It was a South Louisiana summer in 1972 when a quirky Cajun named Bec Doux, sitting idly on a porch along the muddy bayous of Acadiana, observed a sign promoting a "BIG" contest.
"What's the first prize?" Bec Doux inquires.
"An all paid week at Holly Beach."
And the second prize?
"Two weeks at Holly Beach."
For Cajuns who've vacationed at or visited the polluted and muddied coastal strip in Cameron Parish known as Holly Beach, it's a joke that needs no explanation. For non-Cajuns and outsiders unfamiliar with the storied history of South Louisiana and the people who call it home, depicting the humor of a Holly Beach punchline could be a lost cause.
Vermilion Parish natives Ken Meaux and the late Earl Comeaux were aware of this dilemma in 1969, the year they launched a first-of-its-kind Louisiana French comic strip that first ran in The Kaplan Herald and eventually circulated in several newspapers around Acadiana. Aroused in part by a movement to preserve a French Cajun and Creole culture on the decline, Bec Doux et ses amis, or "Sweet Lips and his friends," served a loyal and regional readership for more than two decades until its end in 1992, all the while capturing a fading and isolated French community some say doesn't exist anymore.
"Their work was innovative in a number of ways," says Barry Jean Ancelet, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) French professor and renowned Cajun historian and folklorist. "They became keen observers and effective interpreters of the inner workings and interesting quirks of Cajun society. ... The strips provide a remarkable perspective on a range of issues, from geopolitics to self-ascription, always presented with a dose of good-natured humor."
Ancelet and fellow ULL foreign languages faculty member Fabrice Leroy are the authors of a lengthy introduction into Tout Bec Doux, the first complete compilation of the Bec Doux series. Published by the UL Lafayette Press, Tout Bec Doux offers 400 pages of rare and humorous insight into a wholly unique Cajun way of life, equipped with English translation to counter a French dialect that was rarely seen in written form.
"Bec Doux and [his sidekick] Zirable enjoy Cajun food and strong Cajun coffee, hunting and fishing, ogling pretty women, dancing to Cajun music, telling exaggerated stories, confronting authority, bickering at home with their spouses, and raising an abnormally high number of children," Leroy explains in the introduction.
In the late '60s, Meaux was dabbling with his own comic strip about Louisiana legends like Tugboat Annie and the Axe Man of New Orleans, folktales he pulled from the book Gumbo Ya-Ya. With the growing French preservation trend taking place, Meaux, too, began to question his ancestry and the traditions behind the only lifestyle he'd ever known.
"I realized how little I knew of who I was," recalls Meaux, the Bec Doux illustrator. "The most we were taught was Longfellow's poem."
When Comeaux, a French humorist and Meaux's high school French teacher, approached Meaux about illustrating a comic with a Louisiana French twist, the pair were faced with varying ideas on how to relay the Louisiana French message. Comeaux, according to Meaux, was aligned with the notion that Louisiana French was "broken" and in desperate need of refining or replacing with academic French. It was the same argument being pushed by the president of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) at the time, but Meaux wanted no part of it.
"I told him that doing it that way would violate the whole reason for doing this," Meaux recalls.
Meaux eventually won that battle, and by the late 1970s, CODOFIL officials finally began to understand the importance of Cajun French in the preservation effort, in part because of the written form of Cajun French — as seen in Bec Doux.
"Because Bec Doux's appearance and manner of speaking vary throughout our book, some may find him slightly schizophrenic," the late Comeaux writes in the foreword of a 1980 book compilation of Bec Doux comics. "That is not Bec Doux's fault. I must take the blame. I am probably schizophrenic myself.
"Ken and I experimented with Bec Doux over the years, and for that reason, Bec Doux was not static, either in language or appearance. His evolution is evident throughout the book."
In the comic strip's early days, Comeaux often inserted historical or cultural explanations to run with the illustrations, but later realized that most of the comic's niche readers understood the farce. The non-Cajun readers, if there were any, would simply have to do without the "didactic over-explanation," Leroy says.
"Major syndicates couldn't see the nationwide appeal of an obscure group of people," Meaux says. "Even some people here didn't get it. It's based on historical background."
Other regional newspapers that carried Bec Doux and his gang of Cajun sidekicks include The Advertiser in Lafayette, the Breaux Bridge Banner, the Rayne Independent and, among others, the Crowley Post Signal.
"Bec Doux presents Cajuns as a working-class people in the margins of Anglo capitalism, an ethnic group alienated from the means of wealth-making, uninterested in enterprising schemes," Leroy concludes. "[It] constitutes a parallel yet autonomous attempt at writing in Cajun French and at representing Cajun ethnicity. The comic effect presupposes the right amount of self-awareness, which is the thin line the Bec Doux series has walked in its 20-year run. A true exception in the American comics landscape, it has navigated through the many obstacles of ethnic representation to capture the uniqueness of the Cajun people: a worthy achievement for little drawings in a small town newspaper."
Meaux will be at the UL Alumni House in Lafayette from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30 to sign copies of Tout Bec Doux, and will appear at Bourque's Social Club in Scott from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1. On Saturday, Dec. 3, Meaux will sign books at the Liberty Theater in Eunice from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. as a precursor to the "Rendezvous des Cajuns." Tout Bec Doux is available for $40 through the UL Press. For more information, visit www.becdoux.com.