Aaron Serves Up a 'Morally Ambiguous' Tale in "Southern Bastards"

Announced at Image Expo 2013, "Southern Bastards" quickly rose to the top of many a reader's when-is-it-coming-out-please-let-it-be-right-now list. Set in Craw County, Alabama, the upcoming series follows once local hero Earl Tubb's return to his hometown to take care of family business. But Craw County isn't the place it used to be, not since Earl's father, a mean ol' sheriff with a mean ol' stick, passed away. Now Euless Boss -- Runnin' Rebs football coach and owner of Boss BBQ -- is in charge, and he's one hell of a, well, bastard. Although Earl wants to keep a low profile and get out of town as quickly as possible, he's the only person that smells the stink in Craw County, and it's not just coming from the bodies buried under the bleachers.

Created by two Southerners -- writer Jason Aaron is from Alabama and artist Jason Latour is from North Carolina -- this series both pokes fun at and honors their shared roots. Aaron's gritty noir storytelling blends perfectly with Latour's sharp artwork, creating the ideal setting for a mesmerizing, down home crime story. The first four-issue arc begins on April 30 with Issue #1, and then, like many other Image titles, will take a break and resume with its second arc.

ECCC: Jason Aaron Reveals His Secret Origins

As its debut gets ever closer, Aaron spoke in depth with CBR News about the series, including the film inspirations informing his story, Earl's backstory and how his friendship with Latour was essential to "Southern Bastards."

CBR News: You'd mentioned before that a source of inspiration for "Southern Bastards" was the Coen Brothers' movies. Their stories have such a strong sense of their culture as Jewish Americans, yet don't feel exclusionary to audiences. After reading the first issue of "Southern Bastards," I see the similarities in the storytelling -- a very strong sense of place and identity but also a familiarity. Was that something you were drawing on?

Jason Aaron: That's a very good question. When I talk about the Coen Brothers, it's their ability to juggle comedy and drama from scene to scene, sometimes within the same moment, and that's really hard to do. That's certainly what I'm striving for with "Southern Bastards." "Scalped" was definitely a lot darker and grittier, and a lot of the stuff I've done since then has been more lighthearted, like my "Wolverine and the X-Men." "Southern Bastards" is my attempt to cross those streams a little bit.

Just looking at some of the Coen Brother's darkest movies, they are also some of their funniest, and that's what I'm shooting for. I think you can do comedy without losing the emotional impact, or making the characters into jokes.

You're working with Jason Latour, a fellow Southerner, on this series. Does your shared background help you create a stronger story? Is there a kind of shorthand you use with each other?

Yeah, and that also comes from us being friends. Most of the Marvel stuff I do, I work with artists that I may never even exchange an email with, and I certainly won't meet them face to face, which is kinda the nature of the beast in how those comics are made. It's always different when you work with somebody you actually know, which I haven't had the chance to do very often.

There is a short of shorthand than comes from knowing someone so well, and Latour and I have known each other for a while -- even before we worked together. He was the only guy for the job because he's one of the few Southern artists in comics. We're doing a book about everything we love and hate about the South, and I needed a Southerner to do that book with me. 
It's like, I can make fun of my brother, but you can't make fun of my brother. Latour and I can build up the South and shit all over it at the same time because we're from there.

What are some of the things you love and hate about the South that you're bringing into the book?

I don't want to say too much, but it's a lot of the characters we'll meet. Like in "Scalped," I want characters that are morally ambiguous. There aren't a lot of guys wearing black hats or white hats. You might pick up the first issue and think you know what the series is and where it's going, but you don't -- not until you read the whole first trade. That's really our pilot episode.

Speaking of the first issue, that's where we meet Earl Tubb, one of the main characters. What kind of a man is he?

Earl is an old guy who, when we meet him, seems to be alone in life. He's coming back to rural Craw County, Alabama where he grew up. Years ago his dad was this tough, hard-nosed sheriff with a big stick that cleaned up the county when it was rife with corruption and influenced by the Dixie mob. He was basically Buford Pusser from "Walking Tall." 

Earl ran away from that, didn't get along with his dad or want to follow in his footsteps. You get subtle teases in the first issue about some of the things he's gone off and done, but now he's been drawn back because of a family illness. He comes back to the house he grew up in, which is filled with all of these mementos of his dad's adventures as a sheriff. Earl just wants to be there for three days and just get the hell out, but events are conspiring to keep him around. When we first see him at the house, he's literally standing in this shadow of a tree -- a tree growing out of his father's grave.

So the first arc is about this guy, Earl, and we don't really know what's happened in his life or where things have gone. We very clearly know that he doesn't want to be where he is or standing in his dad's shadow anymore, but he's there.

Having an old man as a lead character seems to fit right in with the story, and sadly we don't see that much age diversity in comics very often. Tell me a little about that decision.

It starts with character, certainly. With this kind of book, the cast was determined by the setting. Craw County is inspired by a very real place, so the characters are people who would be there. In the first issue you only meet a couple of our main characters, the second issue a few more, and then in the third issue even more, including Euless Boss and the local sheriff. We'll start to fill in the cast as we go.

But in terms of Earl, it's as simple as me loving the action movies of the 1970s, where you could do an action movie with an old guy as the lead, which was awesome. I wish we still did more of those. I guess Liam Neeson is out there trying to carry the torch in some sense, but he's not really a gruff, grumpy old dude.

For this kind of story, Earl had to be an old guy who's lived a real life before he comes back to this town. He's not Dash, he's a very different kind of guy even though the set up is similar -- two guys who've been away from the place they grew up coming back for different reasons -- but Earl is in a very different place in his life than Dash is.

In the first issue, we meet a little boy, Tad, who seems to have a premonition about what will happen to Earl. Similarly, in "Scalped" you had Catcher, who was a sort of harbinger of future events. Many great Southern writers embraced a sense of magical realism in their storytelling -- is that part of "Southern Bastards?"

Yeah, certainly there's that element in this story. You'll see a lot of more of that in Issue #2 and as things go on, definitely. I wouldn't say that it's an overtly supernatural book, but that element is there. It's more offbeat, surreal and spooky.

Since you're pulling a lot from your roots, are you nervous about any of your family and friends reading it?

No, I think you can tell from the book that it's not a couple of dudes standing off to the side, pointing fingers and laughing at something we're not a part of. I'm proud to be from the South, and even though I don't live there, I'll always think of myself as a Southerner, and a Southern writer. That heritage is a part of who I am and I think that will shine through in addition to showing the stuff we don't like about certain people and the nature of the South. It's not throwing stones, it's more saying, c'mon guys. We're all in this together; can't we do better than this?

One thing I know you love about the South is barbecue. Any chance of a Jason Aaron "Southern Bastards" sauce coming out? Maybe with a beard on the bottle...

Ha! We'll see. I live in Kansas City, where we have some awesome barbecue sauces, so I'm not sure I could throw my hat in that ring. But if I could just take some Oklahoma Joe's Cowtown sauce and slap a "Southern Bastards" label on it, that'd be pretty awesome!

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