My grandfather, Law Chantler, died in 1997. A few years later, my grandmother, Marg, had grown too old to be in their home by herself, so she entered a long term care facility. Thus began the long and trying process of clearing out a home that had been occupied by the same family since the early 1950s.
They had a lot of stuff. I wouldn't say they were hoarders, nor would I say they were sentimentally attached to things. But they were practical people who, like many who lived through the Great Depression and wartime rationing, seemed reluctant to throw things away because you never knew when you might need them. My grandparents had money, but were part of a generation that had become accustomed to having nothing -- so they spent the rest of their lives stockpiling what they had, just in case. So, naturally, there was a lot to sort through. Things that had been filed away and then forgotten for decades (I recall, for instance, my dad coming across an insurance receipt for when he broke his arm as a kid in the early '60s.)
Of course, it wasn't all junk. It was during this process that I first encountered my grandfather's 1943 diary, after discovering it in a dresser drawer alongside his medals. I opened it to a random page, and read a random entry. It was this:
Friday March 26
Left for London with Jack right after lunch. Stayed at King George and Queen Elizabeth officers club. Saw (Bob Hope? Betty Hutton?) in “Let’s Face It”. Quite good. Got to know how to get around on the tubes. Had dinner at the Cumberland House, close to the Marble Arch by Hyde Park. On way home saw woman under a double decker bus – found out later she was killed.
I was in my late twenties, and not yet even working in comics, so the idea of a book about my grandfather's wartime experiences was still several years away. But the seed that eventually became the book was planted right then. Because you don't forget a diary entry like that.
Years later, when I was in the initial stages of research for Two Generals, my Uncle Bob made a family tree which he gave copies of to each member of the Chantler clan. It was the first time I realized that Law had a younger brother. Clarence died in the '60s -- before my time -- and had, to my recollection, never been so much as mentioned. I asked about him, and soon learned why: an accident when he was young had put him in a mental institution for the rest of his life. The institution was none other than the now-abandoned Ontario Hospital in St. Thomas, Ontario, which opened just before the War began in 1939, and was then considered the best hospital of its kind. For all I know, it was the reason why my grandfather found himself living in St. Thomas to begin with (and why three generations of Chantler children have since grown up there).
There was some debate about the nature of Clarence's accident. Someone said he'd been hit by a milk wagon or milk truck, someone else said it had been a streetcar. I couldn't find any record of the accident itself, but a streetcar seemed more likely: there were streetcars in the Newmarket, Ontario at the time, and they'd have still been new-ish when Law and his siblings were young. It also seemed the type of collision that would be more likely to leave someone seriously injured, given the relatively slow speed of street traffic in the 1910s. I wrote in an earlier post about the judgement calls that are sometimes required when dealing with history, and I made one here.
More importantly, once I heard the words "hit by a streetcar" I immediately remembered the diary entry about the woman under the bus. Which made me wonder whether that 1943 incident had, in turn, served as a harsh reminder for my grandfather of what had happened to his brother many years before. The eerie similarity between the two tragedies, and the thematic connection between them, informed every creative choice on Two Generals from that point forward. What might have been a mildly interesting book about a front-line officer's view of Canada's involvement in WWII became something with real emotional heft, a sense of dread and loss that resonates through the story to the very last page (and beyond.) It's the most important scene in the book.
The first panel on page 21 features a close-up of Jack's wristwatch, which I wanted to establish because we'll see it again later at an important point in the story. But it's also a reminder, now that we've introduced the theme of injury and death, of the "ticking clock" motif I introduced back on page 8. As I've written before, you don't necessarily expect readers to register this kind of thing consciously, but here -- especially here -- I wanted them to feel precious time ticking inevitably away.
If I'd been thinking, I'd have made the window in the last panel of page 21 a nine-panel grid, like the page layouts themselves, to further emphasize how much the two men are now locked in to a series of traumas that will eventually lead to one of their deaths. A missed opportunity. It's hard to look at older work sometimes.
Though we've seen the colour red in the book before this scene, its meaning should now be clear: it shows up when there's a death, injury, or mortal fear. Maybe a bit simplistic, but it seems to work: people tell me all the time that the use of colour is one of their favourite things about Two Generals. That this visual thematic connotation is delivered by a double decker bus -- themselves usually red -- was simply too perfect a coincidence to pass up.
Readers can thank the book's graphic designer, Jennifer Lum, one of the very best book designers in publishing, for all of this colour symbolism. My original concept was to do the entire book in the red colour palette. She (correctly) pointed out that by the time we got to scenes where I wanted the red to be shocking, it wouldn't be shocking anymore, but simply the colour of the world. Because the red we wanted was going to require four-colour printing regardless, she suggested using other colours, and withholding the red until it would have the greatest effect. She was right, of course, and I'm forever thankful for her contributions.
In fact, Jen is the reason Two Generals exists at all. When the book was still an unformed and uncertain potential idea I might never have had the nerve to write, she stood in line at a signing I was doing at Book Expo Canada in 2007 to tell me she'd just started working at McClelland & Stewart. She was hoping to convince them to try publishing some graphic novels for the first time, and did I have anything to pitch? They like history and Canadiana, she said. I smiled and told her I might have something for them. The next day, I emailed her a one-paragraph pitch for what became Two Generals. Three days later, I drove to Toronto with my grandfather's helmet, diary, and photographs in hand, and pitched her and the Publisher in person. The day after that, I had a deal. It was the easiest path to publication of any book I've ever done.
Jen's favourite page was page 19. She recognized its significance, for all of the reasons I've written about here. After the book was released, I framed the original of that page and gifted it to her as a thank you. It's my favourite page, too, but I figure she'll take better care of it than I would have, and it truly wouldn't exist without her. Because good collaborators are as valuable as they are rare.