Manifest Destiny somehow always seems to keep one toe in historical reality, and one toe in the wildest fantastic metaphors of the all-American mind. But it has generally erred on the side of realism: even the giant frog monsters seemed real. This issue definitely moves the fantasy stakes up a notch, but since I’ve always read this book as highly metaphorical, I completely accept the slight escalation of the fantasy elements. Other readers might find the transition more jarring, or perhaps less, if they were looking for more of a fantasy story in the first place. Fair warning, however, is given. This is a very different issue of Manifest Destiny.
Pat Brosseau’s lettering deserves a special notice this time around. The issue begins with an excerpt from the journals of the earlier Missouri River exploration, in 1801. The date is enough of a clue for us history buffs to differentiate, but in case we don’t get it, the names of the crew are different and Brosseau manages to write the entries in an entirely different kind of early 19th century handwriting from what we are shown in Lewis’s journals. It’s a great example of how the medium of comics can be used artfully for storytelling purposes. Just a difference in handwriting speaks volumes.
It turns out that the earlier expedition was having some of the same problems as the Corps of Discovery. Even there, the Captain had resorted to execution and physical intimidation of his subordinates far too early (or too late) in the journey in a vain attempt to exert authority. Putting that much pressure on the men is always going to be interpreted as a sign of weakness. The hanging bodies from the 1801 expedition contrast with Lewis’s mano-a-mano with crewman Fricke (who looks more than a little like Dolph Lundgren), and the impression is that, if anything, Lewis’s actions are even more ill-advised than his predecessor.
The crew conflict, however, is quickly subdued in favour of the Corps of Discovery’s first substantial discovery. It’s a remarkable sequence that takes us through to the shocking ending of this issue. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it without ample warning, but i can remark that it plays as yet another metaphor for how Americans encountered different cultures and societies on the frontier. And it also highlights an aspect of Manifest Destiny that I don’t mention enough, namely its great sense of humour. It’s always had a very dark, witty sense of ironic humour, particularly in Mrs Boniface’s stares or in Sacagawea’s terse pronouncements (and both ladies get their licks in when Lewis is doing his boxing thing), but here we get a character straight out of a fantasy story who has so many great lines himself, and brings great lines out of other characters. The humour does wonders to balance off the tone of this book, and it’s frankly far too rare in the world of “serious” comics. Chris Dingess deserves a lot of credit for being able to strike that stylistic balance.
After 15 issues, we now have a fairly clear picture of the dynamic between Lewis and Clark. I’ve written before about how that dynamic is based in reality (Lewis was unstable and impulsive but scientifically literate, Clark was a solid, no-nonsense frontiersman) but exaggerated greatly. That could be a good way of thinking about the comic as a whole, with regards to its approach to history. Even in this issue, with the talking bird society, that’s only an exaggerated depiction of the real troubles Lewis and Clark encountered in their trip, particularly going up the Missouri on that first leg, where they had problems with the Teton Sioux. That particular tribe was more economically savvy than most, and essentially tried to solicit a tax from the Corps for travel up the river, and that tax was higher than the ability of the expedition to pay. (No matter how many trade goods they exchanged, the Sioux always wanted guns. More guns.) This almost led to bloodshed, but Clark managed to keep his calm and things passed without serious harm being done.
With other tribes they encountered, relations were more friendly. Communication was always an issue, and I’m sure more than once the expedition thought, either as individuals or collectively, that it was easier to communicate with the birds than the people they were meeting. And there is a great jumping-off point for a fertile imagination such as the one possessed by Chris Dingess.
That’s the great revelation here, that the little vicious toothed blue bird that Lewis has been keeping in a cage on the keelboat can actually talk. And the first thing he says is to express exasperation at the argument going on between Lewis and Clark. “For the love of Glorgogg! Gives it some rest!” he yells from below decks. And there begins a wonderful, hilariously written proto-Star Trek episode in which neither Kirk nor Spock (or Lewis and Clark for that matter) act particularly wisely. The fact that bird speaks english, for example, is noted, with the bird (whose name is Dawhog) responding, describing possibly the most remarkable example of convergent linguistic evolution ever proposed, “I do not speak ‘English’. You speak Ferzon.” (The men, by the way, are highly insulted at being called “English”, a very well-observed historical joke.)
“Dawhog” immediately says what Mrs Boniface and Sacagawea (possibly the two with the most direct knowledge of this landscape) always say, that Lewis and Clark are stupid for doing what they’re doing. He even suggests that Clark’s dog “Seaman” (shown licking his own package thoughtfully) is “brilliant” and should be their leader. “I’ve often thought that myself,” agrees Lewis.
But Dawhog isn’t all fun and games. He injured one of the men earlier, and cures him here with a yellow excretion, in a wonderfully grotesque scene. But things get into serious Ewok territory when the expedition lands and marches Dawhog back to his people, who are staging an elaborate ritual sacrifice of a person connected to the expedition.
The art in these passages, by Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni, is well up to their usual standards. One of the final panels shows multiple characters in that Munch “Scream” pose, which is very suitable to the horrific events they’re witnessing. And the face acting on Dawhog is brilliant, certainly as effective and expressive as any Muppet performance. Roberts gets extra mileage out of the bird’s eyes. Gieni’s colour scheme is also very effective, with the blue plumage contrasting well against the comic’s usual earth tones.
The sense of fun and humour is really what wins me over in this issue, and it gives the book a genre flexibility that an uber-serious “dark” book might lack. It’s one of the many things that continues to make Manifest Destiny a must-read title.