The slug-line description of Manifest Destiny, a comic by Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts, is “Lewis and Clark go west to fight monsters”. That would be interesting enough right there, but thing that gives this book its true metaphorical power is the way it taps into a rich, deep vein of fear in American culture.
A general, unspecific fear of something based in nature seems to be part of the package for just about any agricultural society. All such cultures have to grapple with the core issue: imposing order, as they see it, on a system that has no order, or at least has less order than they would like. Agricultural societies depend on the land and nurture it while at the same time bending it to their will. You can put whatever religious or cultural imperative over top of that basic relationship, but at its core, civilizations both respect and fear nature.
It’s the fear that finally comes into play in the end. The fear that all of this tamed energy, whether it be nature or any other force or population (think Native Americans) will someday rise up and take back what has been wrested from them that, to some extent, drives that distinct and peculiar thing we call American culture. As a foreigner, I’ve long been fascinated by this aspect of American society. Noam Chomsky puts it succinctly: “…much of it is kind of just a recognition, at some level of the psyche, that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong.”
And it’s also interesting to see how far back this fearful sentiment, fuelled by the need to conquer, appears in American history. Chomsky, once again, finds evidence for it in the Declaration of Independence and certainly it was in place before then, directed towards Native Americans or the English or the land itself. That’s one reason why, when Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with their corps of “discovery” to find a northwest passage through the great interior of North America in 1804, along with all the scientific instruments, trading supplies and map making equipment, he made sure they all had rifles. And plenty of ammunition. They were out to “conquer a continent” as Stephen Ambrose said, as much as they were out to explore it. And somewhere deep in the American psyche, I think, is a sense that if they let up for one second, all the forces under the metaphorical “boot” will fight back. There’s even a sense that this is justified, that America, on some level, “has it coming”.
It’s that peculiar mix of optimism and fear, of power and vulnerability that makes American history and culture pretty fascinating to an outsider like me, whose country got its independence from Britain by just “doing the paperwork” as the saying goes. Most westerns in the classic age of American cinema understood this, pitting good, Christian family men with guns against wild, out of control “Indians”. Today, Zombie movies explore much of the same ground. Manifest Destiny takes all of that mythology and wraps it up in a powerful package that also, by the way, succeeds on the level of pure pulp entertainment.
This comic doesn’t really hide the twist: it’s right there from the first pages of issue #1, featuring Lewis making notes in his “classified” journal about how the corps has yet to encounter the monsters they feared and has simply been following the mission as our history recorded it. Lewis refers to this as the “congressional” journal, the one for public consumption. In reality, Jefferson had indeed heard stories of wild monsters and perhaps even surviving wooly mammoths out in the vast unexplored interior of North America. Being as he was, a person of science and the enlightenment, he would rather know for sure, hence the notion of sending an expedition to find what’s really out there. And they did indeed, as history records, encounter things that to their eyes must have seemed monstrous. On one occasion they met black bear that took so many shots to bring down that the men of the Corps of Discovery could have been forgiven for putting it in the “monster” category. But this comic takes the literal approach: there really were demons and monsters in the west, and Lewis and Clark were in mortal danger from them right from the start.
The very handsome artwork by Roberts makes liberal use of earth tones (courtesy of colorist Owen Geini) and a pencil drawing style that is perfectly suited to the story. Expressive and old-fashioned but with splashes of truly grotesque and disturbing imagery. One of the first encounters, in issue #1 (of the five issues currently available), has the expedition passing through (or near) the modern city of St Louis and the men are astonished to see a grass-and-earth version of the famous “Arch” landmark. (Which wasn’t actually built until the 1960s.) Lewis, acting as the expedition’s scientist and naturalist, orders the black crew member York to pluck a flower from the green weeds of the arch. The flower resembles an Orchid (rare enough for that part of the world), but the orchid has the distinct caste of a human skull. The message is clear: nature may be superficially pretty, but it carries within it death and disease.
It isn’t long before the expedition is attacked by a true monster, a classic mythic figure half-man, half-buffalo. It’s not exactly a minotaur (Lewis and Clark debate the nomenclature and eventually resort to calling it a “buffalotour”, even though it’s not precisely accurate) but it is a terrifying manifestation of the power of nature. And exactly the kind of monster that Jefferson sent them out into the wilderness to find.
The first response to this monster is, naturally enough, fear on the part of everyone involved. But Lewis tries to bring his Enlightenment program to bear on the problem, carefully dissecting the buffalotour in an attempt to carry out the scientific part of his mission. The way Dingess and his collaborators present this give it an extra bit of poignancy, as later Lewis will try to bring scientific investigation to the other monsters encountered by the corps. It ultimately reads as sad and desperate, once again trying to impose order (intellectual order in this case) on a system that won’t have it.
The expedition presses on from the Arch to the colony of La Charette, which they find abandoned but intact further up the river. Finding no signs of life, the corps moves in, until they notice something moving in the settlement’s church. In it they find “humans” who appear to consist almost entirely of vegetable material who shuffle aggressively, zombie-like. (And they bear more than a passing resemblance to Swamp Thing, an influence Dingess freely acknowledges.) When bullets fail to stop them (always a horrific moment in American fiction), the men resort to using knives and bayonets to halt the vegetable zombies’ progress. (Yes, I just used the term “vegetable zombie”. It’s that kind of comic.) In a scene weirdly reminiscent of 28 Days Later, the zombies spew a green slime from their mouths during their dying paroxysms and it “infects” one of the soldiers, Sgt. Floyd. (My fellow history buffs will get the joke, and there are a few more as the story goes on. Sgt. Floyd was, in fact, the only casualty of the Lewis and Clark expedition, dying of appendicitis early on in the trip, on the way up the river at more or less the same point as in the fictional Manifest Destiny. Another nice little historical note is the inclusion of Lewis’s big Newfoundland dog, his constant companion throughout the trip.)
It’s at this point that the Corps meets the survivors of La Charette. They instantly demand that Floyd be isolated from the rest of the group, serve them some tea and recount how their colony was devastated by the vegetative zombie plague, which gradually consumed most of the people there, rendering them walking vegetable zombies. In a classic trope from the Zombie movie genre, we watch as Floyd is overcome, little by little, by the infection. He at one point is well enough to walk around and even re-assume some duties, but an infraction of the rules brings about the usual discipline in those days: public whipping. As Floyd is whipped, his humanity ebbs away and as the comic says, quoting Lewis’s journal, “When we were 13 lashes in, I saw it in Floyd’s eyes.” Floyd turns on the expedition, as the gashes in his skin start leaking vines and plant material, rather than blood, muscle and sinew. Once again, Lewis’s scientific instincts take over and he in fact reaches the last lingering portion of Floyd’s humanity as the zombie utters a quiet, “Captain Lewis?” before finally turning completely monstrous, screaming “We want all of you!”. Lewis borrows a bayonet and pins the Floyd zombie, cutting off a finger for study before having the monster destroyed by fire, their only effective weapon.
The metaphors here are so obvious that it seems odd to mention them, but clearly the notion of nature “fighting back” and reclaiming not just the physical space but the the humanity of the humans who dare to tame it is very rich. It isn’t any kind of well understood disease: these men (and as we see later, all manner of animal life) are literally being assimilated to the forest, changed into plant material that is all part of some sort of “collective”. In biological terms (and I do confess some knowledge of the subject: see my bio) this has resonance with some real-life ecosystems. For example, most people don’t know that the largest single organism ever found on this planet isn’t a whale or a dinosaur but a fungus. A single, enormous fungal entity spanning city blocks, all underground. And fungi, at least this kind, have that long-tentacled structure very reminiscent of how the plant infection is represented in this comic. (Fungi aren’t green, nor are they photosynthetic, so there are some biological liberties taken but I’ll forgive that creative license.) Ultimately the point is that the deepest, most “alien” like part of an ecosystem is not only fighting against the human effort to colonize and tame, it’s trying to do one better and instead subsume the human presence into its matrix. The “man vs nature” story is rarely this explicit.
And of course the characters of Toussaint Charbonneau and his Native American wife, Sacagawea make an appearance. As in the real history, Charbonneau is a man of “no particular value”, as Lewis said, but Sacagawea is a force of nature. Pregnant, again as the history records, she is nevertheless a fierce fighting force in this story, ready, willing and able to “fight the demons,” as she says. And she’s equally forceful in other ways, informing Clark that she “does not need to obey” him.
When the expedition finally abandons La Charette, taking the few survivors of that colony with them up the river, Sacagawea stays on land, following the course of the keelboat. Lewis and Clark decide on a brute force version of conquest, resolving to once again come ashore and seek out the source of the “infection” and burn it with a supply of “Greek fire” (something like Napalm) that Lewis carried with him from Washington. Sacagawea at first demands to come with them to the demons themselves, but she is eventually convinced to stay and guard the boat, as both Lewis and Clark lead the mission of destruction inland.
We should pause here and note an additional set of metaphors clamouring into the story, those associated with Vietnam. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next issue, Lewis says something along the lines of “I love the smell of Greek fire in the morning”. Travelling up a river, through a dangerous and dark place, using modern weapons to combat ancient and almost preternatural forces, all of this fairly reeks of Conrad and Apocalypse Now. Which just makes the story more interesting, more compelling and ultimately more metaphorical.
Issue #5 ends with the small part of men seeing deer, squirrels and even bears transformed and overtaken by the forest’s demonic infection.
And, as is fitting for a serialized adventure story like this, it ends on a cliffhanger. This is the final piece of the puzzle that makes Manifest Destiny a remarkable piece of comics writing: it actually succeeds as a genre story, devoid of any historical connotation. One could strip away everything mentioned here, all the metaphors of a fearful America keeping quiet vigil and taming the wilderness, the allusions to the Vietnam war, the Zombie metaphors, it all is in the service of a high-rolling serialized pulp adventure. Drawn in a meticulous and beautiful style. It’s a comic that demonstrates a respect for genre tradition and also points the way forward for stories of its type.
In short, this comic book delivers in every way that a reader could ask, and it holds up under some fairly intense scrutiny. It has something to share with us about the nature of the American character, at least to a foreigner such as myself, but it also is well worth a readers’ time if they are in search of a good story, well drawn. Issue #6 will complete this particular portion of the story arc, and as history tells us, Lewis and Clark are in for a lot more adventure as they follow the river to discover, conquer and tame the dark heart of a primordial and magical America.