Novel November

Uncle Sam

by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross

An older man, thin, white-haired, dressed in red, white, and blue ragged clothes, wanders the streets. He is penniless and homeless. He has pissed his pants. He might also be the physical embodiment of the American spirit known as Uncle Sam. I say “might” because Darnall and Ross leave open the possibility that the man is delusional and hallucinating throughout the book. Well, there is one scene that definitively comes down in favor of him being the actual, immortal Uncle Sam, but either way he's a great metaphor for a country that has lost its direction.

At the start of the book he’s just an old guy wandering the streets, looking for food, begging for money, having visions of the injustices committed by America. He walks into a store full of memorabilia, and we see pop culture icons of the past--a Superman model, a coonskin cap--and man it feels good to revisit all the great things of America's olden days. Then a sambo figurine comes to life and talks to Sam, and we remember we once used the cross-eyed, big-lipped caricatures of black people to sell products. I hope no one looks upon that time with nostalgia, and certainly not the time of lynchings that the figurine speaks to Sam about. Re witnessing those terrible days, Sam wonders if America has any moral groundings at all.

Sam visits other eras as well, and always he finds Americans suffering at the hands of other Americans. He sees the American Indians murdered and driven from their land, the atrocious conditions of POW camps in the American civil war. He’s not just a passive observer in his visions. He sees himself taking part in crushing Shays’ rebels, firing upon his fellow countrymen who only wanted fair taxation and economic equality, goals they had all fought for just a few years before in the revolution. He comes to the conclusion that even at its inception, America did not believe its own rhetoric of liberty and justice for all. The American dream was rotten from the start.

Are we duty-bound to admit, accept, and atone for our country’s sins? It's easy to declare past transgressions like slavery as evil, easy to point blame when removed from the acts by several generations. Maybe even now you like to point to all the terrible doings America is up to near and afar and cry “Hypocrisy!” Blame is far more fun to give than receive. But what are you doing to combat the evils? Are you feeding the hungry? Housing the homeless? Do you volunteer at shelters, donate to charities? If you do, are you doing enough? Can't you always do more? That's Sam's problem. He can't distance himself from his country's problems. He is America. When a mother takes on a third job and still can't provide sufficiently for her family, he hangs his head in shame. When a kid OD’s on junk, a part of him dies. When a politician lies about poison in the drinking water, Sam feels guilt. The failure between the ideals of America and the broken promises is tearing Uncle Sam apart.

He feels the country has been hijacked from him. He attends a rally and hears a politician speak. In a scene that would only work in comics, we see the politician’s coded speech on the page overlayed with his true message. The crowd hears the promise of a new day, while Sam hears his true plan to exploit the voters as the gullible stooges they are. This is not a person who hopes to be rewarded for helping out the right people. He plans from the start to take all for himself that he can. These are the people who are steering America toward its future. Sam understands that if left unchecked, they will drive us right over a cliff.

This book is not just a litany of America’s mistakes. It's a reminder that any attempt to erase or rewrite those mistakes will only lead to their repetition. There are people today attempting to pinpoint the best time in America's past, overlooking--either out of misguided ignorance, or deliberate racism or sexism--that this country has tripped at nearly every step since its inception. They want to return to a bygone era when America was great and folks respected the flag and god and didn't question their elders. But if you roll back the calendar any more than a decade, you find some portion of the population under oppression. Whenever I see sentiments like these voiced with full enthusiasm by people who ought to know better, I’m filled with the desire to burn the whole damn thing to the ground and build another. But books like Uncle Sam are a welcome reminder that at least some people are aware of and are actively battling our faults. Meet them head on, don’t flinch, don't blink. This is how we get stronger.

The artwork in this book is amazing. If you're not familiar with Alex Ross’ work, this is a perfect introduction. Ross paints in an ultra realistic style, similar to Norman Rockwell, just with more capes and punches. The color palette is gorgeous, and the splash pages are a true wonder to behold. The story takes a hard, focused look at America’s history and its current commercialized, plasticized veneer. The realistic artwork is a perfect match for that viewpoint. There is ugliness on the page, blood, decay. But there is also glory, and if we want to be honest about ourselves, if we hope to heal our wounds and achieve greatness at last, we must be willing to stare unfiltered at not only the beauty we create, but also the shadows we cast.

old timey typewriter

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