Dash Shaw

New York Review Comics


304 pages

Buy Now

If the general populace knows one thing about the Quaker religion, it’s their avowed pacifism: the “conscientious objector” status that has kept practitioners away from battlefields. To know a little more about the faith would likely entail knowledge of the meeting for worship, where congregants sit in silence unless moved to speak. This invites casual scorn, in seeming to describe a ritual more boring than a normal church service, but I’m struck by the possibility that the pacifist dogma isn’t necessarily a first precept of Quakerism, but rather emerges specifically out of this spiritual practice based around reflection - and that our country’s willingness to enter into military conflict emerges specifically because the idea of being guided by what Simone Weil would call an "inner light" is so foreign to us. Our political leaders -- pressured by the expectation to speak and act decisively, even in the absence of knowledge -- tell citizens what to do as quickly as possible; that we not mourn, but instead take up arms, escalating conflicts to the point of population-decimating violence at rapid speed. In a landscape loud with the thunder of raised voices, the importance of simply not talking, of shutting up for once, ends up affirmed primarily by those who take the time to engage in spiritual practice, including those practices as neutrally irreligious as reading or observational drawing.

The library is our great secular temple to the glory of peace and quiet, and it was as part of a fellowship with the New York Public Library that Dash Shaw researched the Quakers who fought on the side of the Union during the American Civil War. Shaw was raised Quaker, though I am unsure if he still engages with the church; his new book, Discipline, assumes a certain anxiousness as a starting point for its central character, Charles, as a motivating factor for why a young man would leave his home to enter into a violent war for which he’s completely unprepared. Much of the first-hand documentation of the Civil War is through written correspondence, and Discipline is built around the epistolary form - its lettering in cursive script, slowing down the reading experience.

Comic book lettering usually strives for a perfect clarity, capturing dialogue happening simultaneously with depicted actions through the use of word balloons issuing from the mouths of speaking figures. Discipline aims for a disassociated feeling, to capture the disconnect between the world of outward experience and the world of inner thought - the observation of an event and its later recollection.

It’s comicsmaking of a kind I feel hesitant to call “cartooning” because it avoids so much of the standardized language of comics that emerged over the course of the 20th century. Rather than the action within the book feeling performed theatrically for the reader, with the panel as proscenium, the book is oriented around internal experiences such as reading letters or maintaining a sketchbook. There are no panel borders, and very few instances of spoken dialogue. There are brief moments of people speaking in the context of a Quaker meeting or a funeral, but these are not scenes of dialogue, but rather captures of brief monologues. Nothing indicates a work meant to be read speedily. The black and white art has a transparency to its construction, as if it’s showing the reader how it was made, with as little affect of stylization as possible. Occasionally we see a figure shrink within a page’s negative space into something glyphlike, but mostly Shaw holds bodies and backgrounds in equal regard, in terms of the approach crosshatching lends them - the delineation given to trees and their leaves. Due to this emphasis on the unhurried, Discipline seems committed to quietude even during action sequences. No sound effects are used to indicate the firing of rifles, the explosions of gunpowder. The scenes of combat unfold in a manner that’s more spooky than visceral, intended to haunt rather than excite.

It’s a resolutely quiet work, aiming to translate a sense memory of religious practice and spiritual experience that's utterly opposed to the violence and action that is so much of comic books' lifeblood. There are barely any spotted blacks within the pages of the book. The chapter headings depict playing cards, but the black of the diamonds printed upon them is not solid, but crosshatched. We see some fields of black to indicate that scenes are taking place at night, although the drawing maintains the same delicate line and absence of shadow that seems to conjure the calm midday of life illuminated by an inner spirit. We also see solid black in the depiction of blood, pooling from an injured ear: the creation of a visual void of a space, where silence is not something sought out, but imposed with finality.

The publication of Discipline by New York Review Comics coalesces an idea of what a book from that publisher is in a way I hadn’t considered before. I’m not sure any other publisher currently operating specializes in literary comics that work primarily through images, confident in drawing’s ability to convey meaning and emotion without narration’s hand-holding. They publish reprints of idiosyncratic gag cartoonists, and a large amount of work being translated into English for the first time. Their books are undeniably well-done, and many readers interested in art comics have called them the best publisher currently operating, because everything they publish is of interest. A good number of their releases may not be as resilient in memory as they are strong in initial impression; the spare use of language in these comics can result in characters that lack the individual voices that endear them to a reader. There are exceptions to this trend, but this is the tradeoff NYRC most often risks.

Discipline’s release coincides with Magnolia Pictures’ distribution of Cryptozoo, an animated film Shaw wrote and directed. Both Cryptozoo and Discipline are period pieces that approximate certain aesthetics of their era. Cryptozoo takes place in the late '60s, and visually exists in dialogue with films like Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna Of Sadness. Both of these new Shaw projects are about the moral logic of participating in wars. Discipline is about about how even pacifists would be justified in fighting against slavery; but in Vietnam, a more pointless war central to Cryptozoo, coercion is a must. The antagonist is someone who wants to capture cryptids to use as weapons, and therefore win the unwinnable war. The protagonist wants to put the creatures in a zoo, which is treated as a dubious goal in itself; this is the thematic thrust that marks Cryptozoo as its own animal.

The differences between the two works highlight the differences between comic books and motion pictures. Film is a collaborative medium, and so Cryptozoo features animation direction by Jane Samborski, Shaw's wife, and contributions from cartoonists like Sophie Franz, Frank Santoro and Benjamin Marra, alongside voice acting by indie film actors like Michael Cera and Zoe Kazan. My main criticism of the film is that there seems to be some weird disconnect between the individual actors and the larger world of the story, like either the performances were recorded separately from the animation's production or the visual timing of scenes was animated beforehand, so dialogue comes out feeling mistimed or somewhat slow. In the context of a colorfully animated '60s-set film, the pace comes across as stoned, so maybe the mistake is mine for not watching while high, but all the dialogue would work fine on the pages of a comic. It’s an interesting flaw for a film made by a cartoonist to have, and while I can certainly say to TCJ readers that the film is worth seeing, I do think that, as in Discipline, audiences might not necessarily connect to the characters’ dramas as much as they would if the characters seemed to occupy the same space. Audiences are used to seamlessness, but Shaw foregrounds the collage aspects of his chosen media.

Both Discipline and Cryptozoo feature drawing that seems more considered and delicate than Shaw’s earlier comics or animation work, which favored a thicker, more inexpressive line. Cryptozoo features stop-motion effects applied to painted images, while Discipline’s pages are dominated by crosshatching. The images created are beautiful, but not particularly belabored, with Cryptozoo marked by limited animation at a low frame rate, while Discipline’s images never rise to the level of detailed engravure perhaps most associated with the 19th century.

Samborski and Shaw also had a child in the past few years, which makes the appearance of both these works even more impressive from a time-management perspective, and potentially informs the sense of family dynamics found in Discipline. Shaw is also a resident of Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, having drawn a book about the Civil War during a time where, at least for the neurotic among us, a second civil war began to feel increasingly likely. That sense of looming danger was exacerbated by how we, as citizens, are disconnected from the daily actions and lives of those different from us; how we have our internal processes narrativizing our surroundings in a way that does not reach those close to us in the way we’d like. We speak lines of dialogue in our own airless rooms and wait dumbly for them to register, our words marked as of the moment by the use of slang that doesn’t necessarily sound natural. The communal experience offered by cinema could bring us together, were we not newly averse to it. Books thankfully meet us halfway, bringing with their churchlike quiet a respite from our racing thoughts - a challenge to slow down, a freedom from any obligation to respond.