Scott Chantler has previously created some astounding historical fiction — Northwest Passage was one of my Best Graphic Novels of 2007 — but here, he expands into a real-life “graphic memoir”. Two Generals is based on his grandfather’s diary during World War II, as Chantler explains in an illustrated prologue.
Law Chantler and his buddy Jack were officers in the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, but much of their service took place overseas as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy. By showing us the normal guys they’d been, the challenges they face are clearer and have much more impact. Before the war, the Depression made life difficult, but dance halls provided a temporary escape.
I was reminded, while reading this, of watching some of my favorite movies from the 40s. That’s a high compliment — what I enjoy about those films are the unspoken portrayals of small elements of daily life, seeing how our social culture has changed in different ways, bits that the filmmakers didn’t even know they were including because it was just the way things were. Chantler does an excellent job of making the reader feel as though they were there, traveling with Law and Jack across the English Channel for training.
Small moments make up a much bigger picture. Chantler’s pacing is excellent, providing humorous sequences, such as when the men were issued bicycles, as a respite from the bigger challenge of winning a war. In such an emotional time, it’s a surprise when something memorable happens. So much of military life is made up of waiting and the miserable everyday — that’s how you know this is a real-life story, that those details are authentic. With paper, the diary and letters home, making this re-creation possible, I found myself wondering how future generations would do the same thing.
It’s astounding how callous some of it feels, to those of us who don’t feel the pressure of wartime. They had to make tough decisions, and the self-sacrifice unfortunately also seems a relic of another age, whether completing a march with a broken arm or spending years apart from your spouse. There’s a lot of “stiff upper lip” on the surface, but a careful reading shows just how uncertain the officers are.
The book itself is one of the most gorgeous of the year. It resembles a large Moleskine notebook, with touchable hard covers and one of those elastic strips holding the thing closed. The pages are monochrome, sepia-tinted in most cases but with a scarlet overlay for impact or emphasis. Most feature a nine-panel grid, a straightforward presentation that emphasizes the reality of the events shown. By avoiding flashy techniques and not broadly manipulating the reader’s emotions, Chantler instead makes his journalistic approach more believable — and easy to read for those attracted more to the material than the medium. It’s an important story, the kind we’re losing the tellers of every day, and one we can learn from. I wish I could say that it never happened again, but during this holiday time, it’s an especially poignant reminder of what service to one’s country entails.