With the latest issue of Manifest Destiny, the crew of the Corps of Discovery definitely close one chapter in their journey. For the past few issues, the expedition has been split, with the keelboat hung up on an underwater arch and threatened by a giant frog monster, stranding Clark and a substantial portion of the party on shore, helplessly watching Lewis and a skeleton crew on the boat itself. While on shore, the Clark party has been harassed by parasitic wasps that lay eggs in the human body and the various moral failings of the men themselves, including a horrific attempted rape. After that incident, Clark lost his composure, growing furious at Hardy, the man who had assaulted one of the women they had picked up in La Charette. Clark regained his composure not long after, seeing that there was a larger and more bizarre threat in the form of the insects.
Back on the boat, Lewis has been staying pleasant or even witty, sparring with the formidable Mrs Boniface and waging a quiet war on their various threats. Lewis developed an insecticide in the previous issue, for example, and has hatched many plans for freeing the boat from the arch, all of which have been frustrated. And Mrs Boniface has a different view of justice and morality than either of the Captains, demanding the death of Hardy for example, when Lewis, no less revolted at his crime, nevertheless acknowledges the need to preserve manpower.
This issue, #11, is a real turning point. The character of Meriwether Lewis is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Lewis and Clark story, full-stop. Lewis was obviously someone who suffered from depression, and possibly anxiety and bipolar disorder as well. This ran in his family, as everyone, including Thomas Jefferson, noted at the time. So far Chris Dingess hasn’t dealt explicitly with that aspect of Lewis, but in the slow-burn of his temper, his enforced geniality combined with a gnawing frustration over the past few issues, he touches on it here. When Lewis finally “loses it”, he becomes a startlingly violent person, almost pure Id, unlike Clark who allows his feelings to be known and they’re essentially moderate. The monsters the men have encountered so far pale in comparison to Captain Lewis’s inner monsters, and this is made abundantly clear in this issue.
The expedition is back underway by the end, but something important has been revealed about the character of Meriwether Lewis. Even if they are successful, going forward, things have changed.
[SPOILERS FOLLOW FROM HERE]
This issue begins with damage control and ends with simple damage. The two soldiers who had been exposed to the egg-laying wasps in the last issue are recovered, miraculously alive (I had written them off) but covered in growths and pustules. When Sgt. Welgloss puts “his brief medical training to use,” in the words of Lewis, he extracts an embryonic insect from each pustule. Even for a comic as deliberately grotesque as Manifest Destiny, this is pretty strong stuff, although Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni, as always, err on the side of the beautiful grotesque rather than a complete lack of taste.
Lewis, having resolved in the last issue to finally deal with the ranidea (the giant frog monster with tentacles for a tongue) is doing so in his characteristically Enlightenment fashion, drawing a careful diagram and making a plan. That plan, as illustrated, is to use bait to draw out the monster, at which time it can be speared with a harpoon. Problem solved. When Mrs Boniface asks what he plans to use as bait, the righteous anger in her has a suggestion.
Officially, Hardy, the rapist from issue #9 who survived having a wasp erupt from him and a savage beating at the hands of Clark, volunteers to be bait. But beneath their carefully considered Southern dignity, and the passive-aggressive language, it’s clear that Hardy is expected to cooperate and sacrifice. He’s next seen hanging over the river, with Clark using his most precise shooting to open up a bloody gash in his leg. As soon as a drop of blood hits the water, the ranidea is awake, and clamped onto his bleeding leg. Hardy of course calls out for help, under the stern watchful eye of the woman he assaulted. Help doesn’t arrive, exactly, just a harpoon to the monster, who clamps down and retreats, taking a part of Hardy’s left leg with it.
There’s little mourning for Hardy’s suffering, just a cauterizing procedure from Mrs Boniface, looking as if she has little interest in mitigating his pain. But Hardy is alive, and still part of the expedition.
It’s the fight with the ranidea that finally brings out the rage in Lewis. The monster isn’t killed by the initial blow, and unwilling to wait until it bleeds to death or drowns, Lewis is on it, following it to the bottom and back up again, his shirt off, his eyes wild, wielding both a knife and the harpoon, repeatedly stabbing the monster in the head. He keeps score as he pounds away wildly, delivering blows with tags like, “This one’s for Shaw!” and ending with “For President Jefferson! And for the goddamn Corps of Discovery, you cunting five-tongued son of a whore!”
Possibly even more disturbing is that after Lewis recovers from Hulking out, he isn’t a remorseful and spent Bruce Banner type. In fact, he’s chipper and chatty, making jokes with Clark as the entire crew is reunited aboard the now-free sailing keelboat. They’re both obviously glad to be back to normal but the lack of acknowledgement of Lewis’s insanity is chilling (Clark even smiles as he chats with his partner!).
Once again, the allusions this book makes to Conrad are profound. Lewis has tipped his darkest side, but it seems that in a way this is reassuring to Clark, whose dreams and memories of committing genocidal acts have already illuminated this aspect of his character for us. Lewis, on the other hand, with his forced cheerfulness and breezy confidence (in this portrayal) might have put a more straightforward person like Clark on edge. What secret demons would such a man be hiding? Now that he’s seen them out in the open, it has become a case of “the devil you know”.
And of course the metaphor for America itself still runs strong, about how even the most civilized aspects of a nation can be brought to murderous violence if provoked for long enough. I hesitate to draw a parallel here with the war on terror (although such parallels could be drawn). The better metaphor historically is still the Vietnam war, where a civilized nation was drawn into a conflict that exposed its barbarity and provoked a disproportionate and ultimately futile response. Dingess, Roberts and Gieni have once again shown us an example of entertaining and powerfully resonant comic storytelling.