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A review a day: Two Generals

It’s Scott Chantler! Can you afford not to read this?????

I suppose I was late to the Scott Chantler bandwagon, as I didn’t buy Northwest Passage too long ago, but devoured it quickly and wanted more! So now we have more, in the form of Two Generals, which is published by the fine folk at McClelland & Stewart (ooh, it’s a “real” publishing company!) and costs $24.95.

Chantler focuses on his own family in this book, as he writes about his grandfather, Law Chantler, who went to World War II and took part in the D-Day landing. The “generals” of the title are Law and Jack Chrysler (who are, of course, not generals but lieutenants – Law makes a joke about them being generals, hence the name of the book), two Canadians in the Highland Light Infantry. They meet, become friends, train together, invade France together, and experience the horror of war together. On the one hand, this is a fairly straightforward war journal. Chantler, however, does some nice things with it, “fictionalizing” it a bit (I have no idea how much he telescopes to fit into this length or if he’s re-arranged events, but I don’t necessarily mean that) to make it a gripping narrative. With any biographical story, the question about accuracy comes up (especially with regard to dialogue), but that’s not what I mean. As a comic book creator, Chantler is able to do some things better than a prose writer or a movie maker could – his use of color in the comic is fantastic, as is his use of juxtaposing certain images that add context to what Law is thinking or feeling. It’s all the more impressive because Chantler shows restraint, knowing that these “tricks” will have more impact if they’re used sparingly.

He doesn’t hide his tricks, though. The book opens in the aftermath of a battle, with a lieutenant looking away from us, smoking a cigarette. We never see his face, even when another soldier walks up and speaks to him. He simply keeps staring into the middle distance, as Chantler pulls back, showing us the corpses lying on the ground around him. Red is the predominant color here, as Chantler uses different shades to color everything, leaving only the smoke and the soldiers’ skin gradients of gray. It’s a very effective way to enter the book, not only because we know we’re coming in at the end of things, but because Chantler’s distinctive color choice makes the entire scene eerie and somber. After those few pages, he goes back and quickly tracks Law’s early life before his enlistment, and the color scheme becomes pale greens and blacks. When Chantler shows Hitler (to track the rise of Nazism), the Nazi banners are very deliberately colored red. It’s not subtle, but as the book moves along, the red reappears to indicate violence or battle – not all the time, but as the HLI reaches its crucible at Buron in Normandy, the reds begin to dominate, until several pages are given over to the color scheme. Despite the color choices being somewhat obvious, they’re still very effective, especially when, in the middle of the battle, Law flashes back to a time when he and Jack visited a church and Law discovers it’s where Thomas Gray composed “Elegy Written in a Country Chuch-Yard.” The church showed up on the first page, cutting into the red with a stark black and white panel of exquisite line work, and Chantler finally shows us what Law and Jack discussed that day, as it’s important only when we have already been exposed to its message. It’s this way of re-arranging events that gives the book its greater impact – we can guess what happens so it’s how Chantler tells the story that’s important, and by the time he reaches the climax, he’s set it up very well.

The narrative isn’t perfect, as Chantler falls into the common trap with biographies and other “true” stories – a lot of the book is narration, telling us exactly what is happening, not only in conjunction with what’s on the page, but with what is happening in the larger world. I honestly don’t know how an author can fix this – it seems like such a common problem with writers who are far smarter than I am, so you’d think someone would have figured it out by now – but it can be a bit annoying. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the book are when characters speak to each other, and while some of the narration is necessary, I’m not sure all of it is. Chantler’s not too guilty of overdoing it – the narration is often brief and it disappears for some stretches – but even in the midst of battle, it shows up and often makes the scenes feel more clinical than they should be. Again, I’m not sure how to solve it – he tells us facts about the battle that Law or Jack or even a more superior officer might not know, which adds to our understanding of the HLI’s position even more, but it’s still a bit distracting. The use of narration is devastating in one instance, but that’s because Chantler has earned it with a great deal of the dialogue and the art. The reliance on narration certainly doesn’t ruin the book, but like a lot of omniscient narration, it can distance the reader a bit from the visceral events happening on the page.

Chantler’s art is stellar, as usual. He has a nice fine line style that is richly detailed, something that works very well when the battles begin, as Chantler is able to show the ruins and devastation that war causes. The battle scenes are occasionally graphic, but what makes them interesting is that Chantler either doesn’t show the horrible effects or placing them far enough away that they don’t have as much impact as they might, so that the viscera is either off-panel or almost off-panel. Why this is important is that Chantler shows the after-effects of violence very well – we get to see wounds and even some severed body parts, and it’s better than if we see it happen. The violence is horrific enough, but watching Law and the others gaze around at the carnage when they’re able to process it better has a tremendous impact. For a book that has a lot of narration, Chantler does give us plenty of silent panels where the characters’ acting has to carry the mood, and he does a wonderful job with it. The most compelling scene is when Law and Jack are in the churchyard, contemplating Gray’s poem and where they’re heading once they get into combat. Chantler does this a lot – he simply lets the characters react to what’s going on, and this makes it more contemplative than we might expect. Law and Jack are “manly men” in that they don’t talk about their feelings, so the fact that Chantler allows them to be quiet, which expresses their feelings far better than if they speak. This makes the opening scene all the more powerful, as Chantler has created these two characters and given them such depth mostly through the art, which is impressive.

As a war comic, Two Generals isn’t the greatest book in the world. It’s a bit too obvious for that. However, it’s a very good comic because when Chantler closes the focus in on Law and Jack and not as much on the bigger war, the book is marvelous. We feel the visceral impact of the battle because we care about what happens to Law and Jack, and Chantler takes such care with how he presents the material that we’re caught up in the training and then the combat. The way he creates the look of the book, with the chronological twisting and the stark coloring, makes this visually fascinating to look at. Chantler is a very good creator, and if you haven’t checked out his work yet, why not start with this one?

Tomorrow: I cast the movie of this comic book, because I can!

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