It’s a very special issue of Manifest Destiny as the 25th issue makes its appearance this week. The journey of Lewis and Clark has entered a different phase, as the Corps of Discovery settles down at Fort Mandan for their first winter away from home. This is in keeping with the historical record for the most part — the men were worried about the less friendly Teton Sioux — but Chris Dingess, as always, adds a twist to the record, creating more conflict than history suggests. But of course, it’s those writerly touches that allow Manifest Destiny to explore both American history and the American present, just like all the great works of historical fiction.
This being the 25th issue, the cover (drawn and coloured by mainstays Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni) is a deliberate callback to the debut issue, albeit with many more explicit demons/monsters woven into the fabric of the image. While the cover only featured Lewis and Clark themselves, issue #25 does a bit of a reckoning for those of us who have been with the series since the beginning, featuring Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea standing atop a pile of enemies and friends, powerful and weak, innocent and guilty. A keen eye will spot not only the Bigfoots, but the also the Ferzon and the frog monster that once presented such difficulty when the Corps was ascending the Missouri. And at the bottom of the pile, the faces of the men who have either died or been hideously transformed thus far stare forward glumly. The image is a reminder of one of the main themes of this comic, that America manifested its destiny at a terrible price, and a someday there will be a balancing of the books.
As with many issues of Manifest Destiny, this one starts with a scene of relative peace, featuring beautifully rendered images of nature and wildlife on the plains, and even the raising of an American flag, recalling such classic American images as the battle of Iwo Jima. This comic takes great delight in presenting ruggedly all-American images pulled straight from the romantic tradition and juxtaposing them with camp, monster-movie brutality. This issue more or less plays it straight (except at the climax), which lends it that much more suspense. As veteran readers know, the creators here won’t let scenes stay peaceful for long. There’s always something out there to challenge the men in unexpected ways, and it’s only a matter of time before the best laid plans of Lewis and Clark go awry.
Lewis and Clark’s individual responses to their challenges is by now predictable: Lewis will gamely venture into dangerous places or experiences, no matter what the risk to him, in pursuit of new information about the land he’s been sent to explore. Clark, on the other hand, is more cautious and reticent to fully relax, always anticipating danger. This issue, as usual, quotes from Lewis’s journal, and we get to hear Lewis’s hypothesis regarding what makes Clark the wary and cautious man he is, especially while in the wilderness. The answer has much to do with Clark’s previous experiences with Native Americans, something Manifest Destiny has touched upon before. Clark has blood on his hands (as does Lewis, but it seems to bother him less), and having been in mortal combat with people who weren’t especially happy to see foreigners encroaching on their territory, he always seems to sense that danger is right around the corner. Lewis, of course, with his enlightenment optimism, expects the indigenous people to welcome their American friends, since they obviously come in peace. He definitely rides the line between naiveté and arrogance in this issue, naming their winter home “Fort Mandan” and then, when Clark suggests that the also-neighbouring Teton Sioux might find that a slap in the face, responds by saying, “We’ll call it Fort Teton if they’re around.”
On a lighter note, Lewis’s explorations and experiments extend even to the dietary, sampling the local berries and the local medicines himself, and discovering only various powerful laxatives. (Lewis spends the bulk of this issue in the outhouse, even plotting with Clark through the privy door.) Regarding the scene with her usual slow head shake of judgement is Mrs. Boniface, who has been placed personally in charge of the now heavily pregnant Sacagawea. Here we have a cultural divide between the European and Native American approach to pregnancy and childbirth. Sacagawea has complete faith in her physical abilities, choosing to continue to hunt every day and presenting herself as the warrior woman she has always been. Madame Boniface, on the other hand, reflects the common view of contemporary western medicine that pregnant women were “delicate” and weak and constantly at risk, as the slightest shock, physical or emotional, could trigger emergency delivery — a common enough cause of death in young women at the time. In the end, Sacagawea is forced to submit to constraints on her freedom imposed by Clark, reluctantly. History records that Sacagawea did indeed give birth at Fort Mandan that winter, so it appears that, at least with regards to this aspect of the story, the Manifest Destiny team is more or less following history.
The climax of this particular issue involves some in-fighting among the men of the Corps of discovery, with the scarred Sgt. Burton and two other crewmen getting lost in a fog, and having their prejudices put them all in danger. It’s a wonderful metaphor for how well-meaning people often succumb to their darker impulses and allow their suspicions and preconceived notions of how we ought to act and look to take over. That narrative resonates right through the ages to this historic week in American history. Manifest Destiny remains evocative and timely.
[This very special issue also features a “bonus” story, giving us some of the background of Sacagawea’s people, relating a story about the relationship between humans and demons. Her people, so the story goes, live next to demons in order to test their strength. This raises the interesting point: to Native Americans, who were the “demons”? The answer is, of course, obvious and it perfectly frames the primary narrative thread, giving us a great opportunity to experience this comic through an alternate point of view.]