There’s a line in Oliver Stone’s criminally underrated film Nixon in which the titular character muses to a painting of Abraham Lincoln, “What is that’s helping us? Is it God? Or Death?” That must express something universal about the American experience, given that the phrase could apply to Nixon, Lincoln and in the latest issue of Manifest Destiny, to Lewis and Clark. In this issue, #9, the Corps of Discovery experience justice, failure, class criticism and gender relations all in the context of a book that has giant frogs and supernatural wasps. The Corps is literally mired in the swamps of middle America, making no progress, becoming socially stratified and fragmented, and the jungle (pardon me: forest) is exacting its own toll on the travellers up the Missouri River. We see more of York, Clark’s slave, than before, and Lewis is once again made to look like a fool, out of his depth, lacking the practical skills necessary for survival. It’s thick, resonant stuff that still has the focus on believable characters in supernatural situations. And this key image:
The reference to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, particularly the haunting final sequence in which the characters are forced to perform a dance for Death, is terribly powerful. Clark, and perhaps the very intelligent Sacagawea, are beginning to notice that death is their constant companion on this journey, and that death is both their only tool and perhaps their only comfort on this dark river. The true price of manifest destiny was an enormous, almost unforgivable amount of death. Here, writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts are showing us the absurdity and the poetry in that price.
This issue starts with Lewis’s fumbling attempts to kill the Ranidea, or giant man-eating underwater frog, the presence of which is preventing Clark and his landing part from re-joining the keelboat, making any progress up the river impossible. Lewis, with his usual confidence born out of an interest in science and a certain lack of practical experience, concocts a way to lure the creature out of the water, but is unable to actually fire a rifle slug into the animal. While the crew, including Clark, yelling from shore, tries to get Lewis to swallow his pride and get someone else to fire the rifle, Charbonneau, the rather useless husband of Sacagawea, makes rude comments about the young Captain. Clark rebukes him sternly, which demonstrates that, while the two Captains would argue with each other and criticize and allow for a free flow of ideas and discussion, the two were still very loyal to each other.
Sacagawea, for her part, is exploring the forest with York, Clark’s slave. We haven’t spent much time with York apart from his position as the “third man” on the classic Lewis and Clark team. Here, York is assigned to “protect” the Shoshone warrior, which is both sexist, funny and ironic considering that she is actually the one protecting all of them, and here we have the two non-caucasian members of the Corps spending serious time together. York’s status is of interest to Sacagawea, who questions him, asking him rhetorically, “But he owns you, no? You are his property. Like a horse?” York is forced to answer “Yes, but he’s not like that with me.” A common enough response, one suspects, of those slaves who had acquired enough privilege with their masters to adjust quasi-comfortably to the situation. (Clark and York had a complex relationship in historical fact. Many years later, York had to petition Clark repeatedly for the freedom he was promised, with Clark finally relenting, but complaining that he would be lost without his servant. Again, this story must have been common in pre-Emancipation America. And probably post as well.)
In any case, the shore party is busying itself collecting specimens as Lewis repeatedly fails to either hit his target or allow someone else to wield the rifle. The one piece of business from the previous issue that has to be addressed is Corporal Hardy’s attempted (or successful, however you want to look at it), rape of one of the women from La Charette. As we recall from the last issue, the rape was interrupted by a long proboscis from a giant insect, stabbing Hardy in the back. As it turns out, Hardy is not dead, but not entirely right. The couple is found in the woods and brought before Captain Clark, whose own group is being swarmed by the giant insects, their retreat from which is captured in the image above.
In The Seventh Seal there is the chilling line spoken over the image of the grotesque dancers, “The Lord Death bids them dance”. In this flight from death, surrounded by death, one is reminded that Lewis and Clark at this point aren’t going anywhere. They’re completely powerless, motionless and at the mercy of whatever natural elements are haunting them. They are literally dancing on the strings pulled by the forces of insidious death. There’s no nobility or adventure in what they’re doing at the moment in the story: they’re just trying to stay alive, to keep their heads metaphorically above water.
And it isn’t just the forces of nature that threaten to derail the Corps. Lewis and Clark, and some of the other more cultured men have also brought their values with them, which they intend to impose on the land just as much as any other aspect of their culture. This point is brought home in the climax of this particular issue, where Clark administers justice to Hardy for his rape of the woman in question. Abiding by the prejudices of his day, which, horribly, still persist to this day in some quarters, Clark begins by blaming the victim. He basically says, “You know these men are sex-deprived: you must have led him on! How dare you!” But then he notices the cut on her lip, the three parallel scratch marks on Hardy’s face, and he puts the whole picture together.
For a Virginian (or, for that matter, someone from Kentucky like Clark), honor was everything. And rape, in their moral universe, was simply devoid of honor. Their horror and disgust at a rapist had nothing to do with women’s rights and everything to do with what is done, and what isn’t. And to commit such a crime was the very height of dishonor, making the perpetrator something less than human in their eyes. And Clark’s eyes are indeed burning with rage when he realizes that Hardy has violently assaulted this woman. He proceeds to kick the man to the ground, and York quietly offers him his whip. Clark refuses it though. A whipping is a punishment for a man, not a rapist. “I’ll have to think of something else for this animal,” Clark says cooly. (The irony is, of course, that Clark treats York like an animal he owns every day, being his slave.)
In any case, Clark raises his gun to Hardy as he falls to the ground, revealing the place where the insect speared him, and in a gruesome sequence a new insect emerges from the now-dead man’s body. The proboscis clearly inserted some sort of egg into Hardy, completing the life cycle. Of course, this brings to mind Alien, but the natural world is actually full of examples of this kind of life cycle, particularly in the world of insects. Like all the great horrific images that linger in our memories long after we’ve seen them, this one is grotesque, organic, bloody and all-too-plausible.
If and when (I suspect when), Lewis and Clark get their party back together and get moving even further into the heart of the American darkness, it will be with an increased body count, shakier morals and a growing sense of dread. It all makes Manifest Destiny one of the truly un-missable comics titles right now.