War stories are complicated and difficult to tell, which makes comics the perfect medium for telling them: The creator can show not only the characters and their actions but also their surroundings, the details of military life, maps of battles and strategy, and the carnage that comes with war, all without breaking the narrative with blocks of description. Scott Chantler uses the medium to its fullest in an unusual sort of war story: His grandfather's experiences in the D-Day invasion as a lieutenant in the Canadian Highland Light Infantry. The story is drawn largely from the diary of Chantler's grandfather, Law Chantler, and the letters of his best friend, Jack Chrysler. In keeping with the source material, the book itself is designed to look like a diary, complete with elastic-loop bookmark.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is mostly taken up with the period before the invasion, when Law Chantler and Jack Chrysler were going through training in England. This part of the book is mostly light-hearted, chronicling the two men's experiences in a new country and the trials they face in their training, but there a few moments that foreshadow what is to come, as when Chantler and Chrysler witness a bus accident in which a woman is killed. As the day draws near, the unit begins training with live ammunition (which means real casualties), and they are issued collapsible bicycles for use in the invasion. Important dignitaries, including the King of England, come to wish them well, and then—after a false start—they board ships and learn that they are indeed going to be part of the invasion of Normandy.
Part Two is the story of the invasion itself. Chantler's unit hits the beach but then stalls and can move no further. The Canadians were up against one of the elite units of the German army, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself, and they were both outnumbered and outgunned. There are periods of waiting—even a few more light-hearted moments, as when Chantler captures a German soldier who is relieving himself in the woods—before the story culminates in a final, bloody assault on the town of Buron, which was key to the capture of Caen. Here the palette shifts from gray-green to red as the characters engage in hand-to-hand combat and press forward even as their comrades and commanders are killed on either side of them. After all that, though, the book ends on a quiet note, with Law Chantler standing quietly among the scattered bodies, his mind in another time and place.
The art and storytelling in this book are nothing short of superb. Scott Chantler has a clear, crisp style that suits this type of story well. He uses muted colors in a thoughtful way—gray-green for most of the story, red to accent a moment of blood or violence and, later, as the dominant color in the battle scenes. This is never overdone, and in fact the art has a coolness to it that makes the sometimes disturbing subject matter easy to take. We are, after all, looking at this story from a distance.
Chantler composes his pages carefully, starting with a nine-panel grid but often breaking it to introduce horizontal and vertical shapes. The small panels mean we are often looking at the story in a series of small details—a face, an object, a gesture—and sometimes objects or shapes mirror those on the opposite page. When he widens the view, as he does for a two-page spread of the ships on D-Day, the effect is truly stunning.
The book winds up with a description of the significance of the battle of Buron and some more personal reflections. This is a war story that never glamorizes war; Chantler not only shows the injuries men receive on the battlefield, he hints at the longer-lasting consequences for those who survive, and there is a profound personal loss at the heart of it. Two Generals is a moving story, beautifully drawn and artfully told, and all the more important because it is true.
Chantler has posted some of his research and the original photos and documents he drew on to create Two Generals at the Two Generals Research Blog.
Reviewed by Brigid Alverson on September 27, 2001
- Publication Date: October 26, 2010
- Genres: Graphic Novel
- Hardcover: 152 pages
- Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
- ISBN-10: 0771019580
- ISBN-13: 9780771019586