The pitch: Manifest Destiny is the love child of BPRD Hell on Earth and the 19th century. I’m sure Chris Dingess had a much better pitch, but that’s the quick gist. The long gist is that Manifest Destiny follows the historical Lewis & Clark Expedition across the newly acquired US territories and there happen to be monstrous buffalo-men and giant frogs. The Corps of Discovery struggles to defeat the horrors of the wild while also staying composed during their two year trek and not killing each other. This week on Arc Reaction we’re talking about Manifest Destiny #7-12 from Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni. Spoilers Ahead.
The second story arc of a new series is an interesting milestone. The first story arc is there to hook you; it sets up the world, sells you the idea, and wows you. The second story arc is where we really discover whether the concept has legs or not. Does the book have real depth? And here comes the good news: I found Manifest Destiny’s second story arc was even stronger than its first. This story revolves around the expedition’s ship running aground on an object, one of the mystical arches first depicted in issue 1. Clark heads to the river’s shore with a small crew to help dislodge the boat, but a giant man-eating frog appears before they can return to the ship with Lewis. So Clark’s group is stranded, and now they have to find a way back.I like the scenario set up by Dingess here. The two groups are separated and unable to physically help one another. There’s a helplessness presented, and the fact that both groups can still see and hear each other adds significantly to the tension. In a one scene, one of Clark’s crew members, Corporal Shaw, desperately wants to return to the ship. Fearful of his safety on the shore, he attempts to ride a zip-line back to the ship. The frog monster plucks him off the line like a grape from the vine. Lewis, unable to stop Corporal Shaw, has to watch the whole thing unfold. Roberts doesn’t even show the frog. This scene, one of my favorites in the arc, beautifully sets the stakes.
I like the scenario set up by Dingess here. The two groups are separated and unable to physically help one another. There’s a helplessness presented, and the fact that both groups can still see and hear each other adds significantly to the tension. In a one scene, one of Clark’s crew members, Corporal Shaw, desperately wants to return to the ship. Fearful of his safety on the shore, he attempts to ride a zip-line back to the ship. The frog monster plucks him off the line like a grape from the vine. Lewis, unable to stop Corporal Shaw, has to watch the whole thing unfold. This scene, one of my favorites in the arc, beautifully sets the stakes.
This brings us to the the secondary plot. Clark sends his group into the woods to collect specimens for research and to keep the men busy. While in the woods Corporal Hardy, one of his men, sexually assaults the woman he is watching. The woman, Irene, is saved when a giant mosquito attacks them and sedates Hardy in the process. There’s plenty of criticism out there about the use of rape as a plot device, and this scene certainly fits that bill. Irene’s rape (or attempted rape) is used to depict Hardy negatively. It’s simple audience manipulation so that when Hardy’s punishment comes about, we cheer. Now, we know this is going to be a long trip, and hopefully see some more thought put into the aftermath of Irene’s rape, but for this story arc the use of rape is disappointing. We’ve barely met Irene, she’s yet to be developed, and the writing comes off as thoughtless. There’s a missed opportunity for Hardy’s crime to be far more grey. Moral ambiguity and difficult decisions are the lifeblood of survival horror stories like Manifest Destiny, and it would be far more impactful seeing Hardy punished severely for something innocuous.
So to punish Hardy they use him as frog bait, and yeah, I cheered. He loses his leg. There’s a brilliant panel of Irene glaring at him as he hangs from the rope. Mrs. Boniface, the only other woman with the party, is the one to take revenge. She insists on being the one to cauterize Hardy’s leg, and the look in her eyes as she holds the molten iron says everything. Roberts & Gieni communicate the emotions of the story seamlessly through the visuals of the book. Further, in the final issue of this story arc she gets to spell out Hardy’s fate to him: “You could never set foot on that deck again and no one would give it a second thought.” Although I disagree with the specific choice use of rape as a plot device, the payoff in this scene between Mrs. Boniface and Hardy is another of my personal highlights within this arc.
There’s also something to be said about the general depiction of Native Americans in Manifest Destiny. This book plays right into the cliché of Native Americans as magical Others. There’s no nuance. The natives know that the arches bring evil, and Sacajawea is hinted at being on a quest to end it. Sacajawea is, so far, just an exotic warrior woman. That said, this is historical fiction–far more fiction than history, really–and magic will likely play into the ongoing mystery of this series. It makes sense for the Native Americans to know more about the land than Lewis & Clark, but it still lacks subtlety.
My criticisms do come with a significant asterisk. This is an ongoing series. The story is going to develop, and characters are going to grow. Manifest Destiny has just finished its first year of publication, and there’s a lot left in Lewis & Clark’s expedition. I truly look forward to seeing Irene develop as a character, and to see how future tribal encounters play out. I am impressed with their treatment of Randolph, who is one of their crew members assigned as punishment for his homosexuality. And it can’t go without noting that Lewis is revealed as bisexual in issue 12. I’m critical, but I believe it’s also important to stress that I’m impressed by what Dingess, Roberts, & Gieni have done so far. Manifest Destiny shows scene after scene that these people know how to craft an engaging story. And though I disagree with how the plot is executed at times, the actual execution is top notch. If this story arc is any indication, Manifest Destiny is in good hands.