It’s good to be back on the river with Manifest Destiny. After a fairly obvious break in the action in the previous issue, the boat is moving again and the men (and women) of the Corps of Discovery are once again on their way west. As this issue begins, it’s a time for taking stock and strategizing.
This issue actually begins with a flashback that’s a bit of bait-and-swtich, back to a previous expedition led by one “Captain L. Helm” from 1801. (Nice nod to Levon Helm there, guys.) Helm had passed La Charette himself years ago, and from the evidence presented, he encountered the sort of zombifying vegetables that played such an important role in the first few issues of this comic. Unlike Lewis and Clark’s Enlightenment optimism, however, Helm immediately confides to his journal that he has made a mistake in coming here and wonders what horrors await.
While Lewis and Clark, in 1804, deal with growing dissension in the ranks of their own crew, they also keep their mission in mind, and that mission is different in important ways from what history records. “We are to search out those… anomalies and remove any danger they may present to innocent civilians,” explains Lewis when he and his co-Captain propose a landing party. The men, remembering their encounters with giant frogs and wasps that lay eggs inside their bodies, are understandably reluctant. But a crew member spies an Arch in the distance, and Sacagawea is starting to have morning sickness.
One key difference between the crew as portrayed in this telling, and the historical record, is that here they carried along criminals and low-lifes, with the promise of their pardon and freedom upon return, to use as potential canon fodder in the conflicts that may arise on the trip west. Lewis and Clark could not have known (although Thomas Jefferson had his suspicions) just how horrid and powerful those forces would be. But it comes as no surprise that after a few encounters with the real dangers facing them out in the untamed west, some of the crew are anxious to be off, pardon or no pardon. (Running from the law is nothing compared to being eaten by a giant frog monster or turned into a vegetable zombie.) Lewis and Clark, especially the more hard-bitten and realistic Clark, simply suggest that any man who wishes to leave the ship may do so, and is just as welcome to “march through that wilderness inhabited by who knows what, armed with nothing but faith.” There were no takers.
In truth, Lewis and Clark did have some trouble with their men, but the standard army discipline of whipping across the bare back usually put them in line, and, notably, all the major disciplinary problems happened early in the trip. It only took a few examples, early on, to establish their authority. And once they had reached a certain distance down the river, where all they had was each other for survival, disciplinary problems became a thing of the past. There are echoes of that here, with Clark bringing up the familiar “The jungle is the prison” speech, but as Lewis writes in his journal, they expect more problems as time goes on.
And in this telling, as in history, it’s not all men. Putting Sacagawea aside for a moment, we have Mrs Boniface, the widow from La Charette, who is becoming friendly with Lewis, at least in his eyes. This version of Lewis, back in Washington, was such a Lothario that he even once seduced a woman at her husband’s funeral, but Lewis insists that his affection for Mrs Boniface is entirely chaste. It’s possible, but like Clark, I have my doubts. It seems that Lewis misses an educated person with whom he can discuss what he has seen, and Mrs Boniface provides a little splash of culture to their expedition of rough frontiersmen. She’s also the most realistic and cynical of the characters (aside from Sacagawea, interestingly). The relationship will be one to watch.
As for Sacagawea herself, her pregnancy is starting to become apparent, and she suffers morning sickness and other symptoms, although she tries her best to hide them. Her still rather useless husband Charbonneau acts as if he is either in ignorance of her condition or doesn’t care (either response is plausible from the character here). We have already seen that only she truly knows the dangers they face, and she has agreed to take them into the danger for obscure reasons. She remains the fiercest warrior on the crew.
In any case, Lewis, Clark, York and a few of the men go ashore to investigate the new arch, and Lewis is working on a theory that each arch is associated with a certain type of creature. The early, vine-based arch was surrounded by zombifying vegetation. The later, underwater arch, was associated with a giant frog and insects. This arch seems to be made of dung, or perhaps bird droppings (guano). After an attack of morning sickness, Clark takes Sacagawea back to the boat so Mrs Boniface can have a look at her, but Lewis and then continue on.
And then we get a monster that’s so…. “Manifest Destiny” it just made me chuckle. The bird creature is straight out of that lost Christmas Special “The Muppets Meet Lewis and Clark”, but it’s no less terrifying because of the resemblance. This is a giant, killer creature with blue feathers and a yellow beak, but its humorous appearance gives the men pause. They want to capture and study it, because surely it can mean no harm… which leads us into the logical splash page.
But let me put on my biologist hat for just a moment: dinosaurs are birds, as I’m sure everyone knows by now. And in the early evolution of mammals there really were huge birds like this that would terrorize and hunt small mammals in the post-Cretaceous environment. This book is partially a journey back through natural history, or at least an encounter with some natural forces that have a basis in fact. If a giant colourful bird seems threatening to you, that’s probably a very old response. And, like Carl Sagan once wrote, I suspect that’s why some of us get such satisfaction out of cracking a couple of birds’ eggs in the morning.
Manifest Destiny, written by Chris Dingess with art by Matthew Roberts, colours by Owen Gieni and letters by Pat Brosseau (who shines this week in his flashback journal entires), is a serious book with a great sense of humour. That’s probably one of the things I like most about it. Too many comics get far too serious, way too fast (East of West, I’m looking at you…). But this book knows how to get laughs out of irony, and historical incongruity. It’s still one of smartest comics out there.