The latest, and darkest, collection of Manifest Destiny appears in stores this week, gathering issues #13-18 in a gruesome, intense and compelling TPB.
Although it may be obvious to anyone who reads this comic, it bears repeating that Manifest Destiny is metaphorical, not literal. The very first issue featured supernatural forces that seemed to represent nature itself challenging Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery as they made their way down the Missouri river in order to reach the Pacific. It’s not a giant stretch, at least symbolically, to go from the very real natural challenges the men faced in the historical record to giving consciousness to vines, flowers and other angry plants. In fact, that may be precisely how some of the men who made the journey saw the world that was spread out before them on the newly American continent. But in issue 13, which leads off this new TPB, things took a step up, or sideways, or down, depending on the readers’ perspective. The second major challenge that faced the true Corps of Discovery was the Native Americans, and while they haven’t exactly been absent from the fantasy world of Lewis and Clark here in Manifest Destiny, they also aren’t portrayed as prominently as they really were.
Historically, the Corps faced the Teton Sioux early on in their journey, and found refuge with the Mandan at the halfway point, and later still made important alliances with the Shoshone and finally the Nez Perce in Oregon near their journey’s final destination. In all these cases (and more besides), Lewis and Clark had very clear instructions from President Thomas Jefferson, which amounted to: be friendly where possible, firm where necessary and don’t be afraid to show force. They came to make alliances but also to impress upon these people whose ancestors had occupied the land for millennia that the Americans, rather than the French fur traders or the British or the Spanish, were now in charge, and that more white people would be following in their footsteps. There was a cordiality (even, in the case of the Mandan, a real friendship), but always the sense that there was a new order to the world and the native people would be well advised not to forget it. Jefferson’s letters to the tribes began with “My Children…”, which sort of sums it all up.
In Manifest Destiny, writer Chris Dingess and principal artist Matthew Roberts (along with their entire talented creative team) take an almost literal approach to their fantasy when dealing with this issue, and in doing so, challenge their readership to accept story elements that would otherwise seem a bit too “big” for a quasi-realist fantasy such as this. We’re referring, of course, to the appearance of the Ferzon, the little blue bird-bears who have intelligence, culture and ferocity in equal measure. Looking more than a little like Muppets, the Ferzon are at first represented by Dawhogg, who is captured by the Corps and eventually leads the men to his tribe. There, at the Ferzon village, the Corps is forced into playing a Seven Samurai-type role, protecting the villagers from an imminent threat known as the “Vameter”, itself a winged batlike beast who, no coincidentally, lives in a supposedly natural formation bearing a striking resemblance to the Gateway Arch of St. Louis.
The Ferzon are tricky characters to depict. They could easily have become silly, with their big eyes and bright blue fur-feathers. In lesser hands they could have been the series’ Ewoks. The key to understanding their power in this comic is simply to read the entire arc, from beginning to end, which makes this third TPB a wonderful gift to the series’ longtime fans. Because seeing how the men react to these characters, how their relationship with them grows, and finally the horrifying end to their first real interaction with a “Native American” tribe, is as potent and powerful as anything the series has yet attempted. Readers would do well to hang in there for the grand finale, which gives the entire episode a retrospective metaphorical resonance.
Earlier on in the series, we were treated to some fleeting images suggesting that Clark, in particular, had a dark past with Native Americans. For moral men, the act of committing genocide surely was not something that was tossed off lightly, even with all their bias, their racial suppositions and sense of cultural superiority. The more sensitive and emotional Lewis seems to have internalized the contradictions of his acts and used them to feed his growing psychosis, but Clark appears to have been hardened by carrying out the orders of his President towards Indigenous people, and has become cynical and slightly cruel. Numerous times, even in this arc, we see Lewis acting impulsively out of some desperate need for self-assertion and perhaps even redemption, while Clark pulls him back or finds a straight line through the problems they face. It wasn’t that either man was cowardly: quite the contrary. But their willingness to act, to do what needed to be done, was sometimes different. By the end of this arc, they are in complete agreement and order the men to act as one, with devastating results.
Lewis continues to be possibly the most compelling single character in Manifest Destiny, picking a fight with the strongest man on the boat just to prove his authority, trying clumsily to establish a romance with the only available woman on board, Mrs Boniface (whose name is a bit on-the-nose) and generally being unwise and naive. Lewis draws strength from Clark: he needed the steady, older man in order to run this expedition and bring it home safely. At one point he brags to the Ferzon, “MY partner is Captain William Clark,” a name he appears to hold in the highest regard. It’s Lewis who does most of the talking with the Ferzon, and most of the negotiating, and Clark who asks the tough, urgent questions, with little time for flattery. But the expedition never would have happened without Meriwether Lewis’s curious mind and Enlightenment values. In Clark’s hands, it would have been a military exercise. It was the combination of both of these potent personalities that allowed the historical Lewis and Clark to go achieve all that they did, including bringing just about every member of the Corps home, safe and sound.
Other fascinating story elements in this arc include Sacagawea, struggling with not only pregnancy but a life-threatening fever, through which she recounts times when, as a child, she had to find her courage. We also get to know Collins, one of the junior members of the Corps, and get some insight into the life of a forgotten and marginalized soldier of the day. But the main plot is the Ferzon and the Corps vs the Vameter, which itself draws heavily from The Thing for its visual sensibility, invoking that earlier text about men facing extreme circumstances beyond their imagination. It may be set in 1804, and feature historical characters, but Manifest Destiny is, in addition to everything else, a science fiction story, with all the commitment to imagination and metaphor that the genre implies.
More than the previous two collections, this third TPB of Manifest Destiny tells a single cogent story from beginning to end, and within in is contained all the power and adventure that continue to make this one of the most compelling and original American comics available today.