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.