Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam, United States, us. This graphic novel tells the story of a nation finding its way. Uncle Sam reminds us where we have been, and for better or worse, who we’ve become. In Alex Ross‘ signature, nostalgic, photo-realistic style, the events and characters appear as if they really exist. Though the story was written almost ten years ago, its powerful message still resonates in an era ruled by fear and discord.

Super Hero Reborn

While this book does not take lace in the canon universe of DC Comics, it does tip its star-spangled hat to the Uncle Sam character of comic book lore. Created by comic legend Will Eisner in the 1940’s, the hero version of Uncle Sam was strong, noble, and tough. He had no tolerance for the wrongdoing of Nazis or Communists or mad scientists or any combination therein. While the artistic, cultural, and aesthetic values of heroes from this era are beyond debate, their usefulness as icons has certainly diminished. Two dimensional heroes like this are, if anything, an effigy to the reality of the modern world. This is perhaps why heroes like Batman, who is deeply torn by internal conflict, is well-received in modern times, and has darkened with age. America is not the brazen youth it once was. Our enemies are not so clearly defined, and we are now haunted by the demons of our past.

Columbia and History

It is exactly those demons which return to our national consciousness in this book. Sam is portrayed as a braying mad man. An apparent schizophrenic, he roams the streets as a homeless destitute in search of something he cannot describe. He repeats platitudes which bring him some temporary comfort, but which make him appear like more of a lunatic to those around him. Some have claimed, in critical reception of the book, that this is an unfitting representation of a time-honored character. To the contrary, the best measure of a nation’s success is by taking the pulse of its base. There are many, many poor people in America. Many of them have grave mental and physical illnesses which go untreated. They are suffering, and Sam was representative of that.

A series of other apparitions appear to Sam along the way, reminding him of past troubles. A lawn jockey reminds him of slavery, a Blackhawk tribesman reminds him of the Indian wars, and he himself revisits Shay’s Rebellion, the military prison at Andersonville, and numerous other historical events.

He is also visited by the spirits of other nations. French, British, and Russian spirits visit him in reminder of their roles, their trials, and how the enemy faced by America today is far more dangerous than any of them, or any villains from the past.

Finally, it is his counterpart, Columbia, who plays the biggest role in Sam’s transformation of understanding. Historically, Columbia is the female personification of the United States. She takes the personification of a series of nurturing female roles in Sam’s delusions, finally taking on her classical Neo-Roman appearance. She, like Sam, is aged, but retains a grace and nobility alien to the haggard arsenal. Columbia tells Sam that she led him this far because he needed to remember what has happened in the past, if he is to face the challenges of the future.

Patriotism and the Enemy

One of the most frightening yet current themes in dystopian stories is reference made to a vague “enemy.” Like in something from George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, this sort of fear-mongering has empowered countless leaders to strip their constituents of their rights. It isn’t always a Communist or terrorist hiding behind the next bush. The book reminds us that this kind of manipulation can use terms like “environmentalist,” “socialist,” “liberal,” or “pacifist” to vilify, scapegoat, and control. It is this very perversion of truth that Uncle Sam, as a proxy for all of us, must face.

The Anti-Sam, a doppelganger who haunts Sam through the book, represents everything that is “wrong” with America. In a land haunted by its past, facing shameful poverty, and fraught with corruption, Anti-Sam sits on a throne of television sets which distract and misinform, overlooking Washington, DC. He smokes a cigar made of dollar bills, and snuffs it out on the capitol rotunda. He is portrayed as offensive, arrogant, deceitful, and malicious. Like the hero Sam, he spouts truisms and sound bites to break up and deflect arguments of logic and reason. Ultimately, Sam must defeat his opponent by staying true to his original virtues. He acknowledges that mistakes were made, but he acknowledges progress and embraces who he is.

Opinion

This book has a very strong, subversive, yet patriotic theme. Its political agenda is very clear, and this is probably why it has yielded such flack. It would be hard for people with right-leaning political views to read this book without becoming defensive. One person who I suggested this book to, felt it was “un-American.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. This book made me feel proud to be an American again. Despite all our flaws, all of our troubles, we have made tremendous progress over the years, and the United States has a great deal to be proud of. It is wrong to shun the mistakes of the past. It is un-American to ignore corruption and wrongdoing in our government. Without doing those things, we lose who we are, and we lose any hope of ridding ourselves of our problems today. America is still a long way from the White City by the unsalted sea, but if it stays true to its promise, the great pleasure of future generations will be in seeing how far we actually get.

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