The Funnies Ain't So Funny Anymore

By Omri 

Issue #6 

      So here I was last week, expecting to fill this week’s column with tons of praise for Uncle Sam by Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, but it looks like that’s never going to happen.  When I picked this up at the NY comiccon, I thought I had stumbled into a forgotten piece of history.  I honestly believed that this was one of those masterpieces no one has ever heard of, thus made even better for those select few in the know who get their hands on it.  Expectations were very high, and deliverables… not so much.  I tried to remain objective when reading this Vertigo title.  Tried to keep my political views in check so that I could assess the quality of storytelling on its own merits.  Whether I agreed or disagreed with the ideas presented, I tried to disconnect myself from the implications therein.  Apparently, that was not enough.  There seems to be a legitimate reason why this two-issue miniseries never made any noise among readers. 

      The premise is simple: America has lost its ways.  The ideas and values on which it was created have been perverted or forgotten, and it is time to pick them up again and reincorporate them into the nation.  Not too ambitious a premise if you ask me.  There is nothing wrong with reminiscing the days past or trying to cling to the last vestiges of old ways.  Neil Gaiman’s American Gods did a splendid job at this (albeit in prose and not in graphic format), creating human equivalents to both old and new religions, technologies and general objects of worship/ dependence, pitting them against each other.  This Uncle Sam, appropriately titled U.S., follows the same footsteps, attempting the same concept but with disastrous results.  We have our Uncle Sam (who looks like our cannon DCU Uncle Sam but has nothing else in common except the name), Britannia, Marianne and a large brown bear (the British, French and Soviet equivalents), Columbia (a female equivalent to U.S.), and another Uncle Sam who has come to replace ours.  Each one of these characters represents their entire nation, or as we later learn, the ideals on which that nation was founded.  All these characters have something else in common – they have all fallen, and are lost or forgotten. 

      Throughout the story, Uncle Sam falls in and out of conscience, going from reality to history in a heartbeat.  Some of these shifts are way too fast to catch up with, others are too disorienting, and none of them allow the reader to get a firm enough grasp on the situation.  We go from Sam apparent raving madness in a hospital to the War of Independence, then back to the streets and all of a sudden are inside president Kennedy’s head instants before he is shot.  Though each event on its own is confusing, it’s easy to understand that Sam IS America.  His memories take us through all the wars, all the conflicts and all the mistakes.  Though amnesiac, he does realize those are HIS memories he is re-living, though he still does not know who he is or what he is supposed to do from here on.  On paper, this seems like a good concept.  Take the symbol of the nation, and portray him lost, confused and on the verge of madness.  In practice… the execution was fairly poor.  Don’t get me wrong, Alex Ross’ art was simply stunning, but the issues at hand basically hit us on the head like a brick.  There is no subtlety, no hidden meanings, and no cunning ways of hiding the message.  It just screams at you: THIS IS WHAT WE THINK AMERICA HAS COME TO!  It is too obvious, and leaves no room for the reader’s imagination or even his own interpretation of the ideas given his personal experiences.  This is made even more obvious when we are presented with the parade of characters described above, going through the French Revolution, Imperialist England and Communist Russia, all three concepts that do not exist anymore, treating Uncle Sam like one of them – not ideas, but forgotten ones.  Then add a couple more history scenes depicting how far from the American Dream the nation had drifted, and all we get is a mishmash of ideas jumbled together in a salad of literary concepts, none of which are powerful enough to stand up on their own.  By this time, it is fairly obvious to the reader that Sam is lost and hopeless, but it seems the writers have not had enough.  They just need to pile a couple more of these new symbols on us, including snipers from rooftops, civil unrest, and how women were not allowed to vote for the longest time.  By now, it had become fairly boring.  I was about to drop it altogether if it wasn’t for this column that I promised I would write. 

      Baring with it for a little longer, I kept flipping the pages until Uncle Sam confronted the new Uncle Sam.  The “new” spirit of America has the same name and likeness, but this one is much more focused and self- centered.  Sitting on a mountain of mass media and smoking a roll of hundred dollar bills (if that’s not too obvious, I don’t know what is), this other Sam keeps throwing slogan after slogan, claiming to be the herald of the 21st century, the age of technology, truth and clear-cut lines between right and wrong.  Our Sam responds with the statement “It’s a big advertisement for a product that doesn’t exist,” and the new Sam goes into a fit and punches old Sam in the face.  With every punch, new Sam becomes more and more scared and loses integrity.  Old Sam just takes these punches, taunting new Sam with each coming one.  And then, as quickly as it began, old Sam disintegrates and blows in the wind.  Old Sam smiles, takes his hat, and walks away happy and content.  So I ask you here:  What has just happened?  Page after page we suffered through this repetition of helplessness and wrongs done to people and all of a sudden, in a single panel, Sam awakens from a dream and becomes a crusader.  He confronts his replacement, and before you know what has happened, a beaten and bruised Uncle Sam emerges victorious and new Sam, who was truly beating him, just vanishes.  Too fast, too sudden, and too incomprehensible.  The idea of a new spirit of America was a good one.  The confrontation of words and ideals was inevitable.  But what was the meaning behind this being over so fast?  How has old Sam defeated new Sam with a single insult?  Why is old Sam depicted to have won if the nation is still headed in new Sam’s direction?  The one-sided physical fight was there to show that America had become a violent country, but hadn’t our Sam just showed us countless memories of wars he gladly participated in? Besides, this was published in 1997, before the current war frenzy, and is thus a little devoid of context.  The ending was too absurd, and felt more like a quick and dirty ending once the creative team discovered they had no way out of the story they had created.  Their original ideas were noble: they wanted readers to realize that their society is far from perfect, and that the new standards of consumerism and self-absorption were far from ideal.  The result, however, does not help anyone.  The new ways just simply vanish in the wind, and all of a sudden everything is perfect again.  There’s no indication of how or why, or what readers might or should do about it.  And if there is, it’s buried too deep in a book that from the beginning showed us not to look behind the lines because everything was out in the open.  And as a final kicker, once Uncle Sam finds himself and goes on to forge his new path, the final panel has Britannia picking up the leftovers he leaves behind, clearly indicating the writer’s belief that other nations are dependent on the U.S., and the superiority complex is still there despite Sam claiming otherwise. My final verdict is still inconclusive on this one.  If someone you know has this miniseries and you have some free time, the art in it is worth a quick read.  If not, do yourself a favor and save your money for better books.  There are plenty of good political comic books out there; this one is simply not one of them. 

      “I have a dream.  It’s a good dream…  But it’s all I have.”  - Uncle Sam 

      Until next time,