GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "U"


cover by Alex RossUncle Sam 2000 (TPB) 104 pages

Written by Steve Darnall. Painted by Alex Ross.
Letters: Todd Klein.

Reprinting: The two issue prestige format mini-series (1997)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics / Vertigo

Firstly, this evocation of the symbol of America is not the comicbook superhero published in the 1940s by Quality Comics, and later revived by DC Comics as one of the Freedom Fighters.

We're introduced to this Sam as a raving derelict being evicted from a hospital, his red-white-and-blue suit stained and filthy. "There's nothing we can do for you," a doctor says, averting his eyes. Thus begins Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross' angry, sad, frustrated lament for the American Dream.

The homeless Sam wanders the streets, suffering from partial amnesia, but experiencing disorienting dream-like flashbacks to the revolutionary war or being lectured on race relations by a racist lawn ornament come to life. Sam finds himself spouting pithy quotables from American political history, often random or out of context. Quotables "wrapped in the flag. But pull the flag away and the words don't make sense," he thinks in a critique of jingoism. And a quibble with the book is that it might've been nice to have the quotes credited at some point.

What Sam struggles to come to grips with is how the intent of America somehow failed to entirely become a reality. How the nation that broke free from an empire fostered its own imperialistic empire, how a war for freedom led to a country that has oppressed the poor and minorities.

Uncle Sam is bound to be controversial in some circles. Particularly in the current political climate where American patriotism seems more self-invented than ever before. When you consider recent Hollywood blockbusters such as the "Patriot", in which British atrocities are fabricated in order to give the American hero a clean-cut villain to fight, or the World War II movie "U-571", where an American sub is credited with a (British) victory at a time before the U.S. had even joined the fight against fascism, one can imagine a chilly reception for Uncle Sam.

It's problematic in spots. The story is an unrelenting indictment that is intended to be read within the greater context of traditional, sanitized American history -- it's a rebuttal, not a full discourse, emphasizing the negative sometimes to the exclusion of the positive. As such, it's unsurprising some have reacted hostilely, construing the story as an attack on everything American. It's not. Darnall and Ross are clearly as patriotic as anyone -- you don't do a book like this if you don't care passionately about America. What it's intended to be is an exposing, and mayhap even a lancing, of boils that have been band-aided over. As Sam says, people should "take pride in facing the problems" not "pride in ignoring" them.

Or to use philosopher George Santayana's oft quoted phrase: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

And there are spots where the book's as American-centric as anything. In one scene another political icon says: "The eyes of the world are still upon you (America). Waiting to see what you can do." But it's been a long time since other democratic nations saw the U.S. as anything more than an ideological equal -- or, worse, given the questions raised by the 2000 presidential election, as anything but a curiosity.

The choices in what to focus on are curious, sometimes selecting individual misdeeds rather than more obviously sanctioned crimes. Perhaps it's because some events (the internment of Japanese-Americans during W.W. II) have already been condemned by history that they are ignored here, or perhaps because it's easier to depict an individual battle or lynching than it is to depict an overall policy. Republican critics have suggested it reflects a left-wing bias, with Darnall and Ross side-stepping outrages committed under Democratic regimes. And Darnall and Ross, perhaps understandably, still maintain heroes -- such as Abraham Lincoln who, if the truth be known, had his share of unsavory skeletons in his political closet.

Whatever the reason for the choices, it makes it harder to point to a solution, since the guilty are as likely to be John Q. Public as "The System".

As a narrative, Uncle Sam is a mixed bag. Darnall crafts nice writing, both punchy, pointed, and even witty. Yes, despite the doom and gloom -- or maybe because of it -- there are drily funny asides here and there. Ross paints as only Ross can, with a breathtaking realism mixed with shimmering sunshine and dreamlike images. I keep thinking I'll become blasé to his style...but not so far. At its best, Uncle Sam is a moody, haunting odyssey, a dark dream rich in atmosphere and portents that sucks you in so that you walk the roads Sam does. And as a character study the book also scores, with Sam emerging as a memorable persona, giving a human face to a symbol.

As a story, they tease us with questions about the amnesic Sam: is he a contemporary madman, or an American equivalent of the Wandering Jew, or literally the personification of America? But soon the answer becomes pretty obvious. There are attempts to fashion narrative arcs in each of the two chapters. The first culminating in Sam attending a political rally that had been foreshadowed through earlier scenes. The second has Sam ominously warned that he is heading toward a confrontation with a mysterious enemy which serves as the book's climax. But both are rather half-hearted attempts to give a story "arc" to what amounts to a road movie. It's basically an essay told in narrative form rather than a nuts and bolts story. Which is always problematic. If you have something to say, it still needs to be said in a story framework, else you won't really be speaking to those you most want to touch: those who haven't really thought about the issues. You can call it sugar coating if you want.

In the end, the story closes with cautious optimism even if the body of the book doesn't entirely support such a conclusion.

It's not often that I suggest a comic should be taught in schools. But this is an exception, some profanity notwithstanding. Not to replace traditional dogmatic teaching, but as a supplement, to be considered and debated, the symbols analyzed. The plotting isn't that strong, and the ideas are maybe tossed out a bit willy-nilly, lacking considered focus, but it's still a haunting, atmospheric read, full of memorable scenes. It's stunningly illustrated, cleverly scripted, and provocative. And that's good.

This is a review of the version originally serialized in the two-issue mini-series.

Published in both hard and soft cover: Soft cover price: $__ CDN./ $9.95 USA.


Unity, vols. I - IV 1993 (4 TPBs)

Written by Jim Shooter, with David Michelinie, Roger Stern, Bob Layton, others. Pencils by Barry Windsor-Smith, Dave Lapham, Don Perlin, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting (over four TPB volumes): Unity #0, 1, Eternal Warrior #1, 2, Archer & Armstrong #1, 2, Magnus Robot Fighter 15, 16, X-O Manowar #7, 8, Shadowman #4, 5, Rai #6, 7, Harbinger #8, 9, Solar #12, 13 (1992)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Valiant Comics

Reviewed May 5, 2010

Considered all these years later, Unity is a bit of a cultural artifact, being the first major crossover epic of the Valiant Comics universe -- and Valiant itself being a long defunct comics company but one which, in the early 1990s, was threatening to become a major player in the biz. Fronted by one-time Marvel editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, with some fellow Marvel figures along as well, Valiant began by licensing two pre-existing 1960s cult characters, Solar, Man of the Atom, and the far future, Magnus Robot Fighter, to act as the flagship titles of their new line, then quickly adding in various original titles to the catalogue. Right from the get go, Valiant established itself as a "universe" company like Marvel or DC, where all the various titles co-existed in the same reality, and the characters constantly bumped into each other. So it was unsurprising that the company was barely more than a year old before it launched its first cross title "mega event". Of course, given that the two signature characters, Solar and Magnus, existed 2 000 years apart, coming up with a story that would allow them, and all the other characters, to share one adventure, was no easy feet.

Crossover stories themselves had existed, in minor forms, probably as far back as the 1940s, in so far as occasional adventures might link two different series. One could make the argument that DC's 1960s Zatanna's Search arc was a precursor of the multi-title crossover. But the crossover mega-event that has come to be almost inevitable these days was probably started by Marvel, first with Contest of Champions, then the Jim Shooter written Secret Wars, but didn't really kick into high gear, and establish certain prerequisites, until DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths. But if Shooter, with Secret Wars, was responsible for one of the first such crossover epics, give the devil his due: with Unity he might well be responsible for one of the best.

Unity (if you can find it on the shelves or in the back issue bins) acts not just as a story...but also as a little snapshot of an era. After all, most of Valiant's line has long since fallen into obscurity, so you're reading about characters you might not be familiar with, with backstories you're not too clear on...yet that's part of the appeal. Because like most modern crossovers, this isn't simply trying to tell an isolated tale of its heroes, but is meant to build on, and develop the various series as a whole. So some sub-plots that began before Unity come to a head here. Heck, the whole back story for the villainess ties into Solar's origin, and previous adventures. Yet over the course of these 18 issues, much of what you need to know is gradually filled in, with even the connection to Solar's origin -- which initially is referenced in rather oblique, cryptic lines -- explained in greater detail.

Actually, not only is it a snap shot of the Valiant line -- but of a particular era of Valiant. Almmost immediately after Unity, Shooter himself was ousted from the company that he had helped shape and define. And though Valiant continued for another few years without him, there was arguably a bit of a stylistic shift.

Anyway, the premise is that a very damaged, but supremely powerful woman, Erica Pierce, dubbed The Mothergod, plans to destroy and then remake reality to suit her tastes, and to do so has retreated to a little pocket reality where she has set up her own city, guarded by robots and dinosaurs, preparing to bring about the end of everything. The various Valiant heroes are recruited (or otherwise learn of this) and enter this land that is isolated from regular time -- hence why heroes from the 20th Century and the 40th arrive simultaneously. Time -- as the series' slogan went -- is not absolute! And the war for everything ensues.

On the surface, this has echoes of Crisis on Infinite Earths (and some later epics) in that it involves someone literally planning to unmake the universe. Yet at its best, Unity rises above its trite cliches. For one thing, Shooter and company attack the story with a multi-layered, jumbled chronology approach. The action takes place over many months, yet the story keeps jumping back and forth in time (as we go from issue to issue, or chapter to chapter). And because we are following various heroes who team up, go off in separate directions, then team up again, we'll often have scenes repeated, but from different perspectives, or with added aspects. You'll see a scene in one issue...and a few chapters later, see the actions that led up to that scene.You can reflect back on an earlier scene and go, "ah, I get why so-and-so was acting that way...now.". So instead of a story which unfolds with a certain predictability -- Unity kind of keeps you deliberately off balance. It would be fascinating to see how Shooter and the others wrote up the synopsis for each chapter.

The Valiant heroes themselves were, in some ways, an eclectic bunch -- not all stalwart paragons of virtue. Most, but not all. The result is that some of the characters are pursuing their own, separate agendas, sometimes working at odds with each other, or at least teaming up more by happenstance than intent. Again it means that instead of just a mass team up of costumed heroes, the story can veer off on unexpected tangents. X-O (essentially a cross between Iron Man and a morally pragmatic Conan the Barbarian) pursues his own goals, separate from the others, while Shadowman, though a good guy, nonetheless finds himself allied with the enemy simply because he doesn't really know what's going on, so leaps in to defend the defenders from the aggressors...unaware the aggressors are the ones trying to save the universe.

And the characterization also lifts the story above the average, as many of the characters have their quirks and foibles, their doubts and pettiness. Even the villains are given surprising nuance and shading, loathsome yet poignant at the same time.

Valiant was basically outside the Comics Code, so the series flirt about with "mature readers" aspects, from some gory violence, to the occasional bit of nudity (more notably male than female), as well as just mature subject matter in general...including an incestuous relationship that Superman or Spider-Man never had to contend with! Sometimes it can seem a bit gratuitous, but mostly it succeeds in allowing the story to go in directions and explore characterization that is a little bit off beat.

The art for all the comics tend to be of a rather similar, straight forward style. Valiant employed a bit of a house style, one intended to tell the story, to convey the scenes, more than to razzle and dazzle us with splash pages and explosive dynamics. Valiant seemed like it was a writer driven company (as opposed to say, Image, which at the time seemed more visual driven) and the artists were there to serve the scripts. In a crossover epic like this, it means that though some issues are better drawn than others, there's not too much jarring stylistic change from issue to issue (other than Magnus which had by this point began experimenting with a more painted look under artist Ernie Colon). As I say, the art tells the scenes, keeping the focus on the story and characters, yet I'll admit, it can also be a bit stiff and drab at times. Probably the best of the lot is Barry Windsor-Smith, already a legend, whose style suits the "realist" tone, but is nonetheless artistic and creative.

Interestingly, what strikes me the most about the art is the colouring of the Valiant line, which seemed to employ rich, bright, water colour hues that really make the green jungle landscapes, or the blue skies, come alive. I'm not sure what the process was they were using, but even all these years later, and compared to modern comics, there can be something quite captivating about the colouring here.

Yet for all that Unity emerges as quite a strong crossover epic, it is not without its shortcomings. One thing was just the Valiant universe itself. I mentioned earlier that the characters could be a little richer, a little more complex and multi-faceted than in a lot of comics, not all cut from the same cloth, or operating with the same level of altruism. At the same time, some of the others, though, are kind of blandly non-descript. The problem with teaming heroes who are stars of their own series is that many of them are just generic leading men, who don't really stand out next to each other. And paradoxically, though there is a lot of emphasis on characterization, on presenting nuanced personalities that aren't just one note...there can also be something a bit aloof about the characters. It's a talky, verbose script, but one where you can simply observe the characters as often as you truly empathize with them, or get emotionally caught up in their problems.

As well, for some reason when modern creators come up with new characters...they often seem nervous about coming up with ideas that might seem too silly, too comic book-y. And Valiant was no exception. So many of the characters, in powers, are basically just generic strong men -- no weird and wonderful abilities, no stretchers, or shrinkers, no phantoms or ice men. Indeed, it's hard to imagine them holding out for so long against an army of men, robots, and dinosaurs! It can mean there's a certain lack of imagination to them as "super heroes" (of course, they weren't fully "super heroes", in that only a few even wore costumes).

The jumbled chronology approach to the story is what keeps it fresh and exciting for the most part, but it does also lead to a certain repetition, as certain scenes are staged...and staged...and staged again. And though sometimes each telling of the scene gives a new perspective on it...often it is just the same scene, only drawn from a different angle, or with maybe a couple of extra lines of dialogue. And there can be a certain repetition in the action scenes...or even the sub-plots. Erica's quasi son/lover (told you there was "mature" subject matter) secretly plots to kill her...but though that adds to the narrative and emotional complexity of the saga, it can also threaten to turn into a running gag, a Gilligan's Island plot.

But Unity works far more than it doesn't, despite its standard "all the heroes team up against an enemy who wants to destroy everything" premise, emerging as one of the better, more imaginative, more narratively rich crossover epics...from any company.

This is a review of the version originally serialized in the various comics.

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