Bluecoats volume 1: Robertsonville Prison

By Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-71-7

The mythology of the American West has never been better loved or more honourably treated than by Europeans. Hergé (see Tintin in America among so many other early works) was a passionate devotee, and the range of incredible comics material from Tex Willer to Blueberry to Lucky Luke displays over and over again our fascination with all aspects of that legendary time and place.

‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ or Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, visually created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius and scripted by Raoul Colvin – who has also written the succeeding 52 volumes of this much-loved Belgian comedy western series. The strip was created on the fly to replace Lucky Luke when he defected from prominent weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and is one of the most popular series on the Continent. After its initial run Bluecoats graduated to the collected album format (published by French publishing powerhouse Dupuis) that we’re all so familiar with in Un chariot dans l’Ouest (‘A Wagon in the West’ 1972).

Salvé was an artist proficient in the Gallic style of big-foot/big-nose humour cartooning, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte gradually leavened the previous broad style with a more realistic – but still comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined Dupuis as a letterer in 1952. In 1959 he created Sandy about an Australian teen and a kangaroo, and self parodied it and himself with Hobby and Koala and the later Panty et son kangaroo and the comics industry satire ‘Pauvre Lampil’.

Belgian writer Raoul Cauvin was born in 1938 and after studying Lithography joined Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 before beginning his glittering and prolific writing career. Almost exclusively a humorist and always for Spirou, as well as Bluecoats he has written at least 22 other long-running and award winning series – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfied and Corporal Blutch, a hopeless double act of buffoons in the manner of Laurel and Hardy, or perhaps Abbot & Costello or our own Morecambe & Wise: two hapless and ill-starred cavalrymen posted to the wilds of the arid frontier.

The first strips were single-page gags based around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort but with the second volume Du Nord au Sud (‘North and South’) the sorry soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this scenario was retconned in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ which described how the everyman chumps were first drafted into the military). All subsequent adventures, although ranging all over the planet and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within that tragic conflict.

Blutch is your average little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant and ever-critical of the army – especially his inept commanders. Ducking, diving, deserting when he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other easier option is available. Chesterfield is a big man, a career soldier, who has bought into all the patriotism and eprit-de-corp. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Robertsonville Prison, the first release in the series from that wonderful purveyor of translated European gems Cinebooks, is actually the sixth French volume, and is loosely based on the actual Confederate-run Andersonville Prison compound in Georgia. It finds the irascible, inseparable pair captured after a calamitous battle and interned with many other Union soldiers. However these two aren’t prepared to stay put – albeit for vastly differing reasons – and a series of increasingly bold and bonkers escape ploys eventually result in a crazy if appropriate reversal of fortunes…

The secret to the unbelievable success of ‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ is that it is an anti-war comedy like M.A.S.H. or Catch 22 cleverly pitched at a young and less cynical audience. Historically authentic, uncompromising in terms of portrayed violence but always in good taste, the attitudes expressed by our oafish, down-to-earth anti-heroes never make glorious war anything but arrant folly and like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Fun, informative, beautifully realised and tellingly worthy, Bluecoats is the kind of battle book that any parent would be happy to let their children read – if they can bear to let go of it themselves…

© Dupuis 1975 by Lambil & Cauvin. English edition © 2008 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.