By Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, and Jared K. Fletcher
Southern Bastards might best be described as the end point of a trend that’s been boiling in the upper echelons of pop culture since the end of the ‘00s. The comic is a dark and seething exploration of the failure of American ideals within the context of rural Alabama. That’s a pretty wide scope of interest but Southern Bastards balances its load of ideas thoroughly well, mainly thanks to an ever-widening focus of the narrative. The initial story focused heavily on the character of Earl Tubbs as an estranged son of Alabama returning to the home he hated, Craw County. The second story took a broader look at how the town of Craw County became the failed state that is under the guiding hand of the old school Southern machismo made cancerous flesh in Coach Boss. This third storyline, entitled ‘Homecoming,’ broadens focus even more for a series of one-shots revolving around the various broken, vile, and amoral citizens of Craw County.
Touching on the artwork first, this issue looks amazing. Jason Latour is doing both the art and the coloring but he’s proven himself more than capable of carrying that load. Like C.O.W.L. the issue has a major emphasis on faces and keeping humans as the focus, but Latour takes a very different tract in representing the human animal. His depictions of humanity walk the line between masks of civility and violent, almost animalistic defiance. Latour also does a lot of great panel work, especially in playing around with how a single image can be divided by panels or character might break the constraints of a page. His greatest achievement however is the color work.
Southern Bastards is one of the best-colored comics coming out and this issue is no exception. A lot of this comes down to the very unique blending techniques Latour employees, sometimes going sharp and bright for small details while other times he baths the whole page in a sort of washed out pastel haze. His best work however is how he colorizes the more brutal and intense scenes, bathing the world in bright red and faded yellow with a real splattered aesthetic. Also, Jared K. Fletcher is doing an amazing job on letters. This issue makes great use of internal caption boxes and Fletcher parses them perfectly to really capture the voice of the main character. I’m not sure if Fletcher is also doing the sound effects or if that’s Latour but those also look amazing, acting as an accenting color all their own.
This latest issue revolves around the character of Esaw Goings, a violent enforcer for Coach Boss. Esaw’s been hovering around the series since issue 1 as a kind of horrific embodiment of the worst of Craw County but this is the issue where he finally gets the focus he’s been waiting for. Like ‘Homecoming’s first issue the story is less of an actual narrative than it is just a single day in this guy’s horrific life. However, the difference here is that unlike every other central focus of the comic Esaw is a legitimately awful character in every sense of the term. He’s not flawed like the Sheriff or even monstrous but ambitious like Coach Boss and if there is any amount of tragedy or understand to his back-story we aren’t learning it here. This is masochism as spectacle, dropping us as deep as we can go into the mind of a violent, racist, high school drop out with all but a ticking clock on panel counting down to his next act of horrific violent.
In a lesser comic that all might’ve been too much for a single issue to successfully hold together. Focusing in so myopically on the kind of abject human garbage that is Esaw runs the risk of his awfulness alienating the awfulness but Southern Bastards manages to slide that particular trap. You never feel like you need to put the comic down or walk away from the story at any point because the issue is also fully aware of the greater truth of a character like Esaw. Esaw isn’t simply portrayed as psychotically violent and moronically misanthropic, he’s also shown to be incredibly pathetic. The entire issue is him simply running through errands for Coach Boss and occupying the lowest wrung of the social ladder. His particular brand of out and proud awfulness without even the slightest pretentious of legitimacy renders him only marginally above an animal and the world treats him as such. The comic in no way shies away from the fact that despite all of Esaw’s violent strength and complete indulgence in his worst impulses no one in town is really afraid of him so much as they are annoyed.
In that regard, Southern Bastards #10 is the perfect embodiment of the entire series’ relationship to the South, idealized rural Americana, and toxic masculinity overall. Author Jason Aaron’s showcase of human ugliness in Southern Bastards is heavily informed by a contempt for his subject matter, but also a deep-seated understanding and personal knowledge of it. Aaron’s central goal with the series has always been about stripping away the masks of legitimacy that still cloth so much of the brutality and inhumanity of rural America but that comes from having experienced those masks of legitimacy himself. That’s what makes Southern Bastards seething and brutal indictment of things like Southern pride and values more than just timely but actually insightful. Trying to shine light onto ideas like the violent brutality masquerading as athleticism of football culture or the inherent weakness and emptiness that’s embodied in Esaw’s representations of strength and excess. The whole issue reads like a blend of The Killing Joke, Pain and Gain, and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. It’s a dive into the deep end of the latent human ugliness that hides behind the myth of idealized Americana that avoids slipping into nihilism because it understand that the mentality of “all humans are awful” is just the most pathetic of those same myths and false legitimacies.