Southern Bastards seems like it’s very specifically about the American south. The focus on southern cooking (I can’t remember a comic book that made me hungry before, except possibly Watchmen’s references to the Gunga Diner), clannish loyalty, a deep sense of pride, the power of the local football team, and a habit of resolving conflicts through violence all seem characteristic of the south. But looking closer, this is fascinating and universal story, told in that abstracted form to which comics seem uniquely suited. The series, by Jason Aaron with superb art by Jason Latour, is now in its sixth issue, but here we’ll have a look at the trade paperback collecting issues #1-4.
[This article will discuss aspects of the plot that may constitute spoilers.]
The book starts with a classic setup, familiar to many Canadian films, ironically. The “old guy comes back to his home town” plot is almost a cliche. Here, it’s Earl Tubbs, returning to his home town of Craw County to pack up the old family home. His father and mother are long gone, and the Uncle who had been occupying the old house is now in a nursing home. Earl wants to just slip into town quietly, pack up and leave. We get quite a lot of Earl’s back story in flashbacks as the book goes on, and just like real memories, most of those are disjointed and specific random episodes. But we learn enough to know that he left town without look back, and never planned to return.
Earl’s father, the local sheriff, was famous, and remains so to this day, for a brutal act of self defense, beating down some local toughs who were threatening his wife and child with a baseball bat-sized branch off a tree. When he died, and was buried in the front yard of the family home, he took the branch with him, which grew into a mighty tree. One of Earl’s first lines, standing in front of his father’s grave, is, “Daddy. There’s a tree growin’ outta your grave.”
We should pause here and mention that this tree metaphor is one of the more obvious but of the more effective in the book. When the tree is struck by lightening later on, and it’s revealed that the original branch is still there, still intact, and still can be a weapon of deadly force, the Arthurian metaphor is almost too on the nose. When Earl tries to chop down the tree, and fails, this is also a frankly extremely medieval form of storytelling, and extremely effective. That tree is also his family tree, the one he’s been trying to escape, the one he fails to chop down and from which he takes the strength to become the local hero he was always destined to be. That’s not southern as much as it’s timeless literary imagery from the western canon. The family aspect in the title of the book can’t be dismissed: even though there are a fair number of garden-variety “bastards” in evidence, Earl himself is the ultimate southern bastard.
Earl explores the town as much as needs to, and winds up in the ribs place, the nucleus of the community. Here we get the first of many sequences involving food, which is a big part of souther culture and a big part of the artistic and literary tradition of the carnival. It’s been discussed elsewhere here on Sequart how much of this book’s art (superbly drawn by Jason Latour) evokes the grotesque, with its repeated images of body functions. (The first scene is of a dog defecating on the street. Later, a human character urinates on the same dog.) But the carnivalesque adds all manner of lower bodily functions to the mix, including eating and sexuality. (We get only the merest hint of sex here, but what he do see is transgressive, and interracial, which is again part of the subversive pleasures of the carnival.) The fact that Aaron includes his mother’s recipe for Apple Pie at the end of the TPB not only fits with that aspect of the book, but of course is quintessentially southern.
Earl in fact feels quite disconnected from the culture of the town and its ancient vendettas and power struggles. You could be excused for thinking that he’s completely abandoned his roots and become some sort of hippie, but it’s all relative. Earl, in fact, was a football hero, a US Marine, served in Vietnam and lives in Birmingham, Alabama, not San Francisco. By any external measure, he’s as American and Southern as they come, but not by the standards of Craw County. One gets the impression that organized crime was always part of the system in Craw County, but the town today is essentially run by the one powerful man, the football coach, who everyone simply calls “Coach Boss”. Deploying his players like enforcers of his imperial will, Coach Boss is so used to absolute power that he actually is more surprised than anything else that Earl is sticking his nose in.
Earl’s story could really be summed up with that famous Godfather III quote, “Just when I’m trying to get out… they pull me back in!” He doesn’t want to get involved. Earl is a reluctant hero. But when he sees a man he knew from the old days beaten to death, and the local authorities look the other way in deference to Coach Boss, he hems, and haws and finally picks up his father’s “bat” and takes a stand. The TPB ends after the inevitable confrontation with Coach Boss, but this feels like only the first in a long series of fights between these two titans.
Earl is different from the others in Craw County because he has a commitment to justice and fairness, and because he isn’t under the spell of Coach Boss. We learn just enough about his father’s story to glean that he dealt with similar issues in his day. He isn’t trying to destroy anything about his southern town, but he can’t bring himself to leave it in its current state of siege and civil war. Just like packing up the house, once and for all, he feels that horrible nostalgic pull of “unfinished business”.
As I mentioned right from the top, this story would be equally at home in a small Canadian maritime town, or an Italian village in the 16th century. It’s almost a libretto for an opera, and covers so much similar ground. Replace or compliment the fight scenes with long songs, and there you have it. And there’s another genre that Southern Bastards contains: the Western. Particularly those late in life, buried-secrets-from-the-past westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Incorporating elements of the Gothic, with old houses and buried family secrets, with the myth of the American Loner (just as home leaning on a bar in New York as bestriding the west upon a pale horse) and, it has to be said, the myth of American justice.
Things in Craw County work. They don’t work fairly, and brutality and intimidation are part of the landscape, but they work. Until Earl Tubbs comes back and starts interfering. That’s one more southern aspect of the book: the narrative that somehow a foreigner (worst of all, a Yankee), will ride into town and change everything. Southern culture was built on the concept of Natural Order, a bizarre perversion of Darwinian logic that carefully assigned every person a station in society that could not be violated. (Part of that order, for a long time, was slavery, but that’s only one example) Earl’s crime is that he violated the order. We see from flashes to his back story that he violates other “ordered” aspects of society as well, for example taking an African-American lover. Earl doesn’t have a problem with this, but he knows his society does. Earl knows the order he’s facing, implicitly, and has seen it long enough to be disgusted by it. But is he tilting at windmills? Does he really think he can bring a new order to Craw County?
I’ll be reading each new issue of Southern Bastards with that in mind.