by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
The Image Comics series Southern Bastards is a tribute to the South, both its warm, sunny side and its sordid dark side. If you’re from the South, you approach such projects with wariness. They tend to ladle on the magnolias and moonshine with a heavy hand and, depending on the writer’s viewpoint, overdo the reverence or, more often, soak it in so much vitriol that it collapses in a soggy mess.
But read three pages into Southern Bastards and the fictional Craw County of rural Alabama will feel real. What transports you are the little details—the Baptist church sign with the preachy aphorism, the “Keep Alabama Beautiful” anti-littering road sign, the proud “Home of the 5-time State 4A Football Champion” boast on the Welcome to Craw County sign. The town has the frozen-in-time look of so many small communities dotting the South, with a weathered hardware store, the BBQ joint where everyone grabs lunch and the Compson Bank (yes, that’s a nod to Faulkner).
Writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour know their subject. Aaron, known for work on titles such as Scalped and various Wolverine and Thor stories, was born in Jasper, Alabama, which he describes in a note at the end of the first issue as “the birthplace of the guy who played ‘Goober’ on The Andy Griffith Show and the 400-pound fighter they call Butterbean. … I was raised on Hee-Haw, the Crimson Tide, pork rinds and Jesus.” Latour, who has worked on such projects as Scalped and Django Unchained, was born and raised in Charlotte and lived in Georgia and Florida. His note says the series is for “them,” the Southerners “we’re afraid we might really be,” the ones who make him angry “because I love the South with all I’ve got.”
My father was born in Jasper too. I grew up a half hour or so from Birmingham, or “the big city” as one of Craw County’s ill-fated characters calls it, surrounded by cow pastures that turned into subdivisions. So when I say that almost every page of the series’ first three issues provokes nods of recognition and rueful smiles at how well Aaron and Latour nail the small touches, it means something. It’s like a doctor giving a thumbs up to a TV medical drama or a lawyer approving of a courtroom tale. It just doesn’t happen that often.
Southern Bastards focuses on Earl Tubb. He grew up in Craw County, was a star on the beloved high school football team and fled to the war in Vietnam as soon as he could to get away from the place and his father’s shadow. His dad was sheriff, and he cleaned up the county using a big stick, becoming a statewide celebrity (the stick is even autographed by Joe Willie Namath and Bear Bryant). The last time Earl was in Craw County was about 40 years ago for his father’s funeral. But he’s back now because his uncle, who had been living in the family place, has gone into a nursing home. Earl is there to clean out the old homestead so it can be sold. He plans on being there for about three days before leaving for good.
Things have changed in Earl’s absence. Not the town: Small southern towns rarely change. Buildings age but people still go to church on Sundays and high-school football games on Friday night and discuss both experiences over a slab of ribs. What’s changed is that there seems to be a new person pulling the strings—Coach Boss. “Coach” because he’s also the coach of the Running Rebels football team. Details are still emerging, but it’s clear that anything that happens in Craw County happens either at his behest or with his tacit permission. Players on his team serve as muscle, beating up folks who owe money, for example.
“Don’t take any of my starters,” he growls when issuing one order, “we’ve got two-a-days starting tomorrow.” In one panel his expression seems to be a sly nod to the legendary Bear Bryant, the Alabama football coach who’s been dead for years but who Tide fans pay homage to with houndstooth hats, houndstooth ties and houndstooth bikini tops. (For me, Coach Boss prompts thoughts of Nick Saban, particularly when he’s distracted from dealing with the problem of Earl because he’s too busy complaining about the hurry-up, no-huddle offense an opponent runs.)
Earl doesn’t want to get sucked into this mess. It’s not his fight. But circumstances pull him closer to the middle of it and he makes a choice that even he doesn’t fully understand. As he puts it at one point, “I hated my daddy so much … so much that I grew up to be just like him. Made his same damn mistakes. Maybe this … this is the only way I can make up for the both of us.”
As the big stick makes clear, the story is influenced by the old Joe Don Baker Walking Tall movies and the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, who carried a trusty stick while bashing heads and cleaning up a small Tennessee community. I suspect that Aaron is also familiar with the history of Alabama’s Phenix City, which was so rampant with corruption, gambling and prostitution in the 1940s and 1950s that it earned a national reputation as “Sin City, USA.”
While Aaron’s writing is spot on, Latour’s visuals are equally authentic. The looks on the faces of fans at a football game during a big play, a truck with a rebel flag plate, the pain and violence of vicious attacks, Earl’s weariness, all propel the story and keep you immersed in its world.
Issue No. 4 publishes Sept. 3 and is being touted as the end of the first story arc. Read the first three superb issues now so you can join me in anticipation of that one. At the back of the book in issues 2 and 3 have been letters from fans. A few have ended with the ubiquitous Alabama expression of “Roll Tide,” which in that part of the world is not just a cheer but a greeting and a benediction, depending on the context. I can’t say that, but I hope Aaron and Latour can appreciate this next statement for the respect and admiration it is meant to convey … War Damn Eagle!