As we reach the end of the “Homecoming” story arc in Southern Bastards, it becomes fairly clear what this particular storyline has always been about. Not football, or even race, necessarily, but the rather the entire notion of a complex relationship with one’s hometown. In the south, as in lots of other places, there seems to be a core of residents of any given community who call that community “home”, and then proceed to dictate who else can lay claim to that title. Those who can’t, for one reason or another, can still live there, physically, but they’ll never receive the official sanction necessary to call the place truly home. Craw County is one of those places.
Way back in issue #9, where this arc began, we got the story of the Sheriff of Craw County, an African-American man with deeply divided feelings about Coach Boss and the rest of the community’s gentry. As he attempts to unravel the murder of Earl Tubb, and the subsequent suicide of Coach Big, he is shown, in dramatic fashion, how far an outsider can really get. Issue #10 gave us Esaw Goings, who seems to, in his vulgar and unapologetic way, fit in (although later on, his football coaching skills, or lack thereof, earn him the wrath of Coach Boss), but they also gave us the Preacher Donny Ray who follows him around like C-3PO and winds up drawn into the dark swirl of violence at the heart of the story. He’s part of the community, but not really. Boone, the born-again survivalist and longtime resident of the county, is introduced in issue #11 and declares war on Coach Boss while handling poisonous snakes in his church. Unquestionably, Boone has deep roots in the county, but Coach Boss still decides who’s in and who’s out. Issue #12 shows us Craw County through the eyes of a child, and issue #13 gave us the actual homecoming football game. But the book has always, in a sense, be leading up to this issue, #14, in which we get the return of Earl Tubb’s daughter, Roberta: war hero, tough as nails, with every right to make her home in Alabama, but with a formidable array of factors also working against her. She can come back to Craw County, but it will never be her home.
This inability to claim one’s place in the world is there right from the first issue of Southern Bastards, which featured the return of Earl Tubb to his hometown and gave us the purest, simplest version of the Shakespearean machinations of Coach Boss. The murder in cold blood of Earl by Coach Boss is the triggering incident that sets off all subsequent events through the 14 issues of Southern Bastards currently available. And the unresolved, deeply melancholy ending of issue #14 brings that plot element back into sharp focus. In fact, just about all the major issues of “Homecoming” end with one character or another vowing revenge on Coach Boss, but Roberta has the most personal grudge, and the most justified. It helps that she is trained in hand-to-hand combat and military weapons use to boot. The next story arc, “Boots on the Ground”, promises to resolve this continually rising narrative tension.
For a book about the south, race has played a relatively understated part in the proceedings thus far. This isn’t some cartoonish stereotype of rampant racists chanting the n-word and slapping around black people. Indeed: African-Americans can be found in places of authority in Craw County (the Sheriff, Coach Big, etc.), but instead the book takes pains to show us that racism is still there, lurking below the surface of this ugly and divided community. When a child calls Roberta “nigger” in this issue, it hits like a ton of bricks (and upsets her a great deal), precisely because the issue is handled so delicately up to that point that we, as readers, just like Roberta, can convince ourselves that overt racism is a thing of the past. Jason Aaron reminds us here that this is simply not the case. It isn’t as if race is the only consideration in Craw County, as lower-class whites and their ilk are also barred from entering the corridors of power without the permission of the self-appointed cultural authorities, but race does trump things in the end. Roberta Tubb, on paper, should be welcomed home as a war hero, but instead she has to deal with ignorant white trash neighbours who stole her father’s lawn mower and question her legitimacy as a resident. They’re even insulted that she would dare clean the fecal matter left on her porch by their dog, a quite visceral demonstration of where they really rank a young, black woman on the social scale.
Southern Bastards has always been about recognizing subtle (and not-so-subtle) power structures in this peculiar Alabama community, and in doing so it underlines the injustices and the tribalism of southern culture, while wrapping it in tropes familiar to the outside observer such as high school football, religious fanaticism, possession of elaborate firearms by people you wouldn’t trust with your car. The “Homecoming” arc has been particularly effective in filling in the little details around the main storyline, dealing with the murder of Earl Tubb and his challenge to the very nature of the power structure, showing us how there are others from within and without the community who are ready, willing and sometimes able to fight back. There’s a sense of inevitability about the end of issue #14 that sets up what is sure to be a powerful next chapter in the grotesque and fascinating story of Craw County.