The inspiration for this post came a couple months back when HBO announced they would be doing a new series, Confederate, from the producers of Game of Thrones. The premise was that this would be an alternate reality where the South won the Civil War. This got a lot of people very upset, which I found perplexing. Was anyone objecting when The Man in the High Castle was adapted for television? Did anyone accuse the producers of that show of being pro-nazi?
Now if this Confederate series were to glorify slavery somehow, people would have grounds for complaint. But knowing that the GoT producers are intelligent and educated men, I find it hard to believe that they would take such an approach. My guess would be that they’d portray the fictional, modern-day, white-supremacist state as hell on earth and, in so doing, demonstrate how destructive the idea of white supremacy truly is. (I can’t know this one hundred percent, of course, but I think it would be a safe bet.)
Having said this, in the wake of the events in Charlottesville and its aftermath, it wouldn’t surprise me if all parties concerned decided to drop this project like the proverbial hot potato, nor would I criticize them for doing so. For now, it looks like the project is still a go, but stay tuned—they may yet pull the plug on it.
Putting aside politics and current events, I have always been a sucker for alternate-reality stories. And as a long-time comics reader, the initial announcement of the Confederate series immediately brought to mind the 80s indie comic series, Captain Confederacy. As it happens, Will Shetterly, the writer and creator of Captain Confederacy, had some thoughts on the potential HBO series when it was first announced and he shared those thoughts on his own personal blog.
As Shetterly points out at the close of that post, the primary theme of Captain Confederacy was patriotism, not racism. This does not mean the theme of racism was not present in the work; of course it was. Another theme that was very front-and-center was propaganda—or “fake news,” as we might say these days.
In the series, there are four characters in the Confederate equivalent of a “super soldier” program: one black man (Aaron Jackson), one white man (Jeremy Gray), one black woman (Kate Williams), and one white woman (Roxanne Huxley). The black characters served as guinea pigs, receiving the “ultimate potential” serum before the white characters did. (I believe Marvel did a story a while back about a black man serving this same function before Steve Rogers became Captain America; so give Shetterly credit for coming up with this idea first.)
Right off the bat, Shetterly defies convention by not having these characters be typical superheroes, but actors in a propaganda television program. (This leads me to question the need for the “ultimate potential” serum in the plot in the first place—but I digress.) Jeremy plays the captain; Roxanne plays his partner, Miss Dixie; Aaron plays the villain, Blacksnake; and Kate plays smaller background and supporting roles. Inevitably, the black characters revolt, which sets into motion the chain of events that will carry the first series to its finale by the twelfth issue.
When you veer from history with a concept like this, you can go in any direction you like because it’s fiction and you’re the writer. At the same time, you have to know that students of history are always going to quibble with your creative choices. So here is my own quibble.
The institution of slavery no longer exists in the Confederacy by 1986, the year the first issue of Captain Confederacy was published (and I presume the year the story takes place). But Shetterly never offers a timeline to tell us when, precisely, slavery was abolished in his fictional universe—at least not in the comic pages. However, in the text piece that accompanied Captain Confederacy Special Edition #1 (which was basically an edited and altered version of the original first issue), Shetterly does reveal that outside pressure forced the Confederacy of the captain’s world to “abandon slavery by the 1870’s or 80’s.” This timeframe strikes me as a bit too optimistic.
After seceding and going to war in order to preserve the institution, I just don’t see the South giving up slavery that quickly. My guess would be that slavery persists until the early twentieth century at the very least; and that the Confederacy then continues as an apartheid-like nation up until the early 90s, much as South Africa did. So my vision of a potential Confederate States of America is probably more harsh than Shetterly’s, but that’s not to say Shetterly is painting a pretty picture here. It’s still a racist nation and it’s still fairly stomach turning.
The construction of this alternate history was a recurring topic in the lettercol, inspiring some wonderful debate and conjecture, particularly in how the central conceit (the South winning independence from the North in the Civil War) would affect the rest of world history. In the captain’s reality, for example, without a fully united America to enter the war, World War I goes on longer than it did in our reality and, subsequently, World War II never happens at all. Letter writers would discuss the feasibility of this and how the other dominoes might fall in its wake. These writers/commenters included such comic pros as Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, and even a young Neil Gaiman.
For all the youngsters out there that grew up on the internet, try to imagine the greatest news group or message board you possibly can. Now try to imagine this group/board with a 100% effective troll filter. Heaven, right? This was the lettercol of Captain Confederacy, as well as many other comic lettercols of that era. As I’ve mentioned before, most notably in my Man-Thing series of posts from a few years back, the letter columns are one of the things I miss most about comics back in the good old days.
I don’t want to re-hash the plot too much because I don’t want to spoil things for potential new readers, but let me just mention a few of my favorite bits from the original series.
As stated earlier, I’m not sure how necessary the superhero element was to this series (sadly, being a superhero comic likely led to the story’s very intriguing ideas and social commentary being taken less seriously than they deserved), but the creators did eventually take this aspect into some interesting directions. In addition to physical abilities, the main characters also start to develop psychic powers. Jeremy gets visions of the future; Kate can enter people’s dreams; and Roxanne can read people’s thoughts.
What I like most about it is that the development of their various psychic powers is used as an opportunity for character development at least as much, if not more, than plot development. (With more typical comics fare, it would have been strictly a plot device.) Particularly in the case of Roxanne, where we see her power starts to drive her crazy at first; then it forces her to face some hard truths that she refused to recognize earlier. How her government handlers react to the development of her powers also reveals a whole lot about them.
My favorite issue of this whole original run is a bit of an oddity. It’s issue #10, “Driving North,” which was a bit of a detour from the main narrative (Jeremy/Captain Confederacy does not even make an appearance in the story). It was written by John M. Ford, featured a number of text pages with spot illos, and some experimental stuff with p.o.v., both narratively and visually. A very successful, terrific experiment.
And in the end it all builds to a very dramatic (and satisfying) conclusion.
I must confess that while I was very much aware of the original indie series when it first came out, I was totally unaware of the follow-up Epic series until I started doing research for this article—despite the fact the Epic series had Marvel’s marketing muscle behind it at the time. Go figure. So I can’t offer any comment on that right now, but I will order copies from my favorite back issue dealer and might write about it in a future post.
Wrapping up, let me say that some indie comics from this era can feel painfully amateurish, but this was a very good series. It reads like a totally professional job, particularly the writing.
Words from the Author
It’s not often I get to speak to my subjects here, but I had the good fortune to find Will Shetterly via Twitter and he was kind enough to answer a few quick questions regarding the series:
Where did the idea for Captain Confederacy start?
On a long car trip. I started talking with my wife about who Captain America would be if the South had won. At the time, I thought it was just a funny idea, but eventually I realized it was an opportunity to write about what happens when patriotism and responsibility clash.
You had published a few novels prior to Captain Confederacy, correct? What was your thinking/motivation in pursuing CC as a comic book property?
The idea quickly moved away from being an alternate Captain America, but I still wanted to play with the dark side of the nationalistic superhero. So it stayed a comic book idea in my head. I know people have written decent books about costumed heroes, but for me, anything like a superhero works best in a visual medium.
How did Vince Stone become involved with the project?
I saw his samples at a comic convention and thought they were fun.
Did you shop it to any of the big publishers or was this always an indy property in your mind? Steel Dragon was all you right? Did you know a lot about comics production when you got started or were you pretty much winging it?
It was the decade of the black-and-white indie comic. We didn’t even think about shopping the book around. Though we didn’t know a thing about how to do it ourselves, we knew other people had, so we thought we could too.
Looking back now I wonder (and you yourself asked the same question in the lettercol at one point): Was the superhero element of CC necessary? How tempted were you (if at all) to ditch this aspect of the story? There were good business reasons to keep it (superheroes were what sold the best), but were there artistic reasons there as well?
I was never tempted to get rid of the superhero aspect, but it became less and less important as the story progressed.
My memory of the timeframe is inexact, but I believe CC got started when the B&W market was still in the midst of its boom and then the bust came sometime within the first few issues—is that right? How did the boom/bust affect the series?
The sales declined as the boom went bust, so we stopped the book when the first storyline ended. I would’ve happily kept it going, and I was grateful to Epic when their editor suggested we do a second story for them.
You credited John M. Ford with providing the plot for the next issue CC #9; Ford also gets sole credit for writing issue #10 and a co-credit for #11. How did Ford get involved with the writing of issues 9-11?
He and I were good friends. He surprised me with what was essentially a piece of fan fiction. I loved it, so I suggested turning it into a comics story, which became issue #10. I’m vague on the details of his involvement with other issues. I think we just kibitzed enough that I decided he should have some acknowledgment, or maybe it was because I decided to use his assassin part of my story.
When I worked in educational publishing, I once edited a bio on Abe Lincoln and my boss informed me that the book couldn’t say slavery caused the Civil War because schools in the South would never buy it. What do you recall of your own education regarding the Civil War, growing up?
I had the basic 20th century understanding that emphasized states’ rights and the nobility of Robert E. Lee. I wouldn’t say my understanding was wrong, but there are nuances that I’ve picked up since then.
You already commented on the upcoming Confederate TV series on your blog, so I wasn’t going to ask about that again, but if there’s anything you’d like to add to that, please feel free to do so. Confederate invited an immediate backlash; how about CC? The letters page always seemed positive.
I was afraid of a backlash at the time, but it didn’t come. Black readers said they were glad to have major black characters in a comic book that addressed historical racism; southern readers said they liked my treatment of the South as a place with good and bad people of all races.
Well, there was one letter that we got which might’ve been a death threat or might’ve been a parody of one. I did expect some racists would be upset with a book that included an interracial romance.
The real backlash came about fifteen years later when I republished it online—some readers thought a racist setting meant I was supporting racism, and others thought a white writer shouldn’t write about slavery or segregation.
If you had a chance to do it over again, is there anything about Captain Confederacy that you would like to do differently?
Uh, everything? I was just learning how to write comics, and my politics then were less socialist than they are now, and I knew less about the Confederacy than I do. If I did it over, I suspect the characters would be more complex, but I don’t think the basic story would change that much.
The inspiration behind this blogpost was the Confederate series HBO was/is working on, not the recent goings on regarding Confederate monuments and Charlotesville… but since we’re here, is there anything you’d care to say about it? Could you have imagined the U.S. being in such a state now when you were doing Captain Confederacy thirty-plus years ago?
I thought then that the issues of the 21st century would have less to do with racism and sexism and more to do with class conflicts. But I still agree with what Malcolm X said toward the end of his life: “I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin.”