by Tristan Ashlock
IPSWICH — Most have heard a war story from one place or another. Some come from movies, TV shows, or books, while others come from parents and grandparents.
The tale of Bernard Sandler is likely not one you have heard before. His grandson Jonathan Sandler hopes to change that with his recently released graphic novel The English GI.
The English GI
“My grandfather was English,” Sandler begins, “and in 1939 he was on a school trip to the United States.”
The younger Sandler is the author of a new graphic novel depicting his grandfather’s extraordinary journey through the World War ll conflict.
By the time Bernard’s first summer in the U.S. had come to an end, England had declared war on Germany, and he was forced to stay put in New York City.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan, then Germany.
As an able-bodied man between the ages of 18 and 64 and living in the US and with no way home, Bernard was conscripted into the United States Army.
Here, he would serve in the 26th “Yankee” Division as an English GI and sail back to a Europe, returning to a very different home from the one he had left behind.
Throughout the graphic novel, readers will see Bernard fall in love with New York City theater and jazz, flashbacks to his Latvian heritage, and much more.
Sharing Bernard’s story
Sandler was inspired to revisit his grandfather’s journey during the initial lock-downs of the pandemic. After re-reading his record of what had happened, he wanted to share it with a wider audience.
“I’ve always been a fan of comics and graphic novels — why don’t I turn this story into a graphic novel?” Sandler said.
The daunting task of producing a graphic novel became clear when Sandler considered the artwork for the project.
He put out an ad on a freelance art site and promptly received around one hundred replies. However, the one that stuck out to him was short and sweet, “I can help,” it read.
That simple reply came from Ipswich-based artist Brian Bicknell.
The right stuff
A veteran comic illustrator, Bicknell was intrigued by the subject matter of the project, “I’m a real history buff, so that drew me in right away,” he said.
The job was made easier by Sandler’s collection of personal and reference photographs.
“The material that Jonathan gave me, all of these documents from his grandfather, these beautiful pictures — it was easy,” Bicknell said. “It’s hard to just dream this stuff up without references.”
Along with Sandler’s personal collection of photographs, the pair also found inspiration in the personal sketchbook of another 26th infantryman. “We had this amazing sketchbook from Victor Lundy,” Sandler said.
“He has this tremendous style,” Bicknell added, “the composition is always perfect.”
The two were able to piece together many of the blank spots in Bernard’s story with the help of Lundy’s detailed drawings.
Victor Lundy, the owner of the sketchbook, captured life as an everyday Army GI, from time spent on troop carriers to the violence of war, with quiet scenes of French farmhouses in between.
Lundy would go on to become a well-known architect in the U.S., designing buildings in the modernist style.
The finished product
The completed graphic novel now serves as a record of this unique story. “It seems like, as a young person, he did everything.
He was trapped in another country, and he managed to get a job and meet the love of his life. It’s an unbelievable story,” Bicknell said.
For Sandler, the process of producing the graphic novel strengthened the connection he has to his grandfather.
It meant something more. “In some ways, it was me just being able to relive his story.”
More information about The English GI and the story of Bernard Sandler can be found at graphicmemoir.co.uk.