[Spoilers ahoy, Captain Clark.]
It’s wonderful to be back amongst the pulpy charms and historical poetry of Manifest Destiny after a break. For those who missed the first six issues, Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts recount the story of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, tasked by Thomas Jefferson to explore the interior of the United States in 1804. Except, in this alternate history, Jefferson also gave the Captains a secret task: to confront, explore and possibly defeat rumoured monsters that live deep in the unknown parts of the continent. In furtherance of this task, President Jefferson assigned Lewis and Clark some men of low reputation, prisoners and the like, who could easily become casualties should they encounter significant threat. They did indeed meet some pretty strange monsters, “vegetable zombies” would be a good term. The zombies had already overrun the town of LaCharette, and Lewis and Clark stopped there long enough to rescue the survivors and take on a fierce Shoshosne warrior named Sacagawea.
We pick up the story at this point in issue #7, as the big keelboat containing the expedition, the survivors and all their equipment crawls up the Missouri river towards what they hope will soon be the Pacific. Lewis, the idealistic but unstable gentleman who Jefferson picked as leader, notes in his diary that things on the boat, with all their new companions, are settling into a routine. Some of the LaCharette survivors busy themselves being useful to the crew as fishermen or cooks, or in the case of Madam Boniface, the colony doctor’s widow, as lab assistant to Lewis in his dissection and study of the animals they capture and collect.
The twist is, in the grotesque and wonderful world of this comic, the animals include a giant ladybug, killed and captured in the first big splash page by Sacagawea.
Lewis, by now used to seeing monstrous things all around him, retreats into his Enlightenment curiosity, flirting cheerfully with Boniface and expressing an excited eagerness to encounter more unknowns. His co-leader, Clark, is far more cautious and shaken by the strange creatures. Until now they have more or less kept the expedition on an even keel, no pun intended, with no serious challenge to their decisions or their authority. This is in keeping with the historical record, as in those days any challenge to leadership would be obliged to be met with a sharp and violent response. (One soldier got 50 lashes across his bare back for dozing while on watch one night. There were few violations of the rules after that.)
Boniface, however, is a new element. An intelligent and perceptive woman, as well as an attractive one, Lewis’s clumsy attempts at flirtation are easily dismissed as she discovers a big secret: they’re keeping two sets of journals. This conceit was introduced in the very first issue, with one journal for Congress and the other a private journal describing supernatural monsters for Jefferson himself. Lewis asks her, very upset, what she intends to do with this new knowledge. She responds, quite logically, that it’s too late to turn back now even if she wanted to, but that she doesn’t like the idea that Lewis and Clark have been lying to their men. She, in fact, can’t do anything other than keep the secret (or not), so she asks Lewis instead what he is going to do. This is a much more difficult command question.
Clark is horrified to find out that someone knows about the second journal, but blames his somewhat naive partner for allowing strangers on their boat. He even, his flinty frontier eyes glinting in Roberts’ characteristically superb artwork, suggests killing her to keep her quiet. Lewis isn’t prepared to go that far (he has a crush on her after all), and besides, as he says, “We’re not murderers!” Clark, a man who had worked with Native Americans quite a lot up until that point and would work with them for the rest of his life, responds with a cagey, “We’re not?” In the smoke of the lantern between them, we see an image of a Native American burning to death. Lewis responds that that was “a different mission”. But Clark’s look, and the power of the image, remind us that “clearing the west” was all the same mission. In pursuit of, quite literally, a manifest destiny.
This comic is, in a large way, about the guilt that comes from meditating on America’s original sins. It doesn’t focus on the usual original sin (slavery, still going strong in 1804) but on the whole cornucopia of American sins, including the destruction of the environment and the genocide of whole nations of Indigenous people. Clark represents the sort of American who accepted the necessity of these acts but was fully aware of their moral consequences. Lewis, as portrayed here, is less so and more of an enthusiastic amateur. The portrayals are exaggerated (both men were rugged frontiersmen by our standards and neither had many illusions about human nature) but true to the spirit of the characters. It certainly helps Dingess get more interesting character drama and conflict into the story.
Just as this issue of power and control over the expedition, as well as a reminder of past sins, is resolved (a skeptical Clark makes Lewis solely responsible for Boniface), the boat runs aground. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to the captains or the crew, as the water seems deep enough and doesn’t appear to have many obstructions. A team is dispatched to the shore to rig tow-lines as the ever-innovative Lewis strips down and dons a wonderfully “steampunk” set of early swimming goggles and dives into the river to inspect the underside of their craft. As it turns out, they’re stuck on an Arch, exactly like that which they encountered in St Louis, except underwater.
The expedition is just processing this information and getting themselves organized for towing when suddenly a hideous giant frog monster emerges from the river. We leave Lewis and Clark in this state, with Clark offering the one sound piece of advice, “Out of the water, now!”
Manifest Destiny still provides the right amount of social metaphor, pulp thrills (it’s a giant frog monster!) and historical nerdery to make it one of my favourite books. With a built-in story arc, this comic was probably as much fun to write as it is to read. Aside from broad outlines, such as the notion that they’re going up a river to the Pacific and will presumably someday get there, it’s impossible to guess where they’re headed and what they’ll encounter next, but I’m officially hooked.