“But the Good Lord always gives us another chance, don’t he?”
Here were are again, back in the tangled thicket of history, race, sex, sports, ribs and morality that populate the literate and powerful Southern Bastards. At the start of a new story arc, we meet Sheriff Hardy, who we learn was one of Coach Boss’s football players in his younger years, and is now brought in to investigate the death of Coach Big, from last issue. Hardy, like so many of the characters in this book, is a man in search of redemption, or at least trying to make peace with the past. Way back when this series started, Earl Tubbs was trying to do a similar thing. The second story arc, concerning Coach Boss, showed us a character uninterested in redemption and more interested in gaining and keeping power. Boss is certainly here as well, as he plays a vital part in Hardy’s story. But issue #9 has a poetic and confessional quality that truly combines the strengths of the first two arcs, and promises that Hardy’s story will be as interesting as any that came before.
The subtitle for this arc is “The One Who Never Got Away,” and that’s really the essential difference between Earl Tubbs and Hardy. They’re both of the same generation, both suffered at the hands of Coach Boss, both struggled with their identity, but somehow in all of that, Tubbs managed to get out of town and make a life for himself. Hardy had similar opportunities (not in Vietnam, but in football) and for reasons vividly portrayed in this issue, didn’t capitalize on them. The way that the past pulls and tortures Hardy and how much it informs his present is quite effectively presented here. There’s a sense of the past a living thing, something that can act in the present to torture and aggravate and most of all haunt a person and prevent them from living fully in the present. The death of Coach Big, and Coach Boss’s instructions about how it should be investigated, bring the past and the present together in a profoundly uncomfortable way for Hardy, which seems quite distinctly southern.
This is a man who has made questionable choices and placed his loyalty in questionable places, fighting for questionably causes. That sentence could just as easily be written about any given Rebel soldier in the Civil War, or any person from that deeply stratified culture upholding problematic values, particularly with regards to race. In a way, that sense of guilt by association and of playing a part while local forces build themselves into some sort of Medieval fiefdom applies to almost every adult character in Southern Bastards. The exceptions – Earl Tubbs, Coach Boss, survived because they either got out of it or made themselves the King of it. Everyone else had to play their part, which works out fine for a person without a conscience who happily submits to authority. Hardy is not one of those people. But he’s also not strong willed enough to completely break with the established order. He’s trapped, and in this issue, he feels that acutely.
That’s the story and the emotional stakes, but the style of Southern Bastards is equally compelling. The image of the overgrown tree is still the watermark of the comic, and serves to remind us that we’re talking about something organic and powerful but also vulnerable in southern culture. The characters are often presented in the Western style, drawn from a low angle, as Hardy is here in an early panel.
Welles used that angle a great deal, as it imbues the characters with a mythic resonance by mimicking and subconsciously recalling how we see adults as children. By contrast, the shots of the deceased Coach Big are generally from a high angle, as if he were looking down on himself from the afterlife, or a scene in a bank security vault is also shown from a high angle, as if from a security camera. And there’s the use of shadow and dark, deep texture, and the sharp angles of the characters blending with uncomfortably realistic blood. The southern Gothic has rarely been presented so effectively. A sequence set at a “tailgate” party, lit only by car headlights, also milks every gradation of shadow and texture in a cinematic way.
Memories are often presented here as snapshots, of perfectly composed moments with vivid dialogue, pared down to the essentials, which is wonderful. That’s how many of our most vivid memories eventually become. For Hardy, and for many of the adult characters in Southern Bastards, the past is a place to which someone can retreat. A time of possibilities, and of power and potential. This is no doubt the way some southerners view their collective past. The “Lost Cause” myth innervates all aspects of the culture. Order and authority in the present, greatness far in the past. And since this is only the first issue of Sheriff Hardy’s arc, we can be assured of more of this superb, literate, cinematic comics storytelling as the series continues.