As Jason Aaron’s returned to creator-owned work after the excellent “Scalped,” I should’ve been really excited about this title. However, in all of the solicitation text and previews I read about “Southern Bastards” I never really got a good sense of what it was about. Yes, I was planning on buying it because of Aaron’s involvement, but I’d be doing so without a real understanding of what I was getting into. Now that I’ve read through the first volume, I see that it’s a very conventional story in the vein of “Walking Tall” as one ornery southern bastard tries to bring justice back to his hometown. The execution is still good enough to make it a worthwhile experience, and the end makes me hope that the writer is setting things up for a more interesting story to be told in future volumes.
Earl Tubb took the first chance he had to get away from his father and out of Craw County, Alabama, and that was by enlisting in the army to go fight in Vietnam. That should give you a pretty good idea of how pleasant both of these things were, and after forty years away Earl has come back to Craw County to pack up his dad’s belongings. He’s only planning to stay as long as it takes to get things loaded into his truck, but after an encounter with an old acquaintance that leads to violence and then to murder Earl figures on staying longer. The town has become more like his dad in the intervening years, and Earl’s going to need an even bigger stick than the one his father had to put things right.
That’s the thrust of “Southern Bastards,” and in telling us the story of the efforts of Earl and his stick to clean up the town, Aaron doesn’t so much as traffic in stereotypes than haul them in by tractor-trailer. Craw County is the kind of town where football is a way of life, people subsist on a diet of barbecue, and the son of the town’s preacher can whip out his dick and piss in the street whenever he feels like it. Oh yeah, and the only thing that makes Coach Euless Boss more angry than the failure of his high school lackeys to properly kill a man with outstanding debts is if they had failed to win the football game the following day.
Yeah, it’s THAT kind of town and Aaron dives into it wholeheartedly with Earl. It may be filled to the brim with cliches and tropes, but it’s still invested with enough character and style to make the four issues collected here an entertaining read. Earl is the centerpiece here and while he starts off as a low-key badass with his “I just come for the ribs” manner, we slowly see the rage and frustration at his father that drives him to do the things he does. Yes, the symbolism with the lightning striking the tree over his dad’s grave was a bit over-the-top and it was also well within the series’ established tone. Other characters like Esaw, the ornery preacher’s son; Tad, the simple kid who offers handy exposition to Earl; and, the sheriff who is just a figurehead for Coach Boss aren’t fleshed out as well. They still fulfill their roles adequately, with a twist or two being provided in the way they’re used here.
Coach Boss is the only member of the cast who actually needed a bit more development here. I get how he’s meant to be the real power behind the town with plenty of criminal acts alluded to but none actually shown here. Yeah, there’s the fight he has with Earl and aside from that his most threatening act is delegating the actual criminal stuff to his lackeys. While it’s easy to understand and accept his role in this series, there’s no real weight to it yet.
Part of the reason I’m at least able to accept Coach Boss as he is comes down the the art from Jason Latour. Previously known to me for his work on “B.P.R.D.,” the artist really nails the gritty, run-down look of Craw County and truly makes it look like a place in need of saving with his linework and colors. More impressive is his character work as his jagged lines show us how rough or harmful a person is going to be just by looking at them. The full-page reveal of Coach Boss is a perfect example of this as you can tell exactly how much of a bastard this guy is as he expresses his irritation at how a bloody, injured man wound up on his football field in the middle of a game. Latour’s art perfectly complements Aaron’s script and enlivens the more familiar parts of his story.
If “Southern Bastards” was just another old white guy who comes back to his town to settle old scores kind of story, then the four issues here would be just the right length for it. The energetic writing and art, along with their lack of subtlety, provide enough energy to make the cliches and tropes of the narrative readable here. Yet this is only the first arc. How do you make something like this interesting in the long run?
For starters, you have Earl’s story play out in a way that doesn’t really mesh with convention. His exact fate is left somewhat unclear, but Craw County’s fate is not settled at the end of the volume. We then get an epilogue where it’s revealed who Earl was trying to reach on his phone in his many calls throughout the story. Without giving too much away, I can say that I would love to see this person come down to Craw County to finish Earl’s business. Plugging this kind of person into a story like this upends its very foundation as she (yes, she) is not an old white guy with a big stick. From this brief glimpse we get of her at the end, it’s clear that her methods are not Earl’s. It’s almost as if Aaron was writing this story to say that the old ways of doing things aren’t meant to work anymore and it’s time to try and find new ones.
If that’s the case, then I can’t wait to see how it plays out in the next volume. Of course, Aaron could just have Earl get up from his hospital bed, walk back into town, and beat Coach Boss to death with his IV rack -- or something along those lines -- in the next volume. The writer has shown himself to be more clever than that in the comics that I’ve read from him, so I’m willing to bet that these four issues were just setting up the real story he wants to tell in this title. So if you want to wait until the second volume comes out to see if that’s where this series is really going, I can’t really blame you for wanting to wait. Regardless of where the series goes, these first four issues from Aaron and Latour are still a spirited romp through some familiar material and worth reading on their own merits.