[*Reassurance: This review contains no spoilers!]
The fetishization of Southern culture is about as a strong an element in American (and even British) storytelling as is stereotyping and outright bashing and I've learned to take the bad with the good. Neither are accurate. The one portrays southern drawls as intrinsically sexy, and the hot summer weather as a character with its own physicality. Maybe I should blame Tennessee Williams for that, but I don't because his stories definitely came with a side of grit. In other words, he was the real deal. In fact, Williams grew up outside of Memphis, Tennessee, just as I did.
But the other side of things beyond treating the South as an exotic thing to be celebrated, yes, but also put on a shelf and neatly contained, for instance the stereotyping and bashing, always has a basis in observation, but an uninformed level of observation. Both making the South overly sexy and making it seem overly brutal and vile stem from a lack of real-life knowledge and experience since real life is never that simple or easy to characterize.
So, I was very curious to read Image's upcoming book Southern Bastards, by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, and if I hadn't been impressed by it, I probably wouldn't have said anything. Because I'm Southern and that's what we do when we don't like something—we just don't bother with it because it's not worth our time. Contrary to the stereotype of hot-headedness. To set the record straight, the hot-headedness comes in when someone attacks you on your own turf. And since I can gauge from reading the first issue of Southern Bastards that Jason Aaron and Jason Latour are the real deal, I'm definitely not going to attack them on their own turf. I know what would happen. Regarding the fact that both Aaron and Latour are Southern, I will mention that I heard the two speaking on a panel at Heroes Con in North Carolina last summer and thought to myself that it would be something of a dream come true if they worked together on a Southern comic. I was speculating, but now I have the evidence in hand.
How do I know the comic itself is the real deal, created by two people who have no desire to take the "either/or" approach to portraying the South? Because it made me feel like I was stepping over my own grave in terms of detail and the small things that make you believe in something. This is not a comic painted in broad strokes. I don't mean any offense to comic creators who are Southern and have produced Southern-set books, but so far in my life I have never encountered a comic that so utterly convinced me of its setting and the regional accent of its characters. It literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck to encounter such an eerie semblance of a world I know very well.
I don't know why others might not have succeeded in this endeavor; perhaps in trying to make comics universal to readers, creators sometimes throw out the baby with the bathwater, losing those elements that would make their comic "feel" more realistic and therefore resort to overly obvious establishing elements that are supposed to scream "this is the South" to the reader so they can accept that and move on. Some of the elements that convinced me were: the finely detailed and 100% accurate Confederate soldier statue that appears as local scenery, the signage and interiors of local watering holes, the clothing and speech patterns of the characters, and the general decay that a depressed economy and bad leadership causes in the inhabitants of a small Southern town. There's more, but I'll leave that for the comic to reveal.
This crime-based story about the generational legacy of a small town in Alabama, a town somewhat in recovery from being kept in line by a man who kept order by facing off with violence at the other end of a baseball bat, couldn't be more grounded. Aging and peace-loving son of said baseball bat Sheriff returns home to tie up loose ends and finds that boy are they hard to really tie up. There's plenty of repressed angst and trauma for him to confront after a 40 year absence at the grave of a father whose tombstone reads "Here lies a man". And so this is a story of the long shadow cast by the violent past, and the whole debacle of possibly having to be a violent man in order to quell violence, but the reluctant Earl Tubb may find he is still his father's son far more than he wishes to be. Especially in a town where crime seems to be fairly organized and gruesome, where an animalistic pack instinct in the locals does boil over fairly easily.
Well, the comic certainly doesn't fetishize the South, as you can tell. But nor does it stereotype. It presents detail for your inspection and allows you to make up your own mind as a reader and establish your own value judgments about character and culture. Sure, the title indicates that this comic is going to explore the darker elements of Southern identity. But one reason why I particularly feel that this comic has a "side of grit" is because it's right there in the title. The comic wears its focus on its sleeve, and if it finds some redeeming quality in its "bastards", which almost certainly includes Earl Tubbs by implication, we'll really believe that's possible at that point. Because the comic has established on so many levels that it's the "real deal" and isn't interested in selling a story in such a way that it doesn't serve its subject matter. Want an authentic comic? Read Southern Bastards.
Southern Bastards will be released from Image Comics on April 30th
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter