Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Manifest Destiny #11. Written by Chris Dingess (Being Human, Reaper) with art by Matthew Roberts (Battle Pope: Mayhem) and colorist Owen Gieni (Glory, Shutter), this issue concludes the title’s second arc with a chapter that highlights the natural spectacle, gruesome horror, and complex character dynamics that have made it one of the year’s best ongoing series. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
As a former writer on TV shows like Being Human and Reaper, Chris Dingess is no stranger to high concepts. For his first comic-book project, Manifest Destiny, he takes an unconventional approach to the horror genre by rooting his story in American history, specifically the Western expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark. As the two men lead a crew of soldiers and convicts across the American frontier, they discover an environment filled with deadly creatures like plant zombies, buffalo centaurs, and man-eating frogs, learning that the majesty of their country hides a mysterious ecosystem filled with danger.
Manifest Destiny combines the revisionist history of Sleepy Hollow with the ensemble-based survival horror of The Walking Dead, a premise that has proven immensely engaging over the past year thanks to Dingess’ balance of visceral terror, emotional drama, and dark comedy. The other, absolutely essential part of the equation for this book’s success is the art team of Matthew Roberts and colorist Owen Gieni, who bring a magnificent sense of scope to the story with their sprawling landscapes while still capturing all the nuances of the script in its more intimate moments.
Dingess’ story operates on two levels of horror: The first is a spectacular, rousing mode, mining fear and exhilaration from the crew’s encounters with the fantastic creatures of their environment. The second is more psychological in nature, exploring how the traumatic events of the expedition are affecting the behavior of the cast members and influencing them to become more primal in the wild setting. In the current storyline, this layered approach comes through on land and in the water as Lewis and Clark are separated by the aforementioned man-eating frog, labeled a “Ranidea” by Lewis.
Lewis and the boat are stuck on an underwater arch and trapped by the Ranidea while Clark and a small group of crew members—including Irene, a young woman civilian, and Sacagawea, the group’s guide and resident monster hunter—are stranded on land, where they encounter a species of giant mosquitoes that lay eggs inside their victims by piercing their flesh. That stark image of penetration is an unsettling visual representation of the psychological horror in Lewis’ group, which takes the form of Irene’s attempted rape by Colonel Hardy, the man tasked with protecting her.
In this week’s Manifest Destiny #11, Lewis comes up with a plan to free the boat from the arch by using the Ranidea’s power. Clark will string up the disgraced Hardy as hanging bait to lure the Ranidea out of the water, and when it is airborne, Lewis will stab it with a harpoon. Much of this book’s appeal comes from seeing how Lewis and Clark will make their way out of these difficult situations with the limited resources they have, and it’s a lot of fun to see how Dingess uses science to save the day. Despite the fantastic concept, there’s still a slight educational element to a historical fiction about Lewis and Clark, and this title consistently keeps the mind stimulated while still offering crowd-pleasing horror adventure.
Few comics today use the page turn as well as Manifest Destiny, with each two-page sequence building to a big reveal at the start of the next two-page sequence. A major part of the impact comes from the team’s exceptional use of splash pages, putting the emphasis on key images that evoke specific reactions with incredible force. This skillful pacing is evident in the very first page turn of #11. Page one establishes a sense of calm after the chaos of the last issue, but the horrors are far from over; we already know what happens when people are bit by these mosquitoes, and Bullock and Russel have just come back covered in bites.
The tension amplifies in a three-panel sequence as a knife is placed in boiling water before cutting into a protruding lump of flesh, and the page turn reveals a full-page close-up of a bloody mosquito being pulled out of the incision with a pair of tweezers, a snapshot of horror realized in grotesque detail. Gieni’s colors heighten the disgust by placing the insect against a white-hot fire, providing a blank background to emphasize all the nasty strands of blood latching to the bug as it is pulled out of the skin.
That kind of tight zoom on a visual so unsettling and so realistic would be immensely disturbing on film, but there’s a beauty to it when captured in a still image that is framed and detailed to evoke a specific feeling of revulsion. You can linger on that still image in a way that you can’t with a moving picture, and by making it so huge, the creative team is asking the reader to spend more time with it and really let it sink in. The punchline at the bottom of the page depends on that image making a huge impact; seeing one surgical bug removal is bad enough, and now there are just two dozen more to go.
The page turn reveals aren’t always scary, but there’s always a build followed by some kind of release. One of those reveals is a thrilling shot of the Ranidea jumping in the air after getting a taste of Hardy’s blood, and another marks a major turning point for Lewis after he dives into the water to save his crew. The page before creates a somber atmosphere as Lewis’ sullen crew watches blood float to the surface, but the page turn explodes that mood with a triumphant shot of Lewis on the Ranidea’s back, stabbing it furiously.
This moment is where the psychological horror element comes into play for the water-bound half of this arc, exposing that the bookish, restrained Lewis has a dark side of his own that has been waiting for the right opportunity to claw its way to the surface. There are two beasts in the water: the Ranidea and the raging human riding its back. That dynamic is reflected in Roberts’ tight layouts that zoom in on specific moments of the carnage, and Gieni’s expressive color palette of warm shades that increase in intensity from bright yellow to blood red. While Gieni has done phenomenal work on this series bringing dimension and depth to Roberts’ dense natural landscapes and impeccably designed flora and fauna, he’s equally skilled at enhancing major emotional moments through his colors, and Lewis’ moment of fury is a prime example of that talent.
Dingess and Roberts are new to the world of ongoing comics, which makes their accomplishments on Manifest Destiny all the more impressive. Not only are they delivering a tense, captivating, and utterly gorgeous comic, they’re doing it on a monthly basis with no delays. (The book does take a much-needed skip month when new collections are released, giving the art team the chance to get ahead.) These two dove into the deep end with a highly ambitious creator-owned monthly project, and they’ve made the book a huge success by finding an equally ambitious collaborator in Gieni and fiercely committing to a regular schedule without sacrificing quality. As if that weren’t enough, Manifest Destiny is also $2.99, making it one of the industry’s best buys for the price.
With $3.99 as the market standard, any title at the $2.99 price immediately stands out. Image is one of the only publishers that puts out $2.99 comics that each have their own distinct style and design sense, and they often feature all-star creative teams. In addition to Manifest Destiny, this week also sees the release of new issues of Supreme: Blue Rose and Trees, two meticulously designed $2.99 comics by high-profile writer Warren Ellis. And next week, Image has six $2.99 comics: Goners, Oddly Normal, Revival, Sheltered, The Walking Dead, and Zero. With a huge variety of books at attractive prices, it’s no surprise that Image has been steadily increasing its market share with each month, and hopefully this ongoing paradigm shift means the day will come soon when a creator-owned title like Manifest Destiny can sell on the same level as Superman or Spider-Man.