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Like many other top comic book writers these days, Jason Aaron is trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He writes many Marvel Comics titles and has long, notable runs on titles like Wolverine and Ghost Rider. However, since he first stormed into the comic world with his intense Vertigo series Scalped, he’s also interested in more personal dramas, ones not fueled by superheroics. It’s in this latter category that Southern Bastards, a new creator-owned title he created with artist Jason Latour (Wolverine & the X-Men) for Image Comics, fits. The first issue of Southern Bastards is very compelling, dealing equally well with character and tone.
Aaron and Latour choose a bold and hilarious introduction to this series, as the first page shows a mangy-looking dog taking a crap in front of a cluster of signs advertising for competing churches. It’s been a while since I have seen a more effective comic sound effect than the “plop” scrawled near the dog’s rear end. The story itself follows Earl Tubb, who has returned to his hometown Craw County to pack up his childhood home after his uncle has been put into an old folks’ home. Earl is the son of the late local sheriff, who is known as a hero to the townsfolk but Earl seems to have a much more conflicted view of him.
While eating in the local BBQ joint, Earl meets Dusty, a high-strung local crook who has crossed the wrong people. Although friendly toward Earl, Dusty warns him to get out of town. The implication is that it’s no good there anymore. When Dusty is attacked by hooligans of “The Coach,” Earl intervenes. However, rather than a heroic act, it’s mostly just an unwise one. Even Dusty, who was about to get severely beaten and probably murdered, tells Earl he should have let him die. The issue ends with Earl cutting down the tree that’s been growing out of his father’s grave at the same time that Dusty is cornered and beaten savagely to death by a group of football helmet-clad toughs.
There’s a lot to like in this issue, especially the themes of masculinity and heroism. Earl saves Dusty partially because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. The problem is that it doesn’t actually fix anything. Dusty isn’t grateful and is soon killed anyway. The only effect is that Earl is now in trouble (even if he doesn’t seem to realize it yet). We get the sense, though, that while Earl may have somewhat been following his conscience, he also intervenes for Dusty as an echo of his own father’s displays of heroic masculinity – such as defending his house against three armed criminals with nothing but a stick. Earl still wants to be like his dad even if he despises him.
Aaron and Latour also conjure a very effective vibe of small town menace with Craw County. It’s not that “something” doesn’t feel right about the place, it’s that nothing does. It’s a place where tattooed criminals piss right on the street in the middle of the day and a person named “Boss” seems to own everything. There are so many smart details, too. All of the desserts in the BBQ joint are fried pies. Dusty wears a Cam Newton (of the Carolina Panthers) jersey with the sleeves cut off and calls Birmingham “the big city.” A young boy wears a shirt with a mascot that’s a sort combination of the Kool-Aid Man and Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
I’m going to give as much credit for the palpably foreboding tone to Latour as to Aaron. A note at the end of the issue describes each of the creators’ southern roots and conflicted feelings about the south. While I don’t know exactly who did what, this issue feels very much like a collaboration. And Latour’s artwork is great in an “ugly” way. I don’t mean that the art itself is ugly, but he works with a rough line and deftly draws the ugliness of the place. His colors are outstanding here, as well. Much of the issue has a blood-like crimson palette, and the panels without color are more dramatic because of its exclusion.
Southern Bastards #1 is yet another impressively strong debut from Image Comics, a publisher who has been unveiling promising new series over the past few years like it’s nothing. The note from Aaron and Latour at the end of the issue promises a lot of future mayhem and unsavory characters. I have a feeling Earl, who says the first words of the series, “three days,” – his expectation of how long he’ll be in town – is going to be here for much longer and will face a whole heaping pile of unfriendly sorts.