An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.
In Southern Bastards No.1, writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour manage a preview of the title and an encapsulation of the series in an unprecedentedly blasphemous one-page opener: a dog is depicted in mid-crap in front of a cluster of signs advertising the Christian virtues of Craw County — Freewill Church of God in Christ, Bible Belt Baptist Church (“Hell: One Way In, No Way Out — Welcome”). With that as a kick-off, we are not surprised to find that the community into which Earl Tubb drives HIS rental truck is a shit-hole of moral hypocrisy and brutish behavior, centered, mostly it seems, around the town’s football team, the Runnin’ Rebs.
Earl has come “home” to the town where he was born to pack up his Uncle Buhl’s belongings and sell the house now that Buhl is in a nursing home. In the 40 years since Earl left, a giant tree has grown out of his father’s grave in the front yard. Big Bert Tubb was the sheriff and an asshole of a giant of a man physically: in a series of red-tinted flashbacks, we learn that Sheriff Tubb became a local hero by wielding a big stick to beat up a bunch of southern fried thugs that came callin’ one night. Why they came, we don’t yet know.
At the local diner, Earl is accosted by Dusty Tutwiler, a local layabout, who remembers him and engages him in unwelcome reminiscent conversation. Dusty has come to the diner to find Coach Boss, to whom Dusty apparently owes money. Then one of Boss’s thugs, Esaw Goings, shows up to inflict some sort of brutal punishment on Dusty, and Earl comes to his rescue, clouting Esaw with a boiling basket of fries.
Earl goes back home, and Dusty goes to plead with Coach Boss, where Esaw finds him and beats him up savagely. Back at the Tubb house, Earl takes an axe to the tree growing out of his father’s grave — but, as we find out in No.2, can’t make a dent in it. Earlier, he asserted that the tree had grown out of his father’s legendary Big Stick, which had been buried with him.
The issue brims with tantalizing mysteries: who is Coach Boss and does he run the whole town? What heroism, exactly, did Big Bert Tubb commit — and why? His son is apparently a worthy scion of the Tubb tradition, but how will he fare if he meets Esaw again? (And he is sure to.) And who is Earl repeatedly calling on his cell phone?
At the Tubb house, Earl reveals his vaguely resentful attitude about his father — and the town he grew up in. In the issue’s complete episode, Earl’s rescue of Dusty, we have an ample display of both Earl’s physical ability and his moral superiority.
Apart from the bitterness that hangs over the story, Latour’s depiction of the events is superlative. The verbal content is terse, so most of the narrative is carried by Latour’s drawings, gnarly pictures of angry, resentful rednecks, nearly bursting with bad behavior waiting to explode. In narrative breakdown and panel composition, Latour shows himself a master of the visual storytelling medium, matching the terseness of Aaron’s tale-telling with cryptic glimpses of the action, just enough to advance the story.
The final beating Esaw administers to Dusty alternates its panels with panels showing Early attacking the tree over his father’s grave in a crescendo of visual violence. Throughout, Latour enhances the story’s moods with color evoking appropriate feelings.
In the second issue, Earl finishes packing up the house late on Friday and, deciding to stay another night, he goes to see the Runnin’ Rebs play football, a game played as roughly as everything else transpires in this title. In the middle of the game, old Dusty comes staggering across the field, more dead than alive (every bone in his body busted), again seeking Coach Boss. When he dies, Earl visits the sheriff, seeking justice, but when he learns the sheriff played football for Coach Boss, he gives up and goes back home.
Standing in the rain over his father’s grave, he curses the dead man and vows not to get involved in the ugly business of Craw County. Then lightning strikes the tree, splitting it asunder, and Earl imagines he sees his father rising out of the grave, the Big Stick of vengeance and justice still in his hand. If that’s not enough to bring me back for No.3, nothing is.