Fabrice Leroy is an expert on Belgian Literature and comics, and is Chair of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages. ultoday.com spoke with him recently.

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Belgium, in a small town near Liège. I studied at the University of Liège for my undergraduate & Master's degrees in French Literature. Because of my upbringing, I am also interested in Belgian cultural products. One of those products is an important school of comics art. My parents had a large collection of comics, so that was a big part of my growing years.

Belgium has given us a lot of important comics; one of the first was Tintin by Hergé, which is internationally known, but there's André Franquin's Gaston Lagaffe, E.P. Jacobs' Blake and Mortimer, etc. In France, there is also a strong comics tradition since Astérix by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in the sixties. I was always interested in applying the critical discourse I learned in my literary studies to the storytelling language of comics. This was the birth of a research interest that I continue to actively pursue today. The field of comics research is constantly growing, particularly in Belgium and in the U.S.

Then in 1989 I went to LSU, on a fellowship from the Belgian Ministry of Cultural Relations. They were offering fellowships to different Francophone regions in the world. I didn't know much about Louisiana, but I was interested in discovering what it was about, since America fascinated me in my childhood years, mostly through music and film. I had an image of Louisiana as a southern exotic location with swamps, alligators, moonshine, jazz, plantations, all the stuff you see in movies.

I also had some minimal exposure to French-speaking Louisiana culture from courses I took in college. During my first year, a linguistics professor who was teaching an introductory course on Romance languages and the Francophone world, played Cajun music for the class, from an old vinyl record. He asked us, "Where is that from?" We didn't know. So we discussed the music and the culture, and that was my first exposure to the French spoken in Louisiana. I actually invited that professor here to Louisiana a few years ago, and reminded him of that anecdote. I took him to the Liberty Theatre in Eunice, and I bought him some Cajun music CDs to close the loop. He really enjoyed our swamp tour.

When I came to Louisiana, I was immediately struck by the warmth, the friendliness and generosity of the culture. I made instant friends with people, mostly Cajuns, particularly those who were seeking a connection with native French speakers in order to explore their own cultural identity.

Upon my graduation from LSU, I took a teaching position at Bowling Green State University, and stayed there for 10 years, all the while married to a Cajun girl from Carencro. She reminded me constantly that we were too far from home, from gumbo and crawfish and festivals and Cajun music, and especially from warm weather. She sort of guilted me into coming back. While Bowling Green was a fine place to live, and had a good university, I had good memories about southern Louisiana, and I wanted to come back, too. Strangely, that opportunity came when we least expected it: when Frans Amelinckx retired from the UL Francophone Studies program in 2002, the department began searching for a Belgian literature specialist, and I was fortunate enough to get this slot.

And I was very happy to come back to a place where I had a personal and cultural connection. I enjoy the festivals, the food, the people, the weather, the music... South Louisiana is much more soulful than the Midwest. I often catch myself thinking that I am really lucky to be in this place, which is truly unique in so many ways. When I am sitting in Barry Ancelet's living room, listening to an improvised jam by the best Cajun musicians, I almost have to pinch myself. Where else could I experience something like that, from up close? What other community of artists and scholars would open its doors so generously to outsiders?

But aside from my personal attachment to Louisiana, there were also good professional reasons to come back here. The UL PhD program has a unique identity, it was set up to recognize and value specific Francophone areas. My research and teaching focus on Belgian Literature is well articulated with the rest of this innovative program. This is a good fit and a perfect academic setting for me.

As an outsider immersed in this culture, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. Lafayette is a perfect sized city, with everything: it's cosmopolitan, it's pretty, it has a fascinating regional culture that I can relate to, and the people here have their own flavor, character and style. It may be our Latin and Caribbean roots. I have a good friend in Ohio who is Puerto Rican. I brought him down to speak here, and he immediately felt that this place was Caribbean; he remarked about the little things, like checkout clerks looking you in the eye, making small talk. People here are just warm.

Talk about the differences in comics between Europe and the US.

Well, in Europe comics are recognized as an art form, and the level of institutional and scholarly recognition is very high. There are museums, magazines, libraries, and entire academies, all dedicated to the study of comics. When you walk into a good French bookstore, you'd be surprised at the sheer size of the comics wing: it is sometimes as big as the literature section, and there are more people browsing in that corner than anywhere else in the store. In fact, comics are considered le neuvième art, the 9th art, with all of the other arts, painting, dance, poetry, etc.* So they are a serious area of study, and are viewed as a record of sociological history, of visual perception, and of art in history.

Also, Belgian comics are more like what Americans call "graphic novels". They are usually over 60 pages, presenting a full story, with a plot comprising recurring characters. Belgian newspapers even publish comics several pages at a time, like a serial. So the majority of Belgian comics are lengthy graphic novels, and are ambitious in style, content and format.

Another difference is that there is a broader variety of genres from what most Americans associate with the genre of comics: there are action series, historical plots, poetic or whimsical narratives, detective fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, autobiographical comics, even avant-garde philosophical comics. They are not limited to children's themes-- although even those are often read by adults, and studied by scholars.

Of course, American graphic novels have their own rich tradition, but the genre itself has only recently attained true artistic recognition here in the US. One of the first to register on the collective radar was Art Spiegelman's Maus, about the Nazi Holocaust. Art Spiegelman was perhaps more influenced by European comics than he was by American comics. Same thing with Chris Ware, who did Jimmy Corrigan (a work of absolute genius, in my opinion); he studied Tintin, and is more in line with that tradition than he is with superheroes and children's cartoons. He reactivates an earlier American tradition of inventive page layouts and bittersweet stories.

The Center for Louisiana Studies is printing a volume of the complete Bec Doux comics, and you're editing that for them.

I didn't know about Bec Doux until last year, really. Barry Ancelet was writing and collecting articles for a journal that was publishing a special issue on Louisiana culture. One of the articles mentioned Bec Doux as one of the first attempts to use spoken Cajun French in print stories. So I started looking in various newspapers, particularly the Kaplan Herald. I also looked for the authors. I finally just called the Kaplan Post Office and asked for Ken Meaux... the man on the phone said, "Oh yeah, his son is right in front of me."

I met with Ken and talked about the series, and told him it was worth republishing. He was hesitant, "It's just comics," he said. I explained that world-wide, comics are more respected than here in the US, and he was happy to hear that. Then he worried that it wasn't proper French, and I explained that there really is no such thing. I told him that there is a growing awareness that language constantly changes, and that regional dialects are viewed as equally worthy of academic study. When he heard those comments, there was a big smile on his face.

So then I approached the Center for Louisiana Studies. I told them that there was an audience for historical comics with ethnic humor like Bec Doux, and that it was a cultural product that needed to be preserved: it documented Cajun humor, situations, traditions, and folk tales. And linguistically it was very unusual, because it was one of the first approaches to writing Cajun French for Cajuns and English readers, or for anyone, really. The Center for Louisiana Studies was very supportive from the beginning.

Barry Ancelet and I are currently working on reissuing the complete anthology of the comic strip. We're a pretty good team, with complementary expertise, Barry on all things Cajun, and I on comics in general. We're in the process of rediscovering the cartoons, scanning them, and putting them together in a beautiful coffee table volume.

We hope it's a big seller for the University.

*The Ten Arts in the French Tradition
Le premier art: l'architecture
2º la sculpture
3º la peinture (painting)
4º la danse
5º la musique
6º la poésie (poetry)
7º le cinéma
8º la télévision
9º la bande dessinée (cartoons)
10º les jeux vidéo (video games)