Image Comics and the American Frontier: Why Manifest Destiny Is Worth Your Time

Image Comics has become synonymous with it's biggest hits. With a killer line-up of titles such as The Walking Dead, Saga, Black Science, The Wicked + The Divine, and East of West, it's hard to blame them. But with a good number of these critically-acclaimed and exceptionally long-running series coming to an end over the next few years, Image faces the problem of seeking a new roster of headlining acts amidst a sea of trusty ongoings and a grab bag of clearly-meant-to-be-picked-up-as-a-live-action-adaptation new launches.

To put it succinctly: Image has an identity problem.

But beneath the Hickmans, Gillens, Vaughns, and Remenders of the Image world, adjacent to the up-and-coming creators hoping to make the next big hit, there's been a particularly interesting series, so completely unlike any others, that's managed to both stay afloat and stay under the radar.

Manifest Destiny, created in 2013 by Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts, embodies the spirit of Image Comics, and quite similarly the American Frontier in which the series is set, more than any other title on the shelves. Launched in the same time frame as such heavy hitters as Southern Bastards, Black Science, and Sex Criminals, Manifest Destiny began its run with a promising blend of horror, fantasy, and historical realism. These traits have certainly become staples of the series, but its continued reinvention of genre and avoidance of any sign of slowing down has made it an especially fun read.

Set in the American Frontier in the early years of the Nineteenth century, Manifest Destiny tells the familiar story of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the uncharted west- but with a twist. The Expeditionary Force quickly realizes the Frontier is much different than expected when it encounters a menagerie of grotesque monsters and mysterious hints at a much more powerful force stalking the crew. Of course, these monsters aren't the only things to fear in the untamed wilderness. Rifts within the Expeditionary Force, difficulties with braving the dangerous weather, and encounters with Native Americans, including the unbelievably badass Sacagawea, all threaten to bring a grisly end to Lewis and Clark's journey.

The variety of stories Dingess and Roberts are able to tell with Manifest Destiny adds a real hint of suspense. The series, unlike its protagonists, is treading familiar ground. We know that the two-year voyage ends with the Force returning to St. Louis with a plethora of findings to report to the President. But the story still feels like it could go anywhere, adding a relentless sense of anticipation over what new might threaten the mission next.

Beyond its genuinely gripping story is an incredible sense of evolution in how Dingess and Roberts have changed their storytelling style. Roberts' art, while it's always been wonderfully kinetic and vibrant with a style that handles both action-packed monster scenes and more intimate conversations with ease, has markedly improved as the series has gone on, with a clearer sense of focus and aesthetic. The art has taken on a softer, almost textured watercolor feel, which meshes well with the journal-style narration the series has kept over the years. Roberts' and colorist Owen Gieni's sharper sense of texture and color palette have turned Manifest Destiny into a gorgeous and richly drawn book.

Similarly, Dingess' handle on the story and its characters has reached a sense of greater clarity. In the beginning of the series, other members of the Expeditionary Force beyond Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea were often hard to keep track of, with little effort made to develop them as either supporting characters or cannon fodder. Beginning with recent arcs that made more use of the psychological horror genre, Dingess began to put more focus on the background characters that made up the rest of the Expeditionary Force. With an increasingly fully-realized cast, Manifest Destiny continues to improve upon itself in very noticeable ways. The continued evolution of the series makes for an especially rewarding reading experience, and one more than worthy of taking center stage amongst the Image line-up.

With a plethora of titles launching left and right from Image, a series surviving these relentless waves of new #1s has about as much chance as a pioneer braving the undiscovered American Frontier. But like its unprepared protagonists Lewis and Clark, Manifest Destiny is doing just that. This series, with its twists and turns and particularly niche story, is one worthy of your attention.