Monday, November 19, 2018

Captain Confederacy #1

Thanksgiving 2018
Forgotten Heroes
Captain Confederacy #1

An alternate history take on the Captain America story (NSFW language)

"The Making of a Hero!”
Writers – Will Shetterly
Artist – Vince Stone
Letterer – Vince Stone

Sean was the first guy to tell me about Captain Confederacy, and that’s significant.

Sean and I went to college together, we hung out with the same group of friends, and we shared the same nerd/geek culture. Sean loved comic books, Star Trek, and sci-fi movies. He was known to break out a movie quote for near any occasion, and then laugh at his own cleverness. We lost Sean in 2010 on his second tour of duty as a Navy Reservist in Kuwait.

The most memorable habit that Sean had was that loud, booming laugh that he did nothing to cover up. I’ve seldom been around anyone whose laughter would make me visibly uncomfortable, and it took a few weeks after meeting Sean for me to settle in. A lot of that had to do with me being one of these geeky wallflowers never quite relaxed when discussing my own fandoms in a public setting.

But Sean? He owned that shit and never shied away. He was a true nerd, through-and-through.

We all miss Sean.

But the significant part of him being the first person to bring up Captain Confederacy to me was that Sean was black. He gave the book his seal of approval and then started to tell me a little of what to expect between the covers, usually punctuated with laughter. I am never quite certain how the title came up in our conversation, but I recall tucking the bits of information he gave me away for later.

Because you see, like most of the college-age comic book buyers of 1986, I thought that Captain Confederacy was some kind of racist propaganda tool. The book did bill itself as an alternate-history take on a superhero in a world where at the end of the American Civil War the south retained its independence. A story of a superhero that was part publicity tool for his government, and that government was very much invested in reinforcing the notion that black people were second-class citizens. It also didn’t shy away from using the “N” word to set the scene either.

Having Sean state that he enjoyed the book was shocking. It felt too controversial to me. I still wouldn’t put my lily-white hands within ten feet of a copy, however. At least not until years later, after Sean’s passing in 2010 and a chance bundle pack from Half-Price Books popped open containing 11 issues of the series. 

But those issues did arrive. The first eight books from 1986 published by independent Steeldragon Press, in order with no missing numbers. And then a skip past the final four issues of the original series to the restart in 1991 by Marvel’s Epic Comics with a new number one that continues the storyline begun in the prior publication.

I have to state that I was a bit disappointed in finding them mixed in with my X-Men and Superman. So many issues of what I expected to be a one-off story concept that would neither peak my interest nor build a story I could relate to. I didn’t trust that someone could take a world where racists won the Civil War and make me want to read about it.

I should have just trusted Sean’s judgement.

Because writer Will Shetterly and artist Vince Stone pulled it off. They created a fictional history of an Un-United States that worked as partial social commentary, character drama, political intrigue, and superhero story without exploiting the racial elements in the tale for sensationalist points. Yes, the series uses a few “N” words at a time where society was quick to denigrate anyone outside of rap groups from Compton from throwing it around. And also yes, Shetterly and Stone are both white guys. However, the uses of the term are for background flavor and not as some racist dogwhistle.

Never in my born days did I think I would be in any way defending a comic’s use of a vulgar racist slang-term that I revile so strongly. And perhaps I’m not arguing for its inclusion as much as I am pleading for understanding of its use in the context of the story. It is either backdrop or exposes the racial bias of the character who is using it. I’ll give you an example in just a bit.

That said, clench up as we tackle Captain Confederacy and hopefully don’t lose half my audience in doing so.

We begin in a screening room, but what is being screened is not a movie, it’s government-made news reels. And they star the villainous Blacksnake…

…and yet the audience for this screening are the actors who portray the heroes and villains in the film, sitting together chatting cordially.

But while they may be best of friends, That doesn’t’ stop Jeremy’s character on screen from doing something designed to suppress the rights of his friend. You see, Captain Confederacy delivers an speech to the movie audience that supports segregation and a very “Jim Crowe” version of rules for running the country. 

The pair in the screening room make so much noise that their co-star Roxie, a/k/a  Miss Dixie, turns to shush them both up.

That end credit about “The True Story of Captain Confederacy” riles up Jeremy a bit. He’s an actor who signed on for a role. The super-solider serum they gave him has cost him his career at the same time that it assured him of an acting job of a life time. As long as he doesn’t mind being controlled by McCauly, their government handler and the director of Project Hero.

And as we can see the secrecy of the Captain Confederacy project has been compromised, so McCauly is taking the offensive and releasing the information about C.C. being more than just a “concerned citizen.” He’s going to break with the information that the government has been behind the heroes origin and activities all along, stealing the thunder from the “colored militant agitators” or whomever. 

Notice how they nicely skirt saying super-solider serum with the substitute “Ultimate-Potential Serum” so as not to rile Marvel’s lawyers. Note also that he nearly says that word we’ve been on the lookout for. Don’t worry, it comes later and the mere inclusion of him thinking about saying it reveals more about McCauly’s character that anything else in his speech. Yes, McCauly is a racist asshole with an agenda, if you didn't get that from the start.

McCauly also explains that there will be liberties taken with the release of the information. Liberties like how it was originally tested on Kate and Aaron, the two colored actors who play Blacksnake and his multiple female accomplices. There’s mention of a “President Lee,” which ends up being a woman who is a direct descendant of General Lee. Neat inclusion and shows how much thought Shetterly has put into this world. You’ll find out it’s quite a bit.

Aaron Jackson gets a bit mouthy with Roxie in this next bit and for the first time we see a bit of that oppression we know is there under the surface. 

Also there’s this bone McCauly throws at Aaron, which you can just feel isn’t going to turn out to be the boon anyone thinks it is. Instead it would turn into yet another level used to keep colored people under his thumb.

The book skips out on the scene here and picks up as Aaron is driving his new car through the rural south with Jeremy and Kate in tow. The conversation turns heated (and we get that first N-word) as Kate starts blowing off steam. Jeremy tries to jump in, but really he’s pretty clueless as to the real agenda of Project Hero. Note the including of the word “jiving,” which is a neat dialogue addition given the setting.

Kate explains that she can’t stand McCauly’s treatment of her people and that using a contact with the underground railroad, she is leaving the evening for YankeeLand. The men are shocked. It ends with her attempting to get out of the car.

And Kate’s attempt causes them to stop right by these ignorant racist hicks. Before they interrupt the conversation with their misunderstanding that Jeremy owns the car and is allowing Aaron to drive it, both men swear not to tell anyone about Kate’s defection. Aaron also turns down her offer to go with her.

Now on to the hicks, who are clearly more scum of the Earth than salt of the Earth. Aaron gets a moment that would make Luke Cage envious. It is moments like these where the book proves it isn’t supporting racism as much as exposing it for the ugly and evil act we know it is.

Unfortunately, Jeremy isn’t as swift in the mental department as his counterpart in the Marvel Universe. After having sex with Roxie, he lets it slip that Kate is running away. And Roxie is clearly too much in the government’s pocket to keep that secret safe.

We turn quickly to Kate and her white underground railroad accomplice about to take off. He cautions they should go, worried he will be caught. Kate tells him not to fret about being in the coloreds-only section of town after curfew. Little do either of them know the danger they are in due to Jeremy’s slip up.

Meanwhile, Aaron is outside pacing with his thoughts, clearly building up to a crisis of conscience. He first reaches the wrong conclusion, and turns away from helping the woman he loves for fear of losing the position he has in the Confederate system.

True to form, McCauly sends out government troops to stop Kate’s abdication. Those troops are ordered to shoot on sight.

Not that the sound of a few gunshots going off in Kate’s apartment gets Aaron to change his decision. It does eat away at his resolve. Look for Aaron to undergo a change in attitude shortly.

And by shortly, I mean the next morning when Kate shows up bloodied and hurt, yet still very much alive. First Kate relays her tale and what her next plans are.

Later Aaron phones Jeremy and tells him of Kate’s visit and his own crumbling resistance toward fighting the establishment. Just what he means by that last remark won’t remain a mystery for long.

And that is because Aaron fails to show up the next morning at Project Hero. Soon after, his plan to fight the oppression from the government his own way is revealed.

Unfortunately, Mac puts Jeremy square in the crosshairs of this tense situation, forcing the young man to choose between his best friend and his loyalty to his country.

In the end Jeremy makes the choice to follow McCauly’s orders, mirroring Aaron’s earlier decision about helping Kate.

Things at the TV station are tense, with Aaron holding a gun to the head of the news anchor. Jeremy arrives and tries talking Aaron down. But in his Blacksnake costume, he seems determined to spill all of the beans about Project Hero in a way McCauly won’t like.

Aaron can tell Jeremy is still in McCaully’s pocket. With that, he forces McCauly to put him on the air live or the woman’s life is forfeit.

There is on camera and off camera drama in this hostage situation, with Jeremy clearly being caught between two losing options.

Miss Dixie/Roxie has less complicated feelings around which side in this argument may be right. She disarms Aaron…

…which causes a battle on screen much like the one that started the book…

…and ends the same way, only in a more permanent fashion.

And apparently Miss Dixie is the one who ends up killing Aaron. Jeremy’s loss of his best friend has him upset, as we can tell from the next bit. His leaving the costume behind is symbolic. He’s stripped away his idealism about what Captain Confederacy represents and the system he works to uphold. 

He leaves behind the legacy he built, but it won’t be as easy as just walking away. Jeremy’s confusion over what to do next is the theme of the next few issues as he progresses from being a cardboard cutout of a hero to being the real deal. 

If you want to follow those stories, you need look no farther than your browser. Shetterly has a blog where he is posting revised copies of the series online. Several are up already and you can get a feel for where the series is heading.

In an interesting note, the first issue contained a letters column that several luminaries chimed in on the series. It had apparently been circulated in photocopy form at some of the conventions or some such. Chris Claremont of X-Men fame put forth a bunch of historical questions regarding how this new outcome of the Civil War would affect events down the line. Much of these questions would later be answered as Shetterly expanded the universe with various countries attempting to secure the formula/heroes through diplomacy or subterfuge.

Mark Shainblum, a fellow Canadian comic book author was also quite complementary.

But the kicker was the end review by DC’s Marv Wolfman. He really let Shetterly have his unvarnished option. I’ll let Wolfman’s words speak for themselves:

“I may be thick, but I don’t know what you’re trying to say with this. If it’s about prejudice, period, it seems out of place to me because it’s building straw men to knock them down. If it’s just speculation, it seems out of place to me because of its continued status. If it’s a warning that this could happen if we let prejudice run rampant, well, maybe my 60’s liberalism sense is tingling, but I can’t believe the scenario. If this were a mini-series (which it very well may be), it would work fine, but if it is a regular series, the point is lost. Also, even as a mini-series I think it has to be more than simply doing a Civil War story in reverse. It has to have a point, I think, that is valid today. I’m just looking for the twist in the story that makes it work for me – and what works for me as a read may not be what you may want to do.”

With a lot of respect to Wolfman, he got this dead wrong. There was plenty of blatant racism going around in the 80’s that Captain Confederacy could comment on. Lots of double-standards still in effect. We see that everywhere today. Also the story being told worked better as an ongoing. Jeremy’s views on things continued to morph and change, Shetterly had the good sense to explain more about this world and how everything fit, and most importantly Kate had a very surprising retribution arc in the making. It led to a very good story.

And one I’m proud made it to my Crapbox. Thank you, Sean. I don’t’ think I would have cracked the covers on these without your endorsement those many years ago. Miss you, buddy.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the personal story from your yesteryears. I am a sucker for tales dealing with alternate history. Just the sheer ridiculousness and absurdity of this book alone would make me want to seek it out. I am not really sure what that says about me. Thanks for sharing. Good stuff.


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