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20 Jul

Co-Authored Chapter on the American Gothic and American History in the Comic Series Manifest Destiny

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"Out there hunting monsters": Manifest Destiny and the Monstrosity of the American West

Manifest Destiny (since 2013) looks back at and re-writes what Larry McMurtry called "the first American epic," Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's iconic expedition toward the West, a trail that scores of settlers followed in the ensuing decades. The blurb on the collected volume #1 tellingly suggests that Manifest Destiny "unveils the monsters of the western frontier"—and, indeed, the comic series does. However, as we will suggest in our contribution to this edited volume, these monsters are not the zombie-like creatures, the hybrid animals, and other fiends Lewis and Clark's party encounter on their fantastic journey, but rather the American explorers themselves, as Manifest Destiny literalizes—and visualizes—the American Gothic, which was inscribed into the western wilderness of the New World.

Indeed, the explorers' monstrosity, we will suggest, hinges on two interrelated aspects: First, they consciously construct history, suppressing that which might be detrimental to the American nation-building project. This mutability of history is made explicit as early as page two in the first issue, as Lewis not only stresses that there are two versions of their journal—the "classified document" intended for President Jefferson and the "congressional version"—but also crosses out parts of "historical reality" after putting them to paper, echoing the long and somewhat troubled editing history of the journals. This suppressive, and oppressive, desire drives their "manifest destiny" to conquer the Great West.

Second, the way Lewis and Clark engage with their natural (albeit fantastic) surroundings highlights the environmental Americanism at the core of the nation. John L. O'Sullivan, infamous coiner of the phrase "manifest destiny," anticipated Fredrick Turner's "frontier thesis" in the 1830s when he wrote that the "vigorous national heart of America" thrummed in "the wilderness." The frontier, accordingly, was the unlikely birthplace for American futurity, as noble gentlemen such as Lewis and Clark were transformed into brutes. In typical mythological fashion, the conquerors of the West would ideally emerge from their experience in the netherworlds of human existence as better men and thus help civilization progress, as the wilderness breeds American culture.

However, and this is key to Manifest Destiny's message, the frontier experience, the confrontation with an overpowering natural environment, unleashed the beast within purportedly civilized humanity. In this way, the comic series suggests that this beastly, monstrous heart beats in the chest of America, incessantly pumping the seeds of the American Gothic into American history.