A South to Love, Fear, and Remain: Southern Bastards

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After living in the Northeast for a few years now and hearing folks mock southerners and after watching media create shows, films, and cartoons which do the same, I am always a little weary when I pick up anything that looks like it could be an inflammatory jest at the place I once considered home and still love. Despite my initial concern when I picked up Southern Bastards Volume One: Here Was A Man, when I read the introduction by Jason Aaron, I was sold on picking it up and writing about it for this week.

Cover of Southern Bastards Volume One

As a young child, I loved gothic horror, and as an adult, I came to adore westerns. It is thus of little surprise that one of my favorite short stories of all time is William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, my introduction to the sub-genre of the Southern gothic. Southern Bastards carries on the tradition of the southern gothic but in more modern times, which despite the missing Victorian and plantation style houses, is damn well just as terrifying.

The first volume of Southern Bastards introduces us to Earl Tubb and his return to Craw County, Alabama. Earl found every way to try to leave his hometown and succeeded when he fought in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine and when he settled in Birmingham as an adult. Craw County is an insular, country town which has traces of its past coexisting with its ugly present. It’s a paradox of a place where traces of a Christian ethic remain in the air, but a crippling economic state has left people in a new level of desperation, and humanity has been traded in order to get by.

Earl has the responsibility of packing up his family home, but his return to Craw County causes much more than just the reawakening of the ghosts and nightmares of his past. When he witnesses the oncoming of a fatal beating of an old acquaintance, Dusty, by a local gang, Earl’s father’s spirit possesses him, and he begins to shed the persona of a modern, city person that he worked so hard to build and transforms into a punishing vigilante, rising to the legacy of his tough as nails father who was once the sheriff in town. Unfortunately, Earl’s first confrontation of the gang in his valiant and successful effort to rescue Dusty is not met with gratitude from the man he saved or with resignation by the gang he beat.

By upsetting this local gang run by a man named Coach, Earl entrenches himself in the world he rejected and decides to single handedly lead a battle against the tirade of Coach and his gang. As the volume progresses, we see Earl’s noble motive and his immense bravery, but gradually we realize that Earl’s march against the Coach may just be more than he can handle as an older man.

Like every western, our protagonist Earl, has the greatest odds against him but continues to wield his signature weapon, his father’s own giant, wooden whooping stick, with a clear motive of justice. However, in the modern Craw County, Earl is a figment of the past with an antiquated and extinct mindset of unrelenting righteousness, which will most likely bring about his own end rather than begin a revolution.

In combination with the severe narrative, what really pulls together Southern Bastards as a Southern gothic is its artwork. Deftly colored with a muted palette, with moments of dark red during flashes of stinging memories or brutal violence, the illustration of Southern Bastards captures the true and consuming Hell of Craw County. With jarring panels mixing the memories of war, the present, and the ghost of Earl’s father, the artwork of Southern Bastards heightens our understanding of Earl Tubb’s experience and enforces the tone of the series. Together, the narrative and the artwork meld flashes of and allusions to William Friedkin and Tracy Lett’s Killer Joe, Steven Cronenberg’s adaptation of A History of Violence, and Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter along with the tiniest splash of Gran Torino, making Southern Bastards an amalgam of familiar characters and motifs now immersed into the horrifying, miserable, and darker-than-Hell world of Craw County in need of a hero and a cleansing.

Southern Bastards Volume One: Here Was A Man captures the transitions of eras from one to another and how the fixtures of each face extinction and eradication as time passes. But, alas, there is something about the South that allows the good and bad spirits of the past linger, and there’s almost something supernatural in how these spirits return, whether it is through a seemingly coincidental strike of lightning or a wild, possibly prophetic dog reminding the people that the misery and despotism of modern Craw County once existed before and once eroded before. The violence of people’s actions never quite disappear in this South, and vengeance almost always makes an unexpected appearance. The motifs of westerns and Southern horror stemming from the South of the past re-emerge in the current Craw County where horses have been replaced by cars, gangs dress in modern garb, and the gang leader continues a reign of terror with his muscle and power harnessed through the fanaticism of high school football. Yet, despite all of the elements of modernity enveloping it, the Southern spirit of old in Southern Bastards has never been more alive.

Southern Bastards Volume One: Here Was A Man is written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Jason Latour. It is now available via Image Comics.

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