Uncle Sam
by Steve Darnell, Alex Ross
(Vertigo, 1997)

He's old, haggard and tired. He's confused, often sinking into flashbacks of days gone by and muttering quotes from politicians from the past. He's pitiable, yet some inner strength keeps him going, striving to find his place in the world in his battered coat and red-and-white-striped pants.

He's Uncle Sam, icon of America.

This book, written by Steve Darnell and illustrated in exquisite painterly style by co-scripter Alex Ross, is a radical shift from the usual manner in which Uncle Sam, used infrequently by DC Comics as leader of a patriotic superhero team, is portrayed. The Golden Age hero had super strength and mental clarity, both attributes missing from this new incarnation.

The result is a radical, unflinching look at the dark chapters in America's history and the nation's inability at times to live up to its own ideals. Without endorsing a particular political ideology -- while admittedly espousing more liberal views than conservative -- Uncle Sam is a bold story that questions the heart and soul of a nation. Similarly, Sam interacts with other countries incarnate, from England's Britannia, the French Marianne, the Russian bear and America's own Columbia.

All nations, it seems, suffer identity crises of one sort or another. For Sam, he stares into America's shameful places as well as its nobler triumphs. He contends with a darker reflection of himself who stands for a corrupted leadership. He mourns the slain and suffers the guilt of a slayer. But, far from condemning the United States, he champions its democratic ideals.

And it all comes together beautifully under the skillful pen of Ross, who is one of the top artistic talents at work today. Rarely has another artist so neatly captured attitude and emotion, the subtle nuances of expression, the fluidity of motion.

Uncle Sam is an important book that recognizes that a nation must confront and accept the mistakes of its past in order to avoid them in the future. Despite the horrors it shows, on both large and small scales, it remains, at the end, an optimistic story that wears its red, white and blue colors proudly.

by Tom Knapp
22 April 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.