Hell is a terrible place. Maggots are your sheet, worms your blanket, there’s a lake of fire burning with sulfur. You’ll be tormented day and night for ever and ever. As a matter of fact, if you actually saw hell, you’d be so frightened, you would die.
Miss Albright, “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment”
Drew: Do you ever get the impression that people are trying way too hard to make hell scary? Fire and brimstone is exactly as generically horrible as harps and white robes are generically pleasant — I understand the gist, but holy crap do those rewards and punishments have no relation to my everyday life. I suppose the reason the over-the-top conception of hell is so frustrating to me is that it ignores a much scarier truth about a life of sin, one that remains true even if you don’t believe in any kind of afterlife: that you may be forever tormented by your own guilt. If you believe you are deserving of some horrible fate, you will spend your days waiting for the axe to fall, while someone at peace with their actions may lead a more serene, contented existence. In that way, Heaven and Hell aren’t destinations we move to at the ends of our lives, but mindsets we create for ourselves as we move through them. These are feelings that tend to lie dormant, but can be brought to the surface by something as big as a loved one passing, or as small as having one too many drinks. Manifest Destiny 6 finds Lewis and Clark confronted by both ends of the spectrum (if you replace the drinks with a potent floral hallucinogen), and shows just how differently they respond.
First things first, the expedition is at war with all of those plant-ified animals. Lewis and Clark are separated from the group, and are consumed by the hive mind/mother/Audrey II of the plant zombies. While inside the plant, they are dosed with some kind of pheromone that allows them to chase their respective ids to their natural extremes.
Clark’s genocidal fantasy may make more sense given his violent nature, but it sure is a surprise in contrast with Lewis’ orgiastic vision, largely because we don’t associate Lewis with sex at all. Lewis’ vision, so far as we know, is entirely fictional, an abstracted heaven of sorts, and his face is appropriately serene. Clark, on the other hand, seems intensely distressed by his vision, at times looking downright horrified.
So what’s going on here? Both men were exposed to the same hallucinogen, so its effects must be the same, but something is leading them to very different outcomes. Is killing Native Americans (and ultimately being killed by them) Clark’s version of Heaven? Or maybe the hallucinogen shows people what they think they deserve? Is that he’s killing part of his own personal Hell, or is it that he is in turn killed that he finds so horrific? Ooh, or maybe they’re visions of the future? And how would any of these feelings interact with the fact that Sacagawea ultimately saves them?
Chris Dingess poses these questions without any definite answers, much to this issue’s benefit. Instead, Dingess focuses on the more procedural elements of the fallout: killing the infected, burning the forest, and bathing. It’s a return to the more scientific tone of those first few issues, which is where this series is most comfortable. Lewis’ narration is capable of some limited character insights, but I think it’s at its best when focusing on the events, and letting Matthew Roberts’ pencils handle the subtext. It’s a slightly counterintuitive distribution of responsibilities, but it’s also one of the things that makes this series such a compelling idea factory — we really only need to know what we see on the page.
And speaking of ideas, it looks like this issue is closing the book on La Charette, finally allowing the team to move on to new crazy monsters and scenarios. We finally have the pieces in place (and familiarity with the characters) to really dig in, which has me very excited for the future of this series. Suddenly, Clark is the cautious (and perhaps more sensitive) one, Lewis is at the limits of his knowledge, and their numbers are rapidly dwindling. It’s an exciting starting point for the next arc.
Greg, there’s a lot to talk about here, but first I need to know what is closer to your personal hell: fighting a tribe of Native Americans, watching Meriweather Lewis makin’ it with a bunch of ladies, or getting sprayed in the face by a zombie skunk?
Greg: There are so many follow up questions I have to the idea of a zombie skunk. If you get sprayed, do you become a zombie skunk? Are you overtaken by a burning need to eat other skunks? Does bathing in tomato juice still work as a cure? Suffice it to say, if other folks’ personal hells need annoying guys to ask these dumb questions for the rest of eternity, they can find me on Twitter.
Drew, you’re unequivocally correct in asserting that folks, from stalwarts of Old Important Art to The Simpsons, have a longstanding history of painting in the details of Hell with grotesque, fire-and-brimstone imagery. While I don’t identify as being Christian, I grew up attending an open-minded, liberally Lutheran church, and in all my time spent in Sunday School, Catechism, and services, the subject of Hell was broached with a simple sentence: Hell is defined as the absence of God. No talk of damned souls, of red-horned Devils, of bumping next to Hitler in line at the lake of fire. For many Christians, the idea of existing in a world with no God is fearsome enough.
But when you remove God, or more generally speaking a sense of “unifying purpose” from the equation, what remains? I would say, logically, all that remains is mankind’s purest, basest, most primal instincts and impulses. With no sense of structure, spine, or promise of meaning to existence, all we have to bank on is what we are at our core. Generally speaking, many artists tend to explore the idea that once stripped of these externally binding forces, we’re more-or-less factories of evil, dark, uninhibited decisions (The Lord Of The Flies, Fargo, “Homer’s Enemy”, etc.) This line of thought might explain Clark’s hallucinogen-addled dream — when “God” is taken away, he sees his primal self thinking of nothing but violence and destruction, and that’s hard to take for anyone.
Yet what of Lewis’ sexually pleasurable vision, one that he expresses wishing he could spend just a bit more time in? There’s an alternate, less widely accepted view to defining the “tenets” of Hell, one that stems from the roots of practicing Satanism as a religion. The “mother plant” articulates the philosophy explicitly:
To concern oneself so stringently with God, with order and logic, with “doing the right thing” can often be an exhausting cause of pain. Put it this way — hearing tales of my childhood priest spending his nights visiting criminals, addicts, and those of ill health tired me out just from hearing about it. In some ways, the Church of Satan advocates a reprieve from these self-inflicted and, from their point-of-view, often unnecessary stressors. The first of the Nine Satanic Statements, a Bizarro version of the Ten Commandments, states that “Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.” For Clark, the mother plant offers a retreat into these base impulses not as a negative, but a positive. These desires and wants exist in all of us — why not lean into them?
But then, as you point out, the issue reverts from these abstracted, mental explorations to depictions of the purely corporeal and procedural. Yet, as made clear by the sense of malaise caused by this experience, and need for baptism from it, their ongoing work will be forever influenced. Hopefully, this experience will continue to butt up against the task at hand, to provide tricky shadings of subtext and intrigue, to prove that the journey is not just across America but our human psyches as well.
Hmm. Maybe Hell is an overwrought comic critique.
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