Ah, American football. It isn’t the world’s most competitive sport (have you seen the World Cup lately?), nor is it necessarily its most violent (I’m looking at you, Australian rules rugby), but there’s something about the fierceness of it that seems to bring out something fundamental to the American character. It’s so visceral and physical, and operates in quick, sudden events, all linked to a merciless game clock, that it stirs deep, primal feelings in its players and its fans. Although in its modern form it’s not even a century old, like so much in American culture, it’s treated as if Thomas Jefferson himself was a quarterback. The deep tribalism and nationalism that it brings out in its fans is, for a foreigner, often quite disturbing. (Once again, to be fair: worldwide football, the game the Americans call “soccer”, is just as powerful in that way, maybe even moreso.) Southern Bastards shows us a world in which football has replaced combat and warfare in a quite direct way. The players, and their coaches, are not just putting points on a scoreboard, but battling for the honour of their town and their culture.
Honour, once again, is the key element in understanding southern culture. “I would sacrifice anything except my honour,” as General Lee put it, and he meant it. Coach Boss says things like that, as do the other members of the Craw County community and its competitors, but “honour” means something quite different to these modern people. Either way, it matters, deeply and powerfully, to the citizens and even the politicians of Craw County who wins the local high school football game. That has helped to make Coach Boss the most powerful single person in the whole community, and he has no intention, as we move on into issue #13, of letting anyone down. There’s violence on the field and violence off the field, and frankly, the way it’s depicted by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, there isn’t a great deal of difference made by the location.
This issue is essentially a recount of a single homecoming football game, pitting the Craw County Runnin’ Rebs against the Wetumpka Country Warriors. Coach Boss is still reeling from the loss of Coach Big, who took his own life a few issues back, no longer able to deal with the brutality and loss of decency that Boss was wreaking upon the team and the community. His replacement, Esaw Goings (the “Non” of the series) (yes, that’s a Superman II reference), proves himself a less than adequate substitute, but he’s only part of the problem that the Rebs have in this game. Pitted against a gigantic running back for the Warriors, the Rebs struggle for inches against a formidable defense. And, as those who follow football regularly remind anyone within an earshot, though it isn’t that glamorous, good defense wins games. It’s certainly winning this one.
Losing, as we have noted previously in our discussions of Southern Bastards, is something a certain kind of American cannot abide, and Coach Boss is that kind of American. He isn’t alone, however, as we see from our meeting with Mayor Butterworth, who even from a wheelchair strapped to an oxygen mask and dominated by his chain-smoking Jessica Walters-influenced wife, demands victories. The Butterworths have learned enough about Coach Boss over the years to know that he’s as corrupt off the field as on, and just as unsentimental and remorseless. As long as he kept the Rebs winning, they were willing to turn a blind eye. But now that the team is struggling, questions are being asked, and Coach Boss doesn’t like having to answer to any of it. All of this just makes the stakes that much higher in this game.
Coach Boss is the epitome of a man who exudes toughness and self-reliance, but is actually in a quite precarious situation. Like an arrogant stage performer, he is only as good as the audience deems him to be. (The audience, by the way, is a great character in this issue, spewing epithets at each other in the stands.) As powerful as he has been, and continues to be, a few more defeats and the public will turn on him. That he cannot abide, so the actions he takes near the end of this issue are entirely understandable.
When Southern Bastards started its run, there were pleasures and charms to be found in its depiction of southern society, particularly in the food and drink of the south and some of the local charm. But by issue #13, the charm has largely faded. I, for one, would steer well clear of this place and its people, with their violence, their brutality, their tribalism and their anti-intellectualism. (One thing they really aren’t, at least not as much as one would think, are racist, despite the use of the infamous n-word. The memorial service for Big, the crowd in the stands and the team itself are all quite integrated.) The story, clearly told by people who know this culture well, is southern in some non-obvious ways and a bit of an education for those of us who haven’t had the experience of being there.
So much of Jason Latour’s art in this issue, in particular, tilts towards the iconic, and the visceral, with many panels of rain-drenched football players struggling against the elements and each other. His final, powerful splash page also gives us a new perspective on Boss himself. It’s great work, as always.
Perhaps it’s a bit sad, in the final analysis, that football is so important to these people. Surely, one must ask, they could find something more substantial to get riled up about. But not these particular members of a proud, violent society, rendered out in comics here as never before.