The Bluecoats volume 11: Cossack Circus

By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-383-3 (Album PB/Digital edition)

Devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

Ever since its first sallies, the substitute strip swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe… and in case you were wondering, the stellar series is now scribed by Jose-Luis Munuera and the BeKa writing partnership…

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

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and – before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 – studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Le Journal de Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen defending America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume – Du Nord au Sud – the sad-sack soldiers were situated back East, fighting in the American Civil War. All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious 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 smart. principled or heroic if no easier option is available.

Chesterfield is a big, burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who passionately believes in the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and hungers to be a medal-wearing hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a 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… a situation that stretches their friendship to breaking point in this deceptively edgy instalment.

Cossack Circus is the 11th translated Cinebook album (and 12th sequential European release). As Les Tuniques Bleues: Les bleus tournent cosaques it debuted on the continent in 1976, serialised in Le Journal de Spirou #2000-2014 before collection as an album in 1977.

As so often it opens with another spectacular bloodbath instigated by apparently invulnerable maniac Captain Stark. The glory-addicted cavalry charger has now decimated the Union Army (and remember, that’s the side he’s fighting for) to such an extent that there’s no one left to ride into the Confederate guns…

Having depleted everyone who can be “volunteered” into the army and faced with the prospect of sending in officers or withdrawing, “The Brass” devise a brilliant solution: diverting immigrants who have been induced to America to work in the now-empty mines into nice blue uniforms…

Assigning Chesterfield and Blutch as “recruiters” and instructors, the Generals sit back in anticipation of literally fresh blood. They will soon come to regret this stratagem.

When the squabbling squaddies arrive at the holding camp, their misgivings are confirmed on discovering the future cavalrymen speak no English, and have no idea that they are now expected to officially enlist and give their lives for their new country. To the Russian- and Chinese-speaking internees, this is just a stop en route to their new life underground. If the army has its way, that’s almost the truth…

Without interpreters, our Bluecoats are helpless to convey their demands, which Blutch is increasingly convinced are illegal, immoral and stupid. His arguments with duty-blinded Chesterfield bring them to blows, and mutual murder, testing their affection for each other to the limits.

Ultimately, depriving the foreigners of food leads to their signing papers they don’t understand and donning uniforms they instinctively do, but mounting animosity vanishes when the boot camp prisoners are given horses. After Blutch demonstrates a few mounted manoeuvres he almost dies of embarrassment when the Russian clods seamlessly perform astounding synchronised riding tricks while screaming with joy… or perhaps singing?

At that moment, the camp commandant hands over their despatch orders. Next stop: the Front where Stark is itching to lead another charge into death (for everyone else ) and glory (for him)…

However, as the former best buddies carry out their orders with feelings poles apart, fate has a bizarre denouement in store, which manifests once the hereditary equestrian performers are unleashed on a battlefield they choose to see as the biggest circus ring on Earth…

Combining searing satire with stunning slapstick, this yarn is as much iron fist as velvet glove, delivering a hugely gratifying poke at the blood-&-glory boys of history. Deftly delivering an anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences, this tale is agonisingly authentic, and always in good taste while delivering an uncompromising portrayal of state-sanctioned mass-violence. These are comedic tales whose humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Thankfully, the divergent attitudes expressed by our put-upon pair, and their inevitable rapprochement in the midst of a magnificent plot twist, makes this battle anything but arrant folly. Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the kind of war-story and Western to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1977 by Lambil & Cauvin. All rights reserved. English translation © 2018 Cinebook Ltd.