Monday, December 30, 2013

Image Comics' Manifest Destiny: The wild, the fearsome, and not-so innocent

Manifest Destiny: The wild, the fearsome, and not-so innocent
by rick olivares

“I fear that birds, small game and Indians will be the only creatures we will come across.”

Captain Meriwether Lewis penciled in that entry in a diary after Second Lieutenant William Clark shot a wild heron to document and study as part of the objectives of the Corps of Discovery that was commissioned by American President Thomas Jefferson.

That isn’t a true to life entry. That is a line written by Chris Dingess, an admitted fan of the horror genre, who has come up with a clever reimagining of some of America’s pioneers in Lewis and Clark.

In the real life expedition, Lewis and Clark crossed what is now the western portion of the United States, departing St. Louis via the Mississippi River and making their way through the continental divide to the Pacific coast.

It was a select group of US Army volunteers under the command of Lewis and Clark that undertook a perilous journey last from May of 1804 up to September 1806. The party only took one casualty and that was due to appendicitis more than any Indian arrow.

In this Image Comics series by Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts, it’s the latest in the current phenomenon of placing real life and historical figures and placing them in different if not supernatural situations (see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer among others). And it wasn’t only native American Indians that Lewis and Clark encountered but also the weird and unexplainable.

During the ages of discovery, men left the safety of their homes for flag and country (and the promise of eternal youth and gold among many others) to seek new frontiers across land and sea. In essence it was to claim new territory. They came back with tales of terrifying monsters and creatures. Anything new to them was a monster.

The original expedition wasn’t only some scientific expedition, they were sent out to map the undiscovered country and to declare these lands as property of the United States of America before the European powers could claim them for themselves.

Dingess keeps that premise but from the very beginning inserts some tension with the expedition party by including convicts who have been conscripted into this journey in exchange for a pardon. So there’s danger from outward and from within. Jensen, a convicted murderer is like having The Walking Dead’s Shane for company. In the very first issue, he murders one of the soldiers who accidentally discovered his plans to desert the expedition party at the first possible opportunity.

And there’s his diary entry about small game and Indians being their only encounters. You know that is not going to be the case or else, there wouldn’t be this comic book.

On their way to La Charrette (populated by moss-covered zombies), the last European-American settlement on the Missouri River (the boundary between their known world and the unknown), the Corps of Discovery comes across an arch that looks like a gateway (and one I suspect should provide an inspiration for the St. Louis Gateway Arch later on although that was constructed in 1963 and not in 19th century America). While Lewis wonders what to make of the arch, they are attacked by a Minotaur-like creature that wounds Sergeant Parker who will be murdered by Jensen. As someone who has extensively read American history, I only have a passing knowledge of the mythology of Native Americans. I do know that in Blackfoot and Cheyenne beliefs, there is a Buffalo monster that haunts them. Could this be that creature?

In the second issue, there’s this female elemental who jumps from a cliff to the ground below that somewhat reminds me of the Swamp Thing. It’s also a matter of time when this creature is revealed.

The first two issues were a perfect blend of characterization and action. In the space of a few panels and pages, Dingess reveals the motivations of the characters. In some pre-release interviews, the author says that his lead characters will not always be heroic. Their frailties will be on display in issues to come and all I can say it, it cannot come soon enough. As for the rest of the expedition party? They are there to ratchet up the body count.

Matthew Roberts’ detailed and expressive art is a treat and perfect for bring to life this strange old yet new world. His monsters are frightening. His facial expressions are very expressive. Roberts brings to life the expedition and the mythological creatures of Native American culture.

If you thought that the Sasquatch was the only “mythological creature” in American culture then be prepared for a “history” lesson.

Furthermore, the cover to the second issue alone showing a tomahawk embedded in a human skull is alone worth the cover price.

I can’t wait for them to introduce Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian who in real life accompanied the Corps of Discovery as their guide and interpreter. But judging by the cover art for the fourth issue of Manifest Destiny, she’s some monster slayer too.

It’s only been two issues but I’ve been hooked by Manifest Destiny. Was the wild and untamed West the final frontier? Nope. It’s comics like these that push the boundaries of great storytelling.

That’s how much I have been hooked by this new series that has television series option written all over it.

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