Each new issue of Southern Bastards seems to get deeper, more thoughtful and more artful in its rendering of the American south. The book has always had a wonderful ability to capture the Southern Gothic sensibility, and tell tales of moral ambiguity that would be right at home in any classic work of American literature, but lately it seems as if its palette, visually and thematically, is expanding. It has always worked in those metaphorical shades of grey, but in this issue, and particularly this latest story arc, it discovers a few new shades.
The artwork, by Jason Latour, reaches new heights (or depths) here in issue #11. His compositions have always managed to carry such richness and texture, contrasted with a rough, charcoal-sketch quality to the human characters, but it seems as if his focus is getting deeper with each passing issue. In the previous issue was one of the most unnerving and effective sequences I’ve yet experienced in comics, featuring a night meeting between criminals in the dark woods, illuminated by truck headlights and gun-toting gangsters wearing sparkling Mardi Gras masks. The first panel of this issue, introducing us to the quintessentially southern character Boone, is no less hypnotic, with deep focus capturing the autumnal colours of the forest.
Latour plays it relatively safe in later panels set in a church, but by the end of this issue he surpasses even himself with some splash pages set on a river at dusk that Coppola could only dream of capturing in Apocalypse Now.
Jason Aaron’s storytelling in this issue has a very subtle sense of pacing that one might not notice. Rather than race from plot point to plot point the way a lesser book might, or create a twisted version of a buddy comedy as in issue #10, here he lets the story unfold, with plenty of breaks and digressions. Scenes take their time, and then connect with another scene with little sense of urgency. The afore-mentioned river sequence at the end, for the example, is really a getaway scene, but slowed down to the pace of a lazy southern evening. I haven’t seen the peculiar, laid-back menace of southern culture presented quite as well since Sling Blade. It’s that sort of style that reminds us of this book’s cultural authenticity. Aaron knows this world as only an insider can.
This story arc, titled “Homecoming”, doesn’t follow a single character, but rather a group of unlikely and potentially unsympathetic characters through the days of their life leading up to the big football game. The Darth Vader figure behind the scenes in all three is Coach Boss, but he’s the big background villain here, still dealing with the loss of Coach Big. In the previous issue, we spent time with Esaw Goings, a peculiar force of nature in narrative fiction, but a very “big” character drawn in broad strokes and offered up as a terrifying caricature of southern white rage. This time, we get a much more nuanced and interesting character in Boone, who looks like the epitome of every southern stereotype with his beard, headband, camouflage and bow and arrow, but is portrayed as a devout, proud and thoughtful man.
Boone is the real deal, to hear him tell it. He may look, to an outsider, like he just stepped out of a Wal-Mart, but a closer inspection reveals that those Wal-Mart pretenders are just aping the style of a true southern man. He’s “country”, to use his words. He shoots his own meat with a bow and arrow, for example, and proudly recounts how his grandmother still grows most of her food. He almost certainly has violence in his past, but at the moment he’s living the Christian life, in that energetic southern fashion, complete with talking in tongues and snake handlers. He ruminates, as many Protestants whose conscience won’t let them rest, on how faith is a test and how forgiveness, in contrast to their Catholic neighbours, isn’t received for the asking from God. There’s a war on, in his faith, and one must pick a side and prove one’s self worthy. When Boone handles the snakes, he wants them to bite him, to test him, so he can be infused with the spirit that will move him to do what he previously thought impossible. He has the look of a person who has been down this road before, perhaps struggling with addiction or any number of earthly vices. It says a great deal that his request now is much more personal and consequential.
The next issue will conclude the “Homecoming” arc and perhaps prove to be a game changer in the series, which so far has had only one truly continuing character, but consistently great art and storytelling.