One question that keeps returning as we enjoy Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards is how much of it is specifically Southern, and how much qualifies as simple old-fashioned bastardry? Not being a southerner myself, I certainly see a great deal of timeless mythic quality to the story being told, and the South has no monopoly on delinquent criminal fathers, fierce loyalty to a clan and a disproportionate amount of attention paid to High School sports. The bastards in question are only now becoming apparent. If we take the literal meaning, Earl Tubb may have qualified. Certainly Coach Boss (not yet coach) does. And at the end of this issue, as the story of Coach Boss seems to be coming to an end, we get a glimpse of a third bastard sure to feature prominently as the story develops.
But Bastardry, in the old-fashioned sense, was really about shame, and the worst kind of shame because it’s inherited family shame. To call someone a bastard is to say that their parents never really loved each other (not their fault, but they’re tarred anyway) and that their very existence is illegitimate. That they have no real right to exist.
Here’s where the South part of it comes in, or at least one possible reading. The South is the sort of the bastard child of America. A war was fought, and lost, to protect its way of life. There’s something about Southern culture that the rest of America sees as illegitimate. That doesn’t really have a right to exist. Tarnished by the sins of the past (“Your great-granddaddy owned slaves!”) and by turns abused or left to rot. That’s at least one way to spin the metaphor. “Southern” and “Bastard” then comes to mean something like the same thing. The very first image in the comic, way back in issue #1, of a dog crapping on the side of the highway, emphasizes the grotesque and the scrappy, bastard-like attitude of these characters in the south. They know they’re bastards. Their response is to wear that badge with pride.
[Spoilers from here]
The first 12 pages of this issue are as embedded in myth and metaphor as anything to yet appear in the pages of Southern Bastards. Young Coach Boss, having had his football playing days ruined by an injury and not yet actually “coach”, has come back home to see his father. The first panel of Boss walking through the forest sets the medieval tone: this is an ancient ritual, straight out of a Samurai story or a fairy tale. The elder Boss is living an almost comically primitive existence, with only his treasured makeshift moonshine distillery for company.
Father and Son meet each other in the dark wood and have this odd conversation that’s half-exposition, half-ritual, as the younger Boss asks his father for help. (After, of course, the older Boss beats his son to the ground with a rifle butt.) The story spun is that the younger Boss needs help with some gangsters back in town, the ones who were arranged to give him the injury that ended his playing days. His father’s criminal connections can help, so goes the logic. The older man eventually buys the story, lowers his rifle and agrees to help his son. But as soon as he turns his back, young Coach Boss shoots him dead. It turns out that his father was a wanted man by some of the gangs, and they agreed to make young Boss the head football coach if he killed his own father and brought them the body. Boss opens the trunk of his car and shows the gangster, hands are shaken and Boss is now Coach Boss.
The notion that Coach Boss rose to that position by killing his own father just elevates the mythic nature of this story. That’s not how modern society works: it’s how an ancient, ritualized, tribal society works. For Coach Boss to kill his own father is not a big deal for him (we’ve seen ample evidence that the old man was a horrible person), but the metaphor is too rich to leave alone.
The operatic nature of the story continues (my first review of this comic called it “An Opera of the South”), as Coach Boss is made the official coach. Coach Big, the somewhat problematic “Magical Negro” or Yoda-like character from previous issues, is made the defensive coach. Big, a man who unlike Coach Boss still has a conscience, is horrified by the monster he’s created when he hears how the young man got the job. “It’s football,” explains Coach Boss. “It’s worth the blood.”
Cut to many years later, the present day, and years of having to work under Coach Boss as the defensive coordinator, years of watching Coach Boss rule the town as God rules the earth, years of seeing the game itself made into a metaphor for Boss’s hollow and evil soul, finally gets to be too much. He’s found dead at his desk. His suicide note reads simply, “Ain’t worth the blood.”
It’s very curious that they use the term “blood”, which of course can also refer to ancestry. The point is hammered home on the next page when we see Earl Tubb’s daughter (who we have seen before), a soldier in Afghanistan, being called back “home”. The fact that Roberta Tubb is mixed-race just makes the “bastard” metaphor even richer. Her presence violates the terms of the Souther code: she’s a bastard even by bastard’s standards. Except, and this is only a prediction, perhaps she’s not a moral “bastard” like Coach Boss.
The heightened Operatic style of Southern Bastards continues to provide ample comic entertainment and food for thought.