On Books: Oil & Water, Tout Bec Doux

Oil & Water
Outsiders Looking In
A new graphic novel plunges into the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil disaster. But its characters quickly realize their preconceptions about Louisiana are wrong - and the disaster is much bigger than they are.
By Alex Woodward

"We piled out of the van, convinced we'd finally crossed into a Louisiana you couldn't read about back in Portland."

Oil & Water
Outsiders Looking In
A new graphic novel plunges into the Gulf of Mexico following the BP oil disaster. But its characters quickly realize their preconceptions about Louisiana are wrong - and the disaster is much bigger than they are.
By Alex Woodward

"We piled out of the van, convinced we'd finally crossed into a Louisiana you couldn't read about back in Portland."

Leave it to a comic book to introduce itself with a Slidell joke.

The comic book - rather, graphic novel - takes only a few frames to mention "sexy sirens from Slidell," as advertised on a Grand Isle strip club's marquee. Those first few pages of Oil and Water jump headfirst into the intimate details of the Gulf South.

In a blog post written by Steve Duin, a columnist for the Portland, Ore.-based newspaper The Oregonian, he recounts that night at Daddy's Money and its struggling, jaundiced-eyed proprietor Jack Jambon, slouching at the end of his bar and counting the dollars from BP clean-up crews who are there for the show: "Then he mounts that stool at the corner of the bar and watches the money roll in from the guys who drink to forget the women are from Slidell."

Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler, a New Yorker cartoonist best known for the alt-weekly strip Too Much Coffee Man, collaborated on Oil and Water, a mostly nonfictional account of a Portland group's eye-opening trip to the Gulf South in the wake of the BP oil disaster. It synthesizes the group's 22 people into 10, and compresses 10 emotional days across three states meeting dozens of real-life characters into 120 pages. Venerable comics publisher Fantagraphics published the book last month.

The Slidell joke is just a detail, a glimpse into the personal stories of several Gulf residents - mostly fishermen - during the dog days of summer 2010 when the media left and the country's attention drifted elsewhere. It weaves those stories into the Portland group, the social justice-minded PDX 2 Gulf Coast, struggling with its naive approach to the disaster, and waking up to the realities of its neighbors down South.

"Most of the people who went on the trip - it changed their lives," Wheeler says. "Just going down there and seeing this really is a complex issue, and the people there are really aware how complex it is, and the failure in analysis is people simplify it too much."

"I take it this isn't the French Quarter."

Comics are, stereotypically, stories of heroes and villains - there are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys always win. What happens when your bad guys are unfathomably powerful oil companies, the good guys are everyone else, and the story is too complex to pigeonhole into a familiar black-and-white comic book format? Is that even a comic book anymore?

Oil and Water isn't a first for the medium; its roots are in the political cartoon. Graphic novels have served as an intersection for social justice journalism and comics with works like Art Spiegelman's Holocaust memoir Maus; Marjane Satrapi's Islamic Revolution epic Persepolis; Joe Sacco's on-the-ground illustrated accounts in Beirut and Bosnia; David Axe and Matt Bors' Iraq chronicle, War is Boring; and Josh Neufeld's acclaimed A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which chronicled the Hurricane Katrina stories of four New Orleans residents. The nonfiction graphic novel is part of the "new New Journalism," using an unconventional medium to say what couldn't be said elsewhere.

"This is the YouTube age - we're not going to write a book Al Gore would write," says Mike Rosen, project leader of PDX 2 Gulf Coast. "We want to touch youth in an edgier way. We put together a half-hour documentary, an essay-based curriculum, and a graphic novel. Steve thought the idea was nuts. I'm not exactly sure what his turning point was."

"I never thought we could possibly get a graphic novel out of this," says Duin, who's also a comics connoisseur and historian. Duin and Wheeler didn't have a plan when they landed in Louisiana, but Rosen was confident he picked two people who could tell an effective story.
"Mike had a vision that was pretty clear. I'm going to get these two guys together: Steve's gonna write it, Shannon's gonna draw it.' He had a real agenda," Wheeler says.

"I'm used to finding people, talking to them and turning it over fairly quickly," Duin says. "I exercise my voice a lot, because I use it. But it's such a delight when someone's voice comes along, like the owner of Daddy's Money had. You just get out of the way and let them carry the story. I don't know if we were stupidly lucky in the people we met, or if we stayed another week we would've met an equally interesting cast of characters. I'm guessing it's the latter. Oregonians tend to be nice but bland. There's no blandness, as far as I can tell, in southern Louisiana."

The character "Catfish" gets his own eponymous chapter. "Seen a lot of shit in the last 20 years," he says, as panels illustrate Vietnamese shrimpers working the Gulf and cocaine trafficking replacing the shrimping business. "Made good money. Served 39 months."

Deano Bonano, then Jefferson Parish's emergency management director, meets the group coincidentally in Grand Isle. Bonano wrangles a shark from his fishing line and gently sends it back into the Gulf, resting it against the waves to let water pass over its gills. "Louisianans are resilient," says Bonano, speaking for both himself and the shark. "We came back from Katrina. And if we came back from that, we can come back from this."

Duin and Wheeler mapped out stories and scripts, between arguments and back and forths about plotting, storytelling and pacing.

"I'm basically writing the screenplay, and Shannon's a single-panel cartoonist," Duin says. "I'd give him the script and sample drawings, and of course Shannon would say, You're out of your mind.'"

As the book gets deeper south and deeper into the complexities and relationships of oil to the Gulf and its people, the stories get murky and collide, mimicking an ebb-and-flow that at first is much like oil and water, then gradually homogenizes. The Portlanders come to grips with their own misconceptions, and the characters that were once miles away from their lives are embedded into their own.

"You think oil is the problem? You ain't from around here. Oil is the solution."

Oil and Water's Portland characters first board a plane to solve an environmental crisis nobody else seems to care about, only to have those preconceived notions (and stereotypes) flipped upside-down, or defeated ("There's so much left to do ").

While the Gulf Coast and its residents' lives crumble, the "do-gooders from Portland," as Duin describes them, face their own reality: They came, they saw, and they have absolutely nothing to do to help in the face of devastation they naively believed needed some liberal enlightenment and an eco-enema. The real-life group admits it was conscious of its "do-gooder" presence, and the last thing it wanted was to condescend to people on the coast.

"What do you do with these good intentions?" Wheeler says. "I don't know if I have a good answer."

The first several frames introduce the characters, who are both earnest and a bit holier-than-thou. "The BP spill is the worst environmental disaster of our lifetimes. The people there need to know we have not forgotten about them," says Emily as the group boards a Louisiana-bound plane. A few panels later and bleak, black images of smoke billowing from the Deepwater Horizon rig fill the page - followed by the group complaining about the heat and trading "poop" stories.

"We wanted to come down and get first-hand experience of what folks down there in Louisiana, and Mississippi and Alabama (experienced), and bring it home and maybe change our lives a little bit than pretend we could change or influence the lives down there," Duin says.

The group received little press before its August 2010 trip, funded via a Kickstarter campaign that to Gulf residents may have seemed well-intentioned but unwelcome. The group knew it was entering territory that hesitates to welcome outsiders following disasters - from press, environmentalist agendas and scientists. The PDX 2 Gulf Coast trip had all of those - 22 people in tow, including community activists, videographers, high school teachers, and of course, a cartoonist and a newspaper columnist.

"We thought the primary thing we could do is bear witness, and bring back information as a caring community. It sounds a little trite, but it's a Portland thing," Rosen says. "And keep a story alive. Let people understand these are our neighbors, it's a big deal, and it's complicated."

Rosen admits those expectations proved much more difficult. "It floored me," he says. "I grew up in New York, with a real New York Jew perspective. The South was one of those places I never appreciated and even had a disdainful attitude toward. People were skeptical, and maybe still are skeptical of us. The book lampoons the do-gooders from Portland' - Why don't you guys just raise money for the Gulf Coast?' - That's one of the things I'm proud of in the book. It asks, Why the hell are we even there?'"

Wheeler brought his sketchbook everywhere. He approached a taped-off stretch of beach on Grand Isle and crossed it. A beach-cleaning machine sat near mounds of tarry sand, and Wheeler got to work drawing. A BP employee approached Wheeler and told him to leave.

"We start talking about drawing, and we talked for 45 minutes about how the machine works, and he gave me a whole tour," he says. "Usually I'm sitting in a coffee shop, or at home alone, and I'm trying to remember things, searching on the Internet for an illustration or photograph for reference. There, I'm on the spot: What is this person saying, what is the soul of what's happening?'

"I did 300 pages in 10 days."

Alex Woodward is a staff writer for Gambit. A version of this story first appeared in that newspaper.

Oil and Water
Written by Steve Duin
Art by Shannon Wheeler
Hardcover; 144 pages


UL Press recently released the
Tout bec Doux collection.

Out of syndication for nearly 20 years now, the South Louisiana comic strip Tout Bec Doux was born of the Cajun renaissance.
By Heather Miller

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 "that just doesn't exist anymore."

"Their work was innovative in a number of ways," says Barry Jean Ancelet, a UL Lafayette 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 geo-politics to self-ascription, always presented with a dose of good-natured humor."

Ancelet and fellow UL 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 famed 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 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 its 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 Lafayette Daily Advertiser, 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 that 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."