Creator-owned comics are, by their very nature, almost completely unbridled. While work-for-hire projects tend to come with a certain level of reasonable constraints ("Please don't kill the main character, please do not curse in this comic"), in creator-owned books, anything goes. Wanna kill the main character and shift your focus to another one? Do it! Wanna fill half an issue with lovingly-drawn pictures of a dude taking a restful nap? All right! You come to creator-owned books to see what creators do with the proverbial leash off, and books like Jason Aaron & Jason Latour's SOUTHERN BASTARDS are proof positive. The first arc builds an expectation, and then swerves hard, saying, "This comic is not what you thought it would be." In this week's SOUTHERN BASTARDS #12, Aaron temporarily steps back as writer while Latour takes the role, with Chris Brunner joining him on art. The result is the exactly what keeps bringing you back to creator-owned comics: complete freedom and whip smart creativity.
SOUTHERN BASTARDS began as the story of Earl Tubb, an old man who returned home to settle some business. After Earl, the series switched to Coach Euless Boss, the kingpin of Craw County and coach of the Runnin' Rebs football team. More shifts in perspective followed: Esaw Goings, Coach Boss's chief leg breaker, took the spotlight for an issue, as did Big, Boss's defensive coordinator. SOUTHERN BASTARDS #12 focuses on Tad Ledbetter, a young kid who caught a vicious beating for his friendship with Earl Tubb.
Tad's no hero. He's a kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong goons. In any other series, he would be the kid that needs rescuing, or a footnote to the plot. But for SOUTHERN BASTARDS, Tad's story is significant. He counts, because what Latour and Aaron are doing with this series is constructing a vivid image of what Craw County is and how it came to be.
Setting is so much more than a place and time. It's how people move and live in that space, and what kind of personality a place has. You can say that New York is the cruelest place on Earth, but does that mean anything if you never show us why it's so cruel? Shifting viewpoints lets the team show us slices of Craw County, turning it from a two-word phrase into a three-dimensional place.
The first two arcs, HERE WAS A MAN and GRIDIRON, ease you into the world. You meet a hero, and he meets his villain. You learn more about the villain, and see his rise to power. The logical next step is seeing the fall of that villain, and sure, maybe that'll happen. Eventually. But two plus two is a common equation, one we've seen before. So Aaron and Latour swerve. We know the players, but what about the stage?
Taken together, the characters show us different ways to survive or dominate in Craw County. Esaw shows us how a goon makes his dollars and what kind of feelings are running through his head while he goes about his business. He's savage and unhinged, but he knows how to yessir-nossir his way through his relationship with Boss. Big is old and tired, having experienced too much to get upset at most of it, but even he has his limits. Boss himself is cutthroat, and approaches the game of football like politicians approach war. Tad shows us the people caught in the middle, the ones with no way to go but forward, the ones who pray they don't get caught up in something beyond their ken.
SOUTHERN BASTARDS has a wealth of viewpoints, and those viewpoints enrich the series immeasurably. SOUTHERN BASTARDS is about its characters, but it's about the South, too. Rather than taking a cinematic approach, where you have to get in, define your characters and setting, and then get out, all within two hours (or 144 pages), Aaron and Latour are taking their time and letting the story roll out the way it needs to roll out. By the end of it, you'll understand why Craw County is the way it is, and why the people act like they do.
SOUTHERN BASTARDS is available in two collected editions (VOL. 1: HERE WAS A MAN and VOL. 2: GRIDIRON), one deluxe hardcover edition, and ongoing single issues. SOUTHERN BASTARDS #12 is out now. SOUTHERN BASTARDS #13 arrives in December.