In a weird bit of synchronicity, I write this introduction and transcribe this interview as I head home for the first time in a few years. Much like Earl Tubb, the protagonist in the recently wrapped first arc of “Southern Bastards”, and Jason Aaron, I’m from a small Alabama town and no longer live there. Like Tubb, I’m headed home for a bit. Homecoming is an odd thing, especially when you both love and hate the place. Unlike Tubb, my stay will be a bit less violent and probably end a little better for me, though there’s still a sense of trepidation about going back.
As the first arc of “Southern Bastards” comes to an end, things have been heating up in Craw County, Alabama. Earl Tubb returns home, with more than a little reluctance, and quickly starts his one-man war on crime in the county, much like his daddy did decades before. By the end of the arc, the reader discovers that “Southern Bastards” wasn’t quite the book we thought it was when it began. Nothing is quite as it seems in Craw County, the place where the bastards run the show.
Read on as we chat with Jason Aaron about homecomings, rednecks being everywhere, what happens when the bad guys win, and more. Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t been reading the single issues, then you better correct that, or at least grab the trade when it comes out October 1st.
Just to throw it out there, I‘m from a small town in Alabama as well. So “Southern Bastards” is pretty special to me.
Jason Aaron: Oh yeah, where are you from?
Jacksonville. It’s a little bit north of Anniston and Oxford. So seeing something like that in a comic, especially a good comic, is really cool.
I think when you introduced Mudbug in “Wolverine and the X-Men” and you had that kudzu covered house and their last name as Ledbetter, – because Ledbetters are everywhere in that part of Alabama – that was when I knew you got it. That’s when I knew you knew about this.
I like that the boy in “Southern Bastards” is named Ledbetter as well.
JA: [Laughs] Maybe they’re related!
Oh, nice continuity!
To jump into it, the South is a place that’s really underrepresented in comics, outside the “big” cities like New Orleans or Houston. What made a small Southern town, especially a fictional one, the right sort of place to set up “Southern Bastards”?
JA: Well, one of the reasons is exactly what you just said. You don’t see a lot of stories set in places like that. Those are always the kind of stories you want to tell, the ones we haven’t seen before or that we don’t see much of. Especially when you’re doing creator-owned books, you want to do something that stands out something that you’d be interested in yourself as a reader so that hopefully other people are as well. Also just because it’s where I grew up. I grew up in a small town and spent most of my life in small towns in Alabama so it was really inspired by who I was and where I was from.
The first arc just wrapped up with issue 4 and it’s been amazingly well received and I think it’s safe to say “Southern Bastards” is a hit. Did you ever expect a book about a small Alabama town, the kind of place most people may have never visited, to do quite so well?
JA: I didn’t really know. I think it’s clearly a good time to be doing an Image series. Other books and series are launching and seem to be doing well, so it’s a good time. There’s something in the zeitgeist where people want to read something different. Clearly I still enjoy superhero comics and I still make a large part of my living from them, but like a lot of people I enjoy reading everything beyond that. I think it’s good that Image now is filling that need in a huge way. If you look at the breadth and diversity of Image books right now and it’s really impressive. All different genres. It’s just cool to be a part of that. I don’t know if “Southern Bastards” is a book that could’ve been successful five or ten years ago, if there would’ve been much of a market. I did “Scalped” at Vertigo and that book was able to find an audience, but things have changed in comics since I was doing that. I think it was kind of “right place, right time” for something like “Southern Bastards”.Continued below
Since you mentioned “Scalped”, it seems like there’s some similar themes being played with in “Southern Bastards” that you also played with in “Scalped”. What was that intentional or did the two stories, a sort of homecoming that erupts into violence, journey down a similar path?
JA: Yeah, I think they just went down similar paths. Obviously, the story that you think “Southern Bastards” is going to be in issue 1 and 2 changes dramatically in issue 4 and it goes in a bit of a different direction. It’s not Walking Tall, it’s not necessarily what you thought it was going to be. Clearly, the place setting was a big part of both “Scalped” and “Southern Bastards”, where that locale becomes a character in and of itself. It was a theme that ran through “Scalped” for 60 issues and that’ll be a theme for the duration of “Southern Bastards”.
You do mention that at the end of issue 4 it’s a completely different story now. Now, this is a bit of a spoiler, but if they’re not reading it, they shouldn’t be reading this interview anyway. You finally see who Earl is talking to with all these phone calls that he’s been making throughout these first four issues. It’s his daughter, who appears to be mixed, half African-American. Her final lines in the issue are telling her dad, “See ya soon.” How is Craw County going to react when she finally gets there?
JA: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Obviously there are a lot of questions about the ending of that issue, so I don’t want to say too much.
JA: You should see now the direction we’re going in, though. This is a story that isn’t going to wrap up in two more arcs. Once we get to issue 5 and the beginning of the next arc, we shift the focus a little bit and focus on Coach Boss. We pick up right after the events of issue 4, but also dive back a bit into his history and get his origin story. Yeah, the things seem to take a turn in issue 4, but the title of the book is “Southern Bastards”, so it was right there in front of everybody from the beginning in that this is not a story where the hero comes in and cleans everything up.
This is a book about the bastards. The series is really about what happens when the sheriff from Walking Tall dies. What happens when that guy doesn’t come in to save the day, when that guy gets taken down and it’s really the bastards that are running the county. That’s what the bulk of this book will be about. Clearly, we introduced another element in that at the ending of issue 4 and that’s something that we’ll be developing as the series go along. The clues of the focus of the book have been right there from the get go. This is a story about the bastards.
Like you said, Coach Boss is the man running Craw County. You said you’ll dive more into his back story. We already know he was the scrawny kid that Earl went to high school with. How does he go from that scrawny kid to not only the best football of the whole state, but also the man running the county?
JA: Those are exactly the questions we’ll be answering in the next arc. The next arc we really to show more and more who he is and what does he do. What is his role in town? We’ve seen so far that he is clearly the man in charge, but what does that mean? What is his daily routine? What are his responsibilities? What is really he up to? Then we’ll also flashback and see how he got to that place, how he went from being this scrawny kid who was fighting all the time to, like you said, being this legendary coach. Those are our next four issues.
The first arc is four issues. Is that something that we can expect for arcs going forward or is that going to be variable depending on the story you’re trying to tell?Continued below
JA: It’ll change from time to time, depending on the story. What we’re looking at for the second trade will be more than just four issues. You’ll probably see another four issue arc and a couple of standalone issues. Another thing we kind of find out in issue five is that we haven’t even met all of our cast yet. Not all of the characters have popped up just yet. We’ll get a glimpse of some of them in issue five. We’re still got a lot of Craw County left to explore.
Also at the end of issue 4 there is a little bit of debate about whether Earl’s dead or actually alive. Can you comment or is that something you kind of keeping a secret?
JA: I’d say read issue 5 and there won’t be any more debate.
[Laughs] Fair enough, fair enough.
You talk about the varying arc lengths, but what about the plans for the overall series. Can we expect a giant ongoing like “Scalped” was, or something a little smaller? It seems like there’s a lot of story in Craw County.
JA: I don’t know exactly any kind of issue number on it. I don’t know if we’ll go quite 60 issues like “Scalped” did, but who knows. Like I said, there’s still so much to explore. We’ll see once we get deep into it how far we want to go with it. From the very beginning Latour and I have had an idea where we were headed. We weren’t just venturing out into the wilderness without a world map. I know what the last arc and I know what the ending and know what our ultimate destination is. It’s just a question of how do we get there, how many stops do we make along the way and how long does it take.
I like how you’ve set up the football team as Coach Boss’ personal army or hit squad. It’s interesting to see the team that gets the whole town out on a Friday night as they do something a little more covert and more illegal.
JA: The idea came from a villain in “Scalped”. At one point I thought about setting up a crime boss who was a high school football coach in Nebraska who would eventually butt heads with Chief Red Crow in “Scalped”, but didn’t think that quite worked. I tucked that idea away and thought I would use it somewhere else. Eventually “Scalped” was winding up and I started to think about what my next creator-owned project would be.
The first one I actually came up with was “Men of Wrath”, which comes out in October from Icon. That was the first thing I wrote after “Scalped”, but “Southern Bastards” is something that had developed over time. I knew that at some point I wanted to do a Southern crime series and I liked the idea of it being something that would focus on the bad guys. Basically a town full of bastards. Pretty quickly I had that title – “Southern Bastards” – and then had my one bad guy. It was then just a question of what’s the real story here and where does it go from that? Latour was the only artist that I ever talked to about it. He was the first guy I ever brought it up to. He was the only person ever in discussion for me to do it with.
We talked about it off and on over the course of a few years. Actually putting the book together happened really suddenly. I started talking to Image about doing a book there, and Ron Richards who I knew from his days at iFanboy had just started working there, so we talked. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do there, but “Southern Bastards” was the first thing that leapt to mind. I was at a show and talked to Latour about doing it and pretty much all we told Image was, “Hey, it’s me and Latour and we want to do this Southern crime book called ‘Southern Bastards’.” And they said, “Great! Do you want to fly out to San Francisco to announce it?”Continued below
[Laughs] And we did! We had only put together a promo image and announced it. Even though it was something we kicked around for quite a long time, it all gelled and came together really quickly.
In the first issue in the backmatter, you talk about your hometown, the South, Alabama, you love it, but you’ll never go back. You hate it, but love it more than anything. How much of your own feelings about your hometown, Alabama, and the South did you put into Earl’s own trepidation about coming home finally?
JA: Quite a lot. It’s not just that I hate my hometown, it’s more about what I love and hate about the South. There are a lot of places like where I grew up around the South. I still go back all the time and still have family there. I still consider myself a Southerner even though I’ve been away for 14 years now. My accent has dwindled away a bit, but still creeps up and becomes more pronounced every once and awhile. There are some words I’ve learned to avoid that my friends here make fun of me for. I think I’ll always think of myself as a Southerner.
In another 15 years I’ll have lived in Kansas for as long as I lived in the South. Identifying with a place where I was born and grew up means I’ll always be a Southerner at heart. I think I’ll always be a Southern writer. Like I said in the backmatter, I’ve always felt like that regardless of what I’ve worked out. “Southern Bastards” is the most fleshed out Southern themed story I’ve done, but I think you’ll always see elements and influences of that in everything I write.
It seems like despite Southern Bastards being set in a fictional Alabama town, the setting resonates with a lot of readers, even some in Australia or England or all across the world judging from the letters pages. Do you think there’s something almost universal that comes from growing up in a small town like that?
JA: People from a lot of different places seem to be identifying with the book. I think a lot of different countries have their own version of the South, like in England it seems to be the North. I do find that interesting.
Each place is going to have its own unique characteristics. There are things that are unique to the Deep South, and even within that there are things that are unique to Alabama. I do think that it’s interesting that we get letters from all over the world. One thing I’ve learned is that there are rednecks everywhere. Doesn’t matter what part of the county you’re in. You drive to upstate New York and it starts to look like the Deep South. There are lots of places like that. You drive out through western Kansas and it starts to look like the same sort of area, very rural and very isolated. There are plenty of places like that, but I wanted “Southern Bastards” to be clearly about a real place, about where I was from and grew up. Latour grew up in a bit different location, so he brings a lot of his upbringing to that as well.
I think ultimately we wind up with something that feels, hopefully, authentically Southern. There are a lot of faux Southern stories that you can find in film and television. Like you said, the South is not a usual setting for stories like that and sometimes even the ones that are set don’t feel like they were made by people from there. I’m a big Elmore Leonard fan, but I’ve never been much of a fan of Justified because it feels faux-Southern. It’s got some great actors on it, like Walton Goggins is a guy from Alabama and from the South and seems very genuine, but the show in general seems more Keith Urban than Hank Williams. With “Southern Bastards” we were trying to do real down home Southern, not a polished fake version of the South.
That’s one of the things that immediately struck me about “Southern Bastards” is how dead on everything was. From the small town to the people within it and how they looked and how they acted. How much of that is you telling Jason Latour what to put in and him drawing from his own experience, like Esaw’s “REBEL” tattoo, the Ledbetters, and all that?Continued below
JA: It’s a mix. Some stuff is in the script, some stuff Latour just adds in there. A lot of it has to do with the little details, and in terms of people who are from that part of the world and that part of the country recognizing things, a lot of time it’s the little things. Another part of it is not being afraid to dive into things that seem stereotypical. You can deal with stereotypes without writing stereotypical characters or stories. We don’t steer away from having rednecks in the books, but that doesn’t mean you’re saying the entire state of Alabama is filled with rednecks.
[Laughs] No, just most of the state.
JA: Right! There’s parts of it where it starts to seem like that. There are all sorts of people, even in a small town. That’s what we’ll continue to see in “Southern Bastards” as we expand our cast and start to see all of the folks of Craw County.
How are these new characters going to play into the story, or is that still under wraps?
JA: Yeah, it’s still under wraps. Like I said, issue 5 we start to get glimpse who some of these other people are. For the most part, this next arc focuses on Coach Boss and fleshing out this world. Going forward we’ll start to see characters from all across the county with very different perspectives and motivations.
You’ve written several books that are based on real communities and real events, like “Scalped”, “The Other Side”, and “Southern Bastards”. How does the pressure or responsibility of that compare to writing something like “Thor”, with the fans and readers who expect certain things?
JA: Different kinds of pressure, I suppose. “The Other Side” was the very first book I did and that was inspired by my cousin, who was a vet and novelist, Gus Hasford and he wrote the book that “Full Metal Jacket” was based on. Through researching his life, I hooked up with his group of Vietnam Era combat correspondents and got to go to a couple of those reunions and got to hang out with them.
With that book, I was dealing with very real audience. I didn’t want to let these guys down. These guys had taken me in and welcomed me into their group as a young kid. I wanted to have something that wouldn’t make me ashamed to show my face around these guys. One of those guys is Dale Dye who is a preeminent technical advisor in Hollywood. The guy worked on Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, and all this kind of stuff. This is a guy who knows military history and can rattle it off in his sleep.
I clearly wanted to at least sound like I knew what I was talking. I went from that to writing “Scalped” where, again, I’m dealing with a subject that a lot of people feel very strongly about. From that diving into doing Marvel stuff, where there is a very devoted fan base that know these characters front and back and have been reading their adventures for years.
All of those have their own different kinds of pressure, but I never looked at that as something to shy away from. I would never let that kind of stuff stop me from telling a story. I believe that you can’t please everybody and there’s no point in trying. Even with Marvel stuff, I just want to try and tell a story that excites me, something that I respond to as a reader. If I can honestly say that at the end of the day, then in my eyes I’ve done my job. As long as I’m happy and as long as my editors are happy, that’s all I can control. Once the book gets out into the world, if I really like it, hopefully other people do as well. That may be a handful of people or a whole bunch, you never know.
I can never look at a book say, “This is the one people will flip over”, or “ everybody is going to hate this one”. I had to realize that doing when doing comics, the bigger the project, the more people you’re going to have that don’t like something. It’s an important moment in the development of a writer when you read something or somebody says they really think you’re terrible. I think it’s a really pivotal moment and you have to deal with that. You have to focus on what you can control. You can’t control anyone’s response but your own. When I sit down to write a story, I’m not thinking, “What are people on the internet going to think about this?” I just have to do right by whatever story I’ve got and put into the time to put into the research and respect whatever it is I’m basing this off of.Continued below
One thing I’ve noticed is that aside from the Sheriff in Craw County and Earl’s daughter there don’t seem to be a lot of African-Americans. While the Civil Rights Movement was decades ago, racism is still a very real thing in the South, especially small towns. Is that going to factor into any future storylines?
JA: Yes, race will become a part of the book as we go forward. In the brief exchange the Sheriff has with Esaw, whether race is being mentioned or not, race is clearly a subtext in the scene. It’ll play a bigger part because it’s not something we’re going to shy away from. It has to be something we deal with. Racism in the South is not always the kind that is screaming in your face, which is something we deal with in the next issue. There are different kinds of racism and sometimes the scarier version is the one that is very nonchalant. It’s definitely something we’ll explore as we go forward. The South can still be a very segregated place, and judging from what we’ve seen so far we don’t really know how many African-Americans live in Craw County because we’ve only seen probably one. It’s a question of how integrated or segregated is Craw County, Alabama.
The real take home message is that in issue 5, everything I want to know is answered, huh?
JA: [Laughs] Well, yeah, it’s not going to answer all your questions, but in terms of what we’ve been talking about, yeah, that’ll be in issue 5. We finally start to get our first look at the origins of Coach Boss and get a tease of the bigger picture, in terms of Craw County and some of the other characters. You get some answers, but you get more questions as well.