It’s become apparent that the Captain Helm story in the pages of Manifest Destiny serves, at least in part, the same function that Tales of the Black Freighter did in Watchmen. This is emphatically a compliment to the Manifest Destiny team, and shows that they understand how to weave in surreal subtext with a “realistic” A-story in order to create emotional resonance in a way that is rather uniquely suited to the medium of comics. Helm’s journey hits some of the same thematic and narrative beats as the later Lewis and Clark expedition, but he hits them in a different way, with less success. In terms of meeting the challenge of the wilderness, establishing winter quarters, finding food and pushing forward with an expedition, Lewis and Clark do it all better, but Helm does it first. His story reaches a new low here, featuring the bespectacled Helm making a deal with a demon, betraying the trust of his own companions (not for the first time) and ending with an encounter with the Teton Sioux, which of course is paralleled with Lewis and Clark encountering the same tribe years later. It should be mentioned that despite the presence of monsters and intelligent animals in this world of heightened reality, Lewis and Clark did, in fact, meet the Teton Sioux on the Missouri River and had as close to a conflict with Native Americans as they ever had. Helm’s story, by contrast, is complete fiction, but in the reality of this book, the Teton tribe becomes one of the places where apparently Helm’s story and the story of Lewis and Clark directly touch, and the mistakes of Helm become a problem for the Corps of Discovery.
One of the pleasures of the current issue, #23, is that we see a real, fact-based encounter between Lewis and Clark and Native Americans. We’ve seen metaphorical contacts, including the unfortunate Ferzon, but here we have Manifest Destiny recounting an infamous real encounter. The Sioux were the most powerful group of Native Americans in the west in the early 1800s, and presented the greatest human obstacle to the unbridled expansion of western culture through colonization (in other words, “manifest destiny”). When Lewis and Clark passed through their territory, The Sioux tried to extract a tax from them that was really beyond their ability to pay. They always wanted a little more of every trade item and most importantly, more guns. Eventually, a combination of fortune and level heads allowed the Corps of Discovery to escape the Teton territory and continue on their journey, although it could have very easily gone in another and more bloody direction. In the pages of Manifest Destiny, the Teton are deadly serious negotiators, and are predisposed to disliking white men based on a previous encounter with a single European, who they recognized had a “darkness” in his heart. Lewis and Clark don’t believe the story (how can a single man leave such an impression?) and when they eventually change their offer to a generous quantity of Virginia tobacco, the Teton relent and give the expedition permission to stay on their land. It does seem, however, that relations with the Teton are still frosty, and the legacy of this previous explorer (who could only be Captain Helm) will linger around relations between the nations.
The relationship between Lewis and Clark, always an interesting part of Manifest Destiny, takes its usual series of interesting and subtle twists here. Casual readers might miss the small moment when Lewis calls Clark “Bill” (Clark’s first name was William), but in early 19th century culture, that was a big deal. Men, especially professional or military men of the era, called each other by their surnames, not their given names. That was reserved for one’s wife, close family or a few very special friends. Clark, by the way, still calls Lewis by his surname but Lewis has switched not only to Clark’s first name, but a diminutive version of it. The message here is quite clear, and that is that Lewis is more comfortable with Clark than vice-versa, and that Lewis is more willing to make deep social connections than his more practical co-Captain. Lewis trusts more easily and is more impulsive, hence his use of a very familiar name, a practice that (unsurprisingly) is not reflected by wary Clark. During the negotiations with the Teton, Lewis is all smiles and positivity, while Clark is more stand-offish and suspect, plying Sacagawea to help them out when they’re in a tight spot (she’s of limited use here, however, as she doesn’t speak the Sioux language). It’s that combination of openness and curiosity, tempered with a healthy dose of practicality and reserve, that made Lewis and Clark the successful explorers they were.
Captain Helm, on the other hand, has passed well into the land of grotesque fantasy. We mentioned earlier the connections with Tales of the Black Freighter, that “story within the story” featured in the pages of Watchmen, where the themes of the hero’s journey and the transformation of a man into a monster are stated in a heightened genre style reaching back to pre-code comics, in the midst of a challenging “realistic” superhero comic. Manifest Destiny, with its monsters and arches and talking birdbeards, has always kept one foot squarely in the land of Swamp Thing, but the tone of Helm’s adventures, the brutality of the violence he witnesses (and performs), the cruelty of his approach to nature and the downright spiritual caste of his struggle move this portion of the comic much closer to the world of the metaphorical grotesque previously explored by Alan Moore (and others). What actually happens to Helm as his story goes on is that he gradually becomes less human, piece by piece, and literally merges with the viciousness and carnal cruelty of the land itself. He does so completely out of the delusion that his actions will benefit him (right from the start, Helm is more worried about himself than his men) or his expedition, but it’s clear to any observer that he’s completely lost all sense of responsibility or reality. It’s dangerous to give a reading of this character until we see the last episode of this arc (which will come with the next issue), but it seems like Helm is what Lewis would have been, without Clark and without curiosity. Helm is so utterly confident of success in that almost Victorian “three cheers and carry on” sort of way that even in this issue when he’s starving to death and dragging a human head through the wilderness (the head talks – it’s that kind of comic) he’s convinced that he’s going to make it. Lewis has more than a little of this attitude, although his intellectual and scientific curiosity help him a great deal, as does the presence of Clark. Helm’s other similarities and parallels to the main mission will be the topic of discussion for the next issue, as will the interesting choice of “Sasquatch” as the title of this arc. (It’s an odd choice — for one thing, not every issue features our fine forest friend, and a better reading could be metaphorical, about “big footprint” of European colonization on the American continent.)
Among the great aspects of Manifest Destiny is its ability to apply the grotesque fantasy elements of the story rather sparingly, to create contrast between characters and situations, rather than immerse us in a complete fantasy world. Every issue contains at least one panel that shows us a beautiful natural landscape (and every issue also shows us at least one “bird’s eye” shot from above, a particularly effective and cinematic tool). If the main Lewis and Clark storyline was just a little more graphic, the Helm storyline wouldn’t work as well. Likewise, if Helm’s psychotic fantasies started with a huge demon-headed monster, rather than a group of explorers resorting to cannibalism in a difficult winter, the story points it makes could be more easily dismissed. But that delicate and skillful balance of realistic, historical and fantasy/horror elements is one of the main things that makes Manifest Destiny still one of our favourite current titles.