February 14, 2014

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Manifest Destiny...History is always more fun with monsters

Written by Chris Dingess
Illustrated by Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni and Pat Brosseau
Image Comics

Manifest Destiny tells the story of Lewis and Clark, whom you may remember from your history books as the two explorers who set out to catalog the strange beasts and monsters living within the Louisiana Purchase territory and destroy them. No, you don't remember that? Well, read this book and catch up on the truth your teacher hid from you! 

This is a story that could be fairly characterized as a "secret history", where you learn that there are dark truths behind the lies you've been told about a particular historical event. Another recent example of this subgenre would be "The Manhattan Projects" by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra, where we learn that the creation of the first atomic bomb was just a cover story for far more sinister, weird activities. Here, the premise of the story is that Lewis and Clark are sent up the Mississippi River in 1804 with a public mission of exploration and a secret mission from President Thomas Jefferson to "destroy monsters" and clear the way for the new, expanding United States. 

The story begins early in Lewis and Clark's expedition. They are accompanied both by fellow soldiers but also mercenaries and convicts, to serve as additional manpower (or cannon fodder) for whatever they find. We meet Lewis, a man of science and curiosity, and Clark, who is much more of the pragmatic military man. Lewis' journal entries serve to give us an overview of the story so far, in addition to the art. At the end of the first issue we get our first real look at the creatures that are out there, and it's a doozy. Over the first few issues of the series, we get a great sense of the dynamics of the parties on the ships. There's a lot of mistrust and apprehension about this mission (based on social class and role) heading into the wilderness. The apprehension is justified, as they find some pretty frightening things out in the wilderness, first in the woods, and then in the village of La Charette. I don't want to say too much, because part of the fun of this book is going along for the ride and seeing what weird, horrible thing they find next. 

The current issue, the 4th, continues the threads from the previous issues, and we meet two more real-life characters that were part of the historical expedition. The creators have an interesting take on these additions to the cast. There are a few moments of humor in this issue (including one running joke), but there is a sense of dread and anxiety in this book sometimes at the forefront, and sometimes under the surface. The people on this expedition are in over their heads.



This is a compelling series so far. The premise is fun and fantastical, and the entire story is constructed with a great degree of care. The journal entries feel like the authentic thoughts of Meriwether Lewis, though he probably didn't have to deal with the sorts of creatures we've seen thus far. The dialogue and character interactions do an effective job of balancing period-specific language with relatable emotions and motivations. This is not an easy feat, as a less skilled writer could easily make the dialogue seem stilted. 

The art here is a big reason to take a look at this book.  From the very first page of the first issue (which opens with a splash age showing the expedition heading up the Mississippi), we can see the detail and care that are placed in every image. There's a high degree of verisimilitude in this book which helps set the scene and tell the story.  Everything from the bird that is killed in the opening pages, to the geography, to the uniforms worn by soldiers, to the village of La Charette, feels authentic both in the line work and in the color (the coloring is extremely effective at creating that sense of reality, and it conveys both openness and dread). 


The fact that the real world is rendered so convincingly in the art makes the more fantastical elements easier to believe, particularly because the fantastical creatures and horrors that we encounter are rendered with the same degree of care as the rest of the story.  The facial renderings are done in a slightly exaggerated way, but this makes it easy to convey emotion, which the art does very well. The colors are also vibrant and feel very real, even when what's being depicted is fantastical. The lettering also works effectively here in conveying a true sense of being in the early 19th century, particularly in Lewis' journal entries, which are done in a quasi-handwriting style without feeling gimmicky. 

This story can be read as a loose allegory for the way in which early Americans viewed the Native population (strange, alien, other) and went about expanding and destroying whatever was in its way. Or, it can be read as an entertaining, well-crafted story involving strange creatures, strange afflictions and a journey into the unknown. Either way, if you enjoy history (secret or otherwise), horror, monsters and gorgeously illustrated, well-detailed comics, this book is worth a look.