All That Was Good Was Killed In Front of a BBQ Shack- a review of Southern Bastards Volume 4: Gut Check

In 2014 when Jason Aaron and Jason Latour started Southern Bastards, it was still easy to read those comics as being about an American redneck subculture. A southern football crime drama (that’s a lot to try to cross-pollinate in a story but Aaron and Latour are up for the challenge,) Southern Bastards looked like it was going to be the story of Earl Tubb, a military man returning to his childhood home and finding that the cliche of you can’t go home again was quite true. He was going to be the hero of the series but then (spoiler alert!,) Tubb was brutally beaten and killed by the true main character of the series, high school football coach Euless Boss. Southern Bastards wasn’t going to be a story about heroes. It was Coach Boss’ story and it was about the villain.

In 2014, it was a bit hard to think that the bad guy could possibly win.

A lot has happened in real life since 2014 but Southern Bastards has stuck to its course. The fourth volume, Gut Check, continues to use high school football as a metaphor for the rural crime. Murder and drug running may be illegal in Alabama but the true crime in Craw County is losing football games on Friday nights. And since the suicide of his defensive coordinator, Coach Boss’s Runnin’ Rebs have been on a losing streak that’s putting a target on Coach Boss’ back. When his team is winning, Boss is the true power of not just his school but of Craw County. Even Alabama’s other crime bosses give him room as long as it looks like Boss is going to run over every other state rival on the gridiron. But now that he’s vulnerable on Friday night, he looks vulnerable every other way as well and his enemies begin to see their chance to take Coach Boss down.

Latour, who is joined on the art by Chris Brunner for one chapter, continues to create art that makes you feel the heat of those Alabama high school football nights. Bathed in ever-present shades of red, Latour’s pages show a town that is ready to explode. If football was the only thing holding everything in check, it’s football that’s going to destroy everything as well. With its thin and charged lines, Latour’s art carries the weight of the fragile detente in Craw County. This is a football program and a town that’s being held together by the thread of imagined power. His lines, while tough and rugged, show the seams holding everything together breaking down.

The power of Southern Bastards is in Latour’s lines but the passion of the book is found in Latour’s colors. The reds that are on nearly every page highlights the violence that exists in his images. Sometimes that red is bold and large, expressing the power of a defensive back slamming into a running back. Other times, it’s almost hidden and muted, highlighting the simmering violence that is just waiting to break free of Boss, his coaches, and his players. It’s interesting to note that all of their football adversaries wear mostly cool or neutral colors both on and off the field. So even when the images aren’t violent (which is hardly ever) or when the threats are more unspoken, there’s a danger simmering in the background that can be found in a red shirt or the red haze of the sky.

Since the killing of Earl Tubb and the following suicide of Boss’ possibly only friend Big, Aaron and Latour are telling the story of a man who’s only getting more and more desperate to hold onto the glory of his past. His enemies are just looking for the right moment to strike down Coach Boss. His problem is that they’re now coming at him from all sides. There’s the townsfolk who see this as an opportunity to seize the power. There’s his crime boss rival, the Burt Reynolds-looking Colonel McKlusky who wants to humiliate Boss before he destroys him. And then there are the wildcards Roberta Tubb and religious zealot/survivalist Boone who both pick the same moment quite literally to take their shot at Boss. In his days of invulnerability, Boss surrounded himself with former football players and sycophants, more muscle than brains. Now that he needs to strategize to regain his position of power, his muscle isn’t up to the task of guiding or counseling him.

Any morality in this book could basically be summed up by “don’t be Coach Boss” but that’s probably too simple of a lesson in the end. Aaron and Latour’s story operates in a realm where the good book is only pulled out by most people on Sunday morning and then put away and forgotten about for the rest of the week. After Sunday, the only book that matters is the game book. Boone, who comes from a church that practices snake handling (as seen in the previous volume,) and Roberta may be the closest people to “good” in the book but their actions show how slippery that morality is. Even if they’re the “good guys,” they’re still dealing with their problems with automatic rifles and compound bows. Any redemption in their actions is their opposition to Coach Boss for all of the pain and corruption he’s infested Craw County with.

Yes, Aaron and Latour still tell the story with Boss as the protagonist. He’s set up as the underdog as everyone circles around him looking for their moment to strike. As the villain but still the main character of this story, Aaron and Latour set up this conflict in the reader of waiting for a true hero to show up but still wanting to rally behind Coach Boss the same way that his players do. It’s the same way in the first two books that Big wanted to believe the best about his friend and his coach but eventually Big saw the truth and just couldn’t take it anymore. That’s what Aaron and Latour are setting us up for. Somehow if we’ve stuck with the book this long, seen Coach do everything he’s done and still keep on coming back to read it, maybe Coach Boss hasn’t broken us enough yet so that we could see the truth. He killed our hero, Earl Tubb, and we’re still following him out there on these Friday nights wanting to see if the Runnin’ Rebs can still get it together and win state this year.

Southern Bastards Volume 4: Gut Check explores a world of good and evil where good was beaten to death outside of a barbecue shack. In Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s book, what’s left is just conflicting sides of evil with some of those sides praying that they’re doing the right thing. Coach Boss still believes that he’s the victim in this southern football noir. It’s much the same way that politicians who believe that they’re the voice of the people are brutally dismantling democracy but it’s everyone else who’s the bad actors and hombres. Back a few years ago, Southern Bastards seemed like a distant warning system, pointing us down one possible path that was before us. In 2018, it reads as a metaphor for what the American Dream has become, an existence where everyone has given into their own base desires and instincts.

Southern Bastards Volume 4: Gut Check
Written by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
Drawn by Jason Latour and Chris Brunner
Published by Image Comics