It's hard to understand the American South and easy to come away a negative impression, especially given events like mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and the heated debate around the Confederate flag.
For anyone wrestling with their perception of the South — a complicated region with a complicated history — consider a powerful and thoughtful comic book, "Southern Bastards," by two Southerners, writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour (from Alabama and North Carolina, respectively).
Described as a "Southern fried crime comic," by its creators, "Bastards" is about the fictional Craw County, Alabama, a place where high school football is everything, and Runnin' Rebs coach Euless Boss reigns supreme.
At first, I didn't want to read "Southern Bastards." Having lived in various towns in Florida — a state often not considered part of the region but nonetheless has a lot of Southern culture running through its veins — I knew there was some truth to the stereotypes: the undercurrent of racism, the Confederate flags, the football, the Southern Gospel music, and even some of that backwoods hillbilly iconography. "Southern Bastards" seemed to revel in all that, and I didn't want to be bothered.
Then I read it, and it has been one of my favorite comics ever since. It's a comic that affords the South a depth and complexity rarely seen in pop culture outside of prose fiction (a medium overflowing with outstanding work from and about the South from Mark Twain and William Faulkner to James McBride and Karen Russell).
"Southern Bastards" sells readers on a setting they might not be familiar by focusing on the human struggles within. Maybe you don't play football, but the desire to build a better future for yourself is universal — so what does it look like when football is the only way to do that? And what about the fear of falling, of being dragged back down to the mire after coming so close to achieving your dreams? What does that do to someone?
The comic explores these very painful, very real sentiments through its villain: Coach Euless Boss. Coach Boss isn't just a football coach, he's a crime lord, and through murder and bribery, he holds the entire county in the pocket of his khaki shorts. He's turned Craw County into a den of corruption, and when the former sheriff's son Earl Tubb comes to town, it becomes full-on war.
In an interview with USA Today, Aaron calls "Southern Bastards" a "love letter/hate rant to The South" and "'The Dukes of Hazzard' by the Coen Brothers." It's an apt description — "Dukes" was a pretty straightforward show that leaned heavily on Southern iconography, while the works of the Coen Brothers, particularly "Fargo" and "No Country For Old Men," often function as bleak morality plays where the worst aspects of human nature play out among average, everyday folk.
In that sense, the comic also has something in common with superhero stories, which are idealism writ large, internal conflicts distilled and then amplified into fights to save entire cities and worlds. "Southern Bastards" functions in much the same way but on a smaller scale. Its redneck-noir relies on larger-than-life archetypes to stage a grand conflict against two opposing forces but also takes the time to delve into the nuance and tragedy of everyone involved. It leans hard into terrible stereotypes and turns them on their ear to ensnare readers and keep them coming back month after month.
This is hammered home in the second volume, "Gridiron," which tells the heartbreaking backstory behind Coach Boss, showing his tragic journey from promising athlete to grim kingpin in a gripping four-part story. In roughly 90 pages, Aaron and Latour manage to make you completely invested in the story of a man you couldn't hate more in the previous volume. It's a pretty great trick.
A big part of this is due to Jason Latour's striking, distinctive art. Under Latour's linework and colors, Craw County feels hot and humid. "Southern Bastards" is a dense comic — few interactions between characters are pleasant ones, with violence bubbling just below the surface of every conversation. Latour handles this all with aplomb, yet also knows when to break up the tension with moments of stark violence or sobering emptiness.
It's a comic that understands the wide range of sentiments held regarding the South and cuts through them all with the humanity of its story, the pathos lurking underneath all the ugliness. It simmers in your blood as you search for some form of justice in the heat and haze.
You aren't likely to find it.
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