“Impressionistic imprecision” – Discipline by Dash Shaw

IMG_22Sep2021at085829For those of you familiar with Dash Shaw – either through his comics (see: Bottomless Belly Button, Cosplayers) or his films (see: My High School Sinking Into the Sea, Cryptozoo) – Discipline may come as something of a surprise.

On first glance, Discipline looks like a sketch book. Almost 300 pages of sketches. There are no frames on any pages. Sometimes drawings overlap or blur or overlay one another. Casually, you might think, ah, is this one of those books successful comic artists publish from time to time to allow you to share in their process, to glimpse how finalised works of art come about?

But no. It’s a book alright. A book unlike Dash Shaw – whose inventive works have always struck me, if anything, as overstuffed, cram-packed, often leaving you with the brain equivalent of a full stomach – has written before. This is a narrative of gaps, ellipses and Impressionistic imprecision. This is a book that asks to be met half way. Engage with me, it says. I’ve got a story to tell.

Discipline is a not quite every day story of Quaker folk during the American Civil War, drawn in the style of Thomas Nast and Winslow Homer (themselves responsible for then contemporary Civil War illustrations). It may be you don’t know (I didn’t) but Quakers abhor war, irrespective of whether or not the war is concerned just. All war is bad. Shaw tells the story of Charles Cox, a young Indiana Quaker who felt that the war in question, against slavery, actually required a person to stand up and be counted. Leaving early one morning, he effectively sunders his family who spend Charles’ war debating whether he would be allowed back should he live to return. We follow their travails as Charles corresponds with his sister, as Charles sees first hand the blistering reality of war (even war fought at musket length, which may seem quaint to us today, although Shaw works hard to show us even war in olde times resulted in actual death).

“Much of the text for this book comes from actual Quaker and soldier diaries and letters I found at the New York Public Library,” Shaw writes. Begun in 2014, Discipline is a six year labour of love and it genuinely feels like that. As with a great many so-called historical books being written right now, you can also see how the world in which Shaw writes impacts upon his vision. With conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers and people fighting on petrol forecourts and state-funded media refusing to report the actual news, you have to look to those people willing to stand up for those things they believe in. Historical stories such as this serve to prick and provoke: what am I doing right now, what are the great fights of our age, what can be done to address and right these terrible wrongs? Although it’s warm and beautifully rendered, Discipline left me with an itch, an itch to stand up and be counted, a desire to get out there into the world and do good. There aren’t many books you can lay such praise at the door of.

Any Cop?: Quite possibly our favourite Dash Shaw book to date.

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