The first issue of “Manifest Destiny,” Chris Dingess and Matthew Roberts’ retelling of the Lewis and Clark expedition, does a quite a lot with a little. Working with well-worn material in what can be a tricky genre for comics, they set out strong characters and a promising premise that could expand into a very interesting adventure. While this issue didn’t truly excite or engross, it definitely intrigued — and I’ll be picking up the second one to see where it goes.
The character work is stand-out. Even though the reader is introduced to about a half dozen men, each feels memorable and even a bit fleshed out. This is a great example of what comics can do; the art and the text work seamlessly together to create these characters, with neither component bearing the brunt of the work. Dingess weaves in so many quick, key moments that illustrate clear (but broad) traits for each of the expedition members. Roberts, meanwhile, draws marvelously striking faces. For a cast that’s almost entirely white dudes in matching uniforms, every face feels entirely distinct. Together, these two elements create an easy-to-know cast. Clark is the man of action, strict with the recruits and good with a gun. Lewis is the artsy naturalist, taking almost childish delight in the natural world they’re in. Admittedly, the villain of the piece, Jensen, and his unwitting accomplice, Wally, feel a bit stock at first introduction. Jensen (complete with nefarious black top hat) at least feels dangerous, but without any clear motives or methods to his menace.
Owen Gieni brings a deft hand to the coloring. For most scenes, he draws nicely on traditional frontier duns and greens. This palette adds an old-timey-notebook feel to Roberts’ inks, so that many panels feel like pages out of Lewis’ own journal. Matched with the lettering by Pat Brosseau, it’s all very pleasant and period.
The supernatural scenes, however, were what really impressed me. Gieni injects vibrant splashes of color, and Roberts makes full use of the full-page spread, so these scenes feel weird and surprising. Yet they still felt so much like the rest of the book. The fantastic is made to feel like a natural part of the frontier, which almost makes it more disconcerting. One panel in particular epitomized this appeal for me; it was a close-up of a flower that looked at once like a detailed botanist’s rendering and a creepy, sentient face. Roberts is someone to watch.
On a more sociopolitical note, the dialogue touches only carefully on the prejudiced worldviews of its protagonists. I’ll be watching to see how they handle that aspect in a story that reframes the Discovery Corps as an expedition to find monsters, when the original was largely about finding more about the Native Americans. This is not to say that anything in the issue gave immediate cause for worry. It just didn’t come up, so for readers who want to know how that’ll be handled before reading, I can’t make any promises.
Historical fiction can be a gamble in comics. For a serial storytelling form where part of what keeps the plot moving is the question, “What’s going to happen next?”, a genre where everyone by definition knows what happens next can be a hard sell. By keeping it weird and focusing on their characters, Dingess and Roberts make a great case for how well it can work.