This is a pivotal issue of Manifest Destiny, in which Chris Dingess and Matt Roberts are clearly changing gears, in anticipation of a new and more intense chapter of the Lewis and Clark journey. Of the many interesting and important developments in this issue, probably the top of the list is that the question is finally asked, “Why are you here?” The fact that it’s asked by a Native American makes it all the more resonant. Why indeed. This is the key question of “manifest destiny”. Or, to put it another way, the only honest answer to that question is the title of the comic. And, of course, Lewis and Clark can’t give that answer, to that person, so they equivocate. They speak in high-minded phrases or not at all. Either way, they say nothing.
These are all potent issues that add to the rich sociopolitical stew of Manifest Destiny, but the additional twist of this book is that Lewis has an answer to the question, but can’t share it. We, as readers, have known since the first pages of the first issue that Lewis was sent by President Jefferson to investigate monsters and other “demons” west of the Mississippi. In this issue, we get a lot more information on the details of this mission and Jefferson’s relationship to it. In addition, we get some information from the Native American side about the monstrous goings on in the wilderness, and deeply interesting metaphors about how cultures respond to mystery and threat.
Manifest Destiny is probably the best comic I read in 2014, and this latest issue only strengthens that conviction.
We left the expedition last time as they were finally free from the giant frog monster (the Ranidea) and the underwater arch and progressing up the Missouri river as planned. Lewis records July 4th 1804 (independence day) as a time that was “quietly celebrated” with “no arms discharged”. Here, and increasingly as the book goes on, there is divergence with the historical record. Lewis and Clark, in fact, celebrated that date with an extra ration of whiskey and much firing of rifles. But that matters less and less, now, as Dingess and Roberts are, like our heroes, operating out on their own now.
The characterizations are certainly still entirely consistent with reality even if the events aren’t. There’s a telling panel on the first page in which Clark is presented with a compass by York, which he found. The interaction between Clark and York is the key to the little scene, with York asking if he can have the compass back and Clark dismissing him out of hand with a “no”. York was Clark’s slave, remember (although Clark used the term “servant”). Even the most benevolent of slave owners reminded their charge of the true balance of power in many overt and subtle ways.
With its usual penchant for understatement, the journal mentions a “run-in” with a creature a couple of weeks later, but otherwise reports that the days are passing “without incident”. The “run-in” is vividly illustrated by a full splash-page of the men attacking a giant minotaur-like creature. The size and power of the monsters they’re facing are increasing, but the men’s emotional scar tissue is also building up. What was once a notable incident, the centre of a month’s activity, is now commonplace.
The central part of this particular issue is the meeting with the Otoe Indians. Sacagawea, biting and sarcastic as always, is pressed into service as a translator, after she makes it clear that she is not of this tribe but does understand their language. Linguistic arrogance was common with white settlers and frontiersmen in those days, mixed with a healthy dose of racism. It’s the equivalent of saying, “You’re white, so you must speak high German and Russian fluently!” Lewis and Clark are not so blind as to miss Sacagawea’s problematic attitude and take it into account when listening to her often honey-coated translations.
The ceremony described in the comic, involving speeches and the exchange of gifts, most notably Jefferson’s “Peace Medal”, is close to historical reality. The major difference between this narrative and history is that the expedition met several tribes, including a major encounter early on with the Teton Sioux. But the general pattern was the same. Lewis would announce that their land was now the property of the United States, that Thomas Jefferson was their Great Father and that he is known to the Great Father as “Beloved Man”. In fact, several tribes later sent their own expeditions down the river to Washington to have a summit with Jefferson, who was glad to hear tales of his “Beloved Man”.
But this isn’t history: it’s wonderful historical fiction, and here the Otoe tell a story of venturing too far into the area Lewis and Clark propose to explore, encountering what they describe as a “Small God”: a hideous part-Lion part-Spider creature, and they retreated, never to return. This is Native American wisdom and philosophy: “it’s dangerous there, we have everything we need here, let’s leave well enough alone.” As opposed to European philosophy, which viewed nature as a challenge to be bested, rather than limits set by a greater power that should be respected.
The Otoe Chief, through Sacagawea, puts it very bluntly, “He wants to know why you are looking for something so deadly. He says that you do not look that stupid to him.” This brings up, finally, the ultimate question of why. A long flashback to Lewis in Washington, showing his rather decadent life back home, provides part of the answer. Lewis, in bed with women and men and thoroughly enjoying himself, is called by a gruff Thomas Jefferson to the oval office. Jefferson shows him the skull of a horned cyclops and essentially says, “Someone needs to clear the west of all these monsters before white settlers move in.” Lewis demurs: he’d rather go back to cavorting with beautiful naked women. It takes a direct threat from Jefferson to convince him to go. Lewis reluctantly accepts, recruiting a drunken and directionless Clark to join him.
Of all the sequences of this comic, that’s the least historically accurate in just about every way. But the spirit of it, like the rest of this book, rings absolutely true. Jefferson was basically saying “clear the land for settlement” as a long term goal, although he spoke in terms of coming to agreements with the various tribes and eventually folding them into mainstream American democracy. (Jefferson had high regard for Native Americans. A lot higher than he had for African Americans, that’s for sure.)
In fact, what Jefferson in this comic is articulating IS Manifest Destiny. And when Sacagawea tells the Otoe Chief that these idiots are going into the mouth of hell, and she’s going with them, they let them pass. They are letting the white people march towards their destiny, which at this point seems like it’s going to be death. I, for one, can’t wait to find out what lies ahead, around the next bend of the river.