After another long day of charging, Blutch and Chesterfield make the acquaintance of Matthew[sic] Brady, a professional photographer dispatched by President Lincoln to document the ongoing historic struggle. Photography, still a new invention, together with Brady’s talent for capturing the moment, are met with great enthusiasm by both the rank and file and the top brass. Inevitably, it’s not long before Blutch and Chesterfield are ordered to act as the artists’s protective detail — much to the sergeant’s disgust…
First, a Little Background
“The Bluecoats” is a comedy set in the Civil War. We don’t see many of those. The last time someone in America attempted anything close to it, things did not go well.
I read a much earlier volume of this series once a few years ago and it didn’t hit me right. I saw what they were going for, but it didn’t strike me as particularly funny, and the art wasn’t exciting. It was competent, it hit all the marks it aimed at, but in the end I just didn’t care enough to continue reading.
We all know, though, that series often find their footing after a few outings. That holds true for comics series, book series, tv series, you name it. Even if Asterix came out of the gate hilarious and fully formed, look at Uderzo’s art in those first two books and everything looks a little wonky.
“Valerian and Laureline” follows this pattern even more. The first three books had glimmers of greatness, but were weighed down by the novel’s worth of captions that was written on top of the art.
Series find their ways, when given the chance.
I don’t know when it happened, for sure, but it looks like The Bluecoats found its way, as well. This story — the tenth in the series — is far more interesting, more dramatic, funnier, crazier, and more character-based than that first book I read many a moon ago.
The characters of Blutch and Sergeant Chesterfield have found their footing by this book, and the results are fantastic. It’s got a long way to go before it ever lives up to an “Asterix,” but it’s much better than what I read that first time, and it’s the first time I’ve actively looked forward to reading another book in the series.
The Nature of Humor
Blutch and Chesterfield are on the front lines in the war against the South, going for several charges per day, each time limping back with fewer friends around them. Blutch is a soldier tired of the war and tired of people dying and he wants out. Chesterfield is a hard-line career military man, though, who isn’t about to lose track of the goal. He won’t let anyone leave. He insists on pushing forward.
It’s a natural friction, which is necessary for any drama or comedy. There is an always present tinge of sadness and despair in the humor of this book, though, which might not make everyone feel comfortable. Blutch is the voice of an anti-war message. He’s not being selfish, but he does question the need for the whole thing. And the sadness and fear he feels at his friends being killed and the possibility that he might be next is tangible.
Blutch and Chesterfield are perhaps the oddest of friends, but that combative relationship forms the core of the book. The book runs through a series of events that put them at odds, often going to extremes to follow their own best interests at the expense of the other. Each gets more extreme as the book goes on, until the pair find themselves battling an entire Southern battalion by themselves in defense of the President.
Writer Raoul Cauvin walks a fine line with this book, trying to balance the elements he’s throwing in, keeping the book funny while delivering an occasionally less-than-subtle message. I think he pulls it off, mostly because he doesn’t lose the comedy. A lot of this book is just about people being forced to be somewhere they don’t want to be, and making plans in their own best interest that backfires on them. The war raging behind the characters is just the setting. Cauvin doesn’t forget to put the comedy first.
That all comes in thanks to Mathew Brady. Yes, the Mathew Brady, famed Civil War photographer. He comes onto the scene with the recommendation of President Lincoln to take pictures of the war and its participants. He gets off on the wrong foot when he’s introduced to Chesterfield at an inopportune moment. But his connection to the President keeps him safe and well-tended to.
I could quibble with some of the photography in this book. Actually, I could likely quibble with a lot of it. Brady’s camera seems way too fast. Photography at the time, even with the gun powder flash, was slow. Subjects had to sit still to get a decent pic.
Having Brady take tack sharp pictures of a horse galloping towards him at speed made me laugh out loud. That’s tough for a digital camera to do today in broad daylight, with automatic focus of some sort. Without the right settings, you’ll lose focus between the split second the camera measure the distance and sets the focal distance, and where the horse has moved by the time the shutter releases. Movement left and right along the plane of the sensor would be far easier.
Still, as a hobbyist photographer, it’s fun to see a photographer take center stage in a comic, especially at such a historic moment. And it’s funnier to see him at the center of the madcap plot to this book.
The Elephant in the Room
In today’s climate, a Civil War comic that shows the lighter side of life will be seen as insensitive to some. The slavery issue, from what I can tell, is not dealt with at all.
But it’s also not the point of this series. The series is about two guys who fight as much as they like each other, who are thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and just try to survive from day to day. The Civil War is merely the background detail.
The seriousness of war, in general, is the counterpoint to their antics and manic adventures.
That all said, I noticed that there’s an album titled “Black Face” later in the series. I’m not translating the title there — that’s the official French title for the album, and it’s in English.
Somehow, I doubt we’ll see that one anytime soon in English…
Writer Raoul Cauvin, born in Belgian in 1938, has been writing “The Bluecoats” since 1968. He created it for Spirou magazine when “Lucky Luke” left for another magazine. The series filled the American western-shaped hold in their publishing plans.
Cauvin is ridiculously prolific. He’s the Chuck Dixon or Fabian Nicieza of the Franco-Belgian scene. He sticks to comedic books and has written as many as a dozen albums per year, often juggling up to six series at any given time.
He’s also remained committed to Dupuis as a publisher.
Willy Lambil, Belgian-born in 1936, has been drawing the series ever since, forty plus years later. He started at Spirou magazine as a letterer. He took over art duties on “The Bluecoats” in 1972 when the original artist died only a few books in. He’s drawn more than 40 volumes in the series thus far. Cinebook has published the series in order starting with Lambil’s first book. (So, volume 1 from Cinebook is really volume 6 of the series.)
The book is so popular that when I checked out the Dupuis website today, two different volumes of it are in their Top Ten sellers.
Lambil’s art belongs to that same type of Marcinelle School look and feel you’d expect to come out of the Spirou world. He animates the characters well, with broad gestures and expressive faces.
His storytelling is clear. When he has the chance to draw a half page panel of two side riding into battle on their horses, he cuts no corners. He’s not being Francois Schuiten and packing in details; he sticks to his own style, but chooses impressive angles and compositions, even when it means more work for him.
Yes, as a piece of comedic historical fiction with a couple bigger moral points mixed with an ending that gets almost farcical, I liked this book a lot. It strikes all the right chords for me. I may even go back and read that first volume that didn’t work so well for me back in the day to see if I like it any more in retrospect.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #32.)