In the afterward for issue #10 if Manifest Destiny, Chris Dingess writes that the men on the boat are becoming a genuine threat to the monsters they encounter, rather than the other way around. That’s precisely it – the balance is tipping, in terms of violence and power. Lewis and Clark have been stuck on the Missouri for quite a while at this point, immobilized by a giant frog underwater who seems to feed on humans. (If you’re late to Manifest Destiny, start with the first review here. And trust me, that plot description makes perfect sense.)
Like much else about this superb comic book, this phenomenon can be interpreted in terms of a commentary on the American colonial experience, in miniature. Ironically I was just reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Mayflower, and the history has an ironic symmetry. Like Lewis and Clark, when the Pilgrims first arrived in North America, they were the weak ones, hungry, tired, wet and at a distinct disadvantage in terms of knowledge of the land. Relations with Native Americans were very important precisely because every single white person in North America could have been slaughtered, easily, at that point if things hadn’t gone differently. But soon, within a couple of centuries certainly, the balance had tipped and now the settlers were the ones who were able to threaten the indigenous population, which many of them regarded as monstrous.
As readers, we’re unlikely to feel much pity when the party finally dispatches the giant frog monster (because… it’s a bloody big giant frog monster), but this book has always done daring and fascinating things with audience sympathy. Lewis and Clark aren’t so much heroic here as arrogant and determined, but the question lingering around the edges of this comic is always, “What gives them the right to this land?” Their “manifest destiny” does, to coin a phrase. The fact that the comic has room for such subtle and fascinating indictments of American colonial culture, and even the fact of America’s existence, and still is about giant wasps and frog monsters is what continues to make it one of my favourite reads.
We left the crew last issue dealing the aftermath of a rape committed by one of the men, who subsequently had a giant wasp explode from his chest, Alien-style. The wasps become the center of the expedition’s collective attention quite quickly, as they discover that the woman in question has also been “infected”, and although she does have a wasp emerge from her chest, she survives and thanks to Clark’s quick thinking, the newly “born” wasp is saved. Sacagawea objects (this is the classic pattern of white people walking toward the danger rather than killing the monster and running), but Clark explains the thinking of the industrial killer: by saving one, they can devise a plan to kill them all. It’s a small moment, but a signifiant one that demonstrates the difference between the Native American and colonial mindset.
Back on the keelboat, Lewis does indeed synthesize a supply of “insecticide” from a blue flower, tests it, and sends it back to shore where the men put it to good use. Chemical warfare and science: that’s the tool the Corps of Discovery can use to the greatest effect here. And in fact, once Lewis figures out how to poison all the wasps on the shore, his thoughts turn to the frog monster under the boat. Set against telling passages from his journal, such as “I need to find an enhanced solution to the Ranidea,” Lewis orders the men to set up the canon. Dingess and Roberts, the creators, show their usual masterful sense of artistic withholding, not showing us a clear view of the canon, only Lewis’s eyes peering down its barrel. Because that’s how American was really conquered: down the barrel of a powerful modern weapon.
It almost goes without saying that this issue, along with all the others, get my highest recommendation. But too often I neglect to mention the truly lovely pencil work of Matthew Roberts, working with the lovely, very artful colorist Owen Gieni, and they really shine in this issue. Their use of vibrant, evocative color and elegant lines makes for just the right combination of historical portraiture and pulp comics. And as often as not, Roberts and Gieni create images that are as beautiful as they are horrible, such as their artful splash page in this issue of an innocent woman with a wasp writhing from her chest. It’s grotesque in the most flattering sense of that world, evoking the work of the great comics artists like Kevin O’Neill, or simply the great grotesque art of Bruegel. Add it to the pile of reasons to admire this haunting, continuing adventure.