In Scott Chantler’s new graphic novel, Two Generals, the Cambridge, Ontario-based author/illustrator examines the relationship between a pair of soldiers as they leave Canada for Europe, and eventually, the biggest military operation of modern times: D-Day.
The fact that one of these “generals” (neither of the men were actually generals, but referred to themselves as such in jest on the back of a photograph) was the author’s grandfather makes the story personal; however, it’s a trajectory which many families of veterans can relate to.
Here, Chantler discusses why he decided to tell his grandfather’s story, the help he got along the way, and how creating graphic novels for adults and children aren’t so different:
Q: Two Generals is a family story, and you describe your grandfather in it as “a kindly old gentleman who rarely spoke of his war record and would have been mortified to have a book written about him”. Did that bring added pressure to the telling of it?
A: I struggled in the early stages with the question of whether I should even do the book or not. I’m certain that it’s something my grandfather wouldn’t have approved of, had he been alive. Balanced against that was my desire to give myself a compelling reason to research his experiences in the war, and then later to put down a concrete record of that research, both for my family and the public at large. But I seemed to be only the person who struggled with it, because across the board my family was supportive of the project from the beginning. If any of them had any reservations, they didn’t express them. Which is probably good, because it wouldn’t have taken much to talk me out of it.
Q: The second of the two generals is your grandfather’s friend, Jack Chrysler. Have you been in touch with his family about the book?
A: An important part of my research was provided by Jan Spiers, who is the daughter of Jack’s widow, Winifred Walker of Southampton, England. She was able to send lots of photos I’d never seen, as well as almost-daily letters from Jack to her mother from the front. I haven’t had the chance to speak to Winifred directly, but she’s aware of the book, and supportive of it.
Q: You start in pre-War, Depression-hit small town Ontario and then into the war-torn French countryside. Not only did you need to get the written details right, but the visuals as well. Aside from the notes you had, what was the research process like?
A: In terms of visual research, it was extremely helpful to have access to regimental museum at the Cambridge Armoury (headquarters of the former Highland Light Infantry of Canada) and the people there, who allowed me to photograph period uniforms and weapons – sometimes even having people put them on and model them for me. They were also able to recommend good books and websites that had all of the specific information I required. And, of course, a lot is also based on photographs of my grandfather’s from the era, which are in my possession.
Q: The book has been released just before Rememberance Day. Was that the intent in writing it – and releasing it now – that it will open up a conversation, particularly with the younger demographic?
A: The intent was mostly to satisfy my own curiosity about exactly what my grandfather went through over there and, as I mentioned, create a record that other people might also be interested in. But yes, it did occur to me that the book could also serve as a public reminder of the often-overlooked Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort, and be an educational tool for younger readers. I hope both those things will happen, but if so I’ll consider them happy by-products of the book’s success, rather than the goal.
Q: You don’t dwell on the gore of war all the way the book. How do you define the nuanced nature of how you present Two Generals?
Q: I dwell on it a lot in the last twenty pages or so, but my intention from the beginning was not to make a book about war, but the experience of going to war. Thanks to movies like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers, we’ve seen lots of realistic combat, and know that it was bad. And I try to be as frank about that as I can when it comes up in Two Generals. But what I was particularly moved by in my research and wanted to present to the audience was how bad the rest of it was, too: the waiting, the fear, the boredom, the nerves. Timing is very important in my work, and I considered it an interesting formal challenge to tell a story that was mostly about waiting around for something terrible that you know is going to happen.
Q: This isn’t your only book out this fall. You’ve also just released the first book of your new young adult series, Three Thieves. What is the biggest differences between crafting a graphic novel for an adult and young adult audience?
A: Honestly, not as much as you might think. I don’t really even think in those terms while I’m working. Each story has something it’s trying to become, and I’m trying to help it become that thing, mostly just trying to please myself rather than an audience. What was very different, though, was doing non-fiction rather than fiction, which required exponentially more research, and a ground-up rethinking of my writing style. For example: when I’m writing fiction, I let the art and dialogue tell 100% of the story – I never use narrative captions. Two Generals, on the other hand, is told mostly with narrative captions, simply on account of the amount of historical information required to get across, which would have come across as corny presented as expository dialogue. This, of course, allows the visuals to be more free, supporting the text thematically rather than narratively. I found it very interesting, requiring a completely different set of storytelling muscles, and I learned a lot from the experience.
Q&A: Scott Chantler discusses his new graphic novel, Two Generals | Afterword | National PostIn Canada on November 12, 2010 at 22:51