Southern Bastards #5

I tried to think of a flip/catchy title for this review, but this book is just so good, I don’t know what to say except that my hat is off to these guys.

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This review first appeared over at Newsarama in the Best Shots column.

Southern Bastards #5
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour
Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher
Published by Image Comics
Review by Lilith Wood
Rating: 9 out of 10

Southern Bastards #5 begins a new arc, picking up where the story left off, but shifting perspective after the tale of Earl Tubb. Our view of Craw County widens as we see it from an insider’s perspective for the first time. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour dedicate the issue to Coach Boss and introduce the Sheriff as someone who is not going to forget anything. The story still feels like a fable, but it goes beyond simplistic paradigms of good and evil.

The first four issues of this story were so sad and complete that I didn’t know if Aaron and Latour even meant to continue the story beyond Tubb. Earl was a middle-aged man who returned to his football-obsessed hometown and felt haunted by his sheriff father’s over-bearing memory. After the casual murder of an old schoolmate, Earl stood up to the town’s dictatorial football coach and his goons. Earl was supposed to be a good guy, but this book has shown violence — even his righteous violence — as flavorless and uniform.

Southern Bastards #5 begins with a brutal flashback to Coach Boss’s teenage years. We sympathize with him for the first time when we seem him as a boy on his knees. At first he’s just belittled by his coach, but in a later return to the flashback we see him viciously assaulted by his own teammates. Latour continues with the book’s trademark muscular style and starkly limited range of colors. The Coach’s flashback is in the same angry reds used for Earl’s troubled memories in earlier issues. Where Earl’s flashbacks took the form of silent observation of adult violence or active participation in wartime violence, the young Euless Boss was a direct victim.

Outside the flashback, this issue looks like the phrase “in the cold light of day.” We follow present-day Coach Boss, the storm clouds of tension are only beginning to gather again after the first arc. For his subdued daylight palette, Latour uses light browns, tans, grays, cadet blue with familiar highlights of muted, brownish red. Latour’s men are as craggy and imposing as ever, with crooked teeth and thick limbs. Even Earl’s old uncle in a wheelchair looks like he could deliver a beating if he meant to. Assistant coaches Mater and Esaw ride along with Coach Boss and provide some comic relief, but it’s just an echo of the dark, slapsticky humor of earlier episodes. These are bad men but they act as Coach’s foils. From their reactions, we can gauge what’s normal for Coach and for the town.

Aaron shows us Coach Boss feigning innocence at a funeral, even though everyone knows he’s the killer. He’s evil, but we see for the first time that he has a morally useful role in the town. Coach Boss is the one who sees and condemns (to Mater and Esaw) the onlookers who will “forget” what he did because they are ashamed of themselves for letting him get away with it. In a montage of these people, we get a better look at the locals than we did when Earl was the outsider protagonist. After Coach Boss’s guys killed the hapless but vivid Dusty Tutwiler in the second issue, there was no one to reflect Earl’s force of personality. It was a weakness of the story, making it feel more allegorical than literary. After Dusty was killed, Earl was like John Henry racing the steam engine. The county and its people were no more fleshed out than Earl’s shadowy memories of his father.

Coach Boss dismisses the Sheriff to Mater and Esaw along with the others. He says “I betcha he can’t forget fast enough,” and his words are at the center of a sparse panel showing the Sheriff at the gravesite. He has his fists clenched, and his legs planted apart. We see the mound of dirt on Earl’s grave, but the Sheriff is facing the headstone of Earl’s legendary sheriff father. This was an economical way to keep the story close to Coach Boss and his point of view, but introduce the idea that there’s more to the Sheriff than everyone previously realized.

Aaron and Latour have picked Southern Bastards back up in a surprising but fitting way. They dove back into the story with a sinister antihero instead of the hero we were used to. The story has folded in on itself and reemerged as something fresh but recognizable. This shows a command of their themes and story structure that suggests great things to come.

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