The most important part of this issue of Manifest Destiny, by Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts and Own Gieni, is the passage where we get to see Lewis and Clark’s dreams. In historical terms, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were very different people. Lewis, although very familiar with the frontier life, was someone who came from Virginia Bourgeoisie culture, if not quite aristocracy. His upbringing had prepared him for a life as a plantation owner with slaves and lands and a household to run. He was permitted, by the unwritten rules of his Virginian culture, to claim expenses such as “a pint of whiskey for a negro wench” (which is a direct quote from one of his letters), but overall he was expected to be well-spoken, dignified and a man of social graces and honour. Clark, on the other hand, was no less dignified but in a rougher and more rustic way. Clark was older, and less formally educated (although Lewis really only had the equivalent of a High School education for the times) but a well-seasoned and no-nonsense frontier man. He was the one with direct experience with Native Americans before the expedition, and when they returned he spent most of the rest of his life as an “Indian Agent” for the western territories. It was said of Clark that he was “always a friend to Indians”, but Clark saw the other side of that coin as well. Lewis was a dreamer and an idealist. Clark was a realist. Between the two of them, they were a complete example of the best America could muster at the time, and that’s not meant to damn with faint praise at all.
Which just adds resonance to the darkest passage yet of Manifest Destiny, when both men find themselves literally wrapped up in the giant, plantlike manifestation of the great mystery of nature. Lewis, ever the unrealistic gentleman, formally introduces himself (“I am Captain Meriwether Lewis of the United States…”) even while hanging from a gigantic vine in the presence of a creature resembling a giant Sarlacc Pit. The creature promises the Captains that they won’t be “turned” but instead they will serve as sustenance, and will give their strength to the entity that way. Deep inside what appears to be a giant flower, the monster whispers, “Do not fear. You will not feel death. Breathe in my sleep.” And lo and behold they do fall asleep.
Perchance to dream, as someone once wrote, and there is the rub indeed, because while Lewis’s dreams are of a cosmic orgy, with many naked women tending to his every sexual desire, Clark’s are of a different sort entirely. Clark’s dreams are nightmares, of Native Americans of every creed and tribe viciously cutting him to pieces, slowly, using the very knives the white colonists had given them. Here again is the theme we mentioned in our previous review of this comic, of the ever-present American sense of fear, and specifically a fear that those who had been oppressed and mistreated will one day rise up and “take back” what is rightfully theirs. Lewis sees the lovely, idyllic dream of America, a fantasy. Clark’s dreams reveal a man desperately afraid of certain chickens coming home to roost.
This theme is made doubly powerful by the inclusion of York, Clark’s African American slave, as a major figure here. York is not well known to history, as we have only the journals of Lewis and Clark to attest to his character during the expedition. (Years later, Clark did give him his freedom but only after a long struggle.) Folk memory of the Hidatsa people recalls that York was a particularly honoured guest among the Native Americans, being a strong, tall man who by his complexion and features was interesting and different from the white men, but who obviously lived in their world. Being, as he was, Clark’s slave and “servant”, he was never too far from his Master, and an exciting sequence early on in this issue features what must have been a very familiar sight: Lewis, Clark and York.
The three men begin this issue deep in the woods, facing zombified versions of all manner of forest animal, most frighteningly of all, a bear. Again, history resonates: the sorts of bears that the Corps of Discovery encountered were much larger and more powerful than anything the men had previously seen. Some apparently took a dozen rifle slugs to kill, no mean feat with manually-loaded 18th century weapons, particularly when a bear is charging right at you. As Lewis, Clark and York flee from the vegetable zombie bear (those may be the strangest combination of words I’ve ever typed), the rendering of the three men by Roberts and Gieni is signifiant. Lewis, astonished, brings up the rear. Clark, in the middle, almost angry at the challenges they face mutters “This is…”, to which Lewis adds, “Absurd?”. But York is a model of ferocity, charging ahead, all business. Something about that particular splash page, and that particular incident, crystallizes the character of what must have been the three men at the heart of the expedition.
York actually turns and tries to confront the Bear with fire from a torch, but ultimately he is knocked aside. Clark, the prototype of a “Western” hero, cocks his gun and says calmly to Lewis, “Greek fire. Now”. Lewis, having brought along a supply of incendiary tar, finally manages to set the bear ablaze but instead of dying, it runs off.
Meanwhile, one of the other men in the expedition is infected with the green, zombifying ooze, by an evil skunk. Another is also infected, although neither of these characters would have had their names recorded for the “official” history, as one was an unnamed convict, one of several brought with the Corps to face the dangerous monsters, and the other is a survivor of the La Charette colony. Lewis and Clark shoot these men dead without much ceremony, although Lewis corrects his official diary to say “quarantine” rather than “execution”.
Finally, the real hero of this issue is the mighty Shoshone Sacagawea, who bravely rescues Lewis and Clark from the “flower monster”. Clark immediately makes fun of Lewis’s Virginian formality when they are safe, mocking his “My name is Captain Meriwether…” introduction. Lewis simply spits, “Shut up” at him. There’s no historical record of any disagreement between Lewis and Clark, and the two always spoke very highly of each other. But I think Dingess strikes the right tone here. Clark must have gently the teased his more “dandified” partner from time to time.
This issue ends with a gorgeous splash page, where Lewis and Clark look west into the setting sun and Lewis asks Clark what he dreamed when they were prisoners of the plant monster, sleeping. Clark, turning away, responds, “Nothing… I’ve told you countless times, Lewis. I don’t dream.” But of course he does, and did, and the American nightmare of William Clark’s dreams is right at the heart of what makes Manifest Destiny such a powerful and evocative comic.