Uncle Sam (Vertigo)

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It's a strange and frightening thing — to see yourself at your worst.

Uncle Sam (1997) was a two-issue limited comic book series written by Steve Darnall and painted by Alex Ross, also published as a "graphic novel" in 1998. It presents the story of a wandering vagrant, who might be the national personification of the United States, Uncle Sam, having disturbing visions of events in American history, and ultimately confronting a dark, corrupt, shadow or faux version of himself. ISBN 1563894823

Note: Quotations are presented sequentially: all thoughts of Sam are presented in italics, without a character-specifying suffix; all spoken statements of characters are in dialogue format. Titled sections have been created for different scenes, but there are no titled divisions in the actual work.
There are 200 million stories in the naked village. This is all of them.
I sometimes remember a lot of things...

Part one[edit]

There are 200 million stories in the naked village. This is all of them.
  • This line, like many in the work, is a mutation of a well known phrase. This derives from the last line in the film The Naked City (1948) : "There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them."

Moments...[edit]

I want to find some connection between the unconnected moments... want to say something magical and profound.
Life is just a bowl of cherries, don't take it serious, its too mysterious...
I sometimes remember a lot of things. The stench of Buffalo Bill's costume. The bloody blanket that carried Abe Lincoln out of Ford Theatre. Alabaster cities undimmed by human tears and good wars and new frontiers and amber waves of grain and better things for better living through chemistry. And a woman in a long gown. And the Alamo and Pearl Harbor...
Some of the voices in my head are muffled. They're wrapped in the flag. But pull the flag away and the words don't make sense... Suddenly the words stink of treachery.
This street stinks of sulfur and urine and truck exhaust and chemical refineries. I'm tired and afraid and I don't know who I am. There are moments when I find myself... seeing things.
And there are moments when everything happens at once. And then the whole nation comes into my view.
For one brief stinking moment.
I feel sick.
A nation cries. It's like they're crying to me.

I want to find some connection between the unconnected moments... want to say something magical and profound.
Sam: [sings "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries"] "Life is just a bowl of cherries, don't take it serious, its too mysterious..."
I'm real hungry.

The American Revolution[edit]

Vision of Sam preparing to join the Revolutionary War forces of George Washington.
I pray this war will make us better...
Sam: I know what you're saying Bea. I pray this war will make us better... All I know is I can't let it make things worse...
Bea: You'll come back to me Sam. You always come back to me.

Bare feet on a city street. That's not good for running. ...
This morning, I beat up a man in a hotel restaurant. This afternoon I was married, lived on a farm and fought in the Revolutionary War.
I don't know. Something about that seems off.
But that woman — she was important to me. I know her. Or I did...

JFK in Dallas[edit]

Vision of the assasination of John F. Kennedy
This is not my beautiful wife...
What's going on. Something's different here. These are not my eyes. This is not my beautiful wife... [Thoughts of Sam while seeing Jacqueline Kennedy sitting at his side in an opened-top convertible.]
Everybody's got to aim for something. Do you believe in magic?
Ask not what your country's done for you... Ask what you're country's done to you.
I've ridden that car so often, from every point of view. And every time, I never see what's coming. Whenever I think I've found a memory that belongs to me —
I wake up face down on the sidewalk.
I feel like I've been walking these streets for — I don't know. Forever. I sometimes think I'm waiting for someone to explain it all to me.

ONLY YOU[edit]

I WANT YOU
I remember that a man came here from — was it Ireland or Lithuania or China or Italy or Germany or Russia?
That's Right.
So he and his wife and children (did he have children? I get so confused) found themselves living in a land that promised liberty and justice for all.
The family worked ten or twelve hours a day, in a coal mine or textile mill or meat-packing plant or wherever it was, working hard at being Good Americans.
Course if they got TB or went blind or accidentally cut off a finger, they were told they weren't very good Americans at all.
And slowly over many years, the people realized they were not citizens, they were not members of a community. They were clocking in and punching out and killing time. They were employees.
I try to recall that family's name. Then I remember it was a lot of names.
I walk past a country that's covered in equal parts dirt and despair.

There are times when out of nowhere I start replaying old conversations. Of course they aren't my conversations. Maybe I'm a real good listener. That would explain it, I guess. These people would probably tell you that they're Good Americans. ... But their words... suggest otherwise. ...
Image in darkness: Truth-telling has to be kept within narrow limits if trouble is to be avoided. Greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.
Was money always more important than shame?
How many roads can a man walk down —
— before you call him fatigued.

All-American Antiques[edit]

At the All-American Antiques shop
There oughtta be something in here that can help me.
Someone. What's the matter with me today?
My gosh. This place has everything. I think I had everything once. I don't think it helped...
The Indians were real, as I recall. I remember Andy Jackson's secratary of state explaining, "We must frequently promote their interest against their inclinations."
Great White Father knows best.

Black Hawk's War[edit]

Vision of Illinois in 1832, and of Chief Black Hawk after the massacre of the Battle of Bad Axe.
The white men do not scalp the head. They do worse. They poison the heart.
Soldier 1: They raised a white flag.
Soldier 2: Thought they could decoy us.
Soldier 1: We were a little to clever for them!
Black Hawk: An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation. He would be put to death, and eaten by wolves. The white men do not scalp the head. They do worse. They poison the heart.
I didn't open fire on this man and his tribe.
But I let it happen.
Whoever I am, I know that...
Black Hawk: The only promise you kept was the promise to take away our land.
That promise was no problem.
You ought to be careful who you call savages.

Black lawn jockey[edit]

Lawn jockey: Recognize him? His name is Amédé Ardoin. He played the accordian. People who heard him play and sing say they never heard anything so beautiful. One night in Louisiana, he was performing at a dance. It was a humid night — being summer in Loiusiana and all — and a white woman lent her handkerchief to Amédé to wipe the sweat from his face. Her courtesy was witnessed by a handful of white men. By the time they had finished with him, Amédé had been beaten so thoroughly that he couldn't remember who he was.
You know what's funny about this? It could have been worse...
You have a tendency to forget these things...
Lawn jockey: Ever see a lynching? I mean up close? ... Sometimes before a lynchng, the mob would cut off their victims fingers and ears and pass them around. Other times they'd use corkscrews. And everytime time the corkscrews came out, a peice of flesh came out with them...
Sam: Why are you telling me this?
Lawn jockey: Because you need to know! That's why! Because you have a tendency to forget these things...
I have never felt so useless...
Sam [sings "The Bonnie Blue Flag"]: "We are a band of brothers and native to the soil
Fighting for our Liberty, With treasure, blood and toil..."
Some refrains you never forget.
Some wounds you never close...

Andersonville[edit]

Vision of Andersonville prison
Jesus! I am so sick of that story!
When this bloody war is over, only one set of prayers will have been heard. The other side will live under the shadow of conquest — and every Johnny Reb and every Damnyankee will be told to forget the last four years ever happened. You remember firing on Fort Sumter? You remember burning Atlanta? Hey forget it! We're a nation again!
I have never felt so useless...

City streets[edit]

Sam: Excuse me me Miss I don't mean to bother you but I've been out her for the longest time and I don't know who I am for sure and my shoes got stolen and I've been talking to cigar store Indians and they've been talking back and — It seems like everything's happened at once.
Woman: Jesus! I am so sick of that story!
I can't hear what she's saying. No — I can — only now I hear a lot of other things...
Sam: "Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness."
"The first is a patron — the last is a punisher."
What's wrong with all of you?! Don't you understand Common Sense?
These are the times that try men's — soles...
  • Sam sees some boots in a trash bin, as he was quoting Thomas Paine.
We tried to cover our faces with our shirt sleeves, but it did no good...

Dust Bowl[edit]

Vision of the Dust Bowl years
We tried to cover our faces with our shirt sleeves, but it did no good. Our sleeves turned brown and we kept eating dirt. We'd go into coughing fits and start spitting up mud...

Victory rally[edit]

Witnessing the triumph of the Senatorial campaign of "Louis Cannon"
This has to stop. These people have to hear what I hear. All of it...
My heart feels like a bomb in my chest. The band is playing "Stars and Stripes Forever." It's ragged and underrehearsed and frighteningly moving...
There. That's him. That's the Uncle Sam I remember. The great Arsenal of Democracy...
There's something — off here.
There's no joy in this applause. There's no conviction that these folks're making their nation a better place. They're acting like they've seen crowds act on television.
[Sam hears a victory speech other than the one which the audience is hearing...]
Louis Cannon: We proved that a grown man, claiming he represented the people of his home state, would drop his pants and bend over for any corporation with a lobbyist and a checkbook! More important... We proved that we could write laws that would directly benefit those corporations at the expense of the less affluent... and vote that into legislation without letting the public know.
Louis Cannon: We couldn't have done it without the slickly-assembled attack ads that distorted my opponents record and cast doubt on his personal behavior... or the major news media, whom we routinely intimidated by calling them "liberal"... But most of all we couldn't have done it without you, the people of this great state! You cynical, apathetic, ignorant, beaten-down sheep!
If there is one thing that I've learned about you, the American people — it's that you — fear change!
Louis Cannon: You know there are some people who have nothing better to do than tear down this great nation that you believe in! But during my years in the Senate, I've learned one important thing... with enough time and money, you can manipulate people into accepting just about anything!
Sam [as audience applauds]: What are you doing? What's the matter with you? Do you even hear what he's saying?
Dear God. What if they do?! ... This has to stop. These people have to hear what I hear. All of it...

Jail[edit]

In this land of the free, this home of the brave... were we only slaves of fear?
Sam: I'm Uncle Sam.
Cell-mate: Oh. Really.
Sam: That one at the rally? He's a fake ... He's still out there. There's a man out there wearing my clothes. But he's a fake! He's got to be stopped!!
In this land of the free, this home of the brave... were we only slaves of fear? ...
Give me Liberty or —
— give me death.
  • Part 1 closes with this quote of Patrick Henry, and Sam having visions of the blood of patriot heroes staining the jail-cell walls and his clothes.

Part two[edit]

This feels good. It feels right...

Yankee Doodle[edit]

Part 2 opens with a vision of Sam as the drummer of Yankee Doodle (The Spirit of '76)
This feels good. It feels right. ... There's something invigorating about the potential of fighting a good fight. Led by words few men before had even dared to think. "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it..."
I have a dream. It's a good dream... But it's all I have.
I'm on a cell block floor sitting in my own filth. I saw a malevolent callous creature calling himself the spirit of America. I attacked him and ran into a wooden stilt...
Whenever I'm in a place like this, I hear the prayers of Martin Luther King and Sacco and Vanzetti and Joe Hill and the Scottsboro Nine and I think of the Land of the Free — and how it locked down so many spirits.

There are those who insist that criminals don't come from poverty or abuse. That some people are just born that way. But when crime increases — their only solution is to build more jails. And when the jails are built — they discover more and more people who are just born that way.

I can't let them keep me here.

Police Captain: The Senator's got enough people who think he's a heartless bastard. The last thing he wants to do is press charges against some old nut. Let him run. Let the old boy have his glory — it doesn't look like he'll get many more chances.

Britannia[edit]

I used to think the sun never set on me...
Vision of Britannia in a deserted alley.


Britannia: You thought you had everything under control. ... I felt that way too, dear. ... I used to think the sun never set on me... Of course I fell rather a long time ago. The world was — well, it was quieter then, wasn't it?
Now when you fall —? Well, its going to make what I went through look like a bloody cricket match.
Sam: Do you know who you're talking to?
Britannia: I think so. Do you know who I'm talking to?
Nuts. She's got me there.
Britannia: I knew the world was ready for me to tame it. Just like you did. ... I learned the hard way that if you have to become a world power through conquest... you become the very tyrant you rebelled against.

Son, whoever you are — whenever this is — I'm sorry...
Teenager [who with other teens had poured gasoline on Sam while he was sleeping, and then set him on fire]: Hey — s-shouldn't he be burning?
This is the dream. All one big dream. The American Dream... Then comes the wake-up call...
These attacks... like a needle... unraveling my spine. How much time has gone by? Why am I being punished like this?

Shays' Rebellion[edit]

Vision of Shays' Rebellion and other episodes of civil unrest.
I'm afraid. ... I'm afraid Shays and his men and his men might be here for blood. ... Everyone I've been told to trust insists we're here — because the union must be preserved. ... All at once its militia men in 1786, and Chicago policemen in 1886... and National Guardsmen in 1970... and a dozen other times — when I let terror pull the trigger.
My God... It's true. The dream isn't failing — it was never allowed to succeed. This was the real shot heard 'round the world... and I fired it.
Sam [to a sleeping derelict]: Son, whoever you are — whenever this is — I'm sorry.

Columbian Exposition[edit]

Vision of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and of Columbia herself, enthroned on the ship of state.
This was a festival of Light and Hope and Achievement...
Columbia: It's me, Sam. It's always been me. I didn't mean to confuse you. I thought it was better to find out for yourself. ... Climb aboard, Sam. Let's see how the future used to look. ...
That's the world's biggest cannon. One hundred and twenty-seven tons. The shadow in the City of Light. People called it "The Herald of Peace." Seriously.
This was a festival of Light and Hope and Achievement. A year later the whole thing came down. Except for the world's biggest cannon. This was my show, Sam. This was my future...
Look, if you want me to hold your hand and say you never screwed up, forget it....
Sam: Bea, I saw a — figure at a parade. He said — he said he was the spirit of America...
Columbia: He is. Get ready. There's some roughness ahead...
America had two options. Either correct our mistakes and learn from them... or live behind a wall held together by cynicism and brute force and deny everything.
Trouble is they couldn't deny you. You were the spirit of America. So they simply channeled their energies elsewhere. And they remade you in their image. That spirit is part of you, Sam — just as you're part of all those people you remember.
Columbia: Look, if you want me to hold your hand and say you never screwed up, forget it. I think you did. But you have to remember what else came out of that bloodshed. It forced law-makers to replace the Articles of Confederaton. It forced them to make these united states into a nation. "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union..."
The sky is clearing — finally.
Columbia: That constitution wasn't perfect, of course. I know because I tried to vote in 1880. But we were allowed to change it... maybe even improve it. And if America sometimes fouled up along the way — and it did — that was the fault of the dreamers. It wasn't the fault of the dream.

The Others[edit]

Don't you understand Sam? You're not the spirit of a nation. You're a spirit of freedom...
The only way to know how freedom works — is to work at it.
The Russian Bear in this scene wears a Soviet cap and its speech is presented in a lettering style designed to evoke Cyrillic script. No attempt to imitate it is made here.
Russian Bear: Do you think you're the only symbol who was meant to stand for one thing — and was perverted into something else?
Sam. Please listen. You are about to confront something that you think you understand. You don't.
You cannot win the battle the old way. This foe knows our dark strategies. He'll use them against you. He'll use them against anyone.
Britannia: Don't you understand Sam? You're not the spirit of a nation. You're a spirit of freedom. You're the result of a very chancy experiment...
Sam: You make it sound like — like so much is at stake.
Britannia: Not every experiment succeeds.
Look at Marianne...
Believe it or not, Sam, she was luckier than most. She had five whole years of "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality." Then bang — it was off to the Reign of Terror. ...
It's easier to live with fear than to work for freedom, Sam — but the eyes of the world are still upon you. Waiting to see what you do.
Sam: Where are you going? What happens next?
Britannia: That's the beauty of freedom Sam. You never know what happens next.
And the only way to know how freedom works —
— is to work at it.

Sam vs Sam[edit]

Once in a while— sometimes very slowly — we made some progress...
If you want a fight you'll get one... But ... whatever happens here, whatever the outcome is — you're not America.
Out of one fog and into another. Typical.
Wait. Not fog. A smokescreen. The voices are louder — shriller — more desperate...
Faux Sam: Oh, it's you. ... Why don't you just go back into your cardboard box, okay?
Sam: I — I came to get my hat.
Faux Sam: Excuse me?!? A grubby old bastard covered in urine and birdshit?! You're the spirit of America?! Go to bed, old man!
Faux Sam: You had a good thing going. You had genocide, racism, sexism, organized crime, the occasional flirtation with imperialism... and all that while, you told people we were the greatest nation on Earth. I mean, wow! That's impressive!
But you couldn't handle it could you? You couldn't handle the truth!
I love that line!
Sam: I won't deny that mistakes were made. Even if the history textbooks do. But I won't pretend that mistakes never happened. And once in a while — sometimes very slowly — we made some progress.
I tried my best to make people take pride in facing problems. You're telling them to take pride in ignoring problems. What you've got here, son — it's all vanity...
Sam: If you want a fight you'll get one. But first I want you to know something — whatever happens here, whatever the outcome is — you're not America. You'll never be America.
It's a strange and frightening thing — to see yourself at your worst.
Sam [finding his hat on the sidewalk, disregarding the dollar bill that had been placed in it]: Well. What do you know.
Still fits.
Sam [sings "Yankee Doodle"]: "Yankee Doodle, keep it up, Yankee Doodle dandy..."

Quotes about Uncle Sam[edit]

He might be a bum, he might be a judge; as you follow his story you keep changing your mind... ~ Greil Marcus
  • Steve Darnall and Alex Ross find Uncle Sam out on the street, help him to his feet and send him off to confront those who believe that they alone speak for the founding fathers. A timely idea, brilliantly executed.
  • This truly subversive graphic novel — more explicitly radical than anything else from DC Comics in recent memory ... a damning account of American political history that also affirms basic democratic ideals.
  • If there’s a thrill here, it’s not that the United States can be junked, but that it can’t be. Everything you ever believed in may go up in smoke, and in Uncle Sam, that smoke is the air you breathe...
  • An old man lies crumpled on the sidewalk: he has thin white hair and a long white goatee. He's dressed in a black coat and red and white striped trousers. People pass on by. There's a fly on the old man's forehead. His left arm is stretched out, his fingers curled like a beggar's, but he looks you right in the face. His angry eyes says he lies on the pavement not to ask you for what you've got but to ask you how you got it. He might be a bum, he might be a judge; as you follow his story you keep changing your mind...
    • Greil Marcus in the introduction to the 1998 "graphic novel" edition.
  • Uncle Sam is probably the most thoughtfully radical piece of truly popular culture I’ve seen in the last decade or two. Frighteningly intense and ... also sad in the most eloquent way, patriotic in all the ways that mattered, to all the things that one might justifiably be patriotic to.
  • The most eloquent use of a superhuman archetype for a great many years, Darnall and Ross have with Uncle Sam produced a luminous and moving study of America's iconographic landscape, at once an indictment and a reclamation of the nation's oldest and most venerable symbol. As a portrait of a fond American dream at last waking to itself, Uncle Sam is genuinely inspiring and deserves to be read more than once. Highly recommended.
    • Alan Moore, endorsement blurb on the graphic novel edition.
  • An immensely powerful piece of work: a demonstration of the artistic and political potential of the medium.

References[edit]

External links[edit]

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