Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

What if the South had won? Captain Confederacy.

In in light of the recent [when I wrote this on my own blog five years ago] furor over HBO’s Confederates (life in an America where the Confederacy won its independence), I’ve been thinking of Captain Confederacy, a late-1980s indie comics series by Will Shetterly and Vince Stone (cover below by Stone) that I think handled the same premise well.

The book is set in the 1980s of an alternate North America where the Confederacy won the Civil War. The USA and the CSA in the late 20th century are still glaring at each other across the Mason-Dixon Line, willing to do business but not trusting or liking each other. The country to the west has been balkanized: The Mormon state of Deseret saw no reason to join either nation; California is the independent Bear Republic; and Texas seceded from the CSA, leading to the president’s immortal response, “Stop them? Do I look like Lincoln?” Slavery is gone but Jim Crow is alive and well.

Our protagonist, Jeremy Gray, is a failed actor who took a job as guinea pig for the CSA to test a super-soldier serum. It worked, making more powerful, more invincible than ever before — and then, when the Union proposed arms-reduction talks and the Southern public supported negotiations, someone in the Confederate government got an idea. They dressed Gray up in costume as the heroic Captain Confederacy and had him expose a (staged) Yankee plot to arm black Southern revolutionaries. The North talks peace but they want to steal the CSA back! Isn’t it lucky a roving news cameraman just happened to catch this exciting battle and show viewers the truth?

It changed the public’s mind about negotiations so the government began using Jeremy more. It helped that while the incidents are staged, his powers are obviously real. So are those of his compatriots on the cover, Miss Dixie and Blacksnake, a supposed black revolutionary who provides the heroes with a worthy antagonist. The actor playing Blacksnake hopes that by proving himself a good, loyal citizen, he’ll gain enough pull he can start to reform the system from within.

Jeremy’s no racist but he’s no hero either He’s perfectly content to go along with the system and not rock the boat — well, until #1. Aaron (Blacksnake) tells Jeremy they’re doing more harm than good so he’s going to go public and reveal the truth about Captain Confederacy. The government kills him first. Jeremy finally faces up to how complicit he is in supporting the system and walks away too — not to go public, simply dropping out. The CSA doesn’t like this either: not only does he risk exposing the project but every other government on Earth would like to extract the secret of his powers from him.

Starting when it does avoids the repentant racist trope that got Black Witch such attention: we start with Jeremy walking away rather than see the years he supporting oppression without really thinking about it. The series does focus more on how racism torments the white protagonist than the CSA’ black population but I still think it works (ditto the follow-up series, Confederates) — though as a white guy, I don’t have a dog in the hunt.

Part of what makes it work, I think, is that Shetterly isn’t approaching it as “a turning point in history went differently, here’s what follows.” Instead he started with the present-day setting and didn’t worry much about exactly how the South won. Eventually, with help from readers (the letter columns were awesome) he worked it out. But Shetterly’s focus is more Jeremy’s struggles in the present than alternate history history. I also love some of the little details, such as Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling book Glorious Tomorrows or the hit sitcom Beacon Hillbillies (the Clampetts wind up in Boston rather than Beverly Hills).

I also like the idea of superheroes as propaganda tools: the reason Captain Confederacy exists isn’t to fight evil or make anyone’s life better, except for the CSA officials who want public buy-in into their policies. This wasn’t the first comic to use that idea, nor the last, but it handles it well.

As a bonus we have the one-of-a-kind backup strip Ant-Boy, about an orphan raised by a colony of ants, protecting them with powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary insects! Yes, it’s as bizarro as it sounds.



    1. If you mean DeSantis I’m happily gone from Florida for 13 years now. Though we have plenty of confederate die hards up in NC too.
      Confederate nostalgia certainly demonstrates that “history is written by the winners” isn’t as a clever a statement as people think.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        It’s not even just the current political climate in the US that would lead one to conclude that the south had actually won the war. The ginned-up Confederate nostalgia and ‘lost cause’ BS has been present since I can remember (I was born in ’68). That’s why I’ve always found the “what if the South had won?” line of speculation a little tiresome – a much more interesting thought experiment would be: ‘What if Reconstruction hadn’t been knee-capped so a guy with a silly name (Rutherford) could become president?’
        That said, the premise of Captain Confederacy does sound intriguing.

        1. David Blight’s “Race and Reunion” traces the South winning the war for memory to a little over a century ago. White people on both sides were exhausted so north and south rewrote the history to make it a sad mistake where brother turned on brother but all the brothers were valiant, never mind what the reasons were, let’s get on with living as a united country again.

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I originally saw this on the stands, skimmed through it and tossed it aside in disgust. Notice I said “skimmed through it.” I didn’t read it. I later acquired it with some other indie comics, of the era, in digital format and read it. I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as club footed as I thought and had some nice ideas, though it has weaknesses, as you might expect, with the POV.

    Of a similar nature, in terms of a manufactured superhero, there are the books The American, from Mark Verheiden and Dark Horse (Chris Warner and Grant Miehn on art) and Power & Glory, from Howard Chaykin and Malibu’s Bravura imprint. The American has a US supersoldier, who is not super, who is killed in front of a witness, on a mission. Attempts to cover it up lead to an investigative journalist to poke into the program that created the soldier and the latest soldier to take up the role to come together, against the government. It takes them down a rabbit hole that stretches back to the Eisenhower administration and a big surprise.

    Power & Glory features one of Chaykin’s heroes-with-feet-of-clay. The hero, The Apex, is a sham, whose super feats are staged by a CIA agent, who isn’t the right physical type, but is an expert in demolitions and a top field man. he has to get the job done to cover up for the schmuck in the suit.

    Also along those lines is the alternate history novel, Guns of the South, by Harry Turtledove. Turtledove is a student (and PhD) of history and he uses a sci-fi maguffin to let the South turn the tide of the war (time traveling Arikaaner white supremacists, who give them AK-47 rifles). However, rather than a rcist utopia that some other alternative works would give you, Turtledove shows that the Confederate ideology couldn’t sustain itself and some of the Confederate heroes, including Robert E Lee, turn against those ideas and their benefactors. It also pretty well cuts the nuts off the KKK, by having Nathan Bedford Forrest join the fight against the Afrikaaners and the forces who embrace their ideas.

    1. I’ve seen The American but not Power and Glory.
      Another example is American Way in which the JLA/Avengers is a government operation using staged battles to boost public support for the Kennedy administration. Only one day the Captain America-equivalent has a fatal heart attack while battling a supposed commie villain and things keep going wrong from there.

    2. Edo Bosnar

      Hmm. “Confederate heroes” Lee and Forrest. Yeah, right…

      An earlier example of the Confederate victory trope in SF is Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. It’s a far more ‘quiet’ story, narrated in the first person by a historian and set mostly in the rump Union in the early 1950s in a world in which the CSA was not only victorious but something of a hemispheric superpower. The glitch that changes history is due to time travel and there’s something of an interesting twist in that regard. Not at all a bad story, but like I said above, I find the “What if the South had won?” concept really tiresome.

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