Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Manifest Destiny 2, originally released December 11th, 2013.
Drew: I love a good creature feature. I could actually take or leave the shock cuts, the gore, even the monster — for me, it’s all about what keeps the victims from simply dispersing at the first sign of trouble. Whether it’s a remote village, arctic research station, or a towing ship in deep space, writers have to get inventive with keeping otherwise relatable characters from simply escaping from the monsters trying to kill them. Or, at least, they should get inventive — I think we’ve all seen the fuel line cut a few too many times to give all writers a pass, and horror movies are notorious for characters whose actions are unrelatably stupid, pressing on to the cabin, haunted house, or foreboding castle in spite of the obvious warning signs. After three readings of Manifest Destiny 2, I’m still not sure if the characters are dumb, or actually stuck.
In the aftermath of the Buffalo Man attack, Clark calmly informs the men that encountering new species and potentially hostile natives was explicitly included in their contracts. As we established in issue one, Clark runs a very tight ship, and any talk of dissent (or worse: desertion) will be met with the cat-o-ninetails. Still, you’d think the unrest would reach a critical mass, if not for mutiny, at least for a strike. I get that the rules on naval ships (especially in the early 19th century) might make that pretty unrealistic, but I feel like a lot of those rules fly out the window when you throw monsters into the mix.
Speaking of those monsters, Lewis is dissecting the Buffalo Man in hopes of understanding its natural history, but doesn’t come up with much, aside from the fact that this thing still had its baby teeth — adults are likely much larger. Intriguingly, he refers to his dissection as an “autopsy,” a term typically reserved for discovering the cause of death in humans — similar animal dissections are called “necropsies” — implying his own feelings on this creature’s humanity.
The team presses on for La Charette (a fort Lewis and Clark really did visit in late May of 1804), arriving just in time to see a mysterious girl jump to her death from the nearby cliffs — an action the artistic team of Mattew Roberts and Owen Gieni capture with stunning beauty.
Gieni’s colors are breathtaking, but I’m most impressed with Roberts’ layout. He breaks the fall into several panels, but keeps the cliff outside of them, adding a sense of continuity to the sequence. It also highlights the central struggle of this issue (and, I suspect, the series): Man vs. Nature. Her presence here is fleeting, while nature stands as a constant, unchanging in the passage of time.
The men rush to her aid, but find only a human-shaped patch of moss. No time to think about how weird that is — a bunch of Minotaurs (we’re calling the Buffalo Men Minotaurs now) rush out of the woods. Most of the men make it to the safety of the fort, but poor Karp is captured. No time to think about how horrible that is — it looks like the houses in the fort have all been boarded up, and the inhabitants are suffering from some kind of plant-plague. That is, they’re all turning into human-shaped patches of moss.
Two issues in, I’ve already developed a sort of love-hate relationship with it. I still love the central conceit, and think Chris Dingess has come up with some fascinating ideas, but I feel like they’re being criminally under-developed. I know it would have been hard to write a convincing, interesting dissection of a monster in the voice of an early 19th century naturalist, but Dingess doesn’t even try. Moreover, that scene completely ignores the opportunity for some detailed world-building. Here are Lewis’ notes about the Minotaur’s organs:
Organs appear to coincide with regions/species they are located in.
In addition to being the most boring thing he could say about the internal organs of a mythical creature, it doesn’t even make sense. I expect the a buffalo’s organs to be in its torso. I expect a man’s organs to be in his torso. This thing has both torsos, so where is its liver? Its lungs? Its intestines? and what is in the place of those in the other torso? Lewis could have told us about this thing’s stomach contents, or what the teeth implied about its diet, but instead we get the helpful bit of info that the scratches on its skin are consistent with wild animals — as though there was a chance these things have been domesticated and he just didn’t know about them.
I can excuse a lot of dumbness, but I can’t excuse boringness. Normally, those come hand-in-hand with a missed opportunity like that, but this series has done a remarkable job of holding on to my interest. I don’t know, Patrick, am I just over-thinking this? Is there enough goofy fun here to excuse whatever petty gripes I have?
Patrick: I’m sorry to always bring up improv rules, but this one is particularly relevant. In long form improv, we’re always told to make the choice to know. If I’m playing a patient and I’m going to a doctor, I should know why I’m there and not wait for the doctor to tell me. The same should be true of the doctor – he shouldn’t be a bad doctor – that makes for a boring scene. In this context of Manifest Destiny, Lewis doesn’t know much of anything, and while it’s mildly amusing that he waffles on what to call the creature — oscillating between Minotaur and Centaur — his decision is ultimately based on whatever’s easier.
And the path of least resistance doesn’t usually make for the best mythology. These moss people have a stink of zombie about them, and if there’s a group of monsters that falls under the “lazy” heading these days, it is the zombie. That’s not a totally fair assessment — we get even less about these moss-men than we do about the Minotaurs — but the idea of droves of mindless rotting people is wearying. Drew’s totally correct to say that there’s some sort of magic at work holding out interest. I think it’s the sheer variety of fantastical threats that our adventurers face. By the close of the second issue, we’ve been introduced to a second absolutely batshit concept – moss people. I believe this is just Dingess asserting that he’s not out to explore an American frontier as a kind of secret history, but that he’s treating the America myth as precisely that: myth. So just as Hercules has to encounter totally unrelated fantastical creatures, gods and magicks while performing his Twelve Labors, so too do Lewis and Clark.
I think that also helps us address the question of “what the hell are these people thinking?” It’s a classical epic, you don’t turn around just because some Sirens are smashing your boats against the rocks, right? Honestly, it’s a miracle that the real-life Lewis and Clark expedition didn’t turn around either. Obviously, they didn’t actually encounter anything like what we see in this book, but the dangers were no less fatal. And for what? Just to be part of the group that explored the new world, I guess.
Before we get too sentimental about these guys, Dingess is quick to paint most of his characters as shitty low-lifes. Desertion has come up twice in as many issues, as has whipping as a punishment for even mentioning desertion. These are not honorable men – nowhere is this clearer than as demonstrated by Jensen. While they’re marching toward the naked diver’s impact site, he makes a crack about violating the corpse. That is before, y’know, he deduces that the body — after falling from that height –would have exploded all its guts out through the vagina which… let me check… yeah, that’s the most repulsive thing he could have said right then. That all lines up with Drew’s idea that this series shares a lot of DNA with horror flicks. We want to see these guys get their comeuppance and they don’t deserve victory over nature.
As much as I love Robert Matthews’ artwork, we can probably credit colorist Owen Gieni with much of the issue’s stunning panels. Drew featured that cliff-dive, which is made all the more beautiful by Gieni’s long, warm sunset, which reflects perfectly in the water. It might be kind of a cheat when they show us the same sunset a few hours later at the Fort, but it’s effective then too. This time super-effectively playing off the cool blues of the abandoned buildings.
And there’s also that panels a few pages previous where the minotaur is moments away from landing a killing blow: the background goes solid red. I’m used to seeing that sort of thing used at the actual moment the monster lands a hit, but it’s extra kinetic to use it immediately before.
So, Drew, you had questions for me: are you over-thinking this series? Possibly, but if it helps, I think you can just keep thinking harder and come around to the idea that the logical inconsistencies you’re picking up on are part and parcel with the kind of American Frontier Fantasy we’re reading here. I expect to see even crazier monsters next month, and with even less exploration of what they are or how they work. And that expectation is what keeps me excited for next time.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?