Manifest Destiny has great moments when it combines the absurd with the profound, or the fantastic with genuinely powerful character moments. And both are to be found in its most recent issue, #17. What could have been a straightforward “monster fight” issue is drawn out by the creators into an interesting character study, once again presenting two stories (or perhaps three) in parallel that illustrate the bravery and sacrifice of everyone associated with the Corps of Discovery, from Lewis and Clark themselves right down to the lowly Private “Cullins” (or “Collins”, as he would no doubt correct us). This is a logical but still interesting dramatic choice on the part of writer Chris Dingess, illustrator Matthew Roberts and the rest of the creative team, including some particularly excellent work in this issue by colorist Owen Gieni. And for the monster fans, worry not: there’s plenty of strange grotesqueness to keep the Swamp Thing contingent happy.
The Arch, today one of the landmarks of St. Louis, has been something of a constant symbol throughout the series to date, and in this particular issue we get a glimpse inside this iconic structure. But it’s worth meditating for a moment on what that arch represents, particularly as it is presented through the world of Lewis and Clark. In the wild, untamed west, ruled by the vagaries of nature and weather and all manner of forces either malevolent or simply uninteresting to the Americans of the early 19th century, the Arch represents the will of humanity to impose order on the landscape. It’s a manifestly artificial structure, expressing, among other things, victory over nature. Like the Arch of Triumph in Paris or any number of other ancient monuments, it’s a clear symbol that expresses the sense of mastery over the fickle forces of the natural world by the human intellect. The real arch is something of a modernist piece of art, reflecting the forward-looking spirit of the early 1960s, when it was built. The Manifest Destiny team have shown, since the very first issue, that in this world it does indeed express dominance, but not the dominance of humanity over nature. In this world, there are intelligent forces with purpose that have nothing whatsoever to do with the human species, and they, too, use the arch as a symbol and a warning for those passing west that this is a tamed land.
This version of the arch, as presented in the previous issue and continued through this one, is the home of the “Vameter”, a monster that has a habit of swooping in from the air and picking off an unsuspecting animal (sentient or otherwise), which it then takes back to its lair. We saw that happen a few issues ago to Corporal Sheets, the soldier on duty on the keelboat at the time, and we got another perspective on it from the Ferzon (or “chubby birdbears” as Lewis calls them), who at least have the good sense to be afraid. Even as Collins climbs through the arch with his feathered companion, Lewis and Clark are more worried and frustrated than truly afraid of what might be found inside. It’s another running theme in Manifest Destiny that the white men lack a basic fear and respect for the land through which they’re passing. They don’t seem to be able to contemplate that they might not have the upper hand. After all, they have guns. Yes, Lewis, and to a lesser extent Clark, are concerned when Collins and the Ferzon don’t emerge from the arch fast enough, but that’s quite different from accepting that there’s a real monster in there, one capable of killing any one of them at will. By the end of this issue, they’ve been given a lesson in who holds the proverbial cards in the great struggle of man vs nature, but it remains to be seen if they’re going to heed that lesson and learn anything from it.
This issue, like others before it, do spend a great deal of time establishing that, while Lewis and Clark might see themselves as iron men, invulnerable to the dangers of giant flying bats, other characters have a healthy sense of fear and respect. Collins is one of them, and so is Sacagawea, still deep in her fever dreams and being cared for by Mrs Boniface back on the keelboat. Showing us much of Collins’ backstory, how society took everything from him, even his own name, is a great way to illustrate that late 18th century America wasn’t that much fun for anyone of a lower social class. An orphan, and a dishonoured soldier, Collins reminds Clark of Lewis himself. He isn’t particularly special, or particularly intelligent, but Clark has a wonderful moment in which he explains that Collins is “Just smart and strong enough to scrape by,” something that reminds him of his impulsive and naive co-Captain. Collins, unlike Lewis, has had to learn how to be brave the hard way, through abuse. Lewis, on the other hand, learned to be brave by being foolish, taking unnecessary risks and putting himself in harm’s way. Clark clearly has more respect for Collins’ mettle than Lewis, and this small scene speaks to the developing relationship between these two titans of American history.
And finally there’s Sacagawea, whose visions and dreams have been presenting her history to us for the past few issues. Given to a warrior to learn bravery and strength, she endured being forced to carry a heavy spear, drowned and humiliated as a child, but finally learned to step up and rose to the occasion. As she fights for her life with whatever disease plagues her (there were so many back then), we get a clear picture of how this willowy young girl became the formidable warrior woman we’ve seen all through Manifest Destiny. She has found her strength before: she finds it here again.
By the end of this issue, the Corps has a new monster to fight, new casualties to mourn and is still stuck going upriver to meet their ultimate fate. Lewis and Clark parade around like Princes, but they still haven’t learned the most important lesson. The river will only let them go so far, and so fast. If it is their “manifest destiny” to conquer this land, the land isn’t going to give up so easily. How many monsters will it take to teach them that lesson? Given how much joy the creators of this comic seem to take in creating one horrific, almost Lovecraftian vision after another (this issue adds The Thing to a long list of references), it will take a few more hideous episodes.