"Southern Bastards" makes a triumphant return in issue #9, with Jason Aaron and Jason Latour turning the spotlight on Sheriff Hardy in this third story arc. While Hardy is a man of the law, Aaron and Latour make sure you remember something very important: there are no clean hands in Craw County, Alabama.
Following Hardy through his day after Coach Big was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, we're reminded once again just how much power Euless Boss has over Craw County. Aaron makes this as disturbing a tour as ever, between the present day grip that Boss has over Hardy and a flashback to when Hardy was on Boss' high school football team and weighing different college offers.
What's frustrating is that you get the idea that Hardy is a good man at his core, but that even he hardly has clean hands. There are hints about something bad that happened during Hardy's college days; Boss talks about something going down between him and "young Ms. Compson," and that clearly continues into the present day. The sequence with Hardy going to Ms. Compson's bank to check on his (empty) safe deposit box while having memories of the two of them together in high school is made chilling by Compson's icy demeanor. What's more, the way that Latour shows us how she can't meet his gaze and the way she subconsciously pulls her blazer closer together is unsettling. Whatever bad blood existed between the two of them clearly has not gotten any better; if anything, it seems to be worse. Add in the awful realization that there was nothing in the deposit box -- it clearly exists solely for Hardy to stop by the bank -- and it makes you wonder just how much you're supposed to be cheering him on.
Of course, that's one of the big balancing acts in "Southern Bastards" #9, as well as the series overall. When he finally does something right, Hardy himself tears it down just a few pages later as he reminds us how little he actually accomplished. Add in a nasty coda to the end of his internal monologue about being a man who truly cares about nothing in his life, and Aaron successfully twists the knife once again. This is the same series that had Boss murder the character everyone had thought was the protagonist, and then turned around and made Boss himself a pitiable character in the very next story arc. There aren't any heroes in "Southern Bastards" just yet, but there aren't any true, 100% villains either -- just a lot of bastards.
The worst and best thing about a set up like this is that it sometimes takes the characters themselves by surprise. The dumbfounded look on Hardy's face during the high school flashback is almost heartbreaking; Latour makes him just look confused and startled even as doom bears down on him like an 18-wheeler. Latour's character designs are such a crucial part of "Southern Bastards" that it's hard to imagine anyone else drawing the comic. As Hardy gets into a fight in the present day, not only does it visually echo that earlier beat down that kept Hardy in Craw County, but Latour puts so much force behind the punch at the center of the brawl that you don't need to see the rest of the fight. That one moment is composed perfectly, with the linebackers positioned all around Hardy just so, even as the first one goes reeling. It's a beautiful book, even when it's ugly.
As much as I hate the gaps of time between story arcs in "Southern Bastards," having the comic come back looking this good makes the delays well worth it. Aaron's script is low down and dirty, and Latour's art brings that world to life; "Southern Bastards" continues to serve up a glimpse of an awful place that you can't look away from. Here's to the next installment.