[Editor’s note: Sorry that I have fallen behind recently with my coverage of Manifest Destiny. But since the 5th trade paperback is released this week, it seems the perfect time to catch up. For those keeping better score, this TPB collects issues #25-30.]
Since this is a slightly different review than usual, in that we’re examining a complete story arc over five issues, we have the luxury of examining this story at a larger scale. Historically, these issues chronicle the Manifest Destiny version of the Corps of Discovery’s first winter away from home, at what they Christened “Fort Mandan”, near the modern town of Washburn, North Dakota. In reality, relations were good that winter between the Corps and their neighbours. There was ample trading and plenty of visits (so much so that by the spring, most of the men had some sort of venereal disease), and it was the winter in which Sacagawea gave birth to her son, Jean-Baptiste. Lewis assisted with the delivery, using one of his mother’s old medicines (snake venom) to assist when there was trouble with contractions. It was a welcome respite from the troubles with the Teton Sioux just before, and a needed rest for the long journey ahead of them, across the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains. Their next winter would find them in Oregon, although there were times when it seemed as if they would never make it.
By contrast, Manifest Destiny gets into the heads of the men of the Corps, literally, by pitting them against their own worst fears and prejudices, which, in reality, were indeed some of their greatest enemies. Writer Chris Dingess chooses to accentuate Clark’s lingering anti-Indigenous racism, Lewis’s intellectual arrogance and womanizing, and the general feeling of distrust and suspicion amongst the men. Mrs. Boniface plays a crucial role, as does Sacagawea (of course), but York, the only African-American, also gets moments to address his role in this microcosm of an experimental American society. The Mandan themselves are wary of the white men, although as the story proceeds, we see that they have good cause for concern. The men feel as if they are settling down for an ordinary frontier winter, with regular bedtimes, wake-times, patrols, drills – in other words, everything a soldier would expect and probably find comforting. But there’s a problem brewing outside the walls of Fort Mandan. A thick fog that seems to bring out the worst in all of the men. Initially, it’s only one of the patrols that is affected, and that’s bad enough, leaving the three men to turn on each other, convinced that they’ve been “turned” by the plant monsters of the wild American west. But in time, the fog consumes them all. It’s a wonderful metaphor, because what the fog really does is reveal what they fear. There are few things that can motivate people to act in a dangerously irrational way than emotions and specifically fear (just ask the current occupant of the White House). Though the men almost abandon themselves to fear (Clark, in particular, gets truly carried away), it’s people like Lewis, Mrs. Boniface and York who have the strength to push through and not give in to their baser instincts.
[spoilers from here]
Clark relishes being an ordinary Captain again
The fog that surrounds Fort Mandan is actually a powerful hallucinogen, and not in a fun way. The Mandan themselves are familiar with it, enough to warn Lewis that it is a “bad fog” and to stay away from it. The hallucinations the men have occur in an escalating chain of fear. They first see Teton warriors attacking – a natural enough fear for these men in a foreign and hostile land. But very soon they see all manner of demons threatening their hermetically sealed little semblance of civilization, including returning guests the frog monster, the Ferzon and all the enemies they’ve seen so far. It’s all an illusion, and it’s Lewis who figures that out first (although Mrs. Boniface is not far behind), thanks to his curiosity regarding indigenous herbs. After struggling with violent diarrhea from some local buries, he seems unaffected by these strange and troubling visions, but as the comic’s creators correctly point out: Lewis may have seemed like a scientist, but he wasn’t one. Otherwise he would have systematically tested each plant for its physiological effects. Instead, Lewis just takes a handful of berries of all different types and fires them down. That creates complications later when Mrs Boniface asks him which berry, exactly, prevents the hallucinations. But with Lewis’s skill, he does manage to fashion an antidote and saves the expedition. Not without casualties, however, both physical and mental.
Calm before the storm
It is very interesting to see how Mrs. Boniface comes into her own in this series of issues. She’s the only member of the expedition who has hallucinations (of her dead husband, in a horribly decayed state), but realizes that it’s just an illusion and ignores it. Her strength of mind and spirit simply refuse to concede that there is a supernatural force opposing this group of American soldiers. Her and Lewis have a relationship based on mutual respect, although one gets the sense that the respect flows more in one direction than the other. Although Lewis has a great admiration for her, she only grudgingly puts up with his flights of idealistic fancy and categorically rejects his not-subtle romantic overtures. She’s tired of men in general treating her like an idiot child and demands complete honesty from Lewis. After all, as she puts it, “I know more of your secrets”. But she’s willing to put away her hostility in the face of a larger threat and trust this talented but bumbling man who is, in fact, her only hope (although she would be loathe to admit that).
If Lewis is the central character of this arc, and I think it’s safe to say he is, since he acts most like an heroic protagonist in what is essentially a zombie/horror story, then Clark gets the even more intriguing “character” role here. Clark’s original sin – really, one of America’s original sins (the other is obviously slavery) – is his role in the genocide of the Native Americans. His feelings on the subject are complicated, because, putting on our amateur psychologist’s hat for a moment, we can’t quite disavow everything he did as a younger soldier because that would involve corrupting his honour, the most important thing to a southerner. But his moral centre, which is indeed in place, can’t quite let him out of the lingering feelings of guilt. Part of Clark would love to just be able to “open up” on the Natives, meet them on the field of battle and defeat them once and for all. It’s always there, just under his skin. While Lewis treats the Indigenous people with open-minded curiosity, just as Jefferson trained him to do, Clark always holds something in check with them. He’s most comfortable in a world of military order, and in the first portion of this arc, he’s in his element, breaking up fist fights, barking orders, parading the men around, doing the things a military commander of the day was expected to do. That world is predictable and safe, to someone like him. When the enemy attacks, you respond, but until that time, be prepared. Clark succumbs to the fog like just about everyone else, and it’s interesting that his hallucination is not necessarily of a monster or zombie plant: it’s of a Native warrior, who he’s determined to kill by any means. He’s almost relieved that he can finally “have it out” with his literal and figurative demons. But there’s a twist, and it involves the third fascinating characterization in this arc.
Sacagawea, at this point, is tired of being told what to do by anyone, especially men. Her whole life has been spent being under the thumb of men to whom she feels superior. It’s no surprise that her and Mrs. Boniface get along, but only up to a point. Even the white woman at some point begins to feel stifling to the young warrior. That she is now in the final stages of her pregnancy leads everyone to act in a condescending way towards her (I’m sure this still happens), and her frustration and anger are palpable. Her fog-induced vision, then, is not surprising: it’s the native warrior who trained her as a child, only in this case, she sees that form taken by none other than Clark himself.
So, here we have a fascinating final confrontation between Sacagawea and Clark, both of whom “see” the same enemy. One might think that a small woman would be no match for a rugged frontiersman like Clark, but her ferocity makes up for her size: it’s a fair fight, and a brutal one. When Clark finally wounds her, Lewis and Mrs. Boniface have finally invented an antidote and they can see each other for who they really are. It’s just after this that Sacagawea goes into labour and all must be forgiven, out of necessity. The birth scene itself is very dramatic, with Sacagawea still hallucinating literally until Jean-Baptiste is pulled from her, and then finally everything snaps back into place.
Surveying the wreckage, Clark feels much shame and guilt, as do all the men, but praises Lewis for not losing his mind. A vision of the Spanish explorer haunts Lewis, though – they aren’t out of the woods just yet.
The art team of Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni and Tony Atkins really get to cut loose in this arc, bringing the action up to Game of Thrones levels in the battle sequences (one needs only substitute the White Walkers at times) and creating some powerful effects. The birth scene is a masterpiece of tension, mostly done purely visually, culminating in a sudden shift to warmer colours when the drugs finally wear off. It’s the sort of deep, textured work we’ve come to expect from the makers of this excellent comic.
One wrinkle at the end leaves a path for the future, a twist straight out of Stranger Things. I don’t know if that text had any direct bearing on Manifest Destiny, but there’s the tantalizing possibility that a visit to something like the “upside down” could be in the future of this book. It’s one of the many things that make it a must-read.