Things are getting “curiouser and curiouser” for the Corps of Discovery in Manifest Destiny #8. Aside from the usual thrills this comic provides, giant frogs, giant insects, scary jungle, etc, in this issue you can see the authority and the cohesiveness of the Corps starting to unravel. Clark, in particular, has to struggle to keep a firm hand on the proceedings at some points as the crew encounters one bizarre threat after another. They lose a crewmember in this issue to sheer stupidity, and Sacagawea is already counting the number of times she saved a white man’s life. (Three in this issue.) And running through it all is that ominous sense of dread, foreboding and a dark, violent fate that Lewis and Clark have somehow earned by virtue of exploiting the continent in every manner possible. If part of the American narrative is “the chickens coming home to roost”, you hear them clucking away with chilling certainty as this story unfolds.
The very first words from the “Captain’s Log”, which has become something of a framing narrative device for the story, set the tone: “19 June 1804: Never felt more helpless than I did this day”. When we had last seen Lewis and Clark and their crew, Lewis had fashioned some diving goggles to get a look at what had “hung up” their keelboat on the Missouri river, only to discover that there was a giant Arch underneath the waters, similar to the one they had encountered on the future site of St Louis. And also a giant frog monster. While Lewis frets poetically about how helpless he feels, on the keelboat with some of his expedition, including Clark, on shore, Clark sums it up more succinctly: “Shut up and run!” It’s too late for Private Browning, caught by a giant frog’s tongue and dragged into the river. Sacagewea saves Clark from the same monster on the very next page, cutting off a piece of the tongue that was wrapping itself around Clark’s leg, which Clark will present to Lewis for study.
But with a substantial portion of the Corps crew on shore, as Lewis writes, “We are stuck.” They can’t move forward because the boat is grounded on the underwater Arch. They can’t swim back to the boat because of the monsters in the water. And the jungle is no more inviting than the deadly river. Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s previously useless husband, finds a tow rope that allows a physical connection between ship and shore, which the crew uses to run supplies to the trapped shore party. Clark suggests that, since they will be trapped on shore for a while, they move further into the woods to set up camp. Sacagawea uses the unassailable logic that it is better to face the devil they know, on shore, than some mysterious unknown in the woods. In fact, in a long burst of dialogue, possibly Sacagawea’s longest speech so far, she explains that the reason the giant frog monster is going to ignore them is because there are no flies for it to eat on this part of the shore. Because, as she goes on to explain, the major flower in the area is not attractive to flies. When Clark asks why the flies don’t like them, she responds with a withering, “Ask your friend on the boat. He’s the smart one of you two, no?”
The “smart one” back on the boat is very pleased with himself for coming up with a name for the frog monster, “Ranidea”, which means “true frog”, but Clark bitterly casts the name aside when York asks him what it means. “I haven’t a clue,” the steely-eyed Clark says, “But it sounds appropriately fascinating.” After stewing for a few pages, Clark makes the decision to lead some men into the woods to collect specimens, and when one of them objects, based upon what Sacagawea said, Clark simply snarls at him, “Last I checked, you didn’t take orders from an Indian girl, Russell”.
We should pause here and note how wonderful Matthew Roberts’ art continues to be in this comic. In this issue in particular, although his work is uniformly excellent, I noticed more and more how his style is subtly imitating certain kinds of 18th century portraiture. In many of the more dramatic fighting scenes, his panels almost recall the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. This is a great touch for a comic that’s so thoroughly American, and needs to resonate as if it were a classic American tale, told in history books. His renderings of Sacagawea, on the other hand, make her into a formidable Shoshone version of Wonder Woman, but again in close ups of her face, Roberts’ careful brushstrokes also recall totem poles and other Native American symbols (albeit culturally confused: the plains tribes don’t make totem poles). In the scene where she shows Clark the flower that has been repelling insects, her expression is straight out of hip hop attitude, yet another quintessentially American cultural pose.
Thematically, though, the comic seems to be travelling in increasingly tightening circles, stripping away layer after layer of the American soldiers’ pride and self confidence. Deep in unknown now, their long-cherished values and manners are starting to break down. Clark’s expressions are more often than not glowering, and Lewis already has the quiet, desperate anxiety that, if they follow the historical path, ultimately led him to his tragic fate.
One small incident in this issue sums it up. The towline, having been established between keelboat and shore, could be strong enough to support a man’s weight. So, one of the crew, “Corporal Shaw”, attempts to “zip line” from the shore to the boat. In a wonderful three-panel rendering, Shaw attempts his transit, only to fall, of course, into the water and presumably be consumed by the Ranidea. Lewis notes in his log: “Corporal Shaw was a stupid man.” The fact that he corrects “stupid” to “brave” in the next panel is equally telling. In American myth, it’s always a fine line between those two states.
Lewis and Clark use Shaw’s death to clamp down on military discipline, yet another sign that the expedition is spiralling out of their control. This issue ends with a horrific attempted rape sequence, as one of the crew tries to assault one of the ladies from La Charette. The issue ends with the crewman being stabbed by a giant insect just as he is about to “stab” the lady. Justice, American style. The metaphors and the artistry of this superb comic roll on.