SOUTHERN BASTARDS #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour
Published by Image Comics
Release Date: April 30, 2014
Southern Bastards is a dirty book about a dirty town run by a dirty man. The art feels as natural and grimy as August in the Dismal Swamp. The relationships are fraught with guilt and simmering resentment. This is a book not just IN the South, but OF the South. Jasons Aaron and Latour make an incomparable team; Aaron’s story is equal parts family history and crime drama, while Latour’s art steals the role of protagonist right from Earl Tubb’s well-worn hands. More books should be like this one.
The general premise of Southern Bastards is a story almost uncomfortably familiar: a man, Earl Tubb, must return to the tiny Alabama town he escaped after 40 years away to handle an elderly family member’s affairs. Craw County was always a dark place for Earl, it seems, but it’s only gotten darker while he was gone; Euless Boss, the high school championship football coach, runs the town as a BBQ-slinging, play-calling Godfather. Given Aaron’s propensity for subverting reader expectations I doubt this story will fall under the trope of “new sheriff cleans up town.” He’s great at approaching characters in an innovative way. And since he’s also a Southerner, well, no Southern writer ever took the easy, direct approach to telling a story. He gradually peels back layers, interaction by interaction, slowly revealing the essentials about each person and each place. For example, we never even meet our main antagonist, and yet we know all we need to before we ever set eyes on him.
Latour’s art drives the narrative, with the setting itself taking on a fleshed-out role as a primary player. As with most small towns, quaint veneers don’t hold up if you look too closely. You start to see the dog mess on the side of the street and the suspicion behind polite smiles. The detail Latour puts into the environment really illuminates the “town with a secret” vibe. This fictional county feels authentic enough to be real, right down to the walls of Boss BBQ, crammed full of tacky junk. The characters feel real too. Each character’s face shows every line of their life, Earl’s especially. Earl’s flashbacks to his childhood take on a nightmare quality, despite the memories being decades old. From the brief images alone, we get a sense of what his father must have been like. The final pages juxtaposing Earl and his old friend Dusty are a beautiful representation of the dark places both the art and the story are going to take us.
There’s an assumption, I think, that stories set in big cities like New York and Chicago are better suited to talk about the human condition. Big cities have a lot going on, and a lot of different kinds of people in them. That’s interesting and all, but what happens to people who stay in the same small place their whole lives? Stories like this one can offer something those can’t – the human condition without all the distractions. Seeing the same people, going to the same places, never looking outward and even actively rejecting outside influence. That isolation is what let William Faulkner take his Southern angst and 30-page sentences and turn them into a Nobel Prize.
Aaron and Latour have a story here that would probably make Faulkner hide in his closet, clutching his medal and lamenting the death of Southern gentility. Good for them. Too much Southern literature gets overly sentimental about the Old Days. Sometimes the past is ugly, and confronting that ugliness leads to a lot of even uglier revelations. Southern Bastards doesn’t shy from confrontation, which makes it a bold, worthwhile read.
The Verdict: 10/10