[4 June 2014]
A comic about rednecks in Alabama could never sell, right? Jason Aaron and Jason Latour aim to prove anyone in doubt dead wrong. After the first issue sold out at the distributor level, the southern duo have an instant hit on their hands and are back with more violence, football and mangled English than you can shake a stick at. Speaking of, Southern Bastards clearly wears its influences on its sleeve, referencing everything from the wooden club-wielding sheriff of Walking Tall to the works of William Faulkner. It’s their love letter to the south where the creators both hail from. Or is it a hate letter? While the pair are both proud of their roots, they clearly have mixed feelings about their respective places of origin. I guess it’s more of a tough love letter then.
As established in the previous issue, middle aged Earl Tubb has returned home after forty long years away from Craw County, Alabama, the setting for this epic in the making. The Jasons pour it on thick, reminding us at every turn that we’re in the Deep South and its inhabitants play by a different set of rules here. Football and machismo are king and empathy for the weak is in short supply. Case in point; a game in play won’t even take a time out for a battered man bleeding out on the field. This is the south, warts and all, and the storytellers aren’t going to take it easy on their creations or us readers for that matter.
Of course the violence won’t make the average reader bat an eye who’s familiar with Aaron’s previous series, Scalped. It’s a way of life for these characters and you soon become desensitized to it as you do when watching a Tarantino movie. In that sense it’s difficult for the story to shock us this early on while we’re still getting to know our cast. But this comic isn’t just an excuse for Latour to draw southerners beating the crap out of each other. At the heart of this story is the relationship between Earl and his deceased father, a man who was once Sheriff round these parts and devoted his life to cleaning up the town but couldn’t do it alone. It’s obvious we’re meant to root for Earl, but he’s still a mostly blank canvas for now.
There’s a lot of backstory to be filled in between now and when he first escaped his birthplace. Equally, we know we’re rooting against Coach Boss, a man who inexplicably has the sheriff’s department under his thumb and wears an evil scowl on his face at all times. He’s a bastard for sure, but time will tell if we eventually love to hate him.
Now that the roles of good vs. evil have been carved out, we’ve got the pieces in place for a good ol’ fashioned showdown. Except Earl’s family business here is finished. He came back to pack up his recently deceased uncle’s house and get in and out in three days tops. It should come as no surprise that his plans don’t exactly go according to plan. Anyone who thought he was leaving that easily wasn’t paying attention as the struggle to carry on his father’s work, while a heavy burden, is one he can’t simply ignore. Craw County needs a savior. It needs Earl. And maybe part of him needs it too. Perhaps his life has lost meaning in the past few decades and there was a hole in his life that needed filling. Protecting this county from harm is his destiny. Aaron’s work on Thor: God of Thunder seeps in as Earl has his God of Thunder moment and a hero emerges while suspending realism for a grand finale. So far this book has been a slow burn, but this dynamic moment promises that Earl will begin the next issue with renewed purpose, now that the torch has been officially passed and he has his mission laid out in front of him.
This is not the kind of book that Aaron and Latour could have debuted with right out of the gate. Clearly this is the work of seasoned pros, and it’s a very promising start, but it’s one that could have easily slipped under the radar if it weren’t for the star power attached. As mentioned previously, it’s not an easy sell. There isn’t a major hook or high concept you can point to in what is essentially a “ripped from the headlines” story. That’s not to say that I don’t like where it’s going or that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down. The story sticks with you in unexpected ways, and the simplicity keeps it grounded. I was unaware of a demand for a crime drama set in Alabama but it’s always nice to be surprised by something you didn’t know you wanted and that’s where this book will continue to succeed if it keeps taking risks. Southern Bastards lives up to its name and cements the fact that Image is the place for top talent to create masterpieces.