The Common Good
November-December 1998

Uncle Sam Wants You

by Nate Solloway | November-December 1998

A graphic portrayed of mythic proportions.

These days it gets harder and harder to be a patriot. The United States has never been the idealistic bastion of freedom and hope that many wished it to be, but historically symbols embodying the strengths of this dream have spurred Americans on.

Unfortunately, these symbols have been co-opted into perverse parodies of their intent: The magnificent bald eagle, a beautiful natural symbol of elegance and beauty, has been stolen by the military-industrial complex as a symbol of might-makes-right; the Statue of Liberty is virtually ignored as we drive the masses from our shores. Steve Darnall and Alex Ross take a fresh look at another symbol embodying the spirit of idealism in DC Comics’ limited series, Uncle Sam.

The Uncle Sam pictured in Alex Ross’ magnificently painted pages differs from the star-spangled gentleman usually portrayed in political cartoons and the classic "I Want You" Army posters. We first meet this Uncle Sam as a homeless derelict dressed in the remains of a Yankee Doodle suit. Ignored by the masses and unsure of his own identity, Sam takes the readers on a walk across America and through some of the unsavory events of U.S. history.

With Sam we revisit the massacre of the Blackhawk tribe in 1832 and witness the savagery committed there in the name of Western expansion. Sam’s "demented" conversation with a lawn jockey brought to life offers a brief glimpse of this country’s horrifying actions toward its African-American population even through the mid-20th century. Sam’s horror mirrors that of the reader as these atrocities confront our own nationalistic identity.

Just as powerful are Sam’s glimpses of life in modern day United States. The book bombards us with hundreds of media-inspired images: farm foreclosures, the bombed Murrah building, racially motivated attacks, and innocents suffering here in the "land of the free."

Several times on this journey, Sam encounters an eerie apparition of another Uncle Sam that has displaced him. This Uncle Sam 2 is a dapper, smooth-talking spirit of the "modern American people." It’s over old man. Let go, the disgraceful spirit encourages the embodiment of U.S. idealism. But Uncle Sam, wearing a threadbare blue coat and red-and-white pants with holes in the knees, unyieldingly continues his passage of self-discovery to Staten Island. Here in the shadow of another near-forgotten symbol, Uncle Sam makes his resolve. There are principalities and powers in the United States that must be confronted.

THE CLIMAX OF this pilgrimage takes place at the U.S. Capitol building. The newly invigorated Uncle Sam faces down his doppelganger, a 200-foot tall image that resides on a throne of TV sets and smokes cigars made from $50 bills. The misguided, shiny creature eerily spouts ideas that are all too real in today’s society. He haughtily espouses "[I]n my America everything’s the truth! And there’s no quagmires. No malaise, no national nightmares-there’s no doubt! Just my country, right or wrong!"

However, the Uncle Sam who has crawled out of the gutter steps forward to reclaim the dream. "You’re not America! You’ll never be America!" Uncle Sam says to this puffbag of empty platitudes. While the creature tries to ignore the mistakes of the past, Uncle Sam is somehow empowered by them, learning and apologizing for the mistakes and moving forward with the dream of justice for all.

Apparently the battle is won, but there is no grand change to the United States. No utopia results from this confrontation. At the end, Uncle Sam is once again walking the streets, the lowest common denominator. However, there is a certain spring to his step, a certain hope that fills his activities. Uncle Sam has gone on a journey of self-discovery. In the darkest parts of our history, he finds the strength to see goals to strive for.

Uncle Sam takes back the symbolism of freedom and equality, ideals we have not yet reached but should be forever striving for. Uncle Sam’s journey is one for all of us.

NATE SOLLOWAY, a former Sojourners intern, is now a computer geek with Reliacom in Washington, D.C.

Uncle Sam. Alex Ross and Steve Darnall. DC Comics, 1997.

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