The cover of Jason Aaron’s and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards #4, like the covers of the previous three issues of this comicbook series from Image, is red. There is red inside this book as well: a red sunset on a battlefield in Vietnam, red football jerseys, red brick store buildings around a county square, red checks on a restaurant tablecloth, red pennant flags, a red collar on an old stray dog, red blood. There is red all over this story of Earl Tubb’s return to Craw County, Alabama: crimson red.
The color evokes the spirit of the Heart of Dixie, former capital of the confederacy and birthplace of the civil rights movement. There is red all over Alabama: Red brick churches and school houses. Red sunsets over the Tennessee River. Red barbecue sauce, thick as molasses. Red t-shirts and hats and beer koozies. Red dirt, Alabama clay, staining the knees of high school football uniforms, staining the fur of old stray dogs, staining the hands of farmers, getting under fingernails, impossible to remove even with a pocket knife to scrape them clean, even with good ole’ fashion lye soap like they used to make in the days before Wal-Mart moved in and planted itself on the backs of cotton fields once worked by slaves and on top of the forgotten graves of the Cherokee.
Southern Bastards is an Alabama story as much as To Kill a Mockingbird is an Alabama story.
It is a story about football and about coaches who will do anything to have a winning team. It is a story about poverty, passed from generation to generation like some cherished heirloom. It is a story about the small Alabama towns that flourished for a moment and are now dying a slow, wilting death. It is a story about coal miners and dirt farmers or, rather, a story about the children and grandchildren left behind when the mines played out and the quarter-million dollar tractors moved in. It is a story about right and wrong, about a man with a big stick who just wants to do what his daddy would have done, who, in need of courage, finds instead that anger and stubbornness may have to do.
It is a story about race. Of course it is a story about race; all Alabama stories are stories about race, about white and red and black, about the trail of tears and the middle passage.
Earl Tubb is a tired old man who returns to his hometown in Craw County to take care of family business but who finds himself trapped there, bound by a code that he had surely thought he had long since left behind, in the big city of Birmingham if not in the jungles of Vietnam. His father had been Sheriff of Clay County many years before, a Sheriff like Buford Pusser who carried a big stick and imposed his own brand of justice on the people he served through the use of force, through raw power, through red-eyed fury and blood.
Craw County, Tubb finds, is lost; the people are hopeless and forlorn. Football is everything, victories on the field a substitute, perhaps, for success in life, for jobs and health insurance and security and pride and real self-respect, the kind earned from hard work, from long hours of study, from standing tall and doing what is right even when it hurts, until it hurts. Coach Boss rules the roost, a big fish in a little pond. He kills without mercy, takes without giving in return. He is a strong white man that the weak white men can believe in, can follow blindly like some righteous king.
But Earl Tubb is not weak; he never has been; he never will be. And so he returns to Clay County, returns to the place of his birth, returns to the place that he fled from, ran from, escaped from. He returns with no plans to stay, with no reason to remain, except that the red dirt, the red clay, must be in his blood, must be the secret source of who he is. He stays longer than he should, longer than is wise. Part of me wishes he hadn’t; most of me is glad that he did.
I was hooked from page one of this series, hooked on the attention to detail on the part of both Aaron and Latour, hooked when I saw the clock and the confederate monument on the lawn of the courthouse, hooked when I saw that they served chow-chow with their ribs at the barbecue restaurant, hooked in that opening panel when that old stray dog in the red collar took a dump in front of the church signs on the side of the highway just outside of town. Aaron captures the dialogue, the cadence of the voices, the things that matter in Alabama. Latour brings it all alive; his art is as gritty and humid as an Alabama July, his faces as rugged and rough as the rocky Alabama soul, not up north in the great river valley where things are level and flat, but in the hills and hollers south of the big river down to Birmingham, in that land where the last fingerlings of the Appalachians brought coal and iron and sweat and sorrow to the green woods where cicadas sing.
Aaron and Latour know the south. Aaron knows Alabama. He was born and raised in Jasper, Alabama. He is the grandson of a Baptist preacher and a coal miner. And, in the afterword to the first issue of this series, he said that he loves being from the south.
It all shows here, in the sense of place that this series possesses, in the truth behind the characters.
Aaron also says, “But I don’t live there anymore. And I don’t plan on ever moving back. The south is more peaceful than any other place I’ve ever been. But more primal too. More timeless. But more haunted. More spiritual. More hateful. More scarred. And that’s what this series is about. About a place you can love and hate and miss and fear all at the same time.”
This shows too, this love and hate, this longing and disgust, this sense of belonging and this sense of alienation. Indeed, reading Aaron’s words it is easy to see Southern Bastards as autobiographical, easy to think that there is more than just a little of Jason Aaron in Earl Tubb. Tubb’s return to Clay County must reveal something about Aaron’s return to Alabama in this work. On nearly every page you can sense both the love and the hate the writer has for this place, for everything here is treated tenderly, lovingly, even the things that are broken, even the things that are wicked, out-of-balance and mean. Southern Bastards is clearly a personal story; in its pages Earl Tubb returns to his home place, and Jason Aaron does too. They both have the red clay in their blood, and both, in a sense, must swim against that crimson tide that threatens to wash everything away that is good and right and fair and true. Jason Aaron says that he doesn’t ever plan on moving back. And yet, here he is, walking these Clay County roads, watching this Friday night football game, fighting these old battles, one southern bastard against another.
So, I am reading Southern Bastards #4 early in September from deep in Alabama. The air is thick and hot and everything is green, verdant, alive. The cicadas are deafening after dark and the lightning bugs still flash, though not as insistently as a month ago. Football season just started and the Crimson Tide won again. The red stands out clearly against the green: crimson red, blood red, red like the earth of an open grave dug deep in Alabama soil.
I was born and raised in Alabama. My ancestors were sharecroppers and dirt farmers and carpet baggers, too. My father dug ditches and loaded gravel onto trucks. I shook George Wallace’s hand once, on a high school field trip to the state capital. I was called to be a Baptist preacher when I was 15 years old. I used to listen to Martin Luther King’s “I Have Dream” speech every night as I went to bed on an LP record that skipped if you didn’t put a penny on the needle arm of the record player. Like Jason Aaron, I grew up and moved away. Like Earl Tubb, I came back. Though it is a place in which I never felt I really belonged, it is a place from which, apparently, I can never leave.
Yes, I hate these southern bastards who get so lost in football and race cars that they can’t see what’s really important, who get so distracted by skin of white and black and brown that they can’t see the red, red flesh underneath it all, who wave their guns too boldly, like cocksure children rather than grown-up men and women, who hate themselves for being poor and vote against their best interests because of it, who pray to a god that I long sense stopped believing in. Sometimes I have been known to buck them, to be a southern bastard right back in return.
But I came back to Alabama for the Tennessee River catfish and for the humid, summer nights that are alive with the sounds of nature, alive and wondrous and real. I came back for the slow pace, the lifestyle that, when lived right, can move as slow as molasses. I came back for my family, so that I could bury them right in the red clay from which we all sprang. I came back to raise my children so that they would know where the red blood comes from that flows in their veins. I came back because this is my home place, my home. Southern Bastards has helped me to see all of this, reminded me what it is that I hate, and love, about life in the red, beating heart of Dixie.
Ever since I was a small child, I read comicbooks to help me escape from Alabama and from the crimson tide that always threatens to drown the best and the brightest among us.
Aaron and Latour have ruined that forever.
Thanks, you bastards.