No, the title of this entry isn’t the result of a kitten playing on my computer keyboard. And I double-checked on Google to make sure I have the spelling right. But if you were born after the 1950s or so, you may not have a clue who the picture is of, nor what it has to do with that strange “word.”
That is Joe Btfsplk, a character created by award-winning comic strip artist Al Capp for his “Li’l Abner” comic strip.
Joe’s Wikipedia entry describes him this way:
He’s well-meaning, but is the world’s worst jinx, bringing disastrous misfortune to everyone around him. A small, dark rain cloud perpetually hovers over his head to symbolize his bad luck. Hapless Btfsplk and his ever-present cloud became one of the most iconic images in Li’l Abner.
My own dad, who died in 2009 at the age of 87, often commented in his later years that he felt like Joe Btfsplk because he seemed to have “bad luck” more frequently than most people he knew. My mother agreed with him. She was a long-time stroke victim, and had trouble putting her thoughts into words at times. So when he would get to ranting about some piece of bad luck he’d had the day before—maybe they short-changed him at the grocery store—Mother would grin and “draw in the air” a cloud over her head and nod toward him. She knew I would know immediately that she was comparing Dad to Joe with his ever-present cloud.
One storyline in the early 1970s features him trapping his cloud in a special anti-pollutant jar. Joe becomes romantically involved with a gal for the first time—until her crazed ex-boyfriend shows up to kill him. Joe reluctantly opens the jar and releases his cloud in order to take care of the boyfriend, and wistfully realizes that he wasn’t meant for any other kind of life. As he returns to his normal, loner existence, his cloud once again in tow, he is for the moment satisfied to be who he really is.
In addition to the obvious comic effect, Capp often used Joe Btfsplk as a deus ex machina to produce miraculous rescues or to effect plot twists.
If you’ve never heard of a “deus ex machina, it’s a useful Latin phrase meaning “god from the machine” and is used in literature as…
…a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring a happy ending into the tale, or as a comedic device. [Wiki: Deus ex Machina]
In case you were wondering…how do you pronounce Joe’s name?
According to Al Capp, btfsplk is a rude sound. During public lectures, Capp demonstrated this sound by closing his lips, leaving his tongue sticking out, and then blowing out air, which is colloquially called a “raspberry” or Bronx cheer.
As Capp commented … “How else would you pronounce it?”
Bet You Didn’t Know…
Joe was later licensed for use in a series of animated TV commercials for Head & Shoulders, a dandruff shampoo.