Here we are again in the steaming tribal vendetta-filled world of Southern Bastards. Craw County continues, here in issue #15, to be a community that measures is worth based on the standing of its high school football team, and much to the displeasure of Coach Boss, they haven’t been doing well since homecoming. Since the loss of Coach Big, Boss has been forced to rely on a less-than-competent defensive team coach, and that’s led to loss after loss, for a team used to winning. In the local ribs restaurant, the public is starting to question the authority and even the competence of Coach Boss, and the coach can’t help but overhear. Boss is a man with an extremely fragile ego, based on his ability to win games. When that’s taken from him, he flies into a childish rage, and by the end of this issue, he’s ready to take drastic measures, Craw County-style, to ensure victory.
Witnessing all of this football-related drama is Roberta Tubbs, recently returned from Iraq and determined to find justice for her father Earl. Though she doesn’t get to actually do very much in this issue, Roberta shows that she’s no fool. Sitting in the ribs place, watching Coach Boss collapse emotionally, up to and including taking the famous tree branch that is sacred to the Tubbs family, she doesn’t speak up, but rather bides her time, clenching her fists under the table. Coach Boss is a powerful person in this community, and it wouldn’t be wise to confront him directly, on his own turf. Those years spend dealing with insurgents and gangland rivals in the Middle East have taught her to pick her moment and not tip her hand too soon. But there’s a clear sense that inevitably, she will face the Coach, and it will be a confrontation of mythic proportions.
The deep mythic roots of the story being told in Southern Bastards aren’t hard to see. This is a classic Shakespearean story about tragic flaws, revenge, families, power and so on that would be right at home in any number of classical works of drama. There’s something about the South that seems to suit that style well. This is a culture that loves to create its own myths and symbols and never forgets history and tradition. As opposed to the North, so goes the trope, the South has dignity, honour and is rooted in a sense of place. (The many mythic stories about New York would beg to differ with that assessment, of course.) This sense of internal myth helps to explain why something as seemingly trivial as the high school football team takes on an importance just shy of the election of a new Pope, and why people would be willing to kill or die for it. As we’ve mentioned before, but it bears repeating, it’s about honour, twisted, compromised and distorted though it may seem: that’s what’s worth fighting for, for these people, especially Coach Boss. Viewing footage of a receiver from an opposing team and realizing that his team can never stop him, Boss flies into a fury. Whereas other coaches might respond to that challenge with, “Wow, we had better get practicing the defense,” or “Let’s make sure we have enough good receivers on our side to make up for the point deficit,” Coach Boss views this young player’s skill as a direct threat to his honour and his social status. That simply can’t be tolerated.
For a depiction of a character who’s accepted defeat and lost his honour, we turn to Sheriff Hardy Whitworth, drinking alone in his office, pining for the good old days of high school, even has he’s potentially being drawn into the larger political machinations of the Mayor. Hardy sits alone in the stands at the football game (one gets the sense that he wouldn’t dream of not attending), but he does run into the invalid Mayor and his controlling wife, who offers him an oblique way to regain some of his lost honour, as long as he is willing to betray Coach Boss. It’s always rich dramatic territory to present characters with impossible moral choices and watch them fight their way out, and Sheriff Hardy is no exception.
In terms of style, Southern Bastards is consistently good, with the classic team of writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour bringing all the carnivalesque energy to the proceedings we’ve come to expect. (They really do hit all the notes of the carnival, right down to their depictions of meat eating, and Coach Boss literally announces his bowel movement at one point. That’s right out of Ubu Roi.) Latour has no trouble shifting focus from intimate character scenes to big football sequences, and draws faces with expressions of such pain, disgust and determination that they fairly pop off the page.
Southern Bastards has succeeded in creating its own self-contained mythic universe, and that’s very impressive. As readers, we might not want to live in Craw County, but it’s a fascinating place to visit.