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Manifest Destiny vol. 1: Flora and Fauna

June 6, 2014

Everyone knows about Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition through the territory gained by the Louisiana Purchase and how they were meant to catalogue the wildlife, sights and inhabitants along the way.  Yet what if that was only the public explanation for their journey?  What if they were really under orders from President Jefferson to find out about the strange creatures of myth and horror that were hiding in these largely unexplored lands?  That’s the premise of this new series from writer Chris Dingess and artist Matthew Roberts.  Save for a few missteps in characterization and tone, this volume reads like a great adventure in the wild and early days of this nation’s history.

To explore these lands, Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark -- the respective brains and brawn of this operation -- have assembled a motley crew of soldiers without any family and prisoners looking to earn pardons for their crimes.  These men haven’t been told anything about the real nature of their mission, and after a while even Lewis and Clark begin to doubt that there’s anything all that strange out here.  That quickly changes when they come upon an unnatural arch by the riverside and are assaulted by a half-horse/half-buffalo creature.  As it soon becomes clear that it’s not the only one of its kind in the wilds, the party takes shelter in a nearby fort with another unique problem of its own:  Humans turned into plant zombies with a collective intelligence!  With threats like these abounding in the wild, it would seem that Lewis, Clark, and company will have their work cut out for them in their catalogue of strangeness.

Now I realize that I’ve probably lost some people with the whole “plant zombie people” business as we seem to be moving into zombie overkill in pop culture these days.  There’s still room for imaginative takes on the subject, but even though we’re treated to some plant/animal/zombie action late in the story, what we get here doesn’t really qualify.  However, that’s not the biggest problem in this volume as Dingess makes some rather odd choices regarding characterization for his cast.  Giving Lewis and Clark history as Indian killers doesn’t really do anything to endear them to the reader.  Having them relate how the marched some Native Americans off a cliff in Ohio and how they’ll be lucky to avoid the flames of Hell in a perfectly nonchalant manner is as clumsy as it is baffling.

We’ve also got another puzzler in how their Indian guide, Sacagawea, is introduced as well.  She’s clearly forged in the mold of a badass fighter -- if you’ve ever seen Christophe Gans’ “The Brotherhood of the Wolf” then you’ll know what they’re going for here -- and we get plenty of scenes to show that off over the course of the volume.  There’s also the matter of how she’s also played up as the wife of French guide Toussaint who takes all the credit for her kills and proudly announces that she’s carrying his seed.  I realize this may be a cover to keep her badassness secret from the untrustworthy white men, so I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt here even though this isn’t a very satisfying status quo so far.

So if you can get past these things, and they’re thankfully only minor parts of the story, what’s left is a rousing adventure of man vs. nature with nature bringing all of the cool toys to this conflict.  The idea that this unexplored land is full of mystery and strangeness is established quite well early on with Lewis’ fears that his president’s concerns about the weird things lurking out West were unfounded quickly giving way to the Buffalotaur and plant zombies.  Over the course of the volume, the stakes are raised quite effectively with a massive free-for-all in the forest marking the book’s climax.

Though this may sound like the book is more of a horror title, Dingess pitches the tone more towards adventure than anything else.  We get plenty of humor in between the party’s battles with the monsters (and sometimes in the middle of it) and the story is clearly more interested in surprising its readers with plot twists than making them jump at the things which come out of the shadows.  It’s all about exploring the unknown, finding out if the things that inhabit it are friendly or not, and if they aren’t -- what’s the best way to go about taking them out.

In fact, Indian-killing aside, Lewis and Clark make for very engaging protagonists along this journey.  While they fall into the established tropes of one providing the book smarts while the other provides the brawn, it’s made clear from their interactions that these men are good friends whose traits complement each other.  It’s fun seeing them banter about the strange things they encounter and work together to come up with a strategy to deal with them.  As for the rest of their crew, they’re not characterized as well with the ne’er-do-well Jensen getting the most time to establish that he’s a ne’er-do-well and the closest thing this title has to an actual villain.  We do get introductions to some of the other crew members, so I’m hoping they’ll be fleshed out as the series goes on.

One other reason the title works so well as an adventure is due to Roberts’ art.  He gives us some bright and bold work that, along with Owen Gieni’s colors, really dispels the notion of this title being any kind of horror story.  It’s very attractive to look at and appreciate all the detail that Roberts puts into the book as well.  We see lots of trees, and foliage over the course of the book as the artist doesn’t skimp on background detail, or the detail in his characters for that matter, and it’s impressive to see it all on the page.  I’d never heard of Roberts before this and I hope he sticks around after this arc as it’s tough to imagine this book being as enjoyable without his art.

Yes, this first volume of “Manifest Destiny” has its issues, but they’re outshone by story, its protagonists, and the art which all come together to form a very fun package.  As Lewis and Clark’s journey has just begun, one expects that this is only the beginning of the weirdness they’re going to encounter in these unexplored territories and that Dingess and Roberts have more imaginative threats for them to face down the line.  After what I’ve read here, I’ll be sticking around to see just what they are.

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