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Friday, July 1, 2016

Panel Vision - Uncle Sam

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It’s Fourth of July Weekend here in the US and, given my obsessive need for topicality, that means reviewing something American.  This Independence Day I’m going to be focusing on one of my all time favorite comics starring one of my all time favorite superheroes: Uncle Sam.  I’ve already covered Uncle Sam’s history on this program but if you need a refresher: Uncle Sam was a 1940s superhero version of the famous propaganda character.  He doesn’t really have an origin in the conventional sense, but rather just exists as a persistent embodiment of the American Spirit.

That’s a weird set-up for a superhero at the best of times so Sam’s always had an eclectic history in comics.  Case in point, in the late ‘90s, one of the most fertile times in DC Comics’ entire history, the people running DC decided to give Uncle Sam over to their newly formed imprint Vertigo Comics for a 2 issue prestige graphic novel.  The result is one of the most challenging and politically charged works to come out of superhero comics this side of Civil War or that one time it turned out Nixon was part of the Secret Empire. 

Before I dive in 1997’s Uncle Sam comic let’s talk a little about the people who produced it: Vertigo Comics.  Vertigo came up in the ‘90s as a response to the new wave of great British talent that was flooding the comic marketplace.  British authors had been a hot commodity to superhero books ever since Alan Moore blew in out of nowhere and transformed comics into New York Times bestsellers. 

Come the ‘90s there were a bunch of other British authors with similar sensibilities so DC decided rather than force them to tone it down for the main universe they’d give them their own imprint specifically for adult audiences.  It was a smart idea, allowing the writers greater control of the series without having to worry about the status quo and even transforming forgotten characters like Swampthing, Sandman, and Shade, the changing man, into critical darlings. 

By 1997 all three of those characters had gone from DC obscurities to comic book hot properties and with Marvel declaring bankruptcy a year earlier and the extreme craze championed by Image Comics on its last legs DC was on top of the world.  Uncle Sam was, more or less, an attempt to make the Vertigo lightning strike for a fourth time, taking the character of Uncle Sam from a bizarre background player into a major name.  Obviouly that didn’t happen but it’s a fascinating attempt and I remain convinced that if Uncle Sam had been produced today it would be consider an all time classic of the superhero genre. 

Remember, this is from 1997, 20 years ago
The set-up is a little hard to explain in that, like most Vertigo Comics, Uncle Sam is steeped in metaphysics and ideology rather than fisticuffs and physical struggle.  As such, the actual, tangible plot of the comic is almost non-existent as the only stuff that we see in the real world is Uncle Sam wandering around some nameless city and rambling like a crazy homeless person. 

Where things get clever, to the point that a ton of other authors have ripped this off, is that the reason Sam seems crazy is that he’s a homeless super being, a living spirit of American promise and freedom trying to contain the entire American history and experience within his one mind.  That’s a brilliant take on the character and a great way to repurpose his position as such an iconic symbol of Americana into something meaningful instead of just a peculiar side note. 

What’s more, it provides an innate and immediate conflict that’s really interesting and worth digging into.  See, while Sam represents the ideal of America and the promise of freedom that represents, his connection to the country means he must constantly countenance this idea with the reality of a broken system and a history steeped in blood and prejudice.  This allows the book to frame Sam as a defense of America as a nation that can be great and do great things while his constant visions and insanities confront the fact of America’s many failures, both historical and contemporary. 

This turns the whole comic into something closer to a surreal vision quest more than anything else, with Sam encountering figures in the present reflecting the compromised nature of his history, horrific flashes of everywhere America is currently falling to pieces, flashbacks to his own place in moments of American history, and even vision of a strange pocket of idealized reality where everything exists as an icon or symbol for the larger world.  The stuff with Sam encountering augmented versions of reality that only he can see is a pretty unique way to slot us into his worldview and explain how he ended up a rambling homeless super being. 

Seeing him argue with disembodied voices, seeing figures of history reflected in people of the moment, and able to hear the “truth” behind political platitudes gives you the sense of how incredibly strange and frustrating it must be to exist as a spirit of freedom and history in the modern world.  

There’s a pretty great scene at a political rally where Sam hears the Senator’s victory speech as a callous and contemptuous declaration for the success of greed, manipulation, fear over the forces of progress and good sense.  It’s a heavy-handed sequence to be sure and I’ll get back to the political bent in a bit but as a way of emphasizing Sam’s weird relationship reality it gets the point across. 

The flashbacks across American history are the real standouts of the comic though, as their brevity allows them to exist as these moving little vignettes from periods like the dustbowl, the civil war, the revolutionary war, the massacre of the Blackhawk Indians, and other harsh realities of American history.  These parts, along with the flashes of contemporary American failure, are the strongest in the whole comic as they emphasize the conflict Sam has through simply existing. 

He essentially has to hold the entire country in his head, all of its emotions, fears, and failures as well as the triumphs and hopes and most of the book is basically just him trying to live with the reality of his situation.  It also helps that the art, by Alex Ross, is just incredible.  Nobody in comics renders the mythic sweep of scope or the subtle detail of the human face like Alex Ross and he does some of his best work here.  The entire series is all hand painted by Ross and it makes for a deeply moving and truly human experience amid all the myth and iconography. 

Speaking of which, the elements of the story that feel most inclined towards spawning a series are also pretty compelling.  While the first issue is mainly grounded in Sam’s journey through time the second issue has him encountering a strange plane of reality populated with fellow national icons like him.  He meets Britannia, the Russian Bear, Marianne, spirit of the French Revolution, and Columbia, Sam’s female counterpart. 

This is where the story goes from urban fantasy to something much more in line with a superhero narrative.  The very idea of “superhero” stories is a kind of nebulous term but I’d be willing to consider this a superhero story as it does revolve around a colorfully costumed hero with amazing abilities marshalling his strength to fight a deadly villain.

That’s the final conclusion of the whole comic, after travelling to the plane of icons Sam encounters this bizarre, plastic version of himself.  The idea seems to be that the shiny plastic version of Sam is the embodiment of jingoistic American patriotism, a force for blind patriotism and conflict rather than self-examination or the drive to improve yourself.  Given how steeped all of this is in the realms of myth and iconography the two’s battle is one more of reality and fantasy, something akin to a wizard’s duel only, because comics, in the form of a giant fist fight. 

Yeah, that’s one of the awesome things about this comic, despite being steeped in a harsh critique of America’s history and current situation and an acceptance that true exceptionalism comes from being aware of your failures and working to correct them, it all ends with a fight between the two giant sized Uncle Sams in Washington DC.  

It’s like the world’s strangest Kaiju battle but it’s still pretty great, especially the way the fight is essentially just a metaphor for Sam forcing his evil twin to accept the American reality rather than the hollow fantasy he’s built for himself, to the point that the weight of the truth is so destructive and the fantasy so insubstantial the fake Sam is blown away. 

I mentioned earlier that I’d get back to the comic’s politics and yeah; this is where the book can lose me a bit.  It’s not I disagree with its stand point it’s just that some of the speechifying can get pretty damn taxing.  It’s all very anti-capitalist which, I mean I do agree with but there’s not even like the hint of a two-sided argument being presented here.  

There’s enough material in America’s frankly terrible relationship with corporate interests to fuel the book’s righteous anger but I do feel like it’d be interesting to see how that would be countenanced against American industrialists like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller or any of the other men who defined the American consciousness in the later 19th century. 

However, all the stuff that’s actually coming down on America’s current flaws are still shockingly spot on even 20 years after the fact.  Any time Sam shows off stuff like violent racism and bigotry, economic stagnation, political inaction or malpractice, or environmental collapse rings incredibly true to the right now in a way that’s frankly chilling. 

Uncle Sam is not necessarily a comic for everyone but it’s certainly a comic for me and I get the sense a lot of folks would probably really love it if they knew about it.  Superhero stories often get a bad wrap as being empty and devoid of substance but this comic is exhibit A in the long list of ways superhero books can be about something.  

Even more than having a purpose, that animating idea and philosophy aren’t relegated to the background or subtext here: they’re the core of the comic’s focus and conflict.  If anything, the superhero components, the costumes, fistfights, and iconic myth, are what takes up the background while the searing political critique and harsh historical reality take center stage.  If you’re looking for a superhero story that puts ideas front and center this is the comic for you. 
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