Southern Bastards and the Simmering of the South

As my son looked for The Avengers in the graphic novels piled up on the shelves in the local library, I stumbled upon Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards (Image Comics). Initially, I picked the book up, flipped through it, then placed it back on the shelf as I ran to see what the toddler decided to get himself into. After looking around for a little while longer, I returned and grabbed the book from its holding place and checked it out. Needless to say, I became engaged in the Southern Gothic nature of the novel as it told the story of Earl Tubb’s return to Craw County, Alabama.

Filled with stereotypes and iconography of the South, Southern Bastards oozes with a violence that disrupts the idyllic nature of the region. Jason Aaron sums this feeling up in the introductory note to the volume. He writes, “The south [sic] is more peaceful than any other place I’ve ever been. But more primal too. More timeless. But more haunted. More spiritual. More hateful. More beautiful. More scarred.” These juxtapositions paint a region that hints at a bucolic existence while machinations dwell just beneath the surface to disrupt that image. Overall, this description calls to mind the descriptions of the landscape in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children and the underlying violence that bubbles up to shatter life-giving land.

Throughout the pages of Southern Bastards, readers come into contact with stereotypical images of race relations in the South. The comic, at least in the issues collected in the first volume, do not deal with the relationships between African Americans and whites in the region; however, the iconography of the South permeates the pages from the name of the local high school football team (Rebels) to the tattoos that cover some of the characters (Confederate Battle Flags and the word Rebel) to the name of the family that owns the bank and the reality group that Earl uses to sell his father’s house (Compson). These images recall a “haunted past” that subjugated individuals based solely on the color of their skin, and while this aspect does not take center stage–the conflict centers on white characters–the past exists as a sort of fog over the entire narrative.

During a flashback in issue three, Earl leaves home to fight in Vietnam. His father, the sheriff whose shadow Earl seeks to escape, questions why he wants to go and die somewhere half around the world. Earl tells his father it’s the right thing to do, but his father rejects this answer. Instead, he tells Earl, “. . . least be honest with yourself about why you’re doing it.” The next panel shows Earl leaving and muttering, “Goodbye, daddy. Goodbye, Craw County. Good-goddamn-bye Alabama.” What causes Earl to go to Vietnam? The answer doesn’t surface here, but one could argue that he enlists to get away from his father. I would posit, though, that another factor causes Earl to leave Alabama for Vietnam.

When Earl fights the mob at the end of issue four, two pages contain 24 panels of images that flash from the present fight to Vietnam to the crowd to Earl’s father to football and to a dog. Among these images is one lone panel that shows a white man’s hand reaching underneath an African American woman’s bra in a sexual pose. No faces appear, just the lips and chin of the woman. The panel seems out of place until we reach the epilogue. There, we discover that the person Earl has been trying to call throughout the series is none other than his daughter. The final page shows Berta Tubbs calling her father from a military base. Here, we find out that Earl has a daughter with an African American woman. In many ways, this ending undercuts the reference to the Compson family earlier because Berta lives, even though we only see her in this frame. Her presence can also be read in relation to Mary Agnes and Tee Bob’s relationship in Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Aaron and Latour provide a space for Berta to exist whereas Faulkner let the Sutpen-Bon family line die out and Gaines saw no way that Tee Bob and Mary Agnes could exist together at the time of his novel.

This is a very brief overview of Southern Bastards. I plan to read the remaining issues to see how this story unfolds, and if it does. I’m curious to see if Aaron and Latour tackle issues of race in the South. During the debates over the Confederate Battle Flag, they did release a cover that showed the ever-present mongrel dog of the comic tearing apart the flag with its teeth, so I would like to think they delve into the topic some more. The image itself is worth examining as well. What do you think about all of this? Have you read all of the Southern Bastards‘ issues? If so, let me know in the comments below.

Aaron, Jason and Jason Latour. Southern Bastards, Volume 1: Here Was A Man. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2014. Print.

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