There is a point early on in any promising relationship when your significant other gives you a gift that lets you know they really get you. In the case of my current relationship, that gift was the Volume 1 trade paperback of a comic series called Manifest Destiny. I’m a sucker for anything that falls under the weirdly specific category of “fantasy organic science”: stuff that delves into plausible-sounding pseudo-scientific minutiae as it pertains to biology that doesn’t actually exist. I’m pestered by questions like “If contact with iron burns faeries, what’s the oxidizing agent in faerie blood?” and “If drow live underground they must be obligate carnivores, so how can they digest vegetables?” Manifest Destiny is not only great fuel for my fantasy biology obsession, it’s an original, beautifully-illustrated and creatively written piece of historical fiction. The story follows Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous exploratory journey across the Louisiana Purchase, except in this version, mapping and documentation are just a cover for what they’re really doing: clearing the new territory of strange and terrible beasties to make it safe for human habitation.
While the concept and aesthetics are a delight, the writing does fail in some more-or-less predictably disappointing sexist and racist ways, which is especially frustrating since the series came out in 2014. Sacajawea, in spite of being well known and almost mythologized in popular culture, is woefully underdeveloped and more than a little caricatured. Although historically Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery encountered and had good rapport with many Native American communities, (establishing trade was, in fact, part of the mission) Sacajawea is the only Native American to appear in the first six issues of Manifest Destiny, and although she becomes directly involved in the narrative in issue three, she doesn’t even speak until issue six. It’s an irritating distraction from a series that has a lot going for it creatively.
In the first trade of Manifest Destiny, Lewis and Clark have recently set off on their daunting journey westward and are only just starting to come across wonders of the natural world that seem frightening and peculiar, like a huge arch made out of plants and covered in spooky skull flowers. They ooh and aah and take notes for a while, but things go downhill quickly from there. The party is attacked by a violent bison-headed centaur-like creature, and—fearing that more like it will show up—they hurry to a walled wilderness outpost called Fort La Charette. Unfortunately, they find that the inhabitants of the outpost are becoming unwitting hosts to a strange and contagious plant that takes control of their minds. When Toussaint Charbonneau, a French wilderness guide, and his wife Sacajawea show up, the party is able to fight off more of the centaur creatures that are lurking in the woods and escape to their riverboat, but most of the people at the outpost have been decimated and the Corps of Discovery is left with the impression that surely even more horrors lurk in the wilderness.
Lewis is a naturalist who frames the story with his own highly analytical journal entries. He dissects the first centaur beast, trying to figure out how its skeletal system works, and approximates its age from the development of its teeth. When they encounter the plant-infected fort, in spite of being terrified, he observes and theorizes about how the plant proliferates and infects people. It’s exactly the sort of particulars I’m fascinated with, and the imaginative flora and fauna are illustrated beautifully, so it was very easy for me to get involved in the story and to start getting excited about what weird crap they would be dissecting next.
While I have been very much enjoying the creative aspects of the series, I’m also delighted to have been spoiled by the wealth of inclusive, progressive comics that have become available lately: things like Young Avengers, Rat Queens, Ms. Marvel, and The Wicked & The Divine, and damn does progress make it harder to ignore the problems in comics that I’m otherwise enamored with. It’s difficult to get over the fact that the supposedly pregnant Sacajawea is a waifish, virtually silent badass™ spear-wielding acrobat in an outfit that could only feasibly be mass-market-Native-American-print costume spandex. There is no way leather could cling to her ass cheeks like that and still allow her to walk. There was so much opportunity to turn her historical persona into a dynamic and interesting character, and every mark was missed by a mile. I also can’t help but notice that the only two characters of color to appear in the comic thus far have been the aforementioned waif and a Black member of the Corps named York, who is very much a background walker with almost no lines, in spite of his appearing on the cover. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate bait-and-switch to make the comic seem more inclusive than it was, but either way, the argument for “historical accuracy” can only go so far when first, the Louisiana Purchase was richly inhabited by Native Americans who could easily have factored much more heavily in the story, and second, the historically-based protagonists are being attacked by Lovecraftian horrors.
Overall, Manifest Destiny is worth your time, especially if your interests are as specific as mine. It’s a fun read based on a clever concept and executed with some exceptional art, but in terms of cultural sensibility, it’s something I might have expected to see ten years ago, not from something published in 2014.