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In Print: Uncle Sam on the skids



Not long after John Lennon's death in 1980, an earnest 16-year-old from LaGrange named Steve Darnall visited a local forum on gun control. While speaking to a woman legislator, Darnall began to cry, apologizing for becoming so emotional. The woman told him not to be embarrassed, because the world needs more people with strong feelings.

It was advice Darnall took to heart, fueling his writing with indignation over ugly truths most would rather ignore. "Much of my work involves perception versus reality," he says. Darnall, who now lives in Chicago, is the author of Uncle Sam (Vertigo/DC Comics), a graphic novel about a confused, guilt-ridden, street-dwelling, stinky personification of the figure pointing ominously from the famous army poster. A distraught old man in torn red-and-white striped trousers and a black coat, Sam is exposed to the destructive effects of more than two centuries of unfettered capitalism as he aimlessly roams the streets of an anonymous American city, largely going unnoticed as an everyday maniac. That city might look familiar: Darnall and illustrator Alex Ross, who lives in Wilmette, traveled around the Loop and along the Dan Ryan shooting pictures of crowded streets and smokestacks as studies for the book's artwork.

Darnall has long deliberated over issues of right and wrong in his writing. Among his earlier work is the series Empty Love Stories, a parody of old romance comics, in which "women often expect a white knight to come through, and he's either an alcoholic or a stalker." Although the comics were ostensibly written for girls, Darnall says they were just as sexist as the comics written for boys. "Even the Superman comics of the 60s were horribly misogynist," he says. "They took a little too much pleasure in making Lois Lane look foolish."

Sam is certainly no Superman. When he's not busy looking for food in Dumpsters or passed out on the sidewalk, he hallucinates, time traveling to both famous and obscure scenes from American history. The country's sins are thrust in his face: the massacre of Black Hawk and his followers by federal troops, the Andersonville concentration camp, the violence of modern life. In a junk store filled with schlocky Americana, an old lawn jockey statue comes to life and recounts the awful details of lynchings. When Sam asks the jockey why he's forcing him to listen to such horrible tales, he's told, "Because you need to know! That's why! Because you have a tendency to forget these things." Sam's first impulse is to defend himself: "But we gave you your freedom!"

Surrounded by crime, pollution, and decay, Sam bemoans the contrast between the city and the bright promise of a younger country: "Alabaster cities undimmed by human tears and good wars and new frontiers and amber waves of grain and better living through chemistry....The words stink of treachery." --Melissa King

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Darnell photo by Robert Drea; uncredited image.

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