Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are the George R. R. Martins of metaphorical realist fantasy comics set in the south. They aren’t afraid to take sudden dramatic right turns, to lose characters that you would have presumed would be the central players for the rest of the series, or to suddenly turn the whole story on its head. That’s exactly what happens in issue #5 of the series, picking up from when the first trade paperback left off. It’s still Southern Bastards, but it’s not the book you expect.
[Spoilers have to follow, alas…]
The main difference between this story arc and the first is… everything, really. Issues #1-4 told the story of Earl Tubbs, a middle aged former Marine coming back to his home town in Craw County Alabama to clean up and sell the family home and generally face buried horrors and secrets from the past, involving his family. That’s a read-made recipe for Southern Gothic, and Latour and Aaron didn’t disappoint, delivering a wonderful, grotesque, cinematic salute to the unique and strange culture of the modern American south.
The formidable antagonist to Tubbs’ ambitions in that first arc was a man named “Coach Boss”, who was both the local high school football coach and the most powerful man in Craw County, literally the “Boss”, but a damn sight more intimidating than Boss Hogg. At the climax of that story, just as Earl is standing up to Coach Boss, who has had men beaten to death and the law turns the other way, the Coach attacks Earl himself. I had presumed, as a reader, that the story ended with Earl severely hurt, but we would learn more about his African-American wife and mixed-race daughter, now serving in the military. We would explore that issue through the wild lens of Southern Bastards and explore challenges to the various notions of southern “natural order”.
We may indeed explore those issues, but not with Earl Tubbs, whose funeral begins issue #5. It’s a jaw-dropping turnaround, from a pure storytelling perspective. And the even more daring move is that the main character is now none other than Coach Boss himself, now acting as protagonist and we get to explore his roots and learn of his struggles.
This is a bit of a tough transition for the reader, since we may have felt a great deal of sympathy for Earl, but that sympathy comes at a much higher price with Coach Boss, a clearly power-mad petty dictator who crushes the population into obedience through violence and intimidation. In that sense, he isn’t that different from Don Corleone, but he lacks The Godfather’s air of culture and highly developed moral system. Coach Boss is essentially a thug, gangster, and if this story were set in the Burroughs of New York or any Los Angeles neighbourhood, it would be the stuff of rap songs. Instead, we are invited to contemplate the journey of a character like Coach Boss, from youth to adult, in his society.
The portrayal of Boss as a young man helps a great deal to built sympathy for this psychopath. For a start, he isn’t particularly good at football. His own coach denigrates him, his teammates brutalize him, and he has every reason in the world to not be on the field. What seems to define his character is tenacity. He just won’t let it go. Even after getting tortured in some horrible way by his teammates, he gets up and starts practicing his tackling, going to back to the proverbial anvil again and again.
An important point is that “Boss” is actually his real name, not an honorific. Later in life, the double meaning would come in handy, but as a young man, it’s simply ironic. He’s far from being a “Boss” of anything, he’s just a skinny kid trying out for football.
When we see the state of almost medieval degradation in which his father lives, and the abuse to which he is subjected at home, his tenacity makes a certain kind of sense. Coach Boss is trying to live out the American dream, to rise as far as his abilities can take him. But his natural ability is for taking punishment and nursing grievances. That he wants to play offensive tackle is only natural. In that position, the job is essentially to hit someone as hard as you can, and don’t give up.
Young Coach Boss meets Mr Big
The turning point comes with an admittedly quite problematic character, “Big”. And old, blind black man who works as the “ball boy” when Coach Boss is a young man, Big takes the young player under his wing and teaches him to use his anger and aggression, combined with seemingly “Kung Fu” football techniques such as learning how to “listen” to plays. As a Mister Miyagi story, it’s fairly cliche (they even go fishing, and the old man prompts the young to stand on the prow of the boat), but it’s all a bit… racially problematic. Even though we do see that Big eventually becomes part of Coach Boss’s organization and, in the “present day” sequences he’s the official defensive coach, Mr Big is very much that too-common trope in American film and literature, the “Magical Negro”. For a book with such fresh and original characters and a dramatic commitment to storytelling, this outdated and mildly offensive stereotype seems a bit out of place.
Big may as well say, “Wax on, Wax off”
Or perhaps it’s right in place – this is a work of magic realism, after all, and no character is truly original in that kind of story. The take on the characters already existing certainly seems original, or at least moreso than dragging in a Morgan Freeman type to solve all the narrative problems. This is the first time I have had a problem with anything in this otherwise superb comic, and it’s really a question of cultural sensitivity and taste more than anything else. The story does make sense, as it’s being told, and it’s plausible that Boss attracted a mentor along the way who taught him about football, but more importantly about life. But that’s also the one story arc here that I feel like I’ve seen before.
Issue #7 definitely clarifies and mitigates some of the problematic racial politics of issue #6, by having Boss seriously injured by gangsters coming after his fairly worthless father. Boss is shot through the foot, and although he rallies somewhat for a big game, it’s clear that his playing days are over. But true to his word, Mr Big cannily resigns as “Ball Boy” for the team, leaving the position open for Boss to step in. Thus we see the path to being Coach open up for the young ex-player, no doubt with continuing guidance from Big.
It takes a while, but you feel for young Coach Boss
At this point in Southern Bastards, I’m expecting more big changes and allegiance shifts, for at some point the story of Boss will intersect with the story of Earl Tubbs (there are already hints) in some essential dramatic way.