When I covered Southern Bastards #5 last month, I reacted to the opening scene where a teenage Euless Boss was being beaten on the high school football field by saying “in another story- a story where he grew up into a more decent person- we’d be cheering for him when he got back up and kept practicing.” In a surprising move, this month’s issue of Jasons Aaron and Latour’s southern crime epic removes the ambiguity presented there, by focusing almost completely on Boss’s past and explaining further why he turned out the way he is. It’s hard not to feel for his young self by the end of the issue, and see the good in him, which simply leaves us to wonder: how did Euless Boss become a known and obvious murderer?
The simple answer may just be that he became tired of the world pushing him down. We’d heard he came from a background with a bad reputation last issue, but this time we finally meet his father Olis, who is…well, something. He’s first introduced pointing a gun at his son while four men and women have sex in his house behind him, and the place is covered in chickens. Euless sleeps in the car outside. Their relationship is troubled, to say the least. One would assume a kid like Euless, who seems to want to grow up to be something special, would try to get away from that home, but he admits his primary motivation for trying to get on the football team is so his father will notice him. It’s a sad perspective that could really only come from a young kid, but it’s a realistic one, and one that makes Euless’s position all the harsher. It seems that before his life went really wrong, Euless wasn’t a bad person- just a lonely and misguided one. The desire for recognition was what spurred him, and he’s certainly got what he wanted in the present day in that regard. Still, there are the seeds of a man who would grow up to run Craw County. Euless says he dreams of football every night, and that he specifically dreams of hitting a tailback so hard he dies. It’s foreshadowing early in Euless Boss’s life that he’ll kill to get what he wants, in football or in the street.
Euless’s mentor and coach (the Coach of Boss, if you will, hardy har har) was a blind black man named Ol’ Big, who we can safely say did a good job occupying the space Euless’s absent father left before. Big, like many, doesn’t assume Boss will be much of anything, but comes around when Euless asks him personally to train him. The sequence that follows is surprisingly lighthearted for the book, which Euless doing everything from jumping through a barbed wire maze to running into a tree to train. But it pays off- enough that Euless makes the team. But that’s not without more bullying from classmates. A grounp of Euless’s black teammates get the boys bullying him away, but only to tell him that they know what Big’s been through in his life and they won’t let Euless hurt him in any way. There’s always been an undercurrent of racial tension in Southern Bastards, appropriate to the world of the American South, and it’s been very present in these flashbacks, which take place soon after schools began to integrate. The scene is well-nuanced; instead of taking the easy route of “oh, this white kid can be friends with black kids, that means he’s a good person!” it depicts a more realistic and complex situation. Southern Bastards has some aspects of magical realism in it- the dog that’s constantly appearing, for example- but much of it is grounded in reality, much moreso than many books on the market.
Jason Latour also displays staggering style in the art of this issue, which is almost completely bathed in the reds of flashbacks, making the two pages in the present- both mostly gray- especially stick out. For a book that has mostly been dominated by old men, he gives life to the teenage Euless Boss, giving a raw display of his tenacity, pain and joy. From the training sequence undercut with panels of Euless slowly performing better and better at football tryouts to the sudden and painful ending of the issue, much of why a reader finds themself rooting for Euless is due to his art.
Euless’s incorporation on the football team has a karmic consequence. It turns out those chickens his father got were stolen from an uncle, and Euless comes home to find his father at gunpoint- and when he begs to leave for his first team, he’s promptly shot in the foot. It’s the ultimate punishment for a kid who has literally lived for football; after such a great triumph as making the team, it’s horribly depressing to see. It’s also an incredibly cruel twist when one considers that a reader would normally be happy to remember Euless will eventually be powerful enough to run a county- until they remember how despicable a man Coach Boss is. While one may wonder how Euless made it to the place he’s in now with such an injury, he seems to answer the question himself when talking to Big in the present: “you ever stop climbin’…all that’s left to do is fall.”
- “But do you see the face of god?” “Are you eatin’ a stick of butter?” “Get back to work.”
- The two pages in this issue taking place in the present may seem a little out of place, but they’re good stage setting; it’s a good fact to know that Big is still alive and is another coach on the football team.