Southern Bastards never fails to disappoint. Right from the opening image of the first issue there was a sense that not only was this going to be unlike any other comic currently on the stands, but also that it was going to take readers to a south they may not know all that well. Even if they do, I’m sure they don’t know it quite like this.
“Gut Check,” the latest arc of this “southern fried crime series,” pushes the narrative in new and exciting directions, showing once again that Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are worthy of the praise heaped their way.
This issue picks up after the brutal climax of issue 13, which saw Coach Boss, the resident crime lord and high school football coach in Craw County, lose the crucial Homecoming game to arch rivals Wetumpka County. More vulnerable than ever and facing a slew of upcoming losses without his defensive coordinator, Boss must wrestle with retaining his place both on the field and in the town’s hierarchy of power. Because not everyone believes Boss can keep going the way he has been, including Roberta Tubb, looking for information on the death of her father, whom Boss killed in the opening arc of the series.
What stands out as being a compelling through-line to this issue is the change in status quo for Boss. When he first was introduced he was practically untouchable, holding all the strands of power and having the entire town under his thumb. The reader sees this is no longer the case right from the opening page of this issue, which Aaron writes to have the townsfolk questioning whether Boss is as good as he once was. The idea is presented in regards to his coaching abilities, but the theme is applied to all facets of his life throughout the issue.
This kind of change so soon in this book’s run makes readers wonder where the story will go next. Is this the beginning of the end for the book, with the creators guiding the series into a short but critically acclaimed run? Or do they have more twists and turns up their sleeve to make this seem like only the beginning of a much larger narrative. Only time will tell, but I know that I’ll be there as each issue is released to find out which one it is.
This issue has Aaron delving into a traditional trope of noir stories by having the “protagonist” make a choice the reader knows will come back to haunt them later on. Here, it happens at the end of this issue when Boss agrees to go along with a plan to injure opposing players before they play his Runnin’ Rebs, ensuring he’ll have an easier time winning games. Southern Bastards works best when it blends this depiction of southern life with these tropes. Hopefully this won’t be the last time this kind of effect is utilized.
Latour also delivers on the art front, as he always does issue after issue. With all of the other projects he has going on at the moment, from writing Spider-Gwen to drawing the occasional variant cover to ranting on Twitter about wanting to be the next Colonel Sanders, it’s amazing he still can has time to render the south in such a visceral and brutal way. Everything from football practice to a barbecue joint feels plucked from reality, and it’s all rendered in a hazy palette of reds and yellows. Both Jasons openly talk about their southern roots, and this book is a living testament to it.
Where Latour stumbles at times is the rendering of faces and body language. Some characters, like Boss and Materhead, fit the setting well with the deep lines across their faces and lumpy bodies, a far cry from the manufactured beauty of traditional superhero physiques. Yet some characters’ features can come across as almost cartoonish and caricature-esque. While I don’t find this to be a huge problem, since I think these renderings fit the story, some readers may find the wonky details to be distracting.
The biggest concern I have going forward for this book isn’t anything from the story in this issue, but in the delays that will inevitably hit the book. The last arc was plagued by them, seeing a gap of multiple months in between issues at times. While it didn’t hurt the flow of that story, since each issue was focused on an individual character and acted almost as one-shot tales, delays could seriously hinder the forward momentum of this more traditionally structured arc.
I also want to see the world of these “bastards” built out to expand on the characters introduced in the last arc. This issue saw a majority of the narrative focused on Boss, who has been in the spotlight from the second issue on. I want to see some of the secondary characters take the stage and reveal more about themselves. Roberta is the obvious character that stands out in this regard, but there’s also Sheriff Hardy, the bow hunting deacon Boone, and the new leader of a pack of seemingly organized rabid dogs Tad. There’s a rich tapestry of characters on display here. Hopefully Aaron and Latour will show them off in greater detail in issues to come.
Like I said, the fifteenth issue of Southern Bastards is a strong return to form after months off. Opening up a new story arc for readers to jump in on, the creators have upped the stakes by backing Coach Boss into a corner with vultures circling him, ready for the kill. I personally can’t wait to see the battles that are sure to explode out of Boss’ decisions in the issues to come.