Southern Bastards depicts The South in a dim light. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour tell the story of the insular and corrupt Craw County run by Euless Boss, the coach of the local high school football team the Runnin’ Rebs. Southern Bastards is a Southern Gothic comic born from literary influences like Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams; and that makes it a bit unique in the comic landscape and definitely worth taking a look at. The second story arc, “Gridiron,” will be the focus of this week’s Arc Reaction. Beware, there will be spoilers ahead.
The first story arc of Southern Bastards, “Here Was a Man,” tells the story of Earl Tubb and his return to Craw County. Long story short: Boss’s crew put an innocent kid in the hospital, Earl confronts Boss, Earl dies. My summary doesn’t really do it justice. But “Gridiron” adds a twist and tells the story of Euless Boss’s childhood and how he became the the coach of the Runnin’ Rebs. We learn that Euless grew up poor, neglected, and powerless–and he loved football. Aaron and Latour do a lot of work to add complexity to his character and show Euless Boss as sympathetic, and they do it intelligently. Euless being shot in the foot as a child, stopping his football career prematurely, builds sympathy; but it also makes the adult Boss less sympathetic, because we know that he similarly hurts a child in “Here Was a Man.” Nothing in Southern Bastards is as simple as it seems.
So that brings us to the other major character of “Gridiron,” Ol’ Big. Big is Euless Boss’s mentor. He’s also an old, blind, black man with Daredevil-esque powers that make him a master football strategist. And he uses these powers to train Euless Boss to play football. It’s hard not to immediately draw comparisons to The Legend of Bagger Vance and immediately see Ol’ Big as a “magical negro” character. Ol’ Big comes out of nowhere and transforms poor Euless’s life. Of course, this is Southern Bastards, so it’s not that simple.
Euless Boss is still the villain. He kills his dad to become the football team’s coach. He’s a killer, not the hero. For Ol’ Big, it’s a shock, but Big sticks with Coach Boss through the years. But when Boss takes Earl’s life, that’s too far, and Big commits suicide. It’s not a romantic sacrifice; it’s bloody and violent, everything Southern Bastards is about. Of course ‘Ol Big has been Coach Boss’s “secret weapon” all these years. He’s been the strategist. Big didn’t just make Euless a better football player and then disappear; he’s been with Euless all this time. So how good of a coach is Euless Boss without his Ol’ Big? That’s one of the big questions left hanging at the end of “Gridiron.”
Southern Bastards exists in the world of a mythological, sort of haunted South. It’s expected for Aarona and Latour to use a lot of the Southern literary vocabulary and concepts. There’s sweet tea, football, and moonshine; it’s not actually surprising to see a “magical negro” character in a book like this. But Aaron and Latour are playing with the idea, and turning it into something much darker. Craw County is a terrible place, and they’re not interested in telling a happy story. It’s a bold move on their parts, and it works. It’s shocking, morbid, and sad. Everything I expect out of Southern Bastards.