Due to a series of mishaps, peppery Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and cowardly Corporal Blutch, two Union cavalrymen, end up serving in the United States Navy. Will they survive the war? Will the war survive them? And, say, isnít that the ironclad USS Merrimack* heading their way?
The American Civil War has never been so amusing. Raoul Cauvin and Willy Lambil have a knack for turning the miseries of war into a slapstick routine. For instance, to avoid the fighting, Blutch pretends to be fatally shot during the first volley of a skirmish. What should be a fairly dramatic scene of soldiers riding off to battle is turned on its head as the wily corporal lolls on the ground chewing grass and commenting on the action before being ridden over by the retreating cavalry.
In another classic moment, Chesterfield eulogizes a brave captain for going down with his ship. A panel later, the solemn mood is punctured as readers see the sad captain sitting at the bottom of the sea thinking to himself, ďIíd never have dared to tell them that I donít know how to swim!Ē
Basically, Chesterfield and Blutch are broad, one-note characters. Theyíre two guys who always end up in trouble--the former because he canít control his temper, and the latter because he can be too smart for his own good. Itís a classic comedy formula, and Cauvin wisely doesnít try to expand on it too much by giving his characters more nuanced personalities.
The book works on multiple levels for multiple ages. At its base, The Navy Blues is a comedy-adventure, and Lambilís style reflects that. His characters have a simplified, almost caricatured, design. Their big eyes, big noses, and skinny legs allow for exaggerated expressions and motions. Their physicality carries the story along even without words. Because of this style, younger readers can get and enjoy the humor and action.
Yet Lambil is also able to tone down the big-foot cartoon style to create panels that illustrate the chaos and confusion of battle in dramatic and realistic ways. When the Union Army swarms over its sandbag barricade onto the field, you can see determination, fear, and uncertainty on the soldiersí faces. When the armies clash on the field, it looks like an abridged version of a scene from Glory or Gods and Generals.
Additionally, while Iím no expert on things nautical or the Civil War, Lambilís ships look like pretty accurate representations of actual vessels to me. These touches, along with the historical notes and footnotes Cauvin incorporates into the text, give more historically aware readers something to enjoy.
Finally, thereís yet another level. The creators are skewering war and the mentality that revels in it. Characters like Captain Stark, who hates to retreat when he still has men left alive, and Jefferson, who tells his men not to worry about the cost of ammunition because the governmentís paying, are to be laughed at and abhorred.
With its mixture of slapstick, satire, and history, The Bluecoats: The Navy Blues offers something for just about everybody.
* Editor's Note: The story refers to this Confederate ship by its former name, the Merrimack, so that is how Penny describes it here. The book depicts the well-known naval battle that is commonly referred to as the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. However, that battle was actually between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.
The Merrimack had been decommissioned before the start of the Civil War, and had been partially sunk a few months later by the US Navy to keep it from falling into the hands of Virginia secessionists. The Confederacy eventually raised the hull, turned it into an ironclad ship, and renamed it the CSS Virginia.
And that's the Civil War history lesson for today.
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