64 Parishes

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Peace, Justice, and the Cajun Way

Tim Edler’s Crawfish-Man

Peace, Justice, and the Cajun Way

Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University

Spanish moss in my hand, turn me into Crawfish-Man.”

If you grew up a 1980s–era southwest Louisiana kid with a passion for superheroes, you might recognize the catchphrase that transforms a mild-mannered fisherman named Mr. Bonin into Louisiana’s own “Super Hereaux,” as his creator, Tim Edler, called him—the champion of the bayous, fighter for “peace, justice, and the Cajun Way,” the Crusading Crustacean: Crawfish-Man!

Every superhero requires an original story, and Crawfish-Man’s is no less fantastically bizarre than the rest.

To tell it, we must travel to 1977, back when Edler, then a structural engineer from Loreauville, Louisiana, living in Baton Rouge, hit upon the idea to publish his daughter’s most requested bedtime story, the tale of a mischievous pair of swamp-dwelling animals. He hired an illustrator, printed nine hundred copies of Maurice the Snake and Gaston the Near-Sighted Turtle, and sold them by mail order. That first book, he told me in a phone interview, soon “sidelined my engineering career.”

Convinced that he had found an audience for more volumes in what would become his Tales from the Atchafalaya series, Edler published three titles the following year, all featuring the escapades of T-boy, a Bayou Teche Tom Sawyer dressed shirtless in drawstring clamdiggers. The first, T-boy the Little Cajun, acts as a primer on vanishing rural Louisiana traditions, which had been introduced to an adolescent Edler by his grandfather. T-boy helps his father harvest Spanish moss with long-hooked poles before curing the epiphytic tendrils in the sun for stuffing in mattresses. He talks Cajun French and cares for a pet raccoon named Shah-wee.

The next two T-boy tales trade amateur ethnography for adventures bordering on the hallucinatory. In T-boy and the Trial for Life, the titular Little Cajun is prosecuted for what he loves most of all: fishing. Found guilty of catching one too many catfish, he’s sentenced to death in the electric eel chair. In T-boy in Mossland, illustrated by Edler himself, he’s again condemned, this time by a fiendish crawfish named King Dark Claw, for “eating our ancestors for years.” His sentence: boiled alive in an especially piquant pot of water. Through a touch of derring-do, T-boy escapes.

T-boy’s Jimmy Olsen-esque tribulations became a catalyst for Edler’s greatest creation. The idea came while watching an episode of The Incredible Hulk with his son. “We need a superhero right over here in Louisiana,” he decided. The Adventures of Crawfish-Man was hatched.

Drawn by Edler, Crawfish-Man is a design in primitive, charming, child-like simplicity—kick-ass claws, whiplash tail, and supersonic antennae, wrapped in a Spanish moss cape. “I’ll never win any art awards,” he admitted in a newspaper interview, “but who cares?”

Edler knew he had a hit. The book’s back matter encouraged young readers to join the (free!) Crawfish-Man Fan Club to be notified of merch drops and upcoming titles, which soon arrived faster than a speeding pirogue. Edler somehow managed to convince Ron Guidry, the Lafayette-born, World Series– and Cy Young–winning New York Yankee, to lend his name and likeness to Edler’s next story, Crawfish-Man Rescues Ron Guidry, in which the ace pitcher is kidnapped by a rival team and padlocked Rapunzel-style in the Statue of Liberty’s torch with only French bread for sustenance. For a super hero–mad kid like me, who also chose the Yankees as his favorite sports team solely because of a hometown connection with the man they called “Louisiana Lightning,” this boyhood synergy could only be outdone if Spider-Man himself invited me to catch a game at Yankee Stadium.

A delight of reading the Atchafalaya series as an adult—if you can find them, as the books are rare and sell for beaucoup dollars online—is discovering the joy in which Edler plays with the Cajun vernacular. The tales overflow with cheeky down-the-bayou insiderisms. In Dark Gator, Crawfish-Man battles a swamp witch named Fat Pa-Tot (Cajun-speak for potato), her minions the Clumsy Po-Choms (chamber pots), and space creatures who inhabit the planet Waylabah (way over there). Crawfish-Man always arrives “before you could say ‘Aye lah bah!’” or “before you could say ‘Cold Cush-Cush.’”

This earned Edler the ire of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, a.k.a. CODOFIL, a state agency founded in 1968 to promote a French language renaissance statewide, specifically the formalized tongue known as Standard French that you, like me, might have spent your teenage years learning in immersion classrooms. Edler told me that CODOFIL repeatedly condemned his books in their official magazine. For that, he gave the leader of the loathsome Po-Choms the name Kodofeel.

Edler maintained his steady output into the next decade. But curiously, except for a well-meaning but throwaway book titled Crawfish-Man’s 50 Ways to Keep Your Kids from Using Drugs, he didn’t stick with his quirky, crawfishy character. (Crawfish-Man’s recommended strategies range from the banal to the ludicrous: soccer, learning a second language, growing your hair long.)

Edler instead wrote a holiday tale, Santa’s Cajun Christmas Adventure, in which St. Nick forgets his red suit and heads out to deliver presents in his underpants. Crawfish only appear as reindeer-substitute sleigh drivers. Edler then returned to his roots with Cooncan: Boy of the Swamp, about a proto-T-boy orphan who lives in a palmetto-thatched, cobweb-windowed hut deep in the cypress swamp and steers a gator-tugged raft up and down the Teche. Edler followed that charming tale up with a baffling story that blends the history of the eighteenth-century Acadian expulsion from Canada with the legend of Jean Lafitte and a fable of a Cajun unicorn—yes, you read that correctly—named Rhombus.

I can imagine a whole generation of Crawfish-Man–weaned men, myself included, spending at least one session on their therapist’s couch bemoaning why their beloved superhero was replaced by something called Rhombus the Cajun Unicorn.

Edler finally resurrected Crawfish-Man—how could he not?—for a pair of titles published in the mid-’80s. Crawfish-Man’s Night Befo’ Christmas unites many of the members of the Atchafalaya multiverse—Crawfish-Man, T-boy, Cooncan, and Santa (now wearing pants)—to save the holiday from the grinchy Fat Pa-Tot. And in Crawfish-Man Rescues the Ol’ Beachcomber, the Super Hereaux recovers a friend from the belly of a whale named Monstreaux. (A tip for any potential Cajun Jonahs out there: pour a few drops of Tabasco on the tongue of your leviathan-captor to be spat right out.)

Crawfish-Man’s return sent state media outlets, and even the Los Angeles Times, scrambling to profile the author, who refused to be filmed unless he was wearing his homemade Crawfish-Man costume (there’s a terrific news clip, circa 1986, floating around YouTube).

By then the Tales from the Atchafalaya series had sold over one hundred thousand copies. But despite being at the height of his powers, Edler retired Crawfish-Man after moving back to Loreauville, focusing instead on a line of Cajun cookbooks, spices, and a weekly Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke newsletter. Inverting the fable of Icarus and the sun, perhaps Crawfish-Man swam too close to the bayou bottom. But Edler didn’t quite hang up his crawfish spandex. He’s toured as an anti-drug motivational speaker for middle schoolers, taught college classes on publishing, and traveled the world as a mail-order business guru.

Will we ever get more Crawfish-Man adventures, I asked Edler over the phone. Couldn’t he use a sidekick—Nutria Lad, perhaps? And how I’d love to see the Caped Crustacean tackle coastal land loss. I felt like a little boy again as Edler offered no promises.

Only you can save us, Crawfish-Man!

Rien Fertel’s latest book is Brown Pelican.