The Bluecoats volume 2: The Navy Blues

By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-82-3

The glamour of the American Experience has fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé was a devotee, and the spectrum of memorable comics ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such French and Belgian classics as Blueberry and Lucky Luke, and even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World or Milo Manara and Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer.

‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ or The Bluecoats began at the end of the 1960s, created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius and Raoul Colvin – who has written every best-selling volume since. The strip was created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival comic Pilote, and his replacement swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series on the Continent.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly adopted a more realistic – although still comedic – illustrative manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936, and after studying Fine Art, joined the publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Writer Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian, born in 1938 and before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – beginning his glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he has written more than 22 other long-running, award winning series including ‘Cédric’, ‘Les Femmes en Blanc’ and ‘Agent 212’ – more than 240 separate albums. Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies.

The stars of the series are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfied and Corporal Blutch, a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy: two hapless and ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but with the second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (‘North and South’) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (this tale was rewritten in the 18th album ‘Blue rétro’ to describe how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war). All subsequent adventures, although ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history, are set within the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little man in the street: work-shy, reluctant, mouthy and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever 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 burly 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…

The Navy Blues, second book in this translated series is actually the seventh French volume ‘Les Bleus de la marine’, and finds the lads as usual in the midst of a terrible battle. However, when Blutch is wounded, his cavalry commanders prefer to save his horse rather than aid the fallen soldier, and Chesterfield finds all his cherished dreams of camaraderie and loyalty ebbing away.

Disillusioned, he demands a transfer to the infantry and with the never happy Blutch beside him tries to adapt to his lowered status. Sadly Chesterfield discovers that officers are the same everywhere and stupidity and cupidity are rife throughout the armed forces. A progression of calamitous transfers eventually finds the pair in the Union Navy at a time of intriguing technological advancement, playing an unfortunately ill-omened part in the development of both Submarines and armoured battleships. As always their misadventures result in pain, humiliation and not a few explosions…

The secret of ‘Les Tuniques Bleues’ success…? This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting young and less cynical audiences. Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle 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 eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story that appeals to best, not worst, of the human spirit.

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