Two Generals original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Scott Chantler
Publisher: McLelland & Stewart Ltd.
Price: $24.95 US/$27.95 CAN
My wife loves History Television (Canada’s answer to the History Channel in the United States), but I like my TV to be more amusing or escapist in nature. When she’s watching it, I sometimes tease her for watching “Nazi TV.” While I’m familiar with the broad strokes of the history of World War II, I’m not all that keenly interested in learning more. At least, I thought I wasn’t. While my interest in that period of history (and many others) is limited, I’m a big fan of the work of writer/artist Scott Chantler, so I didn’t hesitate t pick up Two Generals when it hit bookshelves in stores. Chantler’s quite comfortable with historical fare when it comes to his storytelling. Most of his work — Northwest Passage, Days Like This and Scandalous, for example — is constructed around history. But Two Generals stands apart because this is Chantler’s foray into real history, not historical fiction. It’s also an incredibly personal story — that of his late grandfather — but Chantler doesn’t seem to embellish or elevate the man. He just tells his story, opting to leave melodrama aside and let the facts speak for themselves.
Best friends Law Chantler and Jack Chrysler ship out from their hometown in Ontario, Canada, to England in 1943 as officers with the Highland Light Infantry. Once on British soil, they undergo long months of training, awaiting the day when they’ll be called into action. As Chantler communicates with his new bride back home, Chrysler makes his way through legions of friendly single women overseas until one day, he finds his one true love. The fateful day arrives when they’re sent into action with other Canadian troops at Juno Beach, part of the invasion at Normandy. Little do they know that they and their comrades in the Highland Light Infantry will soon face one of the most effective and deadly units in the entire German army.
One might not expect Scott Chantler’s cartoony, lighter artistic style to be suited to a real-life war story. Despite some of the firmer, sharper lines employed to render some characters, his style overall is a softer one, and the story builds to some harsh realities. Nevertheless, the artist does an excellent job of bringing history to life for the reader. The historical details — vehicles, uniforms, weapons — are rendered in great and convincing detail. As for the characters, there’s an everyman quality to most of them, thanks to Chantler’s simpler style. That makes it incredible easy for the reader to see himself or herself, or someone close to him or her, as part of the story. Another method he applies in the art frequently is the nine-panel grid. It moves the story along at a good pace, especially during the quieter periods of Law’s and Jack’s service.
The entire book is presented in two tones. Chantler’s black-and-white artwork is enhanced with only one color at any given time. The color changes from time to time, from an olive green to red. The red clearly represents death. There’s no subtlety about it, but then again, there’s no subtlety to the deadly circumstances of the story. I was surprised and interested to see that Chantler uses the red motif to represent more than violent deaths. In a brief scene that shows Law Chantler’s final moments in the late 1990s, the red color returns. But in that respect, I think the red represents other deaths that have haunted the man throughout his life rather than his own imminent demise as a result of old age.
One of the things that struck me the most about this book was how it portrayed certain periods of the war for various soldiers as rather dull. Chantler doesn’t alter history to make for a more action-packed story full of moments of heroism. Instead, he shows how the men sometimes sat around with nothing to do. At times, it made for boredom, at others, it fostered an air of tension. I was also impressed with how the writer/artist also shows that the war presented opportunities for adventure and culture for the men sent overseas. Law Chantler’s wide-eyed fascination with different parts of England certainly isn’t in keeping with the “war is Hell” visions we’ve seen in other war stories. Ultimately, this story is a tragic one, spotlighting the sacrifices and senselessness of war, but Chantler is careful not to ignore other aspects of the experience as well.
There were a number of other surprises to be found in the facts that Chantler offers up to his audience, not the least of which was the use of bicycles in a major combat operation. One of the most effective, human moments in the book was the one in which higher-ups in the Canadian infantry realize that they’ve taken a key notion for granted: that everyone knows how to ride a bike. The image of soldiers being taught how to ride in the same way that little kids are taught the same skills emphasizes their innocence and youth in an incredible poignant manner — again, without resorting to melodrama.
Above, I mentioned a particularly poignant scene set in a hospital room, where an ailing Law Chantler lay dying near the end of his life in the late 1990s. He’s watched over by one of his grandchildren, and she hears him mutter about his time during the war, apparently reliving a harrowing moment. I was fascinated, and honestly, I wanted to know more about the man’s struggle late in life and how the war changed him and haunted him. But that wasn’t Scott Chantler’s purpose with this book. It was to chronicle his grandfather’s journey through that dark but important segment of history. The short scene set in the 1990s served to demonstrate how that journey, even so long after its end, was an ever-present element in the man’s life. That scene served to speak about the war, not to explore the experiences that came years after. 10/10
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