Friday, February 11, 2022

Discipline by Dash Shaw

Comics is a deliberate art: even the pieces that seem quickly made or sketched are carefully planned. There's a huge amount of work that goes into a page that goes by your eyes in a minute or less, for every creator of every kind of comics.

But even in that company, working in that form, Dash Shaw is more deliberate than most, and looks less deliberate. His art is loose, at times mimicking a sketchbook. His lettering looks more like handwriting a lot of the time. His people are driven by immediate urges and demands, sometimes almost uncontrollably.

Discipline is perhaps the peak of that side of Shaw, or at least a peak. The pages do look like something out of a sketchbook, with unbordered pictures that form comics without quite looking like comics. His lettering is in script, slightly fussy, to fit this 19th century story - it could easily be the handwriting of one or more of the characters in the book. And his main character does the one thing his community hates most of all: goes to war.

Charles Cox is seventeen in 1863, a Quaker growing up in an Indiana community of Quakers: quiet, sober, serious, dedicated to self-improvement, bettering their community and world, and non-violence in both their individual lives and the wider world. He has unnamed parents and what seems to be a slightly older sister, Fanny.

Only after finishing the book do I think about that: only two children, on a farm in the 1860s? What's the story there? How many crib deaths lie in the past of this family, how many other children lost before these two grew up?

It's the middle of the Civil War, and Charles is old enough to fight. Old enough to grapple with the moral side of the conflict, too: he deeply believes in both the rightness of the Union cause - Quakers were vastly more abolitionist than most of America, and much earlier - and in the value of the Quaker non-violence ethos. Those two things are in immediate conflict: the nation will not be pulled back together, nor the slaves be freed, though non-violence and pacifism.

So Charles does run off and enlist. Discipline is mostly his story, alternating with Fanny's story back at home, where she is "courted" by Cyrus, who looks to my eye to be substantially older than her. Shaw tells those two stories in two ways: in his loose art, which has no direct dialogue and takes place essentially in pantomime, and with narrative captions, which we mostly take to be the letters these two send back and forth but also include unvoiced thoughts and ruminations.

In his afterword, Shaw says a lot of the language in the book is directly from letters and other documents of the period: these are largely the words of actual Quakers of that time, and the rest is deeply influenced by them.

Charles goes through quick, brief training. He marches south, fights in his first battle, and marches much further south with Sherman's army. His story is full of events: wounded, captured, sick, prison-break.

Fanny's story gives us more of the conflicting views of Quakers on the war, including the ongoing argument about whether they should pay the increased taxes to fund the armies. Quakers, we learn, have for generations specifically refused to pay any taxes that go to armed forces: they refuse, entirely, to fund violence. And it also gives us a view of her relationship with Cyrus, in those silent panels: we may miss the most important thing, but we'll learn it in words before the end.

Shaw is not giving us an answer to the central conflict here. He is not expressing an opinion about whether fighting in the Civil War - or any war, any conflict - was right or necessary for any person. He's telling a story about people living through it, making choices, and trying to live up to their ideas. 

They are very high, very strong ideals. A lot of us could do well to try to be closer to them, even if we don't exactly believe in the specific God at the center of those ideals.

Discipline is much quieter than a reader would expect for a book about the Civil War, almost a meditation. It's much more a Quaker book than a war book, which is entirely appropriate. And I found it almost entirely successful on its own terms: it sets out do so something specific and succeeds entirely at that.

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