Even though I speak like I’m from California, prefer Brit-Pop to country, Earl Grey to sweet tea, and haven’t set foot in a church in God knows when, I would consider myself a Southerner. I love college football, ribs, fried okra, and walking in old Confederate graveyards in West and MiddleTennessee. There are a lot of positive things about the South. Our music and cuisine. The great football talent that can only be found in high schools south of the Mason Dixon Line and ends up winning seven of the last eight national championships. (And Florida State’s the closest the ACC will ever get to an SEC school.) And I don’t think a Yankee could write Absalom, Absalom, “What Rises Must Converge”, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or even No Country For Old Men. But there are also negative things about the South. Racism, homophobia, crime, poverty. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with my Southern roots. Visiting my Grandma in Knoxville, Tennessee or my Nana in Finger, Tennessee (aka the middle of nowhere) definitely feels like coming home. But I also feel like an outsider. The independent comic Southern Bastards (2014; Published by Image Comics) written by Alabama native Jason Aaron (Scalped, Wolverine and the X-Men) and drawn and colored by Jason Latour (Winter Soldier) captures these feelings while telling a compelling crime story, visually depicting the Alabama backcountry (It could be Tennessee or Mississippi too.), and dealing with themes like family legacy and seeing a society collapse.
Spoiler Alert There are some spoilers for Southern Bastards #1, but I’ve decided not to spoil any of the events of Southern Bastards #2-#4.
Southern Bastards is about an elderly man named Earl Tubbs, who returns to the fictional Craw County, Alabama after a 40 year absence to pack up his dead father Bert Tubbs’ house because his Uncle Buhl has left it for a nursing home. Earl ends up getting drawn into a web of violence and crime with a side of football, barbecue, and sweet tea as he fights to take down Coach Boss, the multiple state championship winning high school football coach, that is the redneck kingpin of Craw County. However, Aaron and Latour take their time building the atmosphere of Craw County before the shooting, stabbing, and stick beating starts. The first full page of the comic shows that they “get” the South with a scene of a crooked interstate highway with signs for three churches on the side of the road. There’s also a dog pooping. The glory and the grime of the South in a nutshell with a side of the dark humor, which pervades the series. Instead of using blocks of texts and exposition, Latour’s art introduces the setting and character from the name “Boss” being found everywhere from the hardware store to the local rib joint and press clippings in Bert Tubbs’ house telling his story as the hero sheriff of Craw County. He also puts in little details for the sharp-eyed, like legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and NFL Hall of Fame and former Alabama quarterback Joe “Willie” Namath’s signatures on Sheriff Tubbs’ stick that he used to keep the peace.
But Latour’s art and colors really shine in the red tinged flashback scenes of Sheriff Tubbs and young Earl that he juxtaposes with scenes in the present. For example, there is a twelve panel page of Tubbs’ stick, Bible, and him doling out justice to criminals while Earl cowers behind the couch intercut with Coach Boss’ football helmet wearing enforcers beating up the hapless Dusty, who stole money from him as well Earl cutting down the tree that is growing from his father’s grave. There is no dialogue just an old man struggling with his relationship to his father and his legacy as well as the South. This red coloring also reoccurs every time Earl starts to act like his father. Latour’s gritty lines and grasp on color gradients and panel structure are one of the best things about Southern Bastards, but Aaron also crafts complex characters that connect to his major theme of the positive and negative sides of the South. He also has a firm command of dialect in his dialogue. (I can hear my grandparents or mother in some of the characters. Also, a random waitress at Corky’s, and some foulmouthed Kentucky fans at a Tennessee football game I went a long time ago.)
Jason Aaron uses certain characters to flesh out various aspects of the Southern experience. One of Coach Boss’ enforcers, Esaw Goings, is a preacher’s son, but also definitely a “bastard”, who starts beating up Dusty and does generally disgusting things, like urinating on a dog in the middle of the road. He represents some of the religious hypocrisy in the South, which is looked at in more depth in later issues when Earl uses religion to try to show Craw County’s inhabitants why going along with Coach Boss is morally wrong. However, there are positive things too. Earl’s father Sheriff Tubbs reminds me a lot of Buford Pusser, who was made nationally famous in the 1973 Walking Tall film as well as the 2004 remake. Pusser was the sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee (where my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins live) and fought a one man war on crime on the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Both he and Sheriff Tubbs were religious men, who carried big sticks. Earl’s journey to reclaim his father’s heroic legacy is a big part of his character arc and the overall story of Southern Bastards. Even though he is decades older than me, I could see a little of my “outsider” status in Earl’s character as he is constantly told to get out of Craw County by various characters. I also saw a lot of my late grandpa in Earl’s subtle and sarcastic sense of humor and just the way he carried himself as a character.
Southern Bastards is a true example of how a comic book story can explore human nature and problems, like the good, bad, and in-between of the American South. Aaron and Latour takes themes explored by great writers, like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and adds elements of the crime thriller and things which continue to be a big part of the South, like church, food, and football to make their story truly authentic. It also deals with things that aren’t unique to the American South, like strained relationships between father and sons and bringing law and order to place that has little or no hope. But I think Southern Bastards had more of a personal impact on me because of my own struggle with being a “Southerner” and what that means to me as a twenty something living in 2014.
If this blog post (hopefully) made you interested in Southern Bastards, you can find all four issues of the first story arc. digitally at Imagecomics.com or Comixology. The first four issues are also being collected into trade paperback form, and this will be released on October 1 at the special introductory price of $9.99.