Created by Will Eisner & Lou Fine
Uncle Sam’s origin has been told four times, first in National Comics #5, which was retold rather faithfully in Secret Origins vol. 2 #19 by Len Wein and Murphy Anderson. There is also a text feature in Uncle Sam Quarterly #1 written from the perspective of Buddy, Sam’s sidekick. It’s a testament to Sam’s moral qualities: “He worked awful hard to make this country as swell as it is today, and he gets good and mad when anybody tries to upset his way of living.”
Then Sam’s fictional history at DC was retooled for modern times by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake in their epic “Haunting of America,” which ran in The Spectre vol. 3 #38-50. Ostrander’s retelling retained the essentials but added a bit more real life history to the mix. Whereas originally, the American Spirit had always been called Uncle Sam, Ostrander’s version was first called “the Minuteman” during the Revolutionary War.
The being known as “Uncle Sam” is actually the manifest, mystical spirit of America. In different eras, this spirit has chosen to bond with like-minded individuals, many of whom happened to bear the name “Samuel.”In 1777, just after the American colonies had declared their independence, a group of thirteen patriots, one from each state, convened to define and protect the new nation’s spirit. To help in this mystical endeavor, they enlisted an alchemist named Taylor Samuel Hawke. With the combined will of the men, an American Talisman was created. This Talisman provided a physical link to the new spirit, which manifested itself as a great eye atop a pyramid. Likewise, the Talisman itself sported this image; and on the reverse, an eagle. Hawke was entrusted with the Talisman, and at a key point in the Revolutionary War, he undertook a suicide mission to divert Hessian soldiers away from a supply convoy. The gambit worked, but Hawke was slain by the Hessians. As he lay dying, the American Spirit came to him and offered new life. Hawke became a host for the new Spirit, and the new nation would come to call this being the Minuteman. (National #5, The Spectre v.2 #37-38) Note: In the National Comics origin, the first host’s name was only “Samuel” and the hero was only ever called “Uncle Sam.” With the retooling in The Spectre, his aliases were changed to be historically appropriate.
The character of Uncle Sam grew in America’s popular culture throughout the 1800s. In the 1870s, he was given form by a Nast political cartoonist named Samuel Augustus Adams. As it happened, Adams had come to possess the halved American Talisman. His cartoons drew fire from his detractors—literally. Adams was accosted at gunpoint for expressing his views. The American Spirit saved his life as it had others before, and the mighty Uncle Sam was borne. The American Spirit manifested itself again as Uncle Sam during World Wars I and II. (The Spectre vol. 2 #38)
The spirit of America began taking a direct role in defending the U.S.A. His first foe was the Cobra, and his henchmen Snyle and Scar. (The Spirit’s first foe was also called Dr. Cobra.) Cobra was attempting to organize disillusioned citizens under a Nazi-esque banner called the Purple Shirts (real Nazis were often called “brown shirts”). Their foreign benefactors also made their move and kidnapped the U.S. President. When they captured Sam as well, the hero’s rhetoric stirred some of the recruits, inciting them to revolt against the Shirts. The Army arrived then and Uncle Sam delivered the President to safety. Uncle Sam also adopted a sidekick, the young boy named Buddy Smith, whose father Ezra was killed by the terrorists. Buddy was a convenient vehicle by which Eisner could teach young readers “what they could do.” On one hand, Sam was unafraid to send Buddy into mortal danger, and on the other, he constantly panicked about the boy’s resulting predicaments. (National #1)
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A Dime for a Quarterly
At about this time (mid-1941), Uncle Sam was awarded his own quarterly title. When pointing to Will Eisner’s best work, people ofen cite “The Spirit,” but at this point in history, Eisner’s work on Uncle Sam Quarterly far outshines that feature. The first issue was a beautiful creation featuring some of his most creative artwork to date. It consisted of four chapters and a double-page map of Sam’s hometown, Everytown. Unlike Doll Man Quarterly, which launched at the same time, this issue only ran stories about the title character. Uncle Sam Quarterly lasted for only eight issues before being retitled Blackhawk. The tales in this title were much more fanciful than those in National Comics.
When Senator Northrup Bristol forced a “Youth Training Bill” through Congress, children across the country were herded into near-slavery. Bristol’s ambitions grew so far as to kidnap the President and assassinate his detractors in order to pass further fascist laws. In time they came to recruit Buddy as well. Uncle Sam was powerless to save him—it was the law. Meantime, Bristol hired a sculptor named Curwen to mold faces and create a duplicate of Uncle Sam and others. Bristol cried for war, but the nation wasn’t ready. Uncle Sam freed himself and rallied the country and military to end Bristol’s fevered plans. (Uncle Sam Quarterly #1)
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You can’t write a feature titled “Uncle Sam” and not have stories about the U.S. involvement in the war. The cover of National #23 (June 1942) may have been one of the first produced after Pearl Harbor; it depicts the Japanese as enemies.
Here, another interlude about Sam’s role in the DC universe… In All-Star Squadron #31-32, Uncle Sam told the story of how he’d assembled the first team of Freedom Fighters (Invisible Hood, Magno, Miss America, Neon, the Red Torpedo, and Hourman). This team tried unsuccessfully to stop the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They all seemingly perished, and later Uncle Sam assembled a second team who fared better. They eventually broke off from the All-Star Squadron to work directly for officials in Washington.
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Uncle Sam’s first actual DC appearance was in 1973’s Justice League of America #107-108, where he was reintroduced to readers along with other former Quality heroes as the Freedom Fighters. This story and the successive Freedom Fighters series are no longer in DC continuity because they concerned the Quality characters’ lives on the parallel Earth-X. For the details on this series and summary of events, see the Freedom Fighters profile on page 41.
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In the DC universe, Uncle Sam disappeared after World War II, as he had after past American wars. The American Talisman was further fragmented as the nation struggled with racism, corruption and an unpopular war. (The Spectre v.2 #38)
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In 1997, Uncle Sam was the unlikely subject of a two-issue prestige series illustrated by fan-favorite Alex Ross. The events of this series don’t fit with the Spectre tale above. Still, it’s a fascinating study that finds Sam emerging from nowhere—delirious and fevered—suffering from all manner of social injustices. Most passersby dismissed Sam as a vagrant and a psychopath. But as he wandered the country, he recalled all his past lives until he remembered his true purpose. (Uncle Sam #1)
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Uncle Sam was next seen several times leading a new band of Freedom Fighters who assisted the Justice Society. (JSA #49-51) These heroes were massacred by the Society during the “Infinite Crisis.” Sam was destroyed as well. (Infinite Crisis #1)
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Sam’s creator, Will Eisner, was drafted into the military in 1942. His byline appears on the Uncle Sam feature through National Comics #26 (Nov. 1942), but it’s unknown how long he continued to write it. Quality’s greats, Lou Fine and Reed Crandall, contributed the art throughout much of the feature’s lifetime.
In some ways, Sam and Buddy parallel Captain America and his boy sidekick, Bucky. Sam debuted in 1940, a year before the Marvel legend (Captain America Comics #1, March 1941).
Uncle Sam is fast, strong and nearly invulnerable. It was clear that he could neither fly nor teleport, but he found himself in battle all over the world. He was a “universal translator,” couldn’t be photographed, and had to hold his breath underwater.
He was privy to counsel from the spirits of other historical American figures, including George Washington, Capt. John Paul Jones and Miss Columbia. Buddy Smith was also able to see these spirits.
In many of Sam’s cover and DC appearances, he is depicted towering over landscapes, but he didn’t exhibit size-changing ability, per se, in his National Comics adventures.
Big Bang Comics
Big Bang Comics is known for its homages, and this issue feature Protoplasman als featured this "house ad" with "Miss Firecracker, Uncle Sam's favorite Niece!" From Big Bang Presents #1 (July 2009).