps Braithwaite is continuing his quest in the history of the pork-knockers to balance the picture of a misunderstood place with a forever bad reputation. In this way it is similar to a powerful play – Makantali, a drama of the bush by Harold Bascom. And still, it shows the darker side of existence in the bush where the hero constantly has to be on the lookout for lurking enemies and confronting dishonesty.

The Mighty Itanami is also reinforced by several sub-plots of spirits and traditions. These are frequent and complex and move from fair maids to a number of Amerindian references including a creation myth about Maconaima, spiritual and magical beings. It tells of the Water People, the Orehu, Ho-Aranni, Ahuba, Tovinga, Ekkekuli, and Manahay.

If anything, the story is too rich. It is crowded with knowledge and very intriguing information about beliefs and traditions hardly circulating in common knowledge. The plot is complex with many conflicts and complications. The story-line and the actual chronology of the plot tend not to be obviously clear. It moves across time in such a way that it takes time and concentration to fathom Itanami’s story. There might just be too much charged into one story for a single reading.  There are certainly many stories in that one plot and they could have been given less demanding rendering if sifted out and told in more than one book.

Braithwaite is an artist of superlative power. He can draw. He is a master of anatomy. His images are vivid and realistic and he is quite a water-colourist. All told, the book contains many drawings, many pen and ink pieces that could stand by themselves in exhibit. It is not known how much use he makes of the latest technology – graphics that he can access online, computer graphics software or other technologies; or whether he works at a desk with old fashioned pen and ink, fine brushes, washes and coloured inks. But the entire work is meticulously crafted with page after page of art work in colour, representing an overwhelming volume of output.

The Mighty Itanami gets through a great deal of material. It is substantial reading matter. In the end it is a treasure with value well beyond what one might expect from a single graphic magazine, even if there is more in it than may be considered enough for one publication. It is well worth reading and never forgets to entertain.

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