Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Before the actual story begins, the first page of this volume is taken up by an image of a dog defecating by the side of the highway, with three signs advertising three separate churches scrunched together in the background. On the other side of the road from the dog is a sign reading “Welcome to Craw County, Alabama.” After that, the look of utter contempt in Earl Tubb’s face as he drives a moving van back to his hometown is almost unnecessary. Equal parts honest welcome and ominous warning, that scene with the dog is about as comfortable as Southern Bastards ever gets, and it’s only the tip of this deliciously gruesome iceberg.
As we’ve learned through his magnificent run on Wolverine and the X-Men and his previous Vertigo series Scalped, writer Jason Aaron has no qualms about shaping action sequences around brutally dirty fights, but here it feels a bit more raw than usual. Sure, Wolverine gutting legions of *insert your favorite flavor of villainous henchmen here* is entertaining enough, but always expected given the character. With Southern Bastards, there’s a much more unsettling feeling creeping down the skin because the violence is not just intense, it’s surreal in its insanity. Craw County is a town so out for blood that Earl Tubb publicly beating mob enforcers in the street with a stick from his father’s grave is on the tamer side. A town where an entire football team doubles as mob enforcers, some of whom are willing to beat kids within an inch of their lives for no reason other than intimidation. A town where everyone is a witness to the madness and bloodshed but appears more irritated with the one guy trying to break the cycle of violence because he started a fight on a Sunday *dramatic gasp* (more on that momentarily).
But the violence, gruesome as it is, is merely a reflection of something even more sickening: the residents of Craw County. Artist Jason Latour (also a Wolverine and the X-Men alumnus and current Spider-Gwen writer) spares no effort in making sure every townsperson is as ugly as the dead grass they’re walking on. Every crooked smile and haunting yelp comes with yellow teeth and some tobacco-infused spit. Esaw (psycho Confederate from earlier) is always dressed in his favorite redneck stereotype apparel, and is quite possibly the only person ever employed at a public high school to have “rebel” tattooed on his neck. Euless “Coach” Boss runs the town with an iron fist, even while wearing the most unflattering athletic shorts ever devised. Latour fills this world with a drab color palate matched only by the tenuous support system holding every building in place. It’s not pretty, but it is a beautifully drawn environment all the same, and you can see all the emotion in the people through every bloodshot eye and disturbing blemish. We don’t meet too many folks in Volume 1, but the personalities of those we do range from upsetting to downright grotesque. From the crazy-eyed hustler who owes money to the wrong people, to the unhinged young confederate who doubles as the football team’s offensive coordinator, we are constantly reminded why “bastards” is in the title.
At first, the story feels like a southern-fried version of a similar crime pulp narrative. A guy returns to his hometown after several decades to find it corrupt beyond belief and under the rule of a community strongman. He tries to ignore it and move on with his life but trouble just keeps flowing in his direction and soon he’s dealing out justice with a hickory stick. But even though he’s the former sheriff’s son, Earl Tubb is no supercop, and he knows it. Few volume titles fit their story or characters as perfectly as “Here was a Man” does. We’re told ostensibly this is the struggle of Earl cleaning up the town, but really it’s Earl trying to clean himself of his father’s judgment. In small southern towns, one is recognized a great deal by who their family is, and even 40 years away hasn’t helped Earl crawl out from his father’s shadow, or feel like he met the expectations of his stick-wielding father. That the town now treats him like an outsider doesn’t help, cementing the idea that he is clearly not the man his father was, even with a giant stick in hand. But Earl’s just too damn stubborn, and he learns a pretty brutal lesson about dwelling on your family’s past instead of its present.
If it wasn’t already obvious, southern culture bleeds into every aspect of this story, but those not southern-bred (unlike the creators, and the writer of this article) need not fear. Aaron and Latour go out of their way to ensure the point gets across, even stretching their depictions into the territory of parody at times. The cult of personality that follows Coach Boss and his Craw County High School Runnin’ Rebs is as faithful to the southern love of football as it is horrifying given Boss’ diabolical abuse of his gritty charisma. As Earl discovers, anyone who doesn’t take kindly to the local rib joint, starts trouble on a Sunday, or feels that the football team’s success is not worth turning a blind eye to extortion and murder will be lucky to come home grievously injured (or come home at all). No matter how unsettling it looks, to many who hail from the South, this is what the culture is when the niceties are torn down, and Aaron and Latour flawlessly nail that mentality.
Sporting a surplus of ribs both barbequed and broken, beautifully twisted art, a completely unapologetic study on the dark side of the Deep South, and an ultimately heart-wrenching story about the ties that bind us buried beneath the brutality, “Here was a Man” is a tremendous first volume for Southern Bastards, and a must-read for those looking for a raw, brutal crime thriller. A steal at its current $9.99 retail price, nothing short of hemophobia should prevent readers from finding something absolutely captivating within these pages. Diving headfirst into a culture they know all too well, Aaron and Latour have truly brought the Dirty South to life, homicidal football coaches and all.
Final Score: 9/10