Whether you’re an American or not, you probably know a little about the American Civil War. A basic understanding of it is enough to to appreciate what’s going on in Discipline – how it was a division between the north and the south, and intrinsically wrapped up in the economics of the slave trade.
Dash Shaw tackles the war from the angle of an individual, a fictional volunteer soldier called Charles Cox, and the family he leaves behind. It’s not an uncommon point of view for a war story, but it gets a slightly different treatment here because Cox is a Quaker – a pacifist Christian brought up to reject all forms of violence.
There’s a clear dichotomy here. On the one hand, the Quakers are anti-war and believe there’s no justification for violence. On the other, Cox believes slavery to be morally wrong, and can’t look the other way when his southern neighbours are abusing their fellow humans to such an extreme and abhorrent extent.
Shaw follows Cox’s journey through the war, recounting his tale directly through the letters he writes home to his sister and the replies he receives. All the words come from real letters written at the time, so although Shaw has pieced disparate elements together to make a compelling narrative, there’s nothing here that didn’t originate from the head or heart of someone who actually lived through it.
The sketchy, monochromatic lines that make up the illustrations in Discipline evoke the ghostly, ethereal nature of memories, with details juxtaposed around larger illustrations. There are no panels here, making it look more like a sketch book than a traditional panelled comic. The illustrations are annotated with the handwritten notes that constitute the written dialogue between the two siblings. The effect is loose and dream-like, capturing details of moments in scenes as if we were catching glimpses of them, noting the position of a hand here, the expression on a face there, but not necessarily seeing the whole picture at once. It’s a haunting but effective way to present the story.
There’s little judgement from Shaw, and very little by way of a conclusion. However, a heartbreaking central tragedy perhaps shows his intent the best: a reminder that horror was committed on both sides, and not just on the battlefield. There aren’t really any winners or losers here, and very little mention is made of the war’s intent, though we occasionally see the hollow faces of those subjected to a lifetime of slavery as Cox’s unit passes by.
A raw and personal tale, Discipline isn’t a bog standard story of life in wartime. Instead it creates a composite fiction from chunks of reality, plucking words from history and assembling them into something new. It leaves us with a sketchy montage of moments – simple lines of dialogue, scrawled notes and ghostly images – that will linger with you long after you close the pages of the book.