When undertaking a task as dangerous as the exploration of unknown lands, teamwork is an absolute necessity. Other writers (such as Stephen Ambrose) have noted that it was this capacity for group unity, strong leadership and an ability to rally troops around a common cause that was largely responsible for the success of the Corps of Discovery. After all, no one takes a keelboat from St. Louis to Astoria, Oregon and back while losing only one crewmember (to a disease unrelated to the journey) by accident. All through the run of Manifest Destiny, writer Chris Dingess has hinted at an earlier, failed expedition that went ahead of Lewis and Clark, recounted through the journal of “Captain Helm”. Here in issue #19, as a new story arc begins, the creators give us a direct comparison between the two expeditions and contemplate why Lewis and Clark succeeded where others failed.
Ironically, the failure of the 1801 expedition is ascribed to poor leadership and a lack of group unity rather than to being eaten by monsters (although the monsters certainly do take their portion). As the group settles down for the winter in November of 1801, the food is running low and they are facing a long, slow starvation. This occurred commonly on contemporary expeditions to the arctic and would occur again in such infamous incidents as the Donner Party. With little knowledge of how to live off an unknown land and no measure of preparation for the coming season (unlike the Native American tribes, who would have stocked up long before the snow began to fall), these explorers faced the bitterly ironic fate of starving to death in houses built to the latest modern specifications, surrounded by all the trappings of western civilization. Cannibalism was known to occur, although few who participated in such activity ever openly admitted it if they happened to survive. Therefore, the Helm journal of 1801 tells a sadly familiar story, hitting all the major beats on the path to oblivion, lost even to the history books. And all because of infighting between members of the crew and poor decision making on the part of the leaders.
It becomes clear as the story unfolds that Helm is, in fact, either going slowly insane, or being drawn into the dark heart of the natural powers that prevail on the landscape. (Perhaps both.) He hears voices, and has visions, but still he sees the situation with a clarity lost on other expedition members. The nominal leader of this expedition is Major Flewelling, but Captain Helm appears more sensible and sober-minded, carefully seeing to the food rationing and gently moving the men to start gathering what they could in terms of berries and other edibles from the wilderness. Flewelling, as we see in a montage of earlier challenges with the usual colourful cast of monsters such as man-eating grass and some sort of improbable alien-like beasts, is quick to order surrender, and allows the men to fall into fear. They abandon their (rather large) boat and make camp without adequate preparation. Helm sees the mistakes but respects the chain of command.
That rigid chain of command is something that Lewis and Clark handled with much more delicacy. While the Flewelling/Helm expedition is replete with barked orders and violent stifling of dissent, Lewis and Clark, right from the start, agreed to be complete equals as commanders and often sought the opinions of Corps members, leading them to ultimately take a vote when they reached the Pacific about where to spend the winter. The notion of a military unit taking a democratic vote on any decision is rather remarkable, especially for then, but Lewis and Clark were smart enough to see that they were in a unique and dangerous situation and the key to survival was to convince each member of the team that their survival was linked to the survival of all the others. Only by working willingly together in a spirit of camaraderie and not just being meekly subservient out of fear would they make it. The strategy worked in history, and it works in Manifest Destiny as well, as is evident when we are shown how the 1804 party succeeded where the earlier one had failed.
In the comic, the driving force that unified the Corps of Discovery was horrible, namely the massacre of the Ferzon. It is often the case in times of war that people are drawn together through an act of horrific violence. (I’m sure the soldiers who participated in the My Lai Massacre also felt a unique sense of brotherhood.) Lewis actually states it plainly: “Whether it forced the unsavories to behave as soldiers or even brought out the criminal living within the men, we began to function as an organism. A unit.” When the Corps reaches the site of the failed 1801 expedition, they breeze rather easily over all of the challenges the earlier group faced, with Lewis even noting in his journal that the man-eating grass was “quite beautiful, actually,” as his men take scientific samples (this didn’t seem to be a priority for the 1801 group). Where at this point the 1801 expedition was facing mutiny, despair, suicide (of “Sergeant Dawes”, who bears a striking resemblance to a humble comics reviewer), the Corps of Discovery is working better than ever.
It falls, as it usually does, to Clark to bring things back down to earth. We can almost hear him thinking, “Yes, let Lewis rhapsodize about the virtues of teamwork. But we came here to do a job.” Clark investigates the ruins of the 1801 mission with the grim professionalism of a police officer at a murder scene. What they come up with opens up a path forward, to the main obstacle of this arc, given away in the title, “Sasquatch”. We don’t actually see our fine furry forest friend here, but the large footprint on the cover of the issue is fairly strong foreshadowing.
All of the Manifest Destiny creative team is in fine form here, with Matthew Roberts’ art capturing the beautiful horror of the wilderness (mixed with monsters). The winter scenes in particular are gorgeously rendered, with bare tree branches reaching into the gutter and icicles lovingly rendered in detail. Owen Gieni’s work on the colours, however, is a standout, particularly in the scenes that give us a hint into Captain Helm’s madness, and the way splashes of purple and blue make their way into the earth-toned backgrounds. Pat Brosseau gets the chance to show off some cursive talents, too, creating different handwriting for Helm and Lewis in their journal sections.
Like the Corps of Discovery, Manifest Destiny has a true team working behind it, and as Lewis and Clark show us, with teamwork, people are capable of sublime achievements. This comic certain qualifies.