Southern Bastards is one of the best comics currently being published. Initially the comic was about Earl Tubb, a tired old man returning to his childhood home to see the ugly twisted thing it had grown into. However, as the narrative has unfolded over the past 8 issues the focused has moved away from formula plot and stock archetypes and settled into a focus on ideas and themes. I’ve talked multiple times previously about the value of placing emphasis on mood and theme rather than the strict mechanics of character and plot and there is no better example of this than Southern Bastards.
Everyone in Southern Bastards exists as a facet of a broader idea being expressed; individual characters end up yoked to specific ruminations of the story. Common wisdom tells us that’s the wrong way to go about creating characters but what that misses is how well it manages to build cohesion through a story. That’s why Southern Bastards has managed to shift its focus through multiple characters, points of time, and shocking plot twists while remaining a coherent narrative. It’s similar to the approach George R.R. Martin takes to A Song of Fire and Ice, using themes to connect various characters and stories rather than having them physically interact.
The central themes of Southern Bastards are legacy, impotence, and how we relate to our own past. The theme of legacy is the most defining aspect of the comic, both in the sense of family legacy and the legacy forced upon us by those around us. This is the most prominent theme in defining the setting of Craw County, Alabama. The idea of legacy, specifically the legacy of bigotry and brutality of the American south is furrowed into every visual cue and aspect of the town. This focus finds its center at the town’s obsession with and dedication to football, as exemplified through their local high school team: the Runnin’ Rebs.
The Rebs form this perfect crossroads of glorifying brutality and inhumanity under the guise of tradition and town pride. The swirling center of what makes the Rebs such a vital component of the town’s reality is that they’re the soul access point Craw County has to something beyond itself. The Rebs are the part of Craw County that can go out into the world, declare their strength and power over others, and then return triumphant champions. In short, the rebs make Craw County feel strong and important, two things the whole county knows they aren’t. So in exchange for this comforting fiction and false pride the town turns its back on the various atrocities of the team and especially the monstrous tyrannical nature of Coach Boss.
Coach Boss is essentially God in Craw County, both through the respect afforded him as coach and the power he holds over future generations through that role. Every man in Craw County is where he is because Coach Boss put him there, either through his favor or his wrath Boss has crafted the entire town directly in his own image. The town has become his legacy, and it’s firmly imparted to us that even those within Craw County who might hate him won’t lift a finger against his authority. This ties into a broader idea that was reinforced during the story of Earl Tubb’s return, specifically the idea that Craw County is weak.
Earl’s story and the flashbacks to Coach Boss’s early days in the ‘Grid Iron’ story arc serve to enforce the truth that Craw County was never a good place. Rather than stick with more clichéd ideas of corruption and decay being what sours Craw County, Southern Bastards sticks to the much harsher truth that Craw County was always willing to trade in humanity and freedom in exchange for strength. This is where the predominate theme of impotence, in particular impotent masculinity, comes in.
Over the 9 issue run we’ve seen two prominent male figures defined by their own impotent desire for action, specifically Earl Tubb and Sheriff Hardy. Both men are linked in a lot of ways, both through their relationship to the law but also through their relationship to the past. Earl is a man whose fled from his past all his life, till eventually he’s subsumed by it, finally trying to become the father he always distanced himself from only to find he’s not that man and for it to destroy him. Hardy represents the opposite, a man who live constantly in the shadow of a past he can never recapture no matter how much he tries, pining for the glory days.
Both these men represent Craw County stripped down to its purest identity, a town that desperately longs for the strength and power it only vaguely recalls. That’s why so much of the town is draped in the artifice of days gone by, specifically the standards of the confederacy. That’s the era Craw County is desperate to return to, a time of virile power whose dizzying array of inhumanity and horrors the town has simply repressed. Sheriff Hardy even has a speech about the way he sometimes experiences moments of clarity while he pines for his days back in high school, realizing how much he’s enamored with a past while glossing over the creepier elements of that fact.
However, where Hardy and Earl represent Craw County at its pure center Coach Boss’s relation to legacy and impotence present the town as it is now. The defining point of Boss’s origin story as shown in ‘Grid Iron’ is how he tore down his own past to turn himself into a new man. Even now it’s established how much Coach Boss works to whitewash his own history even as he leans heavily on those whose mentorship and strength put him in power. Finally Boss’s revisionism and ideology come home to roost in the character of Esaw, Boss’s right hand man and lead enforcer.
Esaw is the living embodiment of the world that Boss made, violence and hatred personified in a human monster that wears his hatred literally on his sleeve. Like the entire town Esaw drapes himself in the iconography of football and the confederacy, permanently wedding the two into a single, ugly form. He’s a living representation of the idea that no amount of injustice, brutality, or horror can trump the feelings of strength and pride evoked by the symbols, that it’s better to be a powerful inhuman monster than to accept any kind of weakness or impotence. That is Southern Bastards’ ultimate critique of masculinity and rural pride in the 21st century.