As I’ve written, I’m not a fan of lists or of ranking art in general, although of course I do acknowledge that there’s bad stuff and good stuff, and some great stuff. But beyond those general categories (which are quite vague and flexible), it’s not in my nature to make a “top 5 list” or something like that. But, I’m happy to say that after my first full year of writing about comics on a regular basis, my pick for the comic discovery of this year has to be Manifest Destiny.
Written by Chris Dingess, Illustrated by Matthew Roberts an inked by Owen Geini (with lettering by Pat Brosseau), this comic has only released 12 issues, but it has captured my imagination like no other book this year. Manifest Destiny is part of a strong slate of Image titles, along with my other favourites, Sex Criminals and Rat Queens, as well as lots of others with which I’m not so familiar but admire, like Manhattan Projects and Southern Bastards. In a nutshell, it’s Lewis and Clark meet Swamp Thing in the early 19th century American West. The book follows the story of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River, in search of the Northwest Passage, from 1804-1806. The difference in this telling is that the west is populated by strange monstrous beings that seem to be a physical manifestation of the evil powers of the earth. Thomas Jefferson, President at the time, knows of them and assigns dilettante Meriwether Lewis to “clear the land” in anticipation of white colonization. Lewis recruits his sterner, older friend William Clark and off they go, carrying two crews, official and unofficial, and keeping two journals (one also unofficial, the conceit being that’s the one this book is based on). Along the way they meet Sacagawea, a fierce Shoshone warrior in this telling, and do their best to understand and grapple with the challenges they face.
This story of Lewis and Clark has fascinated me for a long time. I came west myself, from the maritimes to BC, and being the romantic I am, I did it by train the first time, seeing the whole continent by land. I was going through Canada, of course, and not the US, but the experience felt similar. When I discovered Lewis and Clark formally (of course, they don’t really get mentioned in our public school history courses, and I never took College history, having spent those years wearing a white lab coat and immersed in biochemistry and microbiology), it was through Ken Burn’s superb PBS film, simply titled Lewis and Clark. At almost four hours, it is based largely on Stephen Ambrose’s then-recent book Undaunted Courage and has extensive interviews with Ambrose, historian Dayton Duncan and several other notable Lewis and Clark scholars, mixed with beautiful new footage of their route and the usual Ken Burns effect on paintings, in this pre-photography period. It’s mesmerizing, and compelling, right up until the very end, when Dr. Duncan even tears up, relating the sad, lonely fate of Lews. I was moved at the time to write a song (titled “Meriwether”) and identified strongly with the core story of this man who was extremely intelligent, strong, athletic, but also very sensitive and emotional and pretty clearly suffered from depression and low self-esteem, long before there were names for such things. But the fact that his name is known in history and his achievements, along with the no-less-admirable Clark, will stand the test of time.
I remember standing next to the statue of William Clark that stands on the coast in Long Beach, Washington, looking out onto the Pacific Ocean, just a few years ago. That was an amazing experience, and the first time my personal path had crossed directly with Lewis and Clark’s. (I also, being the history fool I am, pointed out that the plaque on the statue incorrectly lists him as “Captain”. His official rank was Lieutenant.)
I also spent a long time studying the grotesque and the carnivalesque in literature and cinema and art for my film degree, so that aspect of this comic also appeals to me a great deal. Double jeopardy, as it were. I was predisposed to liking this book. But I think there is a great argument to be made as to why it is one of the more insightful, and even subversive, comics currently in print.
Any of many many reviews of this title (I’ve reviewed every issue from the beginning) will come back to the metaphorical themes Manifest Destiny brings to light. Very briefly, this superficially silly comic about Lewis and Clark fighting zombie vegetables and giant frogs actually contains within it many incisive points about:
- Colonial and post-colonial culture
- The place of violence in American history
- A critique of the European attitude towards ecology and ethnography
- Reflections on the biological and cultural mismatch between human and land that occurs with colonization
- The role of secrets in American government and military power
- Slavery and the complex relationship between slaves and owners in pre-Civil war America
- And obviously, a long meditation on the role of “manifest destiny” in American cultural history
And it does all of that within the context of a narrative of adventure and excitement and genre thrills – the book is an homage to Swamp Thing among other works and it functions perfectly well on that level. But as someone who’s trained to look for literary or historical patterns, I just can’t look away from the historical connections to the Vietnam war or Conrad’s thoughts on the evil in the human soul (this is basically Heart of Darkness in America).
The credit for this richness is obviously shared amongst the whole team, with Roberts’ beautiful, 18th-century meets modern comics style, evoking a wicked and knowing satire of Classics Illustrated, Owen Gieni’s gorgeous colour schemes, with a keen eye for the richness of the natural landscape and Brosseau’s lettering, especially in the journal sections, only adds to the classy elegance. Perhaps that’s a good summary of the style: it’s an elegant and dignified book about frog monsters and giant insects, and doesn’t shy away from the dark side, showing characters acting sometimes with honour, sometimes without. Sometimes with intelligence, sometimes with stupidity. And all the while just trying to get a few miles up the river.
As a metaphor for life, you could do worse. But as a comic, you can rarely do better. Expect more writing from me in 2015 on Manifest Destiny, the best book I read in 2014.