This isn’t the first time, nor, I suspect, will it be the last, when there is blood on the scales in Manifest Destiny. One of the things that makes this comic so fascinating is how it allows truly dark, violent, disturbing impulses to occasionally rise to the surface through these classic American hero characters. Lewis and Clark, in particular, have a witty repartee that summons the spirit of any number of glib American heroic types. Most of the time, they and the soldiers and civilians under their charge in the Corps of Discovery find creative solutions to their bizarre challenges and keep the tone fairly light, no matter how grotesque their surroundings. But in this, the 18th issue, as they have before, the creators remind us that these were violent men who lived in a violent time, and they didn’t share all of our modern values.
The issue at stake here is the Ferzon, although we can be forgiven for thinking that the focus is on the Corps members and their battle against the monstrous “Vameter”, recently crowned with the head of a deceased comrade. Certainly, the fight against the Vameter is as well-executed as anything we’ve yet seen in Manifest Destiny: an exciting action sequence with creative stunts that would be applauded in any film. It’s old-fashioned comic book stuff, and fun to read. But this issue doesn’t end there, and events take a turn that, while they seem horrifyingly arbitrary, are actually completely consistent with the historical reality of the characters. Which, of course, makes them even more chilling.
It would be wrong to spoil that ending for those who wish to read the issue, so from here on, we must issue a blanket SPOILER ALERT.
The problem in any modern discussion of Lewis and Clark is post-colonial guilt. We now can see, with our modern eyes, that the very notion of “manifest destiny” is morally problematic, especially with regards to indigenous people and cultures. Lewis, like Jefferson, regarded North America as open for the taking, with the small problem of a few scattered tribes littering the land. Jefferson was interested in Native American cultures to a degree, but the power relationship was, for him, never in doubt. Whoever Lewis and Clark met “out there”, they would be subject to the authority of the United States and the President. Certainly, relations between their appointed leaders and the US government could be polite and friendly, and respect could still be shown both ways. But the basic arrangement was always going to be one of negotiating from a presumed position of defeat. “They’re a proud people,” Sam Shepard’s character in Thunderheart says of the Native Americans, “But they’re a defeated people.” That’s certainly how the (mainly) white settlers saw the situation. The problem was that a few tribes didn’t quite see it that way. When that was the case, Jefferson and his pupil Lewis had a simple solution that they could very readily apply: just kill them all.
The Ferzon are probably the most extreme character yet presented to us in Manifest Destiny, a comic that has already shown us characters who really are Native Americans. But the Ferzon are an obvious metaphor for the people who occupied the land west of the Mississippi before 1800. (I had at one point suspected that the Ferzon were literally “aliens”, based on their historical pictography, but I suspect that just makes me the weird-haired guy from the History Channel documentaries.) When Lewis and Clark sit down to a celebratory meal with the little blue bird-bears after the defeat of the Vameter, the imagery is fairly on-the-nose. They’re feasting with the “natives” in a wild land, passing perhaps on some of the drink (not unlike South American explorers and the indigenous wines), but for the most part being cordial to their hosts. The Ferzon seemed at first blush smarter, or at least more aware, than the Corps of Discovery, playing the modern trope of the wisecracking Native American. (Such as Gary Farmer’s character from Dead Man.) While this would have been a well-worn path for writer Chris Dingess to take, instead he turns the story slightly on its head and gives us the rather unsettling realistic scenario, that not all Native Americans were wise sages shaking their heads at white settlers. Some of them actually believed what they were being told, took it at face value, and left themselves vulnerable. That trust carried with it a terrible cost, as we see in this issue.
The slaughter of the Ferzon is probably one of the most disturbing sequences I’ve recently seen in comics – equal to or better than anything in Nameless, a comic that specializes in being disturbing. The panels in which the newly-minted commissioned soldier Collins has to dispatch our first Ferzon friend, Dawhogg, is heartbreaking.
Imagine a movie scene involving massacring Muppets. It may be slightly amusing for about 30 seconds, but imagine it went on for two or three minutes, growing more and more violent. By the end, no one would be laughing. And no one, I suspect, is laughing at the end of this issue. Lewis and Clark have betrayed a trust and broken a promise, but it’s no more (and no less) than America itself really did. They were sent to clear the land, as Lewis puts it, and clear it they will. Even though we often choose to forget, violence and genoncide are a part of manifest destiny.