Daniel Carpenter introduced this reader to Southern Bastards back in The Pull List (Issue 9), about a year ago – and it has since become a comic we keep up edition by edition (rather than trade paperback by trade paperback). When it kicked off, Southern Bastards had a touch of the Gran Torino about it – in that we followed the tale of a hardboiled elderly gentleman, Earl Tubbs, as he returned to the town he grew up in in order to essentially right a few wrongs. What the climax of issue 4 demonstrated, however, was that Aaron and Latour were not afraid to pull a Ned Stark and leave you wondering where they could possibly go next. (Issues 1-4 are collected as ‘Here Was a Man’ and we’d heartily recommend you dip your toe in the water.)
Issues 5-8 have now been collected and once again Aaron and Latour remain a step ahead. We know that Tubbs has a daughter, a marine no less, and that at some point she’ll be following, figuratively and hopefully not literally, in her old man’s footsteps. But ‘Gridiron’ takes a breath, in a way. You know how a show like Breaking Bad would throw in the occasional flashback that would change how you felt about a specific character – such as Gus, for example? ‘Gridiron’ does something similar with Tubbs’ nemesis, Euless Boss. ‘Gridiron’ takes us from the present of the book back into Boss’ past, so we see how he became the man he did, how upset, injury and disappointment helped shape the cruel, demanding man we know (how Boss’ own father, a loser in the common parlance and a sneak thief, arguably gave him the foundation he needed in order to rule the town as a grown up). Just as ‘Here Was a Man’ packed a punch issue by issue and retained larger twists to ensure the arc as a whole landed with weight, so ‘Gridiron’ comes at you with the equivalent of the bat Tubbs has seemingly bequeathed, unbeknownst, to the town. ‘Gridiron’ lets us know that Aaron and Latour have a bigger story to tell and yet retain the confidence to deliver furiously significant four issue instalments. And whilst the ongoing narrative – served in contemporary and flashback form – is, of course, delicious, it’s the seeds planted (seen in, say, the slightly short-tempered way that Boss deals with the idiots who serve him – you can tell that actually what Boss wants more than anything else is a challenge, a genuine adversary, someone who can play the game hard, the way that Boss likes to play ball) that suggest this is a strip in which the best is yet to come.
And of course there’s the art itself. Southern Bastards is just about the best looking, most distinctive comic on the stands right now. The whole piece is refracted through an autumnal palette of browns and oranges that could just as easily be the colour blood turns when it’s left to fade naturally in the sun. Each frame, irrespective of what is happening, seems to throb with restrained violence and threat. It’s a perfectly realised combination of narrative and art. We can’t recommend it enough, basically. But don’t take our word for it. The comic has just picked up the Reuben prize in the States and, you can guarantee, the prize will be the first of many.
Any Cop?: Currently our favourite comic on the stands. ‘Gridiron’ ups the ante considerably from ‘Here Was a Man’ and that makes this just about essential.