The first few pages of the latest issue of Manifest Destiny have a great blend of the horrific and the absurd. The tension in the sequence is built around the fact that the men of the Corps of Discovery are fighting against a cute, chubby little blue bird with a yellow beak. But this isn’t any ordinary bird: its beak contains fangs, placing squarely in the “fantasy animal” realm. I was reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the brave Knights completely underestimate the power of a bunny rabbit. Their final defeat of the beast, by putting it in a bag and smacking the bag against a tree, is suitably ignoble for this arrogant, increasingly desperate group of adventurers.
Watch out! That Rabbit’s dynamite. (And we should also note the classical heroic 18th century pose, undercut slightly by a deadly blue bird.)
Whatever monster they’re fighting in this book, and they’re most assuredly now in the avian realm, the more interesting aspect is the characters’ attitudes towards the land, their journey and each other. In this issue, it was readily apparent that discipline and authority, and the whole social order that governs life on the Corps’ keelboat, is breaking down. Insubordination is on the rise, and more importantly, Lewis and Clark themselves (particularly Lewis) are coming unravelled more quickly than before. The random element of the women who are now part of the expedition, Mrs Boniface and Sacagawea, is also becoming an issue, as neither is much inclined to obey orders and think themselves, probably correctly, more competent and clear-minded than most people on that boat. (“You are all too stupid and weak…” Sacagawea moans, suffering from a fever but still seeing things clearly.)
For an issue that begins with a pitched battle against a cute but deadly bird, and has more than enough grotesquery and evokes enough malicious natural forces to remind us that Dingess and Roberts are big fans of Swamp Thing, the ending of this episode puts the focus squarely on the human element. The question of whether society on the keelboat (a clear metaphor for society in America) will survive the journey up the Missouri river intact has always been one of the strongest ideas motivating Manifest Destiny. This issue takes it one more mile up the river, to the “demons” that Sacagawea keeps warning the infighting and sick white men about.
[Spoilers from here]
One of the great metaphors at work in this comic is a meditation on how different people meet the unknown. Most of the men on the boat, and this comes to a head at the end of this issue, meet the unknown with fear, which translates in their masculine culture into bluster, followed by retreat. Mrs Boniface, who has seen first-hand what danger the wilderness can bring, preaches caution, as safety is her concern. Sacagawea faces the unknown with healthy respect for the forces at work. Her impulse, if she were in charge, would be simply to back away and leave things be. Lewis, on the other hand, is as portrayed here very much a man of the Enlightenment. And as such, he believes that the world, no matter how strange or dangerous, can be categorized, organized and understood to be part of a larger order.
Enlightenment thinking was all about order, especially in the natural sciences (which would later be called the modern science of Biology). Right through to the Victorian Era, and even today in some people’s imagination, Biology was about building butterfly collections, of knowing the Latin names for everything and being able to assign each living thing a category. Thomas Jefferson would have trained Meriwether Lewis in that sort of science very well.
Which is why, when the crew captures the deadly bird with venomous fangs, Lewis’s instinct is not to kill it and run away, or even to try to find its weak spot. Instead, he puts it in a cage in his own cabin and tries to find whatever food it likes. He doesn’t feel threatened by it, instead he writes in his journal, “[I].. am having trouble finding a classification for this creature. I fell into sleep unsatisfied.” Meanwhile the men, who had voted to kill the creature on shore, cast a very wary eye towards the cage. Lewis in fact worries that Sheets, the man standing watch for the night, will do the bird some harm.
What Lewis doesn’t realize, and what nobody has yet found out, is that Sheets is carried off in the night by a gigantic horrible giant bird creature that looks like something out of HR Giger, consisting mostly of feathers and bones. The taking of Sheets is something of the last straw for the crew, which seems to be seeing Lewis’s curiosity as reckless endangerment. The grumblings that have been around for a few issues finally come to a head when Sgt Pryor says what they’re all thinking, “This is a fool’s mission.” What’s interesting is not that Pryor would say that – everyone on the ship is thinking it, probably including Clark. The wild card is, as always, Lewis.
Manifest Destiny is as fascinated by Meriwether Lewis as any historian, and with good reason. He is one of the most interesting men in American history. Brilliant, scientific, but extremely emotionally unstable, he was on the face of it the last person Jefferson should have sent west in 1804. Which is why Clark, more disciplined and sensible, was brought along. Lewis the Scientist, as he portrays himself in his journals, is a sensible, curious man. “I am quite comfortable,” he writes with aristocratic detachment. Yet when his authority is questioned by Pryor, all this intellectual heft drops away in an instant and we see an insecure, arrogant man. Clark’s response to Pryor is to defuse him, simply explaining that now is not the time for the discussion. But Lewis goes way over the top and challenges Pryor to a fight, right there on the deck, to settle his authority once and for all. Lewis is so arrogant that he refuses to fight Pryor himself (“I’ve dropped stool tougher than you,” he boasts), and allows Pryor to name his champion. Pryor picks out Fricke, a monstrous crewmember with huge muscles and a blonde crew cut.
Clark, by the way, looks disgusted by the whole thing and with good reason. What Lewis is doing is profoundly stupid. A captain should never put his authority on the line, and what is this willowy playboy thinking, taking on hardened wilderness adventurers in a fistfight? The very last splash page shows the inevitable conclusion, with Lewis being knocked clean to the deck.
Lewis has shown something of his true colours in that outburst. He wants to react to the unknown like a good scientist: with curiosity and intellectual rigor. But he’s also a strutting aristocratic Virginia landowner, who extends his biological notions of order to society. Pryor, in his estimation, has stepped well out of line, but what Lewis doesn’t realize is that they’re all out of line, they’re operating way out there with no connection to society, and the rules of authority have to bend if they’re ever going to meet the growing challenges of the Missouri river.