COMIC REVIEW: The Bluecoats Vol. 5 (Cinebook reviews #19)

In the continuing reviews of Cinebook the nest on the list is all-ages American Civil War series ‘The Bluecoats‘.

Right, let’s squeeze another one or two in quick before I get better and have to go back to work.  For newbies, this is the Geek Syndicate column that takes a look at European comics – specifically the English translations of French and Belgian comics published by Cinebook at pretty darned reasonable prices.  Most large book retailers hold a modest selection but for the full range you’ll need to shop online (unless you happen to live near one of these highly intelligent small retailers.)  The particularly savvy reader will seek them out at a comic convention, though.  They do incredible deals when they’re out and about.  I reckon the bulk of my spending money will be sucked into their coffers when I get to Thought Bubble this year.  There are several series that I want to complete and I have pretty much no willpower.

Whilst many of these Gallic books retain a local flavour in terms of style and humour, I’ve noticed that quite a few of them draw on internationally recognisable figures and popular iconography.  So far we’ve witnessed Charles Darwin investigate the impossible, seen various cowboys and indians prove their mettle, prowled the corridors of a secretive Victorian Gentlemans Club and journeyed into dangerous waters with Long John Silver.  In their all-ages series ‘The Bluecoats‘ the creative team of Raoul Cauvin and Willy Lambil looked to the American Civil War for inspiration.  The look of the book is closer to Asterix than Antares, but under its simplistic facade it is just as concerned as the latter with how people behave towards each other and whether humanity can overcome its baser nature.  Hop on over the break with me and we’ll peek inside.

War on any scale is a madness stirred up in the masses by their leaders.  Most fiction for children (comicbook or otherwise) glosses over the awful outcomes of battle, preferring to portraying the heroism and adventure found within the fray.  The Bluecoats admirably bucks that trend, but does so without resorting to any sensationalist gore or a preaching sentimentality.  The first panel in this volume shows us a field of wounded, dead and dying soldiers, devastated wagons and cannons and, up above, the carrion birds soaring on their way.  Boxed out in the top left are the simple words ‘No comment.’

With the stretcher bearers picking through the aftermath we are introduced to our main characters, Sergeant Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch.  It’s a classic double act, with the proud and scornful Sergeant continually undercut by the devious and cynical Corporal.  When the going gets tough they naturally put their differences aside, but the banter and snark helps bring the characters to life.  It also  helps to develop the underlying thematic tension between cowardice and courage, common sense and common purpose.  Which is all very well if you want to dig that deep, but what about the younger kids reading the book?  What’s in it for them?  Well, along with the bone dry cynicism there is a vein of slapstick running through it too.  Scenes like the old codger hiding in the well with his shotgun ready could come straight out of a Warner Bros cartoon.  The dialogue is snappy, the characters likable, and the situation they find themselves in is full of danger.

Here’s a quick run down of the plot.  With the regiment in disarray after the disastrous battle, the command staff decide that discretion is the better part of valour and run off to try to rustle up some more troops to put between the enemy and themselves.  The wounded would only slow them down, so they decide to leave them to fend for themselves.  The only safe spot seems to be the small town called Rumberley.  What they fail to let the troops know is that the townsfolk are sympathetic to the Confederates i.e. the enemy.  Roll on a series of amusing encounters and some genuine tension as the wounded Blutch and Chesterfield realise just what a pickle they are in.  The locals can’t fight them but they’re determined to make things difficult for them.  Bottled up in a barn, with enemy troops on the way it’s going to take every ounce of pluck to survive until their reinforcements arrive.

On to the art.  The figures are of a more naturalistic stature than Asterix an co, but there are stylistic similarities in the cartoon simplicity of the line-work and the font used (even down to the funny symbols used to represent swearing.)  Posture and movement are pretty well realised, though there is no attempt at anything cinematic.  They know the inherent strengths of the form stem from the gaps between the panels and allow us to fill those with our imaginations.  The colours are varied but unsubtle, blocked out and rarely varying in shade.  The drive here is in action and dialogue rather than scenery and mood, I guess.  There are some elements which don’t spoil things but do stand out as oddities.  For one thing, wounds seem to move around randomly.  For another, distant figures are block coloured in blue or purple which looks bizarre until you get used to it.

Flaws aside, I did find it a more enjoyable read than both Lucky Luke and Yakari, but not quite as funny as The Bellybuttons.  Unlike the others I think that The Bluecoats genuinely has something in it for all ages.  I sense that this is a series which builds its humour through repetition of character beats (the crazy Cavalry officer, Stark as a prime example) so it is hard to judge the whole series based on this single volume.  I did find myself wavering between either wanting it to be more serious or a lot more funny.  It’s an odd blend of light-hearted fun and bitter despair, but it’s a taste to which I think I could become accustomed.  As an adult, should you spend out on this for yourself?  Probably not.  There are more scintillating comics at Cinebook for you.  Should you buy this for a child?  I’d say yes.  It’s got a good solid plot, a wry sense of humour and some thought provoking undertones.  Plus, you can always read it afterwards.  Go for it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak (@Dion_Scrolls)

You can hear me blathering about books on Scrolls, the podcast for literary geekdom here on the Geek Syndicate Network of podcasts.

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