This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on November 1, 2015.
Kyle Garret: There’s this thing that happens with historical fiction, be it based in a germ of truth or not: we forget history. The stories are generalized modified for modern sensibilities, but we never really notice or care because, well, we have those modern sensibilities.
Such was the case with “Manifest Destiny,” a wonderful comic that is deserving of more attention and praise than it gets. This is an alternate tale of the journey of Lewis and Clark as they explore the boundaries of America. This is the story of the supernatural creatures they discovered along the way. This is the story of their real mission.
And it’s all very nice and over the course of 17 issues, I’ve come to like a number of these characters, from the aforementioned Lewis and Clark, to some of their ragtag band of criminals forced to help them. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of unsavory characters in this lot, but there are more than a few worth rooting for.
It’s over the course of those 17 issues that I forgot what I was reading.
This issue reminded me.
Is it possible to still like characters who behave in a deplorable manner when that manner is at least tolerable within the context of their environment? Am I now engaging in moral relativism? It would appear that I am.
There’s no way to get around the fact that the second half of this story is brutal. What happens is so awful and is portrayed so well that you’re just left in shock…even though it makes perfect sense. And even though you should have known better.
Chase Magnett: Kyle, you get at something that has bothered me about Manifest Destiny from the start. It was always a fine horror comic, but the troublesome historical foundation is in the damn name. This is a story based in the beginning of the United States’ Westward expansion and the resulting genocide, deforestation, exploitation, and so many other horrors. There are plenty of real monsters to be found in the concept of “manifest destiny” without adding vampires and Bison-taurs. It’s something the series has flirted with during tense encounters with Native American tribes, but has never really addressed, at least not until Manifest Destiny #18.
Before discussing the critical scene of this issue (the vampire fight is fine, but really just the inevitable conclusion the past few issues meandered their way towards), it’s important to consider the context of evaluating a single issue of a serialized story. This issue is not the end, characters will continue to change as new events occur. Future issues of Manifest Destiny may alter our perception of this issue. However, it is not worth playing a game of what if’s and maybe’s when discussing and critiquing this issue. Manifest Destiny provides plenty of context for the actions that occur at its end, and that is in addition to the context provided by 17 previous issues (that’s 340 pages!). To claim that we can’t understand or evaluate what happened here is an insult to our own intelligence.
That’s why I’m perfectly comfortable saying that Manifest Destiny #18 is the issue where Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts finally transformed their genocidal apologetics from subtext into text. At the end of this issue the entire crew agrees without objection, Dingess even clarifies that Lewis “expected some protest, but there was none”, to massacre an entire village of Native Americans who pose them no harm. It is the cold blooded destruction of an entire native species, including every man, woman, and child. The bird-creatures being killed were only removed from a human tribe through their alien appearance and some outlandish rituals. Even the fact that these bird-creatures once ate a man doesn’t make them seem less human, but rather plays up the racist mythology regarding native peoples from this era. In all important regards, they were sentient, human-like life. Given the actions taken by these men, it’s clear that the humans going West are the real monsters of this story (a hackneyed theme, especially at Skybound).
Yet Dingess and Roberts do not treat this conclusion as a revelation of the true nature of their story. This is not the audience being brought to understand they’ve been rooting for the villains of the piece the entire time. Even as these men are hacking away at the people who just invited them into their village to celebrate, Dingess’ writing of Lewis makes him seem like a sympathetic stand-in. Regarding the term “admirable”, he writes “What we did tonight would be a betrayal of that word.” Their actions are certainly shown to be evil, but the men themselves are only shown to have made a regrettable mistake. Their actions here do not undo the clearly heroic antics of destroying the vampire or sweetness of giving a brave young man a uniform. Roberts purposefully avoids showing Lewis and Clark in this slaughter, steeping their only appearances in shadow or never revealing them actually killing the cute bird-creatures. Only the more despicable crew members are allowed to have blood on their hands.
Manifest Destiny #18 has revealed something the series has been hinting at from its very start. Its creators are far more interested in bronzing the mythology of the early American frontier than interrogating it. No matter how ugly and monstrous the men carving a trail for the destruction of Native peoples become, they cannot help but portray them with sympathy and heroism. Nobody forced these men to write a story about this topic and their childish attitudes toward the subject matter being presented is an incredible disappointment.Garret: First, I have to ask: “To claim that we can’t understand or evaluate what happened here is an insult to our own intelligence” — was someone making that claim? The question isn’t whether we can understand or evaluate what happened, the question is how much weight to we give to context when doing so.
Along those lines, I disagree that Lewis and Clark are portrayed regularly with sympathy and heroism. Clark, in particularly, has regularly hinted at his horrible nature, and Lewis has made it very clear throughout the series that nothing will get between him and his quest for knowledge.
The fact that Dingess and Roberts insert the ceremony involving the kid between the frolicking with the cute little bird people and the slaughter of those cute little bird people is a clear indication to me that they are deliberately setting us up.
Looking back on it, they’ve regular made Lewis and Clark look decent simply by making others look awful; Lewis and Clark themselves are never really good people, particularly when the flashbacks are involved.
No, I think Dingess and Roberts have been playing on our sense of adventure from the start. This isn’t the story of two saints leading a band of criminals into the wilderness. This is the story of a group of horrible men, banished to the frontier under the pretense of being able to return home if they perform their assigned tasks.
Magnett: Sorry for setting up a straw man there, Kyle. There’s a lot of chatter in comics criticism about not judging individual issues because you don’t know what comes next and I was trying to put in a stake in that, while making a different point altogether. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that you or anyone else on this site was saying anything of the sort.
My gut reaction to your reading is that I hope you’re right. I think there’s potential for this series to stand as an evisceration of the myths surrounding Westward expansion. If this turns out to be a turning point like that in Invincible #12, another Skybound series, where the established world is turned upside down, this could be great.
My reading of Lewis and Clark has been less “horrible men with false exteriors of nobility” and more “noble men with horrible flaws.” Lewis hunger for new information and their shared background in the military has revealed them to be less than perfect, but I think Manifest Destiny has always treated them as the heroes of the narrative, even if they are flawed heroes.
What really gets me is that Lewis is allowed to narrate the massacre and his narration places the reader’s in his shoes. Dingess uses his narration to provide multiple points of sympathy to construct a sense of understanding for this horrific act of genocide. He uses the same three-panel structure found when destroying the vampire to explain the motives for men to engage in this action, then shows Lewis’ own description as to the necessity of the action and his remaining guilt.
All of it reads to me as an attempt to find a moral gray area in an action every bit as brutal and unforgivable as Wounded Knee. While I’m normally very interested to explore monstrous characters and even discovers ways to empathize with them, the historical connotations and eagerness to create excuses and find middle ground for the characters here is troubling.
Perhaps the series will render judgment of these horrific acts. Perhaps the perspective will shift away from the terrible men destroying the wonders of America. Perhaps a lot of things will happen that might alter my opinion. But based on Manifest Destiny #18 and preceding issues, intentionally or not, it reads like apologetics for crimes that are far greater than what they are made out to be in this comic.
Garret: That’s interesting, because I read Lewis’ narration juxtaposed with the images as an indication of what a horrible person he is. There’s such a severe disconnect between what he’s writing and what Rogers has drawn that I felt like no turn of phrase can make him seem sympathetic.
As powerful as this issue was, it’s going to be really interesting to re-read the series from the start. Because I’m starting to remember their first encounter with an unknown creature was very much a “kill it because we don’t know what it is” type of thing. I’m beginning to think that’s what this series has been over and over again and it just managed to convince us otherwise.