Author of The English G.I. – World War II Graphic Memoir of a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe (2022)
One of my absolute joys in these past few years, has been my “discovery” of a wide array of historical comics and graphic novels that seem to ride the underground fringes of the U.S. Comic market. I mean, I wasn’t ignorant of their existence or anything, I just never really sought them out until Covid-19 gave me all sorts of free time I needed to fill. Whether they be war stories, or general historic books, my tastes have rapidly shifted from the numerous superhero comics out there to these books that are endlessly more substantial. One of these that I really enjoyed was 2022’s The English G.I. – World War II Graphic Memoir of a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe by UK-based writer Jonathan Sandler. The book is a self-published graphic novel based on a memoir penned by Sandler’s own grandfather, a book that was only published for family distribution until now. The story involves the unheard of tale of a Yorkshire-based Jewish boy, whose family originally came from Latvia, that became trapped in the United States and later embroiled in World War II by being enlisted in the US Army to help fight against the Nazis. It was a book that I characterized as “[…] an excellent book, and a quite interesting perspective I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read of in any war memoir prior.”
Today’s topic isn’t just me re-reviewing the same book, as I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Jonathan Sandler to talk about his book, some family information, and his love of military history graphic novels. This was a brief interview that we conducted through E-mail, but it really sheds some light on what went into the production of the book, and possibly some future plans.
A Review of The English G.I. – World War II Graphic Memoir of a Yorkshire Schoolboy’s Adventures in the United States and Europe can be found HERE
“In September 1939, Britain declares war on Germany. Bernard Sandler, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Yorkshire, is on a school trip to the United States and consequently finds himself unable to return home, separated from his close-knit Jewish family in Britain.
Stranded in cosmopolitan New York for an unknown duration, he must grow up quickly. He discovers the pleasures and excitement of Broadway theatre and jazz while developing his own social circle at New York University. But just as he finds his independence, the United States declares war in December 1941, which changes his life once again. Bernard is drafted into the United States Army, joining the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division. Eventually, he returns to Europe, serving on the front lines alongside General Patton’s Third Army during the brutal Lorraine Campaign in Northern France in the fall of 1944.
The book also follows the remarkable story of Bernard’s family in England, and the fate of his wider family in Latvia (whom he visited in an epic journey in 1937, also as a schoolboy), during this period.
The English GI is a moving personal story about coming-of-age, the powerful bond of families, and the tragedy of war.“
Tell me a bit about yourself
“I live in North West London. I am married with three kids, 11, 9 and 9. I work for a US software company. A few years ago, I had the idea to turn my English Grandfather’s WW2 experience in the US Army into a graphic novel. In 2022, The English GI: WW2 Graphic Memoir was published.”
What’s the biggest difference between working in software and being a comic writer? Are there any ways that they are similar?
“There are noticeable differences, but there are similarities. For example, you must manage time, cost, and quality when producing a book or delivering a software project. In software, though, you need to be good enough and know you can incrementally improve. With a book, you have one shot at it, really, so that was the main difference for me. I listened to an interview with Ryan North (author of many graphic novels, including the graphic novel adaptation of Slaughterhouse V ), and he said that software and comic writing were quite similar!”
What made you want to start writing comics?
“I enjoy reading a particular type of graphic novel. I went on a short course for creating comics a few years ago for fun, and at the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to have a go at doing one myself one day.”
Have you always been a fan of the medium?
“I read Tintin and Asterix as a kid, but I don’t recall reading many for most of my life. The reality is graphic novels have a low profile in the English-speaking world. There are very few reviews of graphic novels in the mainstream press. However, that is slowly changing (The U.K. Guardian newspaper has a graphic novel of the month section). Therefore, I wasn’t really exposed to the medium. Only in the past few years have I discovered what is out there, and there are some incredible books? In the English-speaking world, comics are associated with kids and superheroes rather than anything about history. I listened to an interview with Seth (author of Clyde Fans – the Canadian masterpiece). He said a comic store wouldn’t sell a graphic novel about an Electric Fan Salesman in the 1980s. In 2017, Drawn & Quarterly published Clyde Fans to critical acclaim. This exemplifies how the comic medium has evolved into graphic novels.”
I’m actually pretty envious, my grandfather served in Korea, but never really got a chance to relate any war stories to me or write anything down before he passed. How did it feel to find such a treasure trove as his self-published memoir?
“Absolutely, I am lucky that he wrote it all down. I was very much aware of the book when it came out in 1995, but I forgot most of it as time went by. Only in 2020, when my son was interested in WW2, I decided I needed to revisit this story and turn it into something.
My other grandfather, who died in 2012, also served in the British Army (Royal Army Medical Corps) in Africa and Germany. I regret not asking him for more information.”
Your grandfather actually had a pretty interesting story, did you immediately realize how unrepresented a story such as his was?
“There are thousands of WW2 memoirs out there. Still, his story is unique in that he was an Englishman serving in the U.S. Army through some fortuitous circumstances. That is why I knew I had to turn this into a book.”
Do you wonder if he was ever holding back on some of his experiences?
“The Greatest Generation, as they are known, went through an awful lot in their early years, and then they played their part in the post-war boom. For the most part, that generation held their emotions back. It was a different era. He definitely held his feelings back. As a reader, you were able to put yourselves in his shoes. He tried to make the best of things given his situation.
Through my research, I discovered that many Citizen Soldier memoirs emerged around the 1990s. These tended to be more raw and frank than the earlier drafts of WW2 History written by the Generals!”
I really liked the mixed-media nature of The English G.I., the fact that there are excerpts from your grandfather’s memoir, bits and bobs from other related memoirs, and artwork all interspersed etc. Also notable are no speech bubbles, what was your inspiration for that?
“It was a hybrid graphic novel and prose. I wanted to include as much factual information as possible. Whenever I watch a film or read a book about an actual event, I am always on Wikipedia, trying to find out more. That is why I included so much at the back.
As for the speech bubbles, graphic novels are complicated to write, so I went for the simplest form: keep to a narrative. As a newcomer to this type of work, I wanted to ensure everything was clear.”
Have you been in contact with anyone else descended from “Yankee Division” members?
“There is only one that is alive. Victor Lundy, who turned 100 in February. He lives near Houston, Texas. He was an acclaimed architect and produced an incredible sketchbook during his war years that inspired some of the scenes in The English G.I., including the front cover. You can read more in my blog about him.
I was in touch with the children of several other members of the 26th Divison. In some circumstances, I used some of their stories to help plug gaps in my grandfather’s story.”
What was your biggest challenge in self-publishing this book?
“As a first-time author, everything is a challenge. Deciding when it was ready to publish. Moving from book production to marketing is also challenging as it is a different skill set.”
Do you have any tips for aspiring creators?
“Don’t under estimate the marketing!”
I’ve noticed you have been tearing through various war comics on your blog, what have been some of your favorites so far?
Note: Jonathan’s blog can be found HERE
“Thanks for mentioning it. In the last few months, I have decided to write a blog about WW2 books. Given the hundreds of thousands of WW2 books, few graphic novels exist. Indeed, there are only a handful relating to the Allied efforts. I am profiling about 50-60 of the best-known ones. There are some exceptional WW2 graphic novels on the list. I would highlight Berlin (Jason Lutes), Showa (Shigeru Mizuki), Twists of Fate (Paco Roca), Once Upon a Time in France ( Fabien Nury and Sylvain Vallée), Maus (Spiegelman), Alan’s War (Emmanuel Guibert), They Called Us Enemy (George Takei), Two Generals (Scott Chantler).”
Have you become a history buff while working on this project? That is assuming you were not already!
“Definitely, I really enjoy reading memoirs. Both graphic novels and WW2 books.”
Did your grandfather have to deal with much antisemitism in or out of the service?
“If he did, I didn’t know about it. There was some antisemitism, but I was also heartened to read letters by Benjamin Kaplow about having services for Jewish G.I.s when they were in France in September 1944. So I included that scene in the book.”
Being from the US myself, I’m just curious – How does the UK do on that front? I know it sadly comes in waves over here when prominent people stir it up. [NOTE: Kanye for example]
“Unfortunately, It comes in waves from the political spectrum’s right and left. For example, we had recent issues with U.K. Labour Party, but things have improved since the new leader took office.
In the epilogue to my book, I mention that my grandfather had a friendship with Roald Dahl in the late 1970s. Sadly, despite being a great storyteller, Dahl was a well-known anti-semite. So when my grandfather found out about an interview, he did (in 1983) where he claimed that Jews didn’t fight for the Allies in the War. At that point, my grandfather ended his friendship with him.”
I always feel like the general discourse on WWII largely ignores the Jewish contribution (unless specifically talking about The Holocaust). Thoughts?
“Over a million Jews were enrolled in the Allied forces in WW2. I recommend a book called X-Troop by Leah Garret that came out a couple of years ago which tells the stories of exiled German Jews who ended up fighting in the British Army. Maybe this will become a graphic novel one day!”
Do you have any future artistic projects in the works?
“My next project is probably a few years out. I’d like to do an anthology next relating to WW2.”
Do you see your company becoming a brand at any point?
“I am passionate about graphic memoirs. As I said, graphic novels and memoirs are a growing trend.”
Finally, if you could travel back in time to see any historical event firsthand, what would it be?
“I would love to go back to the 1960s. The time of JFK.”
Thank you so much, and I appreciate your time!
Note: This interview was conducted in May 2023, the responses have been possibly edited a bit for things like punctuation or spelling.
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