Scene 1, Pages 4-7
Updated: Nov 11
The title of Part One, "The Knell of Parting Day", like the epigraph that proceeds it (and also the title of Part Two), comes from Thomas Gray's 1751 poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. I'll be discussing the poem in a later scene when it enters the narrative, but for now it's enough to know that I first encountered it as a reference in my grandfather's 1943 diary. It's essential to the book's themes.
The now-iconic "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster, pictured under the chapter heading, wasn't yet iconic when I drew this opening image. Conveniently, between the time when Two Generals was created and the time it was published, the WWII-era poster became one of the most popular memes worldwide. It was everywhere. But at the time, I simply wanted an image that captured the stiff-upper-lip nature of the wartime English setting of Part One, and this seemed like a fitting choice, although I nearly went with one of its sister posters, pictured here.
Page 5 starts the story with a close-up of smoke, which is revealed to be from a cigarette being smoked by a helmeted soldier we see only from behind. The book's fairly strict nine-panel grid format works in a number of ways, which I'll discuss thoroughly in this blog, but one of them is established immediately here by connecting the the rhythm of the book's panels to the act of breathing. Once the reader makes this connection, even subconsciously, it allows me to break that rhythm to simulate the suspenseful holding of breath -- or the fateful disappearance of it. These are the kinds of things you don't necessarily expect readers to intellectualize (or even notice) so much as you want them to be felt. Much more on the book's layout and its meaning as we go along.
It may be interesting to know that this is not how the story began in the first draft of the script. This was originally intended to be the opening of Part Two. The scene that opens Part Two was originally meant to open Part One. Why the change? I'll explain when we get to that scene. For now, suffice it to say that this is a much stronger opening. Hats off to the book's editor, Susan Renouf, for convincing me so.
It drives me a little nuts when comic book artists draw the ground outdoors as being flat (I think that a lot of comics creators don't get outside much). So it was tough to resist the urge to add a bit more character to the landscape on page 6. But while I've never been to northern France (the travel grant I applied for while creating Two Generals wasn't approved) I've been told it's flat for miles in every direction, and photos I've seen bear that out.
The church pictured (in flashback) on pages 5 and 7 is St. Giles's Parish Church in Stoke Poges, England. It's very important to our story, and you'll learn more about in a later entry (not uncoincidentally, the same one in which I'll be talking about Thomas Gray's poem).
The smoking soldier we see here pictured from behind is not identified until the end of the book. I'd hoped to try to obscure this survivor's identity to create some sort of doubt about just which of the book's characters would still standing by the story's end. It doesn't seem to have worked, though, as most readers immediately (and correctly) assume the character to be my grandfather, Lieutenant R. Law Chantler of the Highland Light Infantry of Canada.
He looks out over part of the battlefield just outside of a Normandy village called Buron on July 8th, 1944. There will be much more written about Buron in this blog, as that battle and its aftermath are of paramount concern to Two Generals. For now, it's enough to tell you that his hands are shaking for good reason: the Highland Light Infantry suffered 50% casualties, essentially cutting the regiment in half in a single morning.
Above is a photo of what was left of Law's platoon of 36 men by the end of the day. There are fifteen men pictured, two of whom were from another platoon. That leaves thirteen, meaning he lost nearly two-thirds of his men that day. How did these "lucky" thirteen fare throughout the rest of the war? Thanks to notations made on the back of the photograph by my grandfather himself, we know the answer to that question:
As you can see, nearly all of them were either killed or wounded, even after surviving the massacre at Buron. Two others were removed from the field on account of "battle exhaustion", what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The higher ranks weren't spared, either. As we'll see, officers of the HLI of C suffered horribly at Buron. In "B" Company, Law Chantler was the only commissioned officer left standing.
Two Generals is about many things, but among them is certainly how fortunate I feel to be here at all.