“Captain Clark killed a curious animal… [one] never yet known in the United States.”
That’s a quote from a member of the actual Corps of Discovery, and in that case it was the antelope, which Lewis himself named the “pronghorn”, and it’s real enough. In the pages of Manifest Destiny, the Corps also discover many animals hitherto unknown to science, but in this case they’re more cryptozoic than “zoic”. The granddady of all the cryptozoic animals is, of course, Bigfoot, and here in issue #20 he makes his appearance.
When dealing with an animal like Bigfoot, it seems that the writer is obliged to come up with something special and different. He can’t just be a brute, but it would be just as wrong to go the Harry and the Hendersons route and make him a big teddy bear. Chris Dingess and the Manifest Destiny team somewhat sidestep the issue make the responses that various characters have to the Sasquatch more important than the animal himself, which is a brilliant touch.
Recall from the previous issue that we’re now following two distinct storylines: the failed 1801 expedition under Captain Helm, and the Corps of Discovery in 1804. Lewis has a copy of Helm’s diary, and even one of the giant cyclops skulls has found its way back to Thomas Jefferson, so when the Corps, following in Helm’s footsteps, finds bones and additional cyclops skulls, it’s something of a turning point in the story. This is the first time Lewis has found a “known unknown”. He expected find this sort of thing and was specifically instructed by Jefferson to look for it, at least in the reality of this book. And so, following his orders and directives from the President he absolutely worships, Lewis diligently collects all the evidence available from the ruins of the Helm expedition.
We also get one of the few but important scenes here of Lewis and Clark disagreeing. They may have disagreed in reality more than either wrote in the diaries (there’s very little evidence from any written source that they argued very much about anything), but their conflicts in the pages of Manifest Destiny ring true. Clark is impatient, and practical, asking in this issue, “Is that important to know?” when Lewis requests an interesting but heavy specimen. Lewis gets angry and barks to Clark, “Please don’t ruin my discovery for me,” and eventually of course the impetuous co-Captain gets his way. But the conflict does not go unnoticed by their men, who are now forced to add more to their already burdensome pile of specimens and artifacts.
Part of the dynamic between Lewis and Clark was that Lewis was fully, completely committed to doing whatever Thomas Jefferson said. Jefferson had made Lewis an instrument of his will, his intellect and maybe even a bit of his spirit. (When Lewis returned, after the journey, and Jefferson set him free, he literally did not know what to do with himself, such was the motivating power of the former President.) There are times when Clark respects Lewis and then there are times when he seems to wish his partner thought a bit more for himself. Yes, Jefferson would want a cyclops skull and a piece of any other interesting structures the men found as they went west, but Jefferson isn’t here, experiencing the situation first-hand. He may have counselled a bit more prudence, but Lewis isn’t that flexible. He has to stick to the orders as written, and Clark, being a more experienced adventurer, knows when to bend with the wind and adapt to survival, which he sees as their prime goal, not the collection of interesting specimens.
The other storyline here belongs to Captain Helm, insane (but not “merely insane”, as Lewis notes), starving and desperate, seeing visions of the ghost of an earlier Spanish explorer, Maldonado. The Spaniard, complete with his Elizabethan armour and Arabic beard, tells Helm that his heart had been ripped out by Bigfoot, trapping his soul in this place. He encourages Helm to use the big furry guy as food, with the only alternative meat source left to his expedition at this point being the other men themselves. Helm figures it isn’t the worst idea he’s heard, and proceeds to act with savagery, in what he sees as a savage land.
Helm’s response to the threat is the opposite of Lewis’s. Where Lewis would stop and ask questions, make attempts at communication and try to uncover the deeper mysteries, Helm shoots first and asks questions later. (We must remember, however, that Lewis isn’t above savage acts himself — just remember the Ferzon massacre.) Helm ultimately loses the respect of his men (at least partially), whereas Lewis’s problems as a commander seem to be a more conventional variety. Some of the men in the Corps of Discovery, in this telling, are criminals, seen as expendable and the sort of men one can put in harm’s way. That’s one reason Lewis is a bit more cavalier with their lives than Clark, whose reactions are those of a military commander. The criminal troops aren’t used to taking orders, especially when it’s not clear why they’re being asked to do some pretty random things, and there is grumbling in the lower ranks. Some of that was probably inevitable, but it’s important that Lewis address it soon, rather than continue to arrogantly presume that the men live to serve his every whim. That’s not how the historical Lewis and Clark did it: they were military commanders, to be sure, and weren’t above whipping some sense into the men from time to time, but they weren’t tyrants. Time and again they stopped and discussed things with the men, putting their health above other considerations and never asking them to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. So far, Lewis and Clark in Manifest Destiny have managed to find a good balance of command styles, but now that the secret mission assigned to them by Thomas Jefferson is in full swing, there are signs of cracking.
Visually, this issue is rich in cinematic transitions. One sequence flows into another with wonderful “camera moves”, none more striking than the transition, in an overhead shot, from a body lying bleeding in the snow, to years later on the same spot, in autumn. The artistic team here clearly know visual storytelling, and not just the usual violent comics splash pages (although there are two of those here, too). There’s a great crane shot that encourages us to become part of the expedition itself and search the area for clues.
The visual sensibility of this book is unlike most others – but then again, its setting is also very unique. This isn’t a comic set in a dystopian future, or in a dense urban jungle, or with the colourful superhero environments. It’s also not a black and white autobiographical comic, or a satirical strip. This is history + imagination, and it takes place mostly outdoors, in forests and on lakes. It doesn’t feel like any other comic. That’s one of the many things that continues to make Manifest Destiny one of the essential currently running titles.