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October 20, 2018

Manifest Destiny Volumes 5 (Mnenophobia and Chronophobia)


Manifest Destiny Volumes 5 (Mnenophobia and Chronophobia)
Image Comics,
Writer: Chris Dingess

Once upon a time, Western-genre comic books sold well to an enthusiastic audience. A post-World War Two desire for a simpler, overwhelmingly white age of exploration, colonisation, and conquest of Native Americans manifested in motion pictures, books, radio, and comic books. The white cowboys, sometimes assisted by a cavalry charge, always successfully repelled and killed the villainous and bloodthirsty Indians. There are not many remnants left of that thematic and dates sub-strata.

But by the 1970s, the American Old West occasionally was the setting for ghost stories. In comic books, this sub-genre, a fusion of Old West and horror, is known as the “Weird West”. From 1972 to 1980 DC Comics published Weird Western Tales. This genre has survived as a thin but rich vein in US titles such as:

1. IDW Publishing’s Desperadoes by Jeff Mariotte (1997 onwards);
2. DC Comics’ / Vertigo Comics’ revamp in 1993, 1995, and 1999 by Joe R. Lansdale of Jonah Hex;
3. David Gallaher’s High Noon (DC Comics / Zuda, 2007-2010);
4. Image Comics’ Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick (2014-onwards);
5. IDW Publishing’s Wynonna Earp, by Beau Smith.

Vente de la Louisiane, vente de mon âme

Manifest Destiny is set before what is traditionally regarded as the days of the Old West, when the hinterlands of North America was almost entirely unexplored by Europeans and treks into the interior most likely concluded in death. As such, it is a tale of pulp adventure with echoes of Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, Zebulon Pike, and other explorers of the continent.

But in this narrative, there is more just than the danger of attack by ferocious animals or vicious Shawnee scalp hunters. Scattered along the Mississippi River, the stage for the adventure, are enormous metallic arches in various states of disrepair. We have previously discussed these and their different but equally horrific inhabitants in our previous (and very favourable) review of this title. And each arch is associated with a different type of horror.

There is some obvious symbolism in play: each of the arches are signposts to story arcs. And each volume of Manifest Destiny has a title which invokes the genus from binominal nomenclature . These are:

1. Flora & Fauna
2. Amphibia & Insecta
3. Chiroptera & Carniformaves
4. Sasquatch
5. Mnenophobia & Chronophobia
6. Fortis and Invisibilia (Scheduled for release in October 2018)

Each of these clinical titles remind us that the expedition is one of scientific learning as much as understanding what the nascent United States has acquired through the Louisiana Purchase (that land sale whereby the government of Napoleon Bonaparte sold vast tracts of its North American dominion to the United States in 1799).

But the overarching plot and sub-plots of each volume explore in gruesome detail the carnage and death inflicted both upon and by the ragtag explorers, grandly and absurdly called the Corps of Discovery, as they traverse upriver. In that regard, the abstract titles of each volume are an intentional contradiction to the horrific violence of the story. In 2018, exploration takes place with enormous technological resources and meticulous planning (for example, James Cameron’s tour of the Marianas Trench). And for most world explorers, in our contemporary age of a mostly pacified environment, all that is really necessary in most places is a passport and a credit card. Manifest Destiny reminds us that not too long ago exploration by Europeans was once a desperate, frequently horrible and often fatal exercise, coupled with the distastefulness of white colonisation.

The writer, Chris Dingess, has done a superb job on characterisation. In an interview for the Flickering Myth website in 2014, Mr Dingess said,

“For me, it’s been keeping the characters as human as possible. Everyone is real and has faults and doesn’t always deal with situation in the best way. People of every time period can be jerks…. The theme I’m most interested in with this book is selfishness vs. selflessness [Is that even a word?]. The mission itself is a selfish one: conquer the land for whitey and a good deal of the men involved are selfish personally. But as they move forward and come together, hopefully they’ll be able to shed some selfishness and embrace brotherhood. And will that affect the mission as a whole?”

The major protagonists of the story – Meriweather Lewis, William Clark, and their Indian guide Sacagawea – are deeply flawed individuals. Lewis and Clark are depicted in this story as the unlikely but very capable duo: a driven, possibly psychotic military man, partnered with a bisexual libertine, charismatic and likeable, and with barely submerged sexual desires.

As for the extremely capable Sacagawea, she has expressly stated that she regards herself as already dead. She has no qualms in navigating the band of explorers to their own deaths. (How this reconciled with the very traumatic birth of her son in this volume remains to be seen.)

Further, Lewis and Clark have shanghaied hardened criminals into their corps. Some of these are very nasty indeed. At the conclusion of the fifth volume, one of the party, a murderer named Jensen ambushes and pushes a shipmate into what appears to be a mystical portal under an arch, for irrational reasons. From issue one, Jensen was marked as a villain, yet he has been the only one who understands that the Corps of Discovery is entirely dispensable. Another rogue is Corporal Hardy, a would-be rapist, given a reprieve if he agreed to be used as bait in the second volume to capture a monster: he lost his leg and in the fifth volume reeks of a lust for vengeance. In an early interview for website GeekedOut Nation Mr Dingess notes, “One thing to keep in mind is that some of the biggest monsters in this book aren’t in the wilderness. They’re on the boat and they put their pants on one leg at a time.”

Lewis and Clark’s expedition is a romanticised American school teaching of brave adventurers delving into the wilderness to help carve out the United States of America. But there is little of that here as the characters are very willing to cut, hack, shoot and betray at every step of their journey.

Much of the narrative is driven by diary entries. Lewis, along with so many other explorers, kept diaries of his observations. The style of the time was to wax lyrical – there is no economy of words here. The diaries write the history of what has occurred. And there is a perceptible gap to the revisionist history of Lewis, and the deeds that they commit as they advance along the river. Truth is rarely contained in histories, and that is plainly the case in this title. And after the destruction of the Ferzon (an avian, essentially harmless race conveyed to Earth from a binary solar system by an arch) in the previous issue by the exploration party, the trek up river plainly lacks a moral compass. The butchery of the Ferzon as they slept is given fragile post-rationalisation in Lewis’ journal.

There is in this fifth volume however a romance brewing, of sorts, between Lewis and Magdelene Boniface. Madame Boniface is the hyper-stoic survivor of a French settlement which was besieged by ferocious, exotic buffalo centaurs in the first volume. Lewis touches her shoulder in admiration for her, and she promptly demands him to remove his hand. But later she kisses Lewis for luck. It is the one glimmer of love in a story otherwise filled with death.

Bad Fog, Big Smoke

Lewis and Clark continue to lead their mangy and increasingly depleted expedition into deeper and deeper danger. This time, the mysterious arches bring the horrible peril of a fog-like fungus which causes delusions: to those who inhale it, every other person appears to be the walking dead.

In the very first volume of Manifest Destiny, the dead stalked the living when when a malevolent form of plant life used spores to occupy and control corpses of both humans and animals. The explorers initially think that they have again encountered the same threat – but then discover that a sinister fog drives each of them into their worst fears.

Only the pragmatic Magdelene Boniface is able to logically address the horror of being confronted by the spectre of her hectoring husband. She knows that he is dead, and having no belief in the supernatural, she maintains rational control while the spectre accuses her of his murder and swears at her. This scene reveals Boniface has having a will of iron.

The quick, fortuitous discovery that smoke inhalation of a particular local herb dilutes the effect of the fog is the only thing that saves the expedition. The local Native American tribe called the Mandan knows what to do – shut themselves inside sealed timber housing – but choose not to expressly share that information with the explorers other than to provide some of the herbs. Even so, much of the climax of this volume involves the crew trying to kill each other while under the influence of the malign fog. The cast see each other as spectres from the past, as monsters, demons, and as the threats they have encountered at the sites of previous arches. Only a combination of quick thinking and good luck saves the Corps of Discovery from self-destruction, and only just at that.

Each arch seems to be a portal from whence a non-indigenous species emerges or has emerged. Romans used arches, but no other ancient civilisation did, and certainly none in North America. The first time the group encounter the arches, back in Flora and Fauna, they are a cause of wonder. By the fifth volume, the explorers are entirely aware that the arches signify murderous trouble, and actively try to make camp away from them. The arch in the last pages of the fourth volume is invisible, save for a light dusting of snow on the very top. It is a nice touch from Mr Dingess, rendered both ominous and funny in the sense that sheer bad luck plants the explorers almost directly under that which they seek to avoid.

Homo Magna Pedem

To understand the last page of the fifth volume, we must revisit the fourth volume, Sasquatch. Mr Dingess finally provides the backstory to the first unsuccessful expedition of 1801 (that which brought back the cyclops skull to President and initiated Lewis and Clark’s adventure of 1804). The Corps of Explorers find themselves desperately fighting off a horde of Sasquatches, and not doing too well of it.

The Sasquatches are capable of emotion. When their family members are killed, they express horror and sorrow. But no rapprochement is possible. It is a sad allegory for white colonisation during the nineteenth century.

Back in the first volume, President Andrew Jefferson spoke to Lewis and Clark about the purpose of the journey: to follow in the footsteps of the precious expedition and uncover the mystery of the cyclops skull. The skull is a top secret artefact. It was brought back by the sole survivor of the 1801 mission.

The 1801 expedition was a disaster marred by cannibalism and other horrors. A cheerful Spanish explorer named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado (an actual Spanish explorer, who had been shipwrecked and lived amongst various Native American tribes in the 1540s) appears, as a spectre. The Spaniard leads the leader of the 1801 expedition, Captain Helm, to a terrible fate. The source of the river and the apparent source of all of the evil caused by the arches is a demon named Navath. Driven mad, Helm, accompanied by the rotting, talking head of his dead colleague, is then driven back to the European colonies on the east coast by his new, hellish master. Helm brings the skull with him and it ends up in Jefferson’s possession.

The story has a video game echo to it: each arch brings a new and more difficult threat. Navath, it seems, is boss level (and looks a little like one aspect of Mephisto, a demon who makes repeated appearances in Marvel Comics).

Helm is insane and his character provides shock value. Navath is an arrogant and inhuman demon. Both characters are fairly stock. But Alonso del Castillo Maldonado is fascinating. He smiles and cajoles Helm onward. He is both psychopomp and harbinger of doom, embodied in Spanish charm and manners. The character is an inspired contribution to the story.

At the conclusion of the fifth volume, Clark has a vision of Alonso del Castillo, congenial and translucent. No good can come of this. The road to Navath has been laid bare.

History is Written by the Victors

Nothing has changed in since our last assessment. On various forums on Reddit readers mention other publications by Image Comics – Deadly Class, The Wicked + The Divine, Trees, and East of West – all listed as being the cream of the contemporary US comic book industry. It is an oversight to not include this title on any such list. Manifest Destiny is one of the cruelest, most brutal horror titles being produced in America today. We very much look forward to the sixth volume.

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