2014: Tula Lotay, the Jasons, and that whole Shulkie crew

(This was part of The Best of Best Shots Column over at Newsarama)

Bronze – Tula Lotay (Image Comics/Vertigo): In Supreme Blue Rose and in Bodies, Tula Lotay’s art in 2014 has explored consciousness, memory, and the human struggle to connect and understand. In both books the fluid chalk and grease pencil look of Lotay’s art feels fresh and new. In Supreme Blue Rose she creates multi-layered, patterned scenes to get lost in. We may never find our way out of that story’s maze, but Lotay’s pictures make that book something to treasure. In Bodies her style is cleaner and simpler, with fewer elements to disorient us as she draws a character with an emptier mind. Her work gives the impression that she has an intuitive grasp of how to translate the writers’ intentions, especially in the face of heavy poetic license.

Silver – She-Hulk (Marvel Comics): Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente packed this series with fun, color, and style, making She-Hulk a joy to read. Soule’s excellent dialogue, Pulido’s deceptively simple shapes and dead-on facial expressions, and Vicente’s flat, bright colors all made this team’s interpretation of She-Hulk more fun and funnier than most comics on the shelves. They gave Jen a lot of heart but kept the mood light. This book never took itself too seriously, but always had a core earnestness. Add in an electrifying guest-artist turn by Ron Wimberly, and this series is a phenomenon to get in on if it escaped your attention this year.

Southern Bastards 1

Gold – Southern Bastards (Image Comics): Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have hammered something together that isn’t pretty but has more structural, aesthetic, and thematic integrity than anything else I read this year. Southern Bastards is intensely personal to both creators without being self-indulgent. It’s allegorical without being simplistic. It conveys a strong sense of place but feels universal. Southern Bastard unfolds itself to reveal the small town bruises and scars left by football, abuse, war, vendettas, and simmering hatred. So far it has homed in on two older men left with a legacy of violence handed down from their fathers. Without gentleness, with brutal honesty, this book packs the punch of what violence does to people. And still it manages to be weirdly, darkly fun.

Item to Watch in 2015 – Gotham Academy (DC Comics): Three issues in, Gotham Academy has been flying under the radar compared to some of its cousin publications at DC. It’s had less buzz, less controversy and less praise than a lot of new books but I think it might be a sleeper. The creepy boarding school setting does have the dour, gritty vibe that the new Batgirl team has moved away from. But at the heart of the story, the troubles of Olive Silverlock are deftly handled by writers Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher. Artist Karl Kerschl gives us some of the best facial expressions of believable kids. Maps, Olive and Pommeline are developing into nuanced characters. Something good is blooming there in gloomy Gotham.

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.