Manifest Destiny: The sum of all your fears
by rick olivares
The late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “Why you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at the table and what do you get? The sum of their fears.
Welcome to the fearful mystery that is
In writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts’ Manifest Destiny, a fictionalized re-telling of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition that crossed the Missouri River into the unchartered and untamed lands of the West in May of 1804.
The actual expedition, a two-year journey from 1804-06, as commissioned by then American President Thomas Jefferson, saw a small group of Army volunteers explore the newly acquired territory from the French with the objectives of establishing an American presence before the European powers could claim the lands as well as to study and map out the geography, plant and animal life as well as to establish trade relations with the Indian tribes.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was successful as they met all its objectives. And of the 33-man Corps of Discovery that set out from Camp Dubois in what is present-day Illinois, they suffered only one casualty.
That is the actual story.
However, in Manifest Destiny, the historical fantasy comic book from Image by Dingess and Roberts, they remind everyone that nothing is more frightening than the unknown. And the Wild West is the final frontier for many of that Corps of Discovery as they battle monsters and the weird.
Dingess and Roberts waste no time in forging ahead. In the very first page of the first issue of Manifest Destiny, the three ships that comprise the expedition are shown along the Missouri. You get the feeling it’s like that scene from The Lord of the Rings where the Fellowship traverses the seemingly endless Anduin River that is fraught with wonder, mystery, and danger.
And it isn’t long before they encounter the weird. Not soon after they shoot an undocumented heron, they come across massive arch (much like the 630-foot Gateway Arch in modern day St. Louis, Missouri) that is made up of flora. The weird-meter ratchets up several notches when the party that has gone ashore to study the arch is attacked by a minotaur-like being except that it is half-man, half-buffalo. They are able to kill the creature but not before suffering their first casualty that unknown to Captains Lewis and Clark, was actually murdered by Jensen, one of several convicts who was conscripted into the party in order to gain a pardon.
The expedition is in near mutiny as they claim they never signed up to fight monsters and the unknown. Order eventually prevails and the expedition repairs to La Charrette, the last Euro-American settlement along the Missouri River where this time they have to fight off the remnants of the settlers who have turned into zombie-like creatures except they were infected by a flora-based virus. Humans aren’t the only ones susceptible to the virus as forest animals are also infected.
The ongoing series is now on its second story arc and the danger and mysteries mount just like the body count. The expedition survives not only through their firepower but also mostly through their wits and bravery. Not to mention the mysterious but deadly Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian guide who is their resident monster killer.
You’re engrossed as the expedition catalogues the creatures they come across but you also cannot wait to learn the whys and wherefores of their existence and hostility. Except none are forthcoming… yet… as the expedition moves on into a world that is a melting pot of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and H.G. Wells.
You’re engrossed as the expedition not only faces external dangers but also from within. Aside from the convicts like Jensen who has his own agenda, the conscripts also face their own internal demons such as when one soldier cannot contain his libido and attempts to rape one of the female survivors of La Charrette. He pays for his folly when he is stung to death by a giant mosquito.
No doubt, you’ve noticed how I used the word “engrossed” twice in the previous two paragraphs so that says a lot about Dingess’ writing. It’s all that and more. I chafe at comic books I can read in five minutes. Dingess is a wordsmith and that is perhaps the best compliment one can give because whether this comic takes me 20 minutes or more to read is good because you hang on to every word.
Roberts’ art is intricately beautiful. It’s detailed, crisp, and clear. I love how he is able to depict a variety of emotions. And he sure knows how to draw frightening things and show the stark terrors of people when faced with these monsters. This is the first I have seen of Roberts’ art. Usually, one is tempted to say that the art reminds me of so and so. But Matthew’s work is refreshingly original. And Owen Gieni’s colors bring that beautiful line work to life.
It’s a terrifying world west of the Missouri and every issue Dingess and Roberts leave you with a cliffhanger that makes you wish it were that time of the month when the next issue of Manifest Destiny makes its way into your hands.
Manifest Destiny is the sum of excellent storytelling.
Author’s note: Manifest Destiny is now on its eighth issue. Image Comics’ has collected the first six issues in trade paperback form. The monthly comic can be purchased at Comic Odyssey or other specialty shops.