Improbable as it may seem to some readers, who may be out off by the sharp turn towards fantasy taken in the previous issue of Manifest Destiny, this book is still thoroughly about America, and the birth of the American character. Beyond any avian cultures explored (otherwise known as Ferzon, and still otherwise known as “those weird blue talking birds”), there’s a key sequence in this new issue that puts the whole episode of the Ferzon in metaphorical perspective, making them an entirely logical addition to the Manifest Destiny universe. And besides that, the characters themselves reveal allusions to some deep-seated imagery from American popular culture and mythology, all of which adds to the artistic richness of an already rich comic book.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Ferzon language, don’t worry: you’re reading it right now. That was one of Chris Dingess’s great conceits in the last issue, in which the bird-man character of Dawhogg patiently explained to Lewis and Clark that, no, he doesn’t speak “English”, he speaks “Ferzon”, which as it turns out is exactly the same language by another name. It’s quite probably a nod to Star Trek or any number of science fiction and fantasy inventions writers have developed to get beyond the story point of learning a foreign language, to the more interesting challenge of learning a foreign culture. (It’s also a funny joke, sending up those who take the genre too seriously and demand untenable standards of “realism”.)
Aside from the identical language, the Ferzon “people” (we see a lot of them in this issue) are clearly metaphorical for any number of unknown and obscure tribes encountered by Lewis and Clark and their men on the journey west. The tribal leader, for example, wears a head-dress of feathers, which is odd when one considers that their species itself has feathers. (The head-dress also appears to contain fish-like elements and even decorative tentacles, subtly recalling any number of other species straight out of Lovecraft, a very apt image system for this kind of comic.) Otherwise their tribal rituals are a mishmash of tropes that we as readers associate with the Native American experience, different enough to be non-specific, but also similar enough to reinforce the message in terms we can immediately understand. When we first encounter them, and this picks up right where the previous issue left off, they are in the process of preparing the hapless Charbonneau as a sacrifice to the “Vameter”, a powerful flying beast that we have actually seen before from another perspective.
As conversation ensues between Lewis, Clark and the Ferzon, it becomes clear that the Ferzon way of dealing with unknown wild forces is to make a sacrifice to them, and they will be left in peace. That’s the way many human cultures have done business for thousands of years. (Including our own: what else is drinking the “blood” and eating the “body” from an altar on Sunday but some form of blood sacrifice ritual?) But it’s interestingly not the way of the United States, at least as portrayed in this comic, in this period of history. Lewis and Clark represent another and emphatically different response to the unknown. Catalogue and study (Lewis and Jefferson), or tame and control, by force if necessary (Clark) would be the order of the day. Implicit in both intertwining strategies is the notion that the world can be understood and brought to heel by the force of technology, rationalism and political organization. This is a quite different attitude towards nature and other cultures than the one displayed by the Ferzon, or indeed the other Native Americans they have encountered.
It’s just here that the plot becomes truly resonant, and it has everything to do with Sacagawea, still one of the most interesting characters in this book, or in any history of Lewis and Clark.
History is notoriously silent on the subject of the relationship between Sacagawea and her husband. We know that she was one of several wives of Charbonneau, and we know that she was married off to him (if that’s the term) when she was a very young teenager. Undoubtedly the historical figure had been treated as chattel her entire life, passed from her father to husband to other tribesmen, valuable only as a walking womb. That she comes through the pages of history as any kind of individual, let alone the strong, resourceful and very bright person contemporary depictions portray, is something of a miracle. Dingess and his collaborators on Manifest Destiny make Sacagawea into a fierce warrior, someone of whom much was expected, and who met, and exceeded, those expectations for her people and for the white Americans she met along the way. This is quite realistic and accurate in its spirit if not in its details, a comment that applies to some extent to this entire book.
But what of Charbonneau himself? We know how the captains felt about him (“A man of no particular merit,” wrote Clark), but how did Sacagawea feel about him? That question is important to understanding her challenges in this issue. As told here, she feels a disturbance, spiritually, when Charbonneau is in danger, and worries about him a great deal. She also is physically sick with a “fever” (one of God knows how many infectious diseases people fell prey to before the age of antibiotics and vaccines) and pregnant, so she isn’t having a wonderful time waiting on the keelboat to say the least. Her worry about her husband seems genuine enough, but as we follow her into her dreams and visions, the picture becomes clearer. Sacagawea was sent by her father, and her tribe (the Shoshone) to train as warrior explicitly because they knew, or sensed, that the white men were coming in force and they would soon be displaced from their ancestral homeland. Her father deliberately uses the word “Sacrifice” in reference to this mission. “I am brave, I will sacrifice,” she mutters from her fever dream. Her sacrifice in this comic is a bit more explicit than the sacrifices she made in real life – her body, her dignity, her sense of her own identity – but no less powerful. It’s her determination to sacrifice that makes her heroic.
Meanwhile, back at the Ferzon village, the topic is also sacrifice, to the Vameter. It’s interesting that the creators of this comic choose not to give Charbonneau any great speeches in defense of his life or his people. That’s not Charbonneau. His attitude is 100% focused on his own safety. His role in all of this seems entirely passive and symbolic. He doesn’t call out for his wife or anyone else, except possibly God, in his Catholic understanding of that concept. (He was French Canadian, after all.)
A further sacrificial metaphor comes from Lewis and Clark themselves who, upon learning that the Ferzon are sacrificing to what they perceive as simply a “big animal”, they almost dismissively presume that they can easily kill this animal and move on. As Stephen Ambrose once said, they felt invincible with their Kentucky long-rifles, a far better weapon than the French and the British were selling to most of the plains tribes. There was no animal that truly inspired fear in them (a later encounter with a Black Bear changed some minds). And in order to accomplish this slaughter, one of the men has to climb up into the great Arch and seek out the Vameter monster. The parallels with Sacagawea are fairly obvious: he’s being sent on a mission in lieu of his people, to face their biggest and most dangerous threat. He’s being told to be brave, and bravery is expected of him. It’s even more ironic that the man is chosen because he is small and can fit into the space provided: a young girl like Sacagawea would have been perfect for that mission, and no doubt would have volunteered to help the white men out with their “stupidity” as she saw it.
And the final parallel here is really Lewis and Clark themselves, and the entire Corps of Discovery. Particularly as presented here, and to some extent in historical reality, they were a “sacrifice” to the altar of American westward expansion. They risked their lives in order to characterize a land that would one day be occupied by people of a similar language, culture and set of values. All of the characters, from the Ferzon sacrifice right down to the young solider volunteering to climb inside the demonic arch, are just offerings to the Gods such that American can realize its fate and keep an appointment with a presumably great and wonderful future.
Another term for that is “manifest destiny”.