One of the many challenges that the historical Lewis and Clark expedition had to surmount was simple hunger. They weren’t as badly off as some, and fared far better than some of the more northern expeditions that occurred just a few years later (such as Simpson and Dease and especially the first expedition of John Franklin around the Coppermine River), but out in the wilderness with only what they could carry with them, food sometimes ran short. They were lucky enough to have some early military rations (Lewis carried a supply “dried soup”, similar to today’s Mr. Noodle), skilled hunters and excellent rifles, and for the most part abundant game, but in the rocky mountains, as winter fell, they felt the pinch. The saving grace for the Corps of Discovery was always the Native Americans they met along the way, who were happy to trade for some of their provisions, however unpalatable they were to the rugged American frontiersman. (One true story is that when the men were staying with a tribe who lived primarily on the rich salmon of the Columbia river, they wanted red meat so badly that they traded with the natives for their dogs, which they cooked into a stew.)
Starvation loomed in the background for Lewis and Clark, but it never made true inroads into the company, mainly because they always found creative solutions to their problems. That’s not the case for the fictional Helm expedition of 1801, found in the pages of Manifest Destiny. After making “Sgt. Dawes” into a stew, that particular sorry gang of explorers turn to the other readily-available meat in the wilderness: Bigfoot. Desperate, uncurious, hallucinating and morally bankrupt, Helm and his men mercilessly hunt these peaceful creatures and carve them up into apparently tasty steaks. To Helm, with his lips always betraying a little bit of blood, solutions are simple. By contrast, the always curious Lewis and the always cautious Clark treat Bigfoot as a serious threat and an obstacle to be overcome. They’ve dealt with stranger monsters than one-eyed, horned giant apes, and it doesn’t take the Corps of Discovery long to discover the creatures’ weak spot, but they also know when to run.
Manifest Destiny has been deliberately offering a contrast between the 1801 and 1804 expeditions for a few issues now, and here in issue #21, the comparison is even more direct. The creative team behind this superb comic oscillates back and forth between the two, sometimes panel-by-panel, showing the intellectual and capable leadership of Lewis and Clark, compared with the delusion leadership of Helm, in response to the same threat. One difference between the two expeditions is that Lewis and Clark have a means of escape — their keelboat, which theoretically can take them beyond the reach of the Bigfoots. (Or Bigfeet? I’ll have to ask one the next time I see one around Vancouver.)
It seems that the purpose of inviting the comparison between the two expeditions is to answer the perennial question about Lewis and Clark: why did they succeed where others failed? They had the same technology, essentially the same mission, and the same party size as the earlier expedition. And besides that, with two leaders, one of which was known to be emotionally unstable, and a big, heavy keelboat to drag up the river, they should have been held back. But they had some very important advantages: they had Lewis, who was curious and daring, balanced off with Clark, who was sensible and decisive. They had a shared sense of mission and a very clear goal. Most importantly, they had Sacagawea, who brought so much to the team besides a woman’s influence. She was a living white flag (especially after the birth of her baby) and useful linguistic and cultural translator. In the pages of Manifest Destiny, she’s even the fiercest and most capable warrior.
It isn’t as if they don’t incur casualties here: Bigfoot is a formidable enemy and there are sudden deaths and near-misses all the way through. But the positivity of Lewis and Clark stands in contrast to the grim, cold circumstances of the Helm team, in which the men are directly questioning their leadership but are too scared to speak up. Helm’s men know that they’re being led to their deaths by an insane ruler, but in their extreme circumstances, they cling to what few vestiges of order remain in their society. They’re following out of fear, whereas Lewis and Clark led from a place of confident authority and respect. Writer Chris Dingess is wise enough to show that this style isn’t flawless and it isn’t a guarantee that everyone will survive unscathed, but surely it’s better than the alternative.
With typically superb art from Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni, Manifest Destiny has quite a lot of relevance at the moment, given the current political situation in the United States. Leadership requires sensitivity, intelligence and decisiveness, and by showing us the success of Lewis and Clark, this comic brings those American heroes into the present in a very timely way.