“Americans love a winner, and cannot abide a loser.”
-Gen. George S. Patton
We have to go way back to issue #4 of Southern Bastards to recall the story that’s picked up here in issue #12. Re-reading that initial superb run, which featured the story of Earl Tubb, we discover many characters and plot points revisited in later arcs, such as Esaw Goings, and in particular young Tad Ledbetter, who made the mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Earl Tubb was, like his father, the only man in Craw County brave enough to stand up to Coach Boss. And it got him killed: beaten to death in a public place. To make things worse (if that’s conceivable), the young Ledbetter boy was also beaten, although not quite to death, for being at Tubb’s residence watching TV when a posse led by Goings came to dispatch a recalcitrant Tubb. Esaw, not a man of high moral standing to say the least, simply ordered his men to beat up the boy. In the original arc, author Jason Latour cut right to the continuation of Tubb’s storyline. But here in issue #12, he brings us back to the morning after Ledbetter’s beating, when he awakes in the hospital, badly injured. There are, of course, no consequences in the offing for the men who did this to him. This is Craw County after all: not America.
Poor little Tad (and the similarity between his name and the son of Abraham Lincoln can’t be a coincidence) escapes from his grim, violent surroundings using the familiar mass opiate of television. His favourite shows are in fact violent cartoons, but they must register differently with him now, beaten and broken, a poster child for the pathology of violent reprisal. This issue weaves a metaphor of violence-as-spectacle, including references not only to the animated shows Tad enjoys, but Mexican wrestling watching by the locals and football itself, an “All-American” version of organized gang violence. In the society depicted in this book (which, out of inexperience, we cannot assess with regards to its accuracy), physical violence is the only way to demonstrate masculinity and power and – most importantly – to separate winners from losers. This issue, in part, is about what happens when someone deeply embedded in that society reconsiders his concept of winning and losing.
The someone in question is Eugene Maples, aka “Materhead”, and he took part in the beating of Tad Ledbetter. Unlike the others, including the sociopathic Esaw Goings, he actually has a few twangs of conscience, being a strong grown man who, along with other strong, grown men, have beaten a pre-pubescent boy to within an inch of his life with bats in order to prove a point about power relationships in their community. It’s he, and possibly he alone, who sees anything fundamentally wrong with that activity. Craw County must be a lonely place indeed for a person with a sense of humanity, let alone a fully developed conscience. His introductory monologue snaps all the themes into sharp focus: “Fullback, 1993 state champion Craw County Runnin’ Rebs. That’s right – I’m a winner.” The irony cuts deep, just as it always does in the pages of Southern Bastards.
This issue is also notable for being the first not to feature the work of Jason Aaron, who debuts his own interesting book this month, Goddamned, which takes the penchant for violence, grotesque images and weighty themes to the next level, featuring a story set in rich mythology of Biblical history. This has led to s slight re-jigging of the creative duties for this issue, with the script by Jason Latour, and taking his usual place in drawing Southern Bastards is artist Chris Brunner, and the transition is almost seamless. Brunner’s work captures the cluttered frame, organic decay and monumentally iconic poses that defined Latour’s and adds a touch of the psychedelic, particularly in a sequence in which Tad, full of painkillers, hallucinates Ren and Stimpy-esque visions. But elsewhere, aside from a slight brightening of the colour palette, the book still looks and feels like Southern Bastards.
As the story progresses here, we spend time with Tad in the hospital, tripping on painkillers and watching his favourite wrestling shows. We then get a sequence quite unlike anything we’ve seen before in the pages of this book, namely a full-on cartoon odyssey, complete with Foghorn Leghron, that most southern of Warner characters, suggesting Tad’s only course of action. Here we get the first glimpse of the recurring metaphor of the “shitting dog” – the very first image from back in issue #1.
It turns out that Maples has also been having visions of said dog, and they have been similarly galvanizing for his will. While Tad heals his body and resolves to pick up the mantle of Tubb, Maples struggles with a guilty conscience, even going to visit Coach Boss in an odd, sad sequence featuring a one-way conversation through a closed door. Someone like Coach Boss, who is essentially running a Godfather-esque gangster empire, is wary (to say the least) of anyone who would dare step above the situation in Craw County and call him out. He doesn’t want the people he scares into deferring to him thinking that there could be another way to do business. We don’t actually hear dialogue from Coach Boss in this issue, and see him only in shadows, but his presence is felt on every page. Boss consolidates his power by playing on the very sentiment stated in this book, and in our opening quote from Patton: he produces wins. He makes losers feel like winners, and that’s a dangerous ability for an unscrupulous man.
As we said way back when we first started following Southern Bastards, Craw County is not big enough for Coach Boss and Earl Tubb. And even, it seems, the brutal killing of Tubb is not going to be enough to deter his mission, or set to rest the moral questions his return stirred up. Even the dogs, including cartoon dogs and mangy “road mutts” like our defecating hero, are now caught up in the swirl of emotion and power. This issue ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s only the natural extension of long-established plot points. Literally and metaphorically, this new story arc brings Southern Bastards back home, and it’s as compelling now as it ever was.