As we enter the final few months of 2015, what are the highlights of the year so far? We Can Never Go Home from Black Mask Studios is a clear leader, as too is the self-published Beast Wagon. But when it comes to mainstream releases, Image are at the front of the pack: Bitch Planet, Velvet, The Fade Out, Sex Criminals, Deadly Class, Saga – that’s an incredible list for a publisher to have, and it doesn’t even cover half of their output.
This month, Image Comics brings us issue 10 of Southern Bastards, Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s deep south crime drama, which though only ten issues old, is one of the most confident and interesting series on the stands right now. Aaron’s deft writing, and Latour’s sweaty, heatwave art and colours have created not only a compelling world, but a vast array of grimy, horrible characters that we can’t wait to spend time with each month. Issue ten focusses on Esaw Goings, henchman to Coach Boss. It is, in one sense, a fairly typical day-in-the-life-of issues. We follow Esaw as he performs some dodgy dealings for the Coach, attempts to write strategic plays for the football team, and lets off some steam, all the while accompanied by, not only his frightening internal narration, but by a local priest who has taken up a mission to try and teach Esaw the ways of the lord, “Jesus ministered lepers and whores,” he explains to his wife in one of the opening scenes, “I need to share the Lord’s gospel with them what needs it the most.”
It’s pretty obvious right from the start that at least in the priest’s eyes, Esaw could do with some moral guidance. The issue opens with a naked spread of him in the midst of what is, for comics, extremely graphic sex, whilst his internal monologue has him thinking of garbage, and roadkill. But instead of talking to the priest, Esaw takes him around the town as he conducts the day to day business for reasons whilst unclear at first, can only be bad for our voice of reason.
One thing that Southern Bastards has really nailed in its opening ten issues is character, and that is, yet again, something that both the artist and writer get right again here. Esaw is a monster, the kind of thug you’d expect to stay silent and sit by the villains side until he needs to throw a punch here or there, but by giving him the spotlight (literally, in the case of the front cover to the issue), the comic teases us by giving us someone who perhaps knows he’s a thug, but wants to be more. When he sits down to try and write strategic football plays, he’s beset on all sides with advice from other people, but rejects them in favour of, “we’re Craw fuckin’ County, and they ain’t. That’s my motherfuckin’ gameplan.” That’s Esaw’s belief system right there, the redemptive power of patriotism and violence. His tattoos (the word Rebel, stretched across his throat, and the Confederate flag draped along his arm) are symbols of fighting back and not thinking. His internal narration is practically primal, and the issue is masterful in how it boils the anger inside him until it finally explodes across several horrific pages.
As with each issue, this isn’t a case of the writing leading the art, but of both working perfectly in tandem. Just one look at Latour’s art and you know he’s integral to the title. Not only are his characters requisitely grubby and ugly, but the whole comic is washed out in this deep red, evoking everything from the penetrating heat, to the barbecue sauce smothered over every gristly piece of meat served, to the blood which, it seems more and more, is going to be coming in swathes. It’s rare to see a comic book artist who is at home both pencilling and colouring his books, but man, Latour nails it every single month.
Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have created a cast of characters and a world which is ever growing, and becoming more and more complex. Refusing the temptation to allow us sympathy with such a monstrous character (as they did to brilliant effect with their previous arc following Coach Boss), could come across as frustrating to the reader, but Aaron and Latour manage to make Esaw rounded and believable without ever forcing a sympathetic side to him. It’s a proper achievement, and one that reminds you just how good this comic is.
My advice then is to head on out and pick up the first two trades, then grab all the single issues you can find. This is a book to devour, like Netflix, like HBO, like all classic comic books. This book is the real deal.